The Tamizhians in the early colonial period were also called as “Klings” or “Keling” that traces its roots to the ancient kingdom of Kalinga in South India where most of the early Tamils came from. Many Tamils consider this term as racist or pejorative in connotation. Some Tamils were also called Chuliah or Chulias, referred to as the Tamil Muslims from South India.
The first Tamil on records to have set foot in Singapore was Naraina Pillai, a government clerk from Penang, who arrived here with Sir Stamford Raffles in his second visit to the island in 1819. Pillai set his heart upon starting new business ventures in Singapore, and also helped construct the island’s first Hindu temple known as the Sri Mariamman Temple.
Pillai’s efforts saw the steady growth of Tamils in Singapore. By 1860, the Indian emigrant Indian population was estimated to be 13000, with South Indians forming the majority within the minority group. The Indian community became the island’s second biggest community only next to the Chinese.
The Tamil community in due course of time became a close-knit community with the Tamil Chettiars, boatmen and shopkeepers put up in the area around Market Street (present day Raffles Place) and Market Street, while the labourers choose to stay near the docks and railways where they earned their livelihood. A cohort of Tamil shopkeepers felt that the area around Serangoon will be perfect to start their business, which was later dubbed the Little India.
Tamil language education became public in Singapore as early as 1834. Thanks to the efforts of Singapore Free School, but unavailability of suitable textbook saw its demise a year later. Unfortunately, other similar attempts to begin Tamil classes failed to take off due to lack of support from the Tamil community and shortage of Tamil teachers.
Two Anglo-Tamil schools were started in 1873 and 1876 respectively to teach English through Tamil. Yet the popular medium of instruction remained English. Though Tamil-medium schools were reintroduced in the 20th century, they weren’t many takers as most parents preferred English-medium schools over Tamil schools. The final nail in the coffin was hit when the last recognised Tamil-medium school, Umar Pulavar Tamil School was permanently shut in 1983.