Feature Article

Tamils become key ministers in Singapore

[TamilNet, Friday, 20 May 2011, 05:28 GMT]
In the new cabinet of Singapore, headed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that will be sworn in on Saturday, Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam of Jaffna origin becomes Deputy Prime Minister holding Finance, Manpower and Monetary Authority portfolios, Mr. K. Shanmugam takes over Foreign Affairs and Law, Mr Vivian Balakrishnan becomes Minister for Environment and Water Resources and Mr. S. Iswaran holding the rank of a full cabinet minister will function in the Prime Minister’s Office as Second Minister for Home, Trade and Industry. The new cabinet has two Deputy Prime Ministers, Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Mr. Teo Chee Hean. General Elections took place in Singapore on 7 May.

Claims that could be of much interest to students of diaspora studies and contemporary politics of the establishments in South Asia were made in Indian and Sri Lankan media over the identity of the Singapore Tamils in the new cabinet.

While the Indian media preferred to apply a blanket term ‘Indian’ for all the Tamil ministers, the so-called Sri Lankans, who have all sort of diabolical meanings to that identity, wanted to apply the word ‘Sri Lankan’ to Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Both didn’t want to see Singapore Tamils as Singapore Tamils.

Because of geographical position and feasible maritime routes, people of Tamil identity had their own relationship with Singapore and Southeast Asia since very early times, going back to the dawn of the Christian Era, if not earlier.

According to many researchers, the founder of Singapore city in the 15th century and the first Sultan of Malacca, Iskandar Shah Paramesvara, was a prince from Naakappaddinam in Tamil Nadu, who embraced Islam. The early Tamils were assimilated into the Malays of the region. The very name of the identity, Malay itself (from the hill-country), is of Dravidian etymology.

Meanwhile, the demography of the modern day Chinese and Tamils in Singapore and in Malaysia is a result of the waves of migration that started in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century.

Naakappaddinam region in Tamil Nadu and the Jaffna Peninsula played key roles in the migrations from South Asia, and hence the predominant South Asians in Singapore and Malaysia today are Tamils. Many other identities that went from former British India merged into the Tamil identity, as they were small in number.

Deservedly, Tamil has become one of the four official languages of Singapore, along with Chinese, Malay and English. Singapore Tamils have their own identity in the country thanks to the farsighted policies of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

However, there exists a line of thinking that wishes to bring in certain imperialist patterns in the people-made diaspora identity formations. This line of thinking sees Southeast Asia a meeting ground of ‘Greater India’ and ‘Greater China.’

No wonder, Singapore Tamils complain that forces operating in liaison with New Delhi and are highly placed in the institutions of Singapore, try to imbibe them with an idea of ‘Indian-ness’ over ‘Tamil-ness,’ where as the track record of New Delhi on the issue of Tamils is well known.

The Hindu on Thursday in a news item by P S. Suryanarayana on the new cabinet in Singapore said “Key portfolios for Singapore Indians,” making Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam too an “ethnic Indian minority” in Singapore.

The Jaffna Tamils are predominantly large in number among the people who went to Singapore and Malaysia in the 19th and early 20th centuries from the island that gained the name Sri Lanka much later, only in 1972. Tamils in the island have democratically rejected the constitution that introduced that name and also their identity associated with that name and state in 1975 and 1977.

The 19th and early 20th century Tamils from this island, ever since their arrival in Singapore and Malaysia, were identifying themselves either as Jaffanese or Ceylonese, as could be seen from the names of the associations they formed at that time. The Ceylonese identity is officially recognized.

Even though the identities continue to this day, matrimonial and cultural relations at the grassroot level are fast merging them with the Tamils from Tamil Nadu, who are more in number, and thus bringing in a common Singapore Tamil identity.

But in the very recent years, forces operating for Colombo government in Singapore and Malaysia have started promoting a new ‘Sri Lankan’ identity to the affluent Tamil Jaffanese/ Ceylonese.

Even though the true face of these forces are well known in the community, through their high connections, influences, economic interests and close collaboration with Colombo’s ruling circles, they try to simulate a ‘Sri Lankan’ identity as existing among the Tamils in Singapore and Malaysia.

That’s how, while Sri Lankan government as well as the State itself is long known for committing genocide against the nation of Eezham Tamils in the island, the Singapore Tamil, Tharman Shanmugaratnam of Jaffna ancestry, on becoming Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, has become a ‘Sri Lankan’ for the Colombo-happy media.



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