An Indian couple with a child in Singapore, circa 1890.
9.0% of the Singaporean population (2018)
|Regions with significant populations|
|Singaporean English (medium of communication in schools and government), Tamil (official) and other Indian languages such as Malayalam, Punjabi, Telugu, Sindhi and Hindi; Singlish (creole)|
|Related ethnic groups|
While contact with ancient India left a deep impact on Singapore's indigenous Malay culture, the mass settlement of Indians on the island only began with the founding of modern Singapore by the British in 1819. Initially, the Indian population was transient, mainly comprising young men who came as workers, soldiers and convicts. By the mid-20th century, a settled community had emerged, with a more balanced gender ratio and a better spread of age groups.
Singapore's Indian population is notable for its class stratification, with large elite and lower income groups. This has grown more visible since the 1990s with an influx of both well-educated and unskilled migrants from India, which has created new contradictions.
Singapore Indians are linguistically and religiously diverse, with ethnic Tamils and nominal Hindus forming majorities. The local Indian culture has endured and evolved over almost 200 years. By the 1990s, it had grown somewhat distinct from contemporary South Asian cultures, even as Indian elements became diffused within a broader Singaporean culture. Since then, new immigrants have increased the size and complexity of the local Indian population. Low-cost carriers, cable television and the Internet now connect the local Indian community with the culture of India and the Indian diaspora.
Several in-depth studies have been conducted and published in the recent years on the Indian communities in Singapore such as Rajesh Rai's, Indians in Singapore, 1819 -1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City, Anitha Devi Pillai's, From Kerala to Singapore: Voices from the Singapore Malayalee Community ,Mathew Mathews, The Singapore Ethnic Mosaic , S A Nathanji's Singapore: Nation Building and Indians' Legacy amongst others.
Prominent Indian individuals have long made a mark in Singapore as leaders of various fields in national life. Indians are also collectively well represented, in areas such as politics, education, diplomacy and the law.
- 1 Definitions
- 2 Ethno-linguistic profile
- 3 History
- 3.1 Pre-colonial period
- 3.2 Colonial period: 1820s–1950s
- 3.3 Post-colonial history: 1960s – present
- 4 Demographics
- 5 Institutions
- 6 Cuisine
- 7 Little India
- 8 Naming conventions
- 9 Participation in national life
- 10 Notable Indian Singaporeans
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
The Singapore Department of Statistics defines 'Indians' as a 'race' (or 'ethnic group'), comprising "persons of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan origin such as Tamils, Malayalis, Punjabis, Bengalis, Sinhalese etc."
Indians 'in Singapore' may be further defined in terms of nationality and residency status. Most ethnic Indians are Singapore citizens, known as 'Singaporean Indians', or 'local Indians'. They are usually the locally born second, third, fourth or even fifth generation descendants of settlers from the Indian subcontinent. In addition, there are many ethnic Indian immigrant workers in Singapore. Citizens of the Republic of India are called 'Indian nationals', or even 'Indian Indians'. Foreign Indians may be distinguished in terms of residency status.
Well educated professionals or entrepreneurs with a high earning capacity are granted renewable Employment Passes. These entitle the holder’s spouse, children and parents to Dependents Passes. Students may enter on Students Passes. Pass holders may apply for Permanent Residence, which lets them live in Singapore on a long term-basis. As part of Singaporean nationality law, they are also eligible to apply for Singapore Citizenship. In contrast, unskilled foreign workers enter Singapore with Work Permits. They are rarely allowed to stay in Singapore for more than two years and are never allowed to bring dependents with them. Nor are they eligible to apply for either Permanent Residence or Citizenship.
Demographic statistics are generally restricted to 'Singapore residents', defined as both Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents. Many of the statistics about Indians in Singapore in this article are restricted to this group. Scholars have noted "(o)fficial figures for workers on temporary contracts are difficult to obtain because the Ministry of Manpower in Singapore considers the information sensitive." Consequently, there is limited information about short-term or 'non-resident' Indians in Singapore. Note that use of the term 'non-resident' Indian should not be confused with the concept of the Non Resident Indian or NRI, which the government of the Republic of India uses to describe its citizens living abroad. In Singapore, an NRI may be statistically non-resident (in the case of work permit or pass holders) or he/she may be considered a Singapore resident (in the case of permanent residents).
Singaporean Indians are grouped according to their respective ethnolinguistic backgrounds in the Indian subcontinent or 'dialect group'. Most Indians in Singapore have ancestral links to Southern India and Sri Lanka, with substantial groups from Northern India and Western India accounting for most of the remainder. These are generally the descendants of both free and indentured settlers from India during the 19th and early half of the 20th century.
In 2010, the Singapore census categorised 237,473 Singaporeans and 110,646 permanent residents into a number of 'dialect' groups. However, these groups included Sikhs, who are a religious rather than linguistic group. Virtually all of the Sikhs are Punjabi, which was also captured as a separate 'dialect' category (comprising mainly Hindu Punjabis). Given their small absolute and relative numbers, the following table adapts the 2010 census data by combining the 'Sikh' (12,952) and 'Punjabi' (5,672) category under 'Punjabi'.
The percentages in the table refer to the proportion of each language group within the larger Resident Indian community in Singapore.
|Ethno-linguistic background||Ancestral home||2010 census||Percentage|
Other or Mixed[Note 3]
- This map depicts India as an undivided entity before the partition in 1947, because some Indian Singaporeans trace their roots to regions that now fall outside the Republic of India.
- The map also includes other countries in the Indian Subcontinent, as 'Indian Singaporean' is a broad term that encompasses various South Asian ethnicities that fall outside India proper, like the Sri Lankan Tamils.
- Singaporeans of mixed heritage must identify with their paternal ethnic group under Singaporean law.
The Singaporean Indian demographic is characterised by an ethnic Tamil majority (54.18%) and a large number of smaller groups. Ethnic Tamils in Singapore include the descendants of Tamil settlers from India and Sri Lanka (sometimes referred to as 'Ceylonese'). Ethnic Malayalees, tracing their heritage to Kerala in southern India, form the second largest community, making up 7.57% of the local Indian population. Tamils and Malayalees are the two main south Indian ethnolinguistic communities in Singapore, forming two-thirds of the Indian population. Meanwhile, the three main north Indian ethnolinguistic groups in Singapore (the Punjabi, Gujarati, and Sindhi communities) constitute 7.67% of the Singaporean Indian populace. The remaining 29.68% is composed of many smaller groups with ancestry from both southern India (such as the Telugus) and northern India (such as the Hindustanis, the Malay colloquial term for Hindi-speaking Indians), or ethnically mixed Singaporeans with paternal Indian ancestry.
Ancient India exerted a profound influence over Southeast Asia through trade, religious missions, wars and other forms of contact. Pre-colonial Singapore was part of 'Indianised Kingdoms' like Srivijaya and the Majapahit, which formed part of a cultural region known as Greater India.
Prior to the spread of Islam, Singapore and the rest of the Malay world, was Hindu-Buddhist. One of the most extensive and enduring Indian influence in Malay culture is the vast number of Indian loan words in the Malay language.
Indian influence is also seen in symbols and mythology associated with ancient Singapore. The Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals describe the Indian prince who founded Singapore – Sang Nila Utama – as being a descendant of Alexander the Great and an Indian Princess. Meanwhile, the royal and sacred associations of Fort Canning Hill, the seat of ancient rulers, are related to the Hindu Mount Meru concept.
Archaeological digs have unearthed Hindu-Buddhist artefacts from the pre-colonial period. In 1822, John Crawfurd documented the ruins of a Hindu or Buddhist temple on Fort Canning Hill. Singapore's two most important pre-colonial artefacts are the Singapore Stone, which is inscribed with an Indic script and a gold armlet bearing the motif of a Hindu 'kala' head.
Colonial period: 1820s–1950s
Migration and settlement
Following the Portuguese colonisation of Malacca (Malaysia) in 1511, the Portuguese government encouraged their explorers to bring their married Indian women who were converted already to Roman Catholic Christianity, under a policy set by Afonso de Albuquerque, then Viceroy of India. These people were Goan Catholics (Konkani Catholics) and East Indians (Catholics of Marathi descent). Kuparis who were of mixed Samvedic Brahmin, Goan and Portuguese descent also arrived. Sinhalese and their children from Portuguese that include Portuguese Burghers from Portuguese Ceylon also came later. Their children already intermarried with Malay population, losing their ethnic identities. Indian contact was rekindled from 1819 to World War II, when both India and Singapore were under British colonial rule. Unlike earlier forms of contact, this led to mass migration and, eventually, the formation of a large, settled and distinct population. By 1824, Singapore's first census counted 756 Indian residents, or about 7% of the total population. In 1826, official figures give a total population of 13,750, of which 1,021 are Indians – 244 from Bengal and 777 from the Coromandel Coast, most of whom were males.
Initially, Indian immigrants were predominantly adult men who came from India to find work, serve military duties or prison sentences for several years before returning home. There was a constant flow of Indians in and out of the city, keeping the local community fairly transient. A minority of Indians were also wealthy merchants who settled in Singapore and built local commercial and social institutions. Best known amongst them was Naraina Pillai, the earliest Indian community leader and the island's first building contractor. In 1827, he also founded the Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore oldest Hindu place of worship.
The influx of Indians in the half century after 1819 led to a brief period when Indians, for the only time, overtook the Malays to become the second largest ethnic group. In 1860, they formed 16% of the population. However, their number then fell from 13,000 that year to 12,000 in 1880, or 8.7% of the population. Following this, Indians slowly began to settle permanently in greater numbers and the relative size of the community in colonial Singapore became stable, fluctuating between 7.7% and 9.4%.
Scholars have characterised the Indian community in colonial times as being diverse and highly stratified along class lines. According to Dr Rajesh Rai, the social hierarchy comprised four main groups: the educated professional elite (over 0.5% of the Indian community), mercantile groups (under 10%), the white collar middle class (5–7%) and the uneducated labourers (over 80%).
Economic class and job functions were also aligned with the ethnic origins of immigrants. For example, Sri Lankan Tamils and Malayalees formed the core of the English educated upper middle class. Mercantile families tended to be Sindhi, Gujarati, and Tamil Muslim. South Indian upper caste Hindus tended to perform traditional skilled jobs, such as moneylenders (Chettiars) and priests (Brahmins). Sikhs were often policemen or private security guards. Most of these migrants were voluntary migrants who entered and left Singapore freely on their own resources. Unskilled coolies tended to be landless Tamil peasants from the Shudra caste as well as Adi Dravidas or 'Untouchables'. These were often indentured labourers who were brought through various labour recruitment systems to work on rubber plantations in Malaya. Many later came to work in Singapore once free of their bonds. Another group which was less than free was the military. The first Indians in Singapore were 120 sepoys in the Bengal Native Infantry and a 'bazaar contingent' of washermen, servants and others who came with Stamford Raffles on his first visit in 1819. Throughout the colonial period, military personnel came from all over India. Most returned home after their service without settling in Singapore.
Finally, there were the convicts. In the 19th century, the British shipped Indian convicts to Singapore to relieve overcrowded Indian jails. These men (and some women) were used as labour to build public buildings and roads in Singapore. Like the sepoys, they came from all parts of India. While some returned to India, several settled in Singapore after serving their sentences.
Social reform movements
From the 19th century, Hindu reform movements emerged in India as part of a broader cultural modernisation. These movements sought to promote what they saw as a more authentic form of Hinduism while addressing social abuses, such as the Hindu caste system. These movements spread to overseas Indian communities, including Singapore. Groups like the Ramakrishna Mission, Arya Samaj and Sree Narayana Mission were active conduits of this reform movement. Traditional religious practices, especially among lower caste Hindus, centred around various rural folk traditions, esoteric rituals and superstitions. In contrast, the new movement appealed to better educated urban Hindus, by conducting religious education classes for children and adults, and interpreting the values, concepts and principals behind the religion for lay people. These groups also encouraged a more direct relationship with God, unmediated by Brahmin priests and rituals, through individual devotion (stemming from the Bhakti movement), chanting Bhajans, or hymns, as well as through yoga. Charitable service was also promoted. The Ramakrishna Mission in Singapore set up a home for boys from troubled homes, while the Sree Narayana Mission set up a home of the destitute elderly.
Another social reform movement was the Self-Respect Movement, which emerged in Tamil Nadu in the 1920s to liberate Dravidian people, and especially Adi Dravidas and lower caste Tamils from what was seen as Brahmin oppression. This movement sought inspiration from Tamil history and culture. In Singapore, groups like the Tamil Reform Association were inspired by this movement. They imported publications from India that promoted the movement, and they also hosted visiting leaders of the Self-Respect Movement from Tamil Nadu when they visited Singapore. The Singapore groups focussed on moral, social and religious reform. For example, they campaigned against caste distinctions and alcohol abuse. These groups also promoted the use of the Tamil language, and the development of Tamil literature in Singapore, through the establishment of Tamil newspapers and schools. They were also involved in the union activism, especially in those work sectors dominated by Tamils. Tamil-educated journalists and teachers were at the forefront of this movement. Leaders like Thamizhavel G. Sarangapani were especially instrumental in championing the rights of Tamils and Indians, by encouraging Indians to register for Singapore citizenship in the 1950s and by campaigning to make Tamil one of Singapore's official languages.
The 1915 Singapore Mutiny
The 1915 Singapore Mutiny, also known as the 1915 Sepoy Mutiny, was an incident concerning 850 sepoys (Indian soldiers) who mutinied against the British on 15 February 1915 in Singapore, as part of the 1915 Ghadar Conspiracy (not to be mistaken for the Indian Mutiny of 1857). The mainly Muslim sepoys mutinied because they believed they were being sent to fight for the British against Muslim Turks, as part of the First World War. This mutiny lasted nearly 7 days, and resulted in the deaths of 47 British soldiers and local civilians. The mutineers were later rounded up and executed. In general, the mutiny was restricted to the Muslim sepoys, and did not involve the wider Indian population. While the mutiny was a significant event in the history of Singapore, and one of the most important ones specifically involving the Indian community, it was somewhat distinct from the mainstream development of Indian nationalist sentiments in the local Indian population, which emerged most prominently around the time of the Second World War.
Nationalist movements in India established branch organisations in Singapore to draw on local Indian support for Indian independence. The Indian Independence League was a political organisation operated from the 1920s to the 1940s to organise those living outside of India to remove the British from India. Founded in 1928 by Indian nationalists Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, the organisation was active in Singapore and Malaya following Japan's successful Malayan Campaign in the Second World War.
The Indian National Army (INA) was an armed force formed by Indian nationalists in 1942 in South east Asia, also during World War II. Their aim was to overthrow the British Raj in colonial India, with Japanese assistance. Many Indian soldiers and civilians were recruited in Singapore and Malaya to join the INA during the Japanese occupation. Many of them died fighting alongside the Japanese against the British in Burma during the war.
Indian nationalist sentiments in Singapore and Malaya were paralleled by the rise of Chinese nationalism amongst the overseas Chinese in these territories. As these colonies progressed towards independence, Indians and Chinese in Malaya organised themselves along the lines of ethnic political parties. For instance, the Indian Association in Singapore, today a social and recreational club, was one of a network of such clubs in early 20th century Malaya which came together to form what would become the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the current ethnic Indian party within Malaysia's ruling Barisan National coalition government. Unlike Malaysia's delicate ethno-demographic balance, Singapore had a large Chinese majority. This rendered ethnic-based politics less viable, and tended to support class-based politics instead. For example, several Indian professionals supported the more conservative pro-British parties, as they had been beneficiaries of the colonial system. In contrast, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) espoused an ideology of social democracy which gained the support of Indian union workers. S. Rajaratnam was one of the founding members of the PAP, and he worked to define and champion its vision of a multi-racial country, in contrast to the Malaysian model.
More left-leaning Indian leaders and intellectuals, such as C.V. Devan Nair and James Puthucheary initially supported more radically left-wing groups. They had been imprisoned by the British for their radical union activism. Later, some of these men join the more moderate wing of the PAP. Devan Nair went on to build the modern trades union movement in Singapore, the National Trades Union Congress. Consequently, Indians in Singapore tended to align themselves, both individually and as groups, with parties advocating specific political or economic ideologies, rather than along purely racial lines. This basic difference between the Indian communities of Singapore and Malaysia has endured to the present day.
Post-colonial history: 1960s – present
Immediate post-colonial period: 1960s – 1980s
Scholars have identified two phases in the development of the Indian community after Singaporean independence in 1965. The first phase, from 1965 to the early 1990s, saw a decline in the proportion of the community from 9% in 1957 to a low of 6.4% in 1980. One reason was the withdrawal of British military forces in the early 1970s, which led to the repatriation of many Indian base workers. Another factor was the retirement of older men, who chose to return to families in India. Meanwhile, post-1965 immigration restrictions ended new migration from India. Furthermore, there was a rise in the emigration of Indian Singaporeans to the West in the late 1980s. During this time, the Indian population continued to grow in absolute terms due to natural increase. Even as it grew proportionally smaller, the community also became more settled, with several new generations born locally.
From the 1960s to 1980s, the People's Action Party government tried to cultivate a shared national identity and to end the historical tendency of Singaporeans to identify with the national – and often nationalistic – politics of their ancestral homelands. While different ethnic groups were allowed and sometimes encouraged to retain their cultural identities, they were also pushed to integrate socially, politically and economically across ethnic lines. The government pursued policies to integrate the races in public housing estates and national schools. Young men underwent two years of compulsory national service in ethnically mixed military or police camps. Traditional family businesses were superseded by government agencies or foreign multi-national corporations, which hired multi-ethnic workforces on the basis of meritocratic ability rather than kinship or ethnicity. Consequently, "the cultivation of a Singaporean identity has been largely successful in converting Indian migrants into Indian-Singaporeans." In general, Indian social patterns and political activities became aligned and integrated within the national mainstream from the 1960s.
Although the Singapore government championed public policies and a political discourse of racial integration and national identity, it came to recognise that important differences in the socio-economic profiles of the three main races continued to endure in the post-colonial period. Initially, it had set up Mendaki, a quasi-autonomous Malay community self-help group to promote educational advancement within that community to address underperformance by Malay students. In the 1980s, this approach – which was initially seen as an exceptional measure taken in the case of the Malay community – became entwined with the rhetoric of Asian values, which saw the promotion of a greater consciousness and pride in each citizen's own ethnic heritage, as a bulwark against the supposedly negative influence of Western culture. Consequently, the government established the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) in 1991 to address the educational and social problems of the Indian community. Shortly after, a similar body was set up for the majority Chinese community.
Apart from ethnic self-help groups like SINDA (which remain controversial in Singapore), the government has in the main pursued policies emphasising racial integration and national identity. It is against this backdrop that immigration policies were liberalised in the 1990s, leading to an influx of foreigners in Singapore, particularly Indian nationals. This led to a new phase in the history of the Indian community in Singapore.
Contemporary period: 1990s – present
A second phase began in the early 1990s, when immigration policies were liberalised to attract foreign professionals to boost the size and skills of the local workforce. The government was keen to draw in well educated migrants from Asian countries who, it was hoped, would be both keen and able to settle permanently. This also addressed the problem of Singapore's extremely low fertility rates. In addition to these professionals, unskilled foreign workers were recruited as low cost manual labour for construction sites and the cleaning sector, albeit without the prospect of permanent settlement. As a result of these policies, the Indian population grew faster than other groups. The proportion of Indian citizens and permanent residents rose from 6.4% in 1980 to 9.23% in 2010. This was mainly due to rapid growth in the number of Indian nationals who acquired Singapore citizenship or permanent residency.
For some years now, the Department of Statistics has stopped providing ethnic data about the short-term or 'non-resident' foreign citizens living in Singapore (i.e. those without Singapore Permanent Residence). As of end June 2007, there were 1,005,500 such persons, or 21.5% of the total population. This group includes two-year work permit holders as well as those holding renewable Employment, Dependant and Student Passes. In 2005, Dr Rajesh Rai from the National University of Singapore has observed that "independent surveys approximate the number of South Asians on work permits to be… approximately 90,000–100,000." In November 2007, a cabinet minister said "more than 20,000 Indian professionals had set up home" in Singapore, although it is unclear if this referred only to Employment Pass holders, or if it included Permanent Residents, Student Pass and/or Dependant Pass holders. Based on these figures, the number of short-term or 'non-resident' Indians in Singapore in 2007 is likely to be in the region of 100,000. As such, the proportion of Indians in the total population is likely to range from 9% to 10% (suggesting 89,000 to 135,000 'non-resident' Indians).
The advance release figures from Singapore's 2010 Census show, for the first time, the number of ethnic Indian Singapore citizens, and ethnic Indian Singapore Permanent Residents, separately – instead of combining the two. As of 2010, there were 237,473 Indian Singapore citizens, or 7.35% of the citizen population. There were 110,646 Indian PRs, or 20.45% of the PR population. In total, ethnic Indians formed 348,119, or 9.23% of the 'resident' population of citizens and PRs.
Income and education
Alongside other ethnic groups, Indians from all social backgrounds have achieved significant advances in their educational levels, income, life expectancy and other social indicators. Singapore's extraordinary economic growth from the 1960s to 1990s lifted many out of poverty and created a broad middle class. In the process, many Indians experienced upward social mobility for the first time. Despite this progress, Indians remain somewhat stratified in terms of class relative to other ethnic groups. With the influx of highly qualified Indian Permanent Residents, the socio-economic indicators of the Indian community have improved, arguably masking the under-achievement of some Indians. In 2005, both the average and median monthly income for Indian Residents (S$3,660 and $2,480 respectively) exceeded those for all Residents (S$3,500 and S$2,410 respectively). In the same year, 25% of Indian Residents had a university degree as their highest qualification attained. In contrast the national average was only 17%.
Other educations statistics are less positive. In 2004, only 73% of Indians among the Primary One cohort were admitted to a post-secondary institution, compared with 86% for the Chinese, and 75% for the Malays. In the same year, 73.7% of Indian students received 5 or more passes in the Singaporean GCE 'O' Level examinations, compared with 86.5% of Chinese students and 59.3% of Malays. Given their performance in the 'O' level examinations, it would appear Indians would have been under represented among students who sat for the 'A' level examination. However, those Indians who did reach the 'A' level and sat for this exam marginally outperformed the national average. 93% of Indians received 2 'A' and 2 'AO' level passes, compared with 92.6% among Chinese students, and 92.3% nationally. The socio-economic problems, and especially educational under-performance, facing Singapore Indians is addressed by the community through Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), the national self-help group for the Indian community.
Singapore has the following international schools for expatriate Indians:
- Global Indian International School Singapore
- DPS International School Singapore
- National Public School Singapore
The official languages of Singapore are English, Malay, Chinese (Mandarin) and Tamil. The national language of Singapore is Malay for historical reasons, and it is used in the national anthem, "Majulah Singapura".
Persons of ethnic Tamil ancestry form about 58% of Singapore's Indian residents. Minority Indian groups include Malayalees, Telugu, Punjabis, Sindhis, Gujaratis, Sinhalese, and Hindi-speaking people, among others. In terms of actual daily language use, 39% of Indian residents speak mainly English at home, and a similar number use Tamil. The remainder speak either Malay (11%) or other languages, including other Indian languages and Kristang (11%).There are about 3000 families which speak Marathi at home.
3.1% of all Singapore residents speak mainly Tamil at home and it is one of the country's four official languages. Tamil is taught as a second language in most public schools. Tamil content (produced locally or abroad) is available on free-to-air and cable television as well as radio channels, and in libraries, cinemas, theatres and bookshops. Tamil is used in temples, mosques and churches catering to the community. Some business and non-profit groups, especially those in the Little India neighbourhood, use Tamil on a daily basis.
Many Indian loan words are found in Malay, and, to a lesser extent, in English. The influence of Indian vocabulary, syntax and pronunciation are also found in Singlish, the local English dialect. At the same time, Singapore Tamil is slightly distinct from the versions spoken in India and Sri Lanka, with its closest cousin being the Malaysian Tamil spoken across the border. Local usage includes some words from English, Malay and other languages. Meanwhile, certain Tamil words or phrases that are archaic in India and Sri Lanka are still used in Singapore.
Indian Singaporeans are a religiously heterogeneous group. According to the 2015 census, 270,200 Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 15 years and above belonged to the following religious groups:
Hinduism in Singapore
In the year 2010, 5.1% of the resident population aged above 15 years, were Hindu. Almost all Hindus in Singapore were ethnic Indians. The majority of Singapore's ethnic Indians (58.9%) are Hindu. In the year 2015, 4.96% of the resident population aged above 15 years, were Hindu and Singapore's ethnic Indians (59.88%) are Hindu.
There are approximately 35 temples serving Hindus in Singapore. Most are built in the South Indian Dravidian style. Specific communities have established their own temples. For instance, the Sri Lankan Tamil community built the Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple at Ceylon Road, while the Chettiar community set up the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple at Tank Road. The North Indian community also established the Sri Lakshminarayan Temple, built in the North Indian style. Two Hindu temples have been gazetted as National Monuments of Singapore.
Although temples may be historically associated with certain communities, Hindu temples in Singapore are open to all regardless or language, caste or religion (non-Hindus may visit the temples). A unique feature of Hinduism in Singapore is the fact that a noticeable number of non-Indians, usually Buddhist Chinese, do participate in a variety of Hindu activities, including praying to Hindu deities, donating money to the temple funds and participating in Hindu festivals like the fire-walking ceremony, and Thaipusam.
The most visible Hindu festivals in Singapore are Deepavali and Thaipusam. Minor celebrations include the Fire walking festival, Holi and Hindu temple chariot processions. Deepavali is a national public holiday in Singapore. For a month before it, the Little India district is decorated with ornamental fairy lights. Bazaars are held in different parts of the district, with stalls selling religious paraphenilia, greeting cards, food, decorations, clothes, etc. Deepavali day itself is marked with a ritual bath and prayers in the morning, followed by feasting and visits to family and friends.
Thaipusam is celebrated prominently in Singapore, Malaysia and other countries with large Tamil populations. As a penance, participants carry 'kavadis' along a processional route. Some men carry kavadis attached to their bodies via hooks and spears that pierce their skin. Thaipusam is the only time when major Singapore roads are closed for a religious procession. The festival is a major religious and urban event, drawing thousands of devotees, supporters and onlookers.
Singapore's 9,733 Sikhs formed 0.4% of the Resident population aged above 15 years. As a long-established community in Singapore, Sikhs have also been given special space by the state, in the form of special exemptions from having to wear motorcycle helmets or standard military headgear (including caps, berets and helmets), due to their religious requirement to wear turbans. Likewise, Sikh schoolboys are allowed to wear turbans in national public schools, which otherwise maintain a strict policy of standardised uniforms. Like other religious communities, Sikhs have built several places of worship in Singapore, the oldest of which is the Central Sikh Temple, founded in 1912.
Among Muslim Singapore Residents, 12.4% were Indian, with most of the remainder being Malay; Indian Muslim Singaporeans easily intermarried with Malays. predate the Islamic period (c. 570-632 AD), or the birth of Islam. In reality, Indonesians and Malays came to know about Islam through the merchants of South India and not through Arab missionaries. Among Christian Singapore Residents, 6.0% were Indian, with most of the remainder being Chinese. Within the Christian community, Indians formed 10.3% of Roman Catholics (including Kristangs of part-Indian descent), and 3.9% of Non-Catholic Christians (mainly Protestants).
Within the wider Muslim and Christian communities, Indians have established their own places of worship, where sermons, services and prayers are conducted in Indian languages. Consequently, there are a substantial number of 'Indian' churches, mosques and Buddhist temples in Singapore. For example, the Masjid Jamae, built in 1826, is the oldest Tamil mosque in Singapore, and a National Monument. In 1888, the Tamil Catholic community set up the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Singapore's oldest Tamil Catholic Church, as well as a National Monument. The Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple is a Theravada temple, built in a mix of Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Thai styles, and is quite different from most Chinese Buddhist Mahayana temples in Singapore. The small Indian Buddhist community (mainly Sri Lankan Sinhalese) in Singapore often frequents this temple, which is located in Little India.
Many of the clubs and associations established by and for Indians in Singapore are defined along narrower linguistic, religious or other sub-ethnic lines. The following groups are among the more important national Indian organisations in Singapore that cater to all Indians, regardless or cultural background.
- Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) – SINDA was set up in 1991 to address educational under-performance in the Indian community. It also deals with other social and economic problems faced by Indians.
- Singapore Indian Association (IA) – The IA was set up in 1923 by Singapore's Indian elite to promote the social, physical, intellectual, cultural and the general welfare of its members. While the association initially focussed on social and political issues faced by the Indian community, it has evolved into a private sports and recreation members-only club.
- Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) – Established first in 1924 as the Indian Merchants Association, the SICCI is an independent, non-profit organisation with over 500 members.
- Society of Indian Students (SOIS) – Established first in 1999 in the National University of Singapore, the primary objective of SOIS is to provide a framework for students to interact with and to assist one another; Virtually all Indian students at NUS are directly or indirectly linked to SOIS.
The great variety of Singapore food includes Indian food, which tends to be Tamil cuisine and especially local Tamil Muslim cuisine, although North Indian food has become more visible recently. Indian dishes have become modified to different degrees, after years of contact with other Singapore cultures, and in response to locally available ingredients as well as changing local tastes. The local forms of Indian food may be seen as localised or even regional variations of Indian food, or in some cases, a form of hybrid Indian-Singaporean cuisine. Popular 'Indian' dishes and elements of Indian cuisine (although sometimes prepared and sold by non-Indians) include achar, curry (such as laksa and Fish head curry), Indian rojak, Indian mee goreng, murtabak, nasi biryani, roti john, roti prata and teh tarik.
Other dishes were popular during the colonial period, when Indian ingredients and other culinary influences spread with the Empire to places like Singapore. Many of them endure in some homes and restaurants. Some of these dishes include mince, mulligatawny soup, fish moolie, curry tiffin, pork vindaloo and spiced Mutton chop.
There are also many other Indian foods that are less widely available foods, but which can still be found in several areas serving a more specifically Indian clientele, especially in and around Little India, Singapore. These include appam, bhatura, chutney, sambar, idli, muruku, putu mayam, samosa, tandoori, thosai, upma and various sweets, including jalebi, halva, laddu, paayasam and gulab jamun.
The Indian imprint on Singapore's urban landscape can be seen most prominently in the form of the Little India neighbourhood. On 7 July 1989, at the start of architectural conservation in Singapore, this area was gazetted for conservation, which makes its buildings legally protected from unauthorised modifications and demolition. Bounded by Serangoon Road, Sungei Road and Jalan Besar, the area is recognised as the hub of the Indian community in Singapore. It contains mainly two-storey shophouses of the Early, Transitional, Late and Art Deco Shophouse Styles, as well as several places of worship for different faiths. Apart from serving the social, cultural and commercial needs of the Indian community, the area is established as one of the more historic urban districts in Singapore, with a colourful personality that makes it an indelible part of the national landscape and identity. In 2004, it was also Singapore's third most popular free-access tourist attraction, after Orchard Road and Chinatown.
Because of their linguistic and religious diversity, Singapore Indians use a variety of naming conventions. Traditionally, most Tamil Hindus place their father's name after their given name, linked by 's/o' (son of) or 'd/o' (daughter of), e.g. 'Ravi s/o Govindasamy'. Similarly, Tamil Muslims have names in the form 'Abdul s/o Rahman' (in contrast to Malay Muslims, who use the connector 'bin' (son of) or 'binte / bte' (daughter of) instead). Likewise, a Tamil Christian name might be Daryl s/o David. The use of these connectors arose during the colonial period. However, this format is somewhat rare today.
Often, an individual will reduce their father's name to an initial, hence 'G. Ravi'. This approach is popular among many Singapore politicians, as it simplifies names that, to non-Indian Singaporeans, can be very long, complicated and difficult to pronounce. Thus, the late Senior Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam was known as S. Rajaratnam, while former President Sellapa Ramanathan is known as S.R. Nathan. Likewise, other prominent Indians include S. Dhanabalan, S. Jayakumar and J.B. Jeyaratnam (also known simply as 'JBJ'). Likewise, Tamil Muslims and Christians also use initials in a similar way. It should be noted that this convention is regularly used in South India.
Another popular approach is to omit the 's/o' or 'd/o' connector altogether, e.g. 'Ravi Govindasamy'. While the name appears to conform to a Western format, the last name (Govindasamy) technically remains the father's name, and is not the family surname. As such, the individual should properly be addressed as 'Mr Ravi', rather than 'Mr Govindasamy'. However, some people use their father's name as a surname, i.e. Ravi calls himself 'Mr Govindasamy' and uses it as a surname for his children. Instead of naming his son 'Arun (s/o) Ravi', he would name him 'Arun Govindasamy' (or even 'Arun Govind'). This approach is also adopted among several Tamil Christians. Some new surnames have been created in this way.
Several South Indians use caste names as surnames in the Western mode. Common examples of such names in Singapore include Iyer and Pillay/mudaliyar (Tamil), Nair and Menon (Malayalee) or Naidu (Telugu).
Some Tamil Christian families have retained Indian names (as given names or 'family' names), generally alongside or in place of Western or Christian names, e.g. Vivian Balakrishnan.
Some West and East Indian groups, such as the Gujaratis, Marathis and Bengalis, use family surnames, although the Gujaratis may choose whether to merge their father's name with the surname. Sikh men invariably adopt 'Singh' as their surname, while Sikh women adopt 'Kaur', as is their traditional practice. However, some Sikhs have also re-introduced supplementary family or clan names, thus instead of simply 'Charanjit Singh', an individual might adopt the name 'Charanjit Singh Siddhu' for himself or his son.
Participation in national life
Indian Singaporeans have made their mark nationally and even internationally in a variety of arenas.
- Politics – Indians have been well represented in national politics, including the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) as well as opposition parties. Indians have served as two out of eight Presidents of Singapore, two out of four Senior Ministers and three out of eleven Deputy Prime Ministers. At some point, Indians have been Ministers of almost all ministries, including Foreign Affairs and Finance. The only key posts Indians have not held are Prime Minister and Defence Minister. As of June 2018, Indians were over-represented in the Cabinet (5 out of 19 cabinet ministers, or 26% of the total). They also comprise 10 out of 89 MPs in the 13th Parliament of Singapore, and one of three of its Non-constituency MPs.
- The law – Historically, Indians have been prominent in the legal profession, including the judiciary. In 2007, 21 out of 81 persons listed in the Singapore Academy of Law's senior counsel directory in June 2018, or 26%, were Indian. In the Subordinate Courts of Singapore, 9.8% of all District Judges was ethnic Indian. Meanwhile, in the Supreme Court of Singapore, 14%, or two of the 14 Supreme Court Judges and Judicial Commissioners, are Indian.
- Diplomacy – Indians have traditionally served in the Singapore Diplomatic Service in disproportionate numbers. The Second Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Bilahari Kausikan, is Indian, as have been three of its five Ministers to date. As of March 2007, a survey of the Singapore Government Directory Interactive website showed about 27% of the heads of Singaporean diplomatic missions abroad were Indian, including heads of missions to the UN in New York and Geneva, High Commissioners to Malaysia and South Africa and Ambassadors to Belgium (de facto representative to the European Union) Germany, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
- Education – Since colonial times, teaching was a job Indians were traditionally involved in. In 2006, Indians remained well represented in the teaching service. In March 2007, the Singapore Government Directory Interactive website showed that 13.3% of primary school principals were Indian, as were 10.3% of secondary school principals. Indians also head prominent higher education schools and think tanks, including the NUS Faculty of Engineering, Institute of Policy Studies, Institute of South Asian Studies, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
- The arts – Indian Singaporeans have distinguished themselves in a number of cultural fields, including contemporary forms of art targeted at a broad national and international audience, as well as more traditional Indian art forms. From 1979 to 2006, Indian Singaporeans have won 10, or 11.4%, of the 88 Cultural Medallions conferred, the highest honour to artists given by the Singapore government.
- Civil Service – In addition to the foreign, legal and education services, Indians have also traditionally entered the Singapore Civil Service. Several individuals have risen to prominence in various government ministries and statutory boards. 9.4% of the heads of Singapore's 64 statutory boards are Indian – these are the National Library Board, Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, Hindu Endowments Board, Hindu Advisory Board and Sikh Advisory Board.
- Business – In 2006, Forbes listed four ethnic Indians among the 40 largest private individual and family fortunes in Singapore, which is 10% of the list. These four individuals each represent large and diversified business empires in their own right, ranging from commodities to retail to electronics, amongst others.
Notable Indian Singaporeans
|English||Tamil||Other Indian languages|
|Naraina Pillai||நாராயண பிள்ளை||c. 1765||Unknown||Entrepreneur||First Indian to set foot in modern Singapore with Stamford Raffles on the ship Indiana in 1819. Established the Sri Mariamman Temple.|
|S. Rajaratnam||சின்னத்தம்பி ராஜரட்ணம்||25 February 1915||22 February 2006||Politician||Author of the Singapore pledge, Third Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore (1980–85). S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University was named after Rajaratnam.|
|S. R. Nathan||செல்லப்பன் ராமநாதன்||3 July 1924||22 August 2016||Politician||Sixth and longest-serving President of Singapore (1999-2011).|
|J. Y. Pillay||ஜோசப் யுவராஜ் பிள்ளை||March 30, 1934||Civil servant||Chairman of Malaysia–Singapore Airlines (1971–72), Founding Chairman of Singapore Airlines after its establishment as an independent carrier in 1972 (1972-1996).|
|Tharman Shanmugaratnam||தர்மன் சண்முகரத்தினம்||25 February 1957||Politician||10th Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore (Incumbent, 2011–present).|
|Kishore Mahbubani||किशोर महबूबानी (Sindhi)||24 October 1948||Diplomat, Professor||First Singaporean President of the United Nations Security Council (2001-2), Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1984–89; 1998-2004).|
|Balaji Sadasivan||பாலாஜி சதாசிவ||11 July 1955||27 September 2010||Politician|
|Rajabali Jumabhoy||રાજાબાલી જુમાંભોય (Gujarati)||16 January 1898||26 November 1998||Entrepreneur||Founder of Scotts Holdings.|
|Gurmit Singh||ਗੁਰਮੀਤ ਸਿੰਘ (Punjabi)||24 March 1965||Actor||Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd sitcom.|
|V. Sundramoorthy||வரதராஜு சுந்தரமூர்த்தி||6 October 1965||Sportsman|
|S. Jayakumar||சண்முகம் ஜெயக்குமார்||12 August 1939||Lawyer, Politician, Diplomat||7th Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore (2004-9).|
|Indranee Rajah||இந்திராணி இராஜா||12 April 1963||Lawyer, Politician|
|Choor Singh||ਚੋਅ ਸਿੰਘ (Punjabi)||19 January 1911||31 March 2009||Judge||Former Judge of the Supreme Court of Singapore.|
|Navroji Mistri||નવરોજી મિસ્ત્રી (Gujarati)||3 June 1885||29 October 1953||Entrepreneur|
|Devan Nair||ദേവൻ നായർ (Malayalam)||5 August 1923||6 December 2005||Politician||Third President of Singapore (1981–85).|
|Subhas Anandan||സുഭാഷ് ആനന്ദൻ (Malayalam)||25 December 1946||7 January 2015||Lawyer|
|J. B. Jeyaretnam||யோசுவா பெஞ்சமின் ஜெயரட்னம்||5 January 1926||30 September 2008||Lawyer, Politician||First opposition politician to be elected to Parliament.|
|Kartar Singh Thakral||ਕਰਤਾਰ ਸਿੰਘ ਠਾਕਰਾਲ (Punjabi)||22 September 1933||Entrepreneur|
|Davinder Singh||ਦਵਿੰਦਰ ਸਿੰਘ (Punjabi)||1 August 1957||Lawyer, Politician|
|Inderjit Singh||ਇੰਦਰਜੀਤ ਸਿੰਘ (Punjabi)||June 5, 1960||Politician|
|S. Dhanabalan||சுப்பையா தனபாலன்||8 August 1937||Politician|
|Murli Kewalram Chanrai||मुरली केवलराम चैनराय (Sindhi)||Entrepreneur|
|Sharanjit Leyl||ਸ਼ਰਨਜੀਤ ਲੇਲ (Punjabi)||15 February 1973||Reporter|
|Jacintha Abisheganaden||ஜசிந்தா அபிஷேகன்டென்||3 October 1957||Singer, Actress|
|Gurmit Kaur Campbell||ਗੁਰਮੀਤ ਕੌਰ (Punjabi)||Model||First Singaporean supermodel, first Singaporean to be featured on the cover of Vogue. Modelled for Yves Saint Laurent, Versace, and Karl Lagerfeld.|
|Mustaq Ahmad||مشتاق احمد (Urdu)
मुश्ताक अहमद (Hindi)
|June 8, 1951||Entrepreneur||Founder of Mustafa Centre.|
|Ravinder Singh||ਰਵਿੰਦਰ ਸਿੰਘ (Punjabi)||Military||Army General, Major-General of the Singapore Army (2011–14).|
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