The Indians, although a component of Singapore's society since its founding, were in the 1980s its most immigrant-like community. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Indian men had worked in Singapore, sending money home to families and wives in India, whom they would visit every few years. Indian women and complete Indian families were rare before World War II, and the Indian sex ratio in 1931 was 5,189 men for every 1,000 women. The 1980 census showed 1,323 Indian men for every 1,000 women; most of the surplus males were over age 60. In the 1980s, the "Little India" off Serangoon Road contained many dormitories where elderly single men lived, as well as some shops and workshops whose owners, in the traditional pattern, housed and fed a workforce of middleaged and elderly men who might or might not have wives and children in India or Sri Lanka. Significant issues for the Indian community included securing residence status, citizenship, or entrance for the Indian families of men who had worked in Singapore for decades and for the Brahman priests who were necessary for Hindu religious life.
Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the Indian population were Tamils from southeastern India's Tamil Nadu state; some Tamils also came from Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. The great diversity of the Indian populace was indicated by the census category "other Indians," who made up a substantial 19 percent of the group, followed by Malayalis (8 percent); Punjabis, mostly Sikh (8 percent); and Gujaratis (1 percent). Like the Straits Chinese, some of Singapore's Indians adopted English as a first language, a change facilitated by the widespread use of English in India, where it had become another Indian language. Indians were the most religiously diverse of Singapore's ethnic categories; an estimated 50 to 60 percent were Hindu, 20 to 30 percent Muslim, l2 percent Christian, 7 percent Sikh, and 1 percent Buddhist. Indian immigrants, like those of other nationalities, had been primarily recruited from among poor farmers and laborers, which meant that they included a large proportion (perhaps onethird ) of untouchables. In Singapore untouchables were usually referred to by the more polite Tamil term Adi-Dravidas, meaning pre-Dravidians. Although Tamils made up nearly two-thirds of the Indian population and Tamil was one of the country's four official languages (along with English, Malay, and Mandarin Chinese), by 1978 more Indians claimed to understand Malay (97 percent) than Tamil (79 percent). The 20 to 30 percent of the Indian population who were Muslims tended to intermarry with Malays at a fairly high rate and to be absorbed into the Malay community, continuing a centuries-old process of assimilation of Indian males to Malay society.
The linguistic and religious diversity of the Indian population was matched by their high degree of occupational differentiation. Indians were represented at all levels of the occupational hierarchy in numbers roughly proportional to their share of the total population. Within the Indian category, occupational and education attainment was far from equitably distributed. The untouchables for the most part did unskilled or semiskilled labor, while the Jaffna Tamils and the Chettia caste, who were traditionally moneylenders and merchants, were often professionals and wealthy businessmen. After World War II, caste received no public recognition in Singapore. Untouchables were free to enter Hindu temples, and food was distributed at temple festivals without regard for relative degrees of purity and pollution. Members of the Indian community were reluctant to discuss caste in public, but it continued to play a decisive role in marriage arrangements. The Indians were the most likely of all ethnic groups to attempt to arrange marriages for their children, or at least to restrict the choice of marriage partners to acceptable caste categories. Although the relatively small size of the Indian population and the disparate mixture of local caste groups from large areas of southern India made it difficult for most families to insist on strict caste endogamy (marrying only within the caste), Hindu marriages were made within a tripartite hierarchy. The highest level was occupied by Brahmans and Chettias, who attempted to maintain caste endogamy or at least to marry only members of other high castes. Mid-level caste Hindus intermarried with little difficulty, but the marriages of low-caste or outcaste category of former hereditary washermen, barbers, and untouchables were restricted to their own circle
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