The term Indian Singaporean refers to any Singapore citizen of South Asian ancestry. Most Indian Singaporeans are second, third or even fourth generation decendants of migrants from the Indian subcontinent to Singapore and Malaysia (known collectively as British Malaya in the pre-World War II colonial period). A small and shrinking number of older Indian Singaporeans are themselves direct (i.e. first generation) migrants from the subcontinent.
Indian contact, trade and migration to Southeast Asia began in ancient times and continued in the British colonial period, i.e. from the colonisation of Penang in 1786 to World War II. While the impact on Southeast Asian civilisation and culture was significant, no large settled communities of ethnic Indians were formed. Under the British, not all migration was voluntary. The earliest Indians to arrive were soldiers, known as sepoys in the British Army, who helped set up the earliest British colonial and military presence in Malaya (the earliest maps in Singapore show areas laid out for the "sepoy lines"). Following the soldiers came a handful of entrepreneurs like Narayana Pillay, who arrived in Singapore with Sir Stamford Raffles, the settlement's colonial 'founder'. Pillay was a successful businessman, Singapore's first building contractor and founder of the first Hindu temple, the Sri Mariamman Temple. The early settlements in Malaya (called the Straits Settlements), were ruled by the colonial government in Calcutta. When labour was needed to build the settlement's earliest roads, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure, convicts were sent.
The largest group of Indian migrants to Malaya during the colonial period were South Indian (mainly from the Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam language communities, with the Tamils in the majority because they lived in the lands closest to Malaya). Some came as economc migrants and provided a pool of skilled and unskilled labour. A minority were well-educated entrepreneurs and professionals, many occupations being filled along caste and language lines, But the majority of those who came were recruited as 'indentured workers'. Malaya was the world's largest source of rubber, and the native Malays (the bumiputra) and immigrant Chinese were unwilling to work on the rural plantations, so to protect their investment, the plantation owners closely regulated and supervised their new workers and held them in debt bondage.
A number of groups found their own niches: Sri Lankan Tamils tended to work as clerks, junior civil servants and in the professions; Christian Malayalis from Kerala were English educated and worked mainly in the civil service; Sikhs from the Punjab were the backbone of the armed forces and the police force, and worked as private security guards; Tamil Muslims, Sindhis and Gujaratis were often small traders; and the Chettiar caste of Tamils were moneylender and currency changers.
Given this pattern of migration and settlement, the Indian community in Malaya was fragmented and dispersed unevenly along various cultural and professional lines.
Indians form about 9.1% of the Singapore population. Slightly more than half are Tamil Hindus. The remainder are mainly Christian or Muslim, with a minority of Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. After Tamil the main Indian languages are Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi, and Gujerati. Singapore has a smaller proportion of citizen of Indian origin because it did not have any large rubber plantations. Consequently, the urbanised population is better educated and tends to be more socio-economically advanced than Indian Malaysians. The population percentage remains quite small because, as with other ethnic groups and societies, the more successful families have tended to have fewer children.
As an avowedly multi-ethnic nation, the Singapore Constitution enshrines Tamil as one of the four official languages of Singapore (along with English, Malay and Mandarin). Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights, is also a national public holiday.
More than other ethnic groups, Indians are highly stratified in terms of class with little upward mobility. Although a fairly large group occupies the middle and higher sectors of Singaporean society, the community is disproportionately represented at the bottom of the social ladder. This imbalance has been accentuated by the recent emigration of many well-qualified Indian Singaporeans to English-speaking developed countries, especially Australia (this was part of a general migration by upper and middle class but somewhat marginalised cultural minorities like the Peranakans, Eurasians, and gays). The lack of opportunity for the lower class Indians is addressed by the community and the government through nationally-santioned ethnic 'self-help' groups which have helped to reverse declining educational performance, and to stimulate debate about caste within the community.
New waves of migration
From the 1990s onward, Singapore's policy has been actively to attract highly skilled migrants from around the world and this has produced a fairly large expatriate Indian community of well-educated and wealthy professional and business people. It remains to be seen how permanent this migration is. Most have retained their Indian citizenship, although some have been granted Permanent Residence status. Interaction between the local and expatriate Indian community remains ambivalent rather than easy and natural.
Transient guest workers who come to work in Singapore on short-stay work permits as unskilled or semi-skilled workers form a third Indian community. There is little interaction between this group and either the 'expat' or 'local' Indian communities.