Narayana Pillai was a social entrepreneur and businessman, who spent most of his life in Singapore during the colonial period. Of Tamil origins, he greatly contributed to the Tamil community in Singapore.
Prior to 1819, Pillai (also spelled Narayana Pillay) worked in Penang, which was ruled by the British. There, he came into contact with Stamford Raffles, a senior official of the British East India Company, who was keen to establish a new trading post at the southern end of the Straits of Malacca. This resulted in the founding of modern Singapore in 1819. In Penang, Raffles persuaded Pillai to join him and to work at his new settlement.
Arrival in Singapore
Pillai arrived in Singapore with Raffles in 1819 on the ship ‘Indiana’, making him one of the first Tamil men to set foot there. He started his career there as the chief clerk at the government Treasury, where he verified the authenticity of currency. However, he soon moved on to become a successful entrepreneur and community leader in his own right.
With the establishment of a modern urban settlement at Singapore, Pillai noticed a boom in building works. He wrote to his contact in Penang to send bricklayers, carpenters and cloth merchants to Singapore. He then established the island’s first brick kiln at what is now Tanjong Pagar. Through these efforts, he also became Singapore’s first building contractor.
Pillai also ventured into the cotton goods trade. He sold these at Cross Street. In time, his shop became the largest and best known in town. However, a fire in 1822 destroyed his business, leaving him in debt to British merchants who had let him large volumes of cloth on credit. Pillai struggled to negotiate with his creditors, and also secured help from Raffles when the latter returned to visit Singapore. At land he obtained in Commercial Square (now Raffles Place), he erected new warehouses and rebuilt his business from scratch, eventually paying off his debts and remaking his wealth.
Apart from his success in business, Pillai is best remembered for his social contributions. He was keen to build a temple on the island to serve the growing Hindu population there. After some difficulty in obtaining a suitable site, he was able to acquire land at South Bridge Road for the purpose in 1823. Here, he erected the Sri Mariamman Temple in 1827, which endures today as the oldest Hindu place of worship on the island, and one of the National Monuments of Singapore. Pillai also envisioned a Hindu Institute for young boys, but this did not materialize. Nevertheless, Pillai’s standing led to his appointment by the British as the chief of the Indian population, which conferred on him powers to settle disputes within the community.
- Liu, Gretchen (1996). In Granite and Chunam: The national monuments of Singapore. Singapore: Landmark Books and Preservation of Monuments Board.
- Pearson, H.F. (1955). People of early Singapore. London: University of London Press.
- ‘Pioneer Naraina Pillai should be honoured’ (1990, February 21). The Straits Times, p. 14.
- ‘Singapore's first heroes’ (1983, November 6). The Straits Times, p. 18.