Rich tapestry of the S’pore Malayalee story

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

Like all migrant communities, the Malayalees who came to Singapore in the 19th and early 20th centuries were “regional” to begin with.

Hailing from India’s south-western coastal areas of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, which later became the state of Kerala, with its famously high literacy rate, they set up libraries in various parts of the island where Malayalam speakers congregated.

These served as community clubs where the people of these areas could socialise as well as read and discuss the latest happenings in Singapore, India and the world.

“The regional variations then fell away and gave way to an assimilated identity,” explained Dr Anitha Devi Pillai, a senior lecturer at the National Institute of Education, who has done more than two decades of research on the Malayalees in Singapore.

“And, with the professionals coming in later, associations were started which helped maintain the identity of the Singapore Malayalees. Today, it is these associations and groups that are keeping the community and its unique customs and traditions together.”

A Malayalee herself, Dr Anitha has used her wealth of knowledge about the community to curate the Indian Heritage Centre’s (IHC) special exhibition Ente Veedu, My Home: Malayalees in Singapore, which opened on Nov 25 and will continue till Sept 15 next year.

It focuses on the Malayalees’ journey, their ancestral roots, settlement and contributions to Singapore, and their evolving notions of home and identity.

“It’s a diverse community with a rich tapestry of practices,” said IHC chairman Rajaram Ramasubban. “This exhibition gives an opportunity to highlight the special features of the community.

“It is not about the history of Kerala, but how the Malayalees came from Kerala, made a living here and continue to keep their unique identity through their clothes, food, festivals and language.”

The Malayalee community, the second-largest within Singapore’s Indian population, has for centuries been a melting pot of cultures and faiths – Hindu, Muslim and Christian, among others.

Malayalees began travelling to Singapore in the 19th century, seeking better job opportunities, and have played a vital role in the country’s development, with their contributions spanning sectors such as healthcare, politics and law.

“In this exhibition, we celebrate the invaluable contributions of the Malayalee community to the rich tapestry of Singapore’s history,” said IHC’s assistant curator Liviniyah P.

The exhibition features more than 200 artefacts from the National Collection, National Library Board, National Museum of Singapore and Singapore Press Holdings, as well as the Malayalee community. Some of these are on public display for the first time.

The first “zone” – From Kerala to Singapore – explores the origins and roots of the Singapore Malayalees through items from Kerala, such as the decorative elephant caparison, or nettipattam.

The second – Ente Singapore: My Singapore – uncovers the contributions of the Malayalees as they settled here, such as the spaces they lived and worked in, and the art forms and the language they brought with them. The third – In a Malayalee Home – celebrates the range of Malayalee customs and traditions, including the doorway of a Syrian Christian house.

The final zone – Malayalees in Singapore – chronicles the lives of Malayalee pioneers across the 19th and 20th centuries. A video installation, titled Being Malayalee: Voices of the Future, rounds up the exhibition.

Produced in collaboration with the youth wings of the Singapore Malayalee Association, Singapore Kairalee Kala Nilayam, Sree Narayana Mission and Naval Base Kerala Library, it shares the thoughts of 10 Singaporean Malayalee youths about home, culture and identity.

“It is through this exhibition that we can deepen our thinking to see how heritage is truly a unifying force,” said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, while inaugurating the exhibition on Nov 24.

“The community has led by example, and forged a uniquely Singaporean identity, bringing people of diverse backgrounds together with a strong sense of belonging to Singapore.”

Culture chronicler Chen Bitian, who viewed the exhibition, said it leaves a profound impression: “As a Chinese, it provides an opportunity to delve deeper into the history and culture of the Malayalee community.

“Singapore, being multiracial, has seamlessly accommodated every ethnic group, allowing each to carve out its unique space and sense of belonging, and from this many have found the meaning of home.”

The exhibition is open from 10am
to 6pm, Tuesday to Sunday.
Admission is free for Singaporeans
and Permanent Residents.
More information can be found at
https://www.indianheritage.gov.sg/

It is through this exhibition that we can deepen our thinking to see how heritage is truly a unifying force.
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, during the exhibition’s inauguration on Nov 24
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