by Mr. Sivananthiram Alagandram, date unknown
Transformation of the Jaffna Community in Klang,1900-1950.
They arrived as a minority towards the end of the 19th Century in Klang from an agrarian background and by 1950, the community had transformed itself into an affluent middle-class society and as a community to be reckoned with.
The Royal Town of Klang was the former capital of Selangor prior to the emergence of Kuala Lumpur as the state and national capital. The growth of Klang as an administrative centre and the rise of Port Klang as a major port in the country at the dawn of the 20th century provided employment for migrants from South and East Asia. This resulted in Klang and Port Klang having one of the largest concentration of Jaffna Tamils settlements in the country.
The Jaffna Tamils came as birds of passage without any intention at all to live in this country. They wanted to return to their homeland with their savings and pensions. This was utmost in their minds. Many were buying up land and building new homes in their native villages in Jaffna for retirement. After World War 2, this thinking began to change as their children’s roots were getting deeply entrenched in the country where they were born. By this time, the number of children born in Malaysia increased greatly. Through English education, they gained greater stability in their careers and considerable social and economic influence in Klang and Port Klang area. This changed their perception of returning to Jaffna.
With their children growing up in this country and showing little interest in going back to Jaffna, more and more Jaffna Tamils made Klang their home. The benefits of a better quality of life in terms of health, education and urban lifestyle clearly out weighed the thoughts of returning home.
The Jaffna community came to Malaya basically from an agrarian background. The advantage they had over other communities when they arrived was clearly their proficiency in the English language resulting from the education provided by the Christian missionaries and Hindu reformist like Arumuga Navalar in Jaffna. They used this to their advantage effectively to carve out a niche for themselves in the fast-growing Malayan economy.
With good English education in Malaya, their children too were able to find employment in the growing labour market in the Klang Valley. The community had one of the highest literacy levels and probably the lowest crime rate in the country.
Every Jaffna parent made sure that their children attended English schools in Klang. Many living in the neighbouring plantations and other towns such as Batu Tiga, Kapar and Banting to Klang made efforts to send their children to the four prominent English language schools such as the Convent, High School, Anglo Chinese School and Methodist Girls School. There were no special privileges bestowed to this community and neither did they depend on sponsored mobility to rise up the occupational ladder. They realized that the only passport to a successful life in Malaya and pathways to good employment was good English education and success at exams in English medium schools.
Competition to be counted within the community as high achievers influenced child-rearing among parents. Many mothers would have sacrificed so much to be awake as their children were burning the midnight oil. At their schools in Klang, they were blessed with quality education provided by dedicated teachers/educators such as VK Chinniah, K. Arianayagam, VK Arumugam, Ponniah, Nadarajah, Tiagarajah, Rajakariar, GS Arumugam, Veerasingam, Mrs GS Arumugam, Mother Superior Albert, Sister Helen and many others. Consequently, many passed the Senior Cambridge Exams with distinction and either went to the Raffles College in Singapore or the King Edward the V11 College of Medicine in Singapore and later the University of Malaya in Singapore. Many other brilliant students were selected for teacher training in Kirkby and Brinsford Lodge in the UK. In the first batch of 151 selected teacher trainees, the Ceylon Tamils as a proportion of their community in the country were very well represented. The transformation of the community in Klang from the 1920s to the 1950s was remarkable in that by the middle of the 20th Century, in relation to the size of the community, they possessed the highest number of professionals.
Many others initially started employment as clerks, gained experience on the job and some become Office Assistants and Chief Clerks in the government and in the private sector. In the plantations, they rose from being field conductors to field assistants and managers. As a community, they had filled the rungs of clerical and technical services in the country and established a symbiotic relationship with British masters. The government jobs came with financial security and a pension to see them through education of their children, send money home for their loved ones and yet save through their frugal living. This was in sharp contrast to farm cultivation in the Jaffna’s agricultural setting where the dry red soil depended on well water and vagaries of the weather.
While their British masters came and went on transfer, and on promotion, their institutional memory and sound knowledge of administrative matters gave them great influence in their respective places of employment. Many were accorded meritorious service medals in recognition of excellent service by the Crown. Their spoken and written English were good and recognized and there was hardly any competition from other communities in the early 1950s. The traits that brought them success were honesty, integrity, discipline and the Jaffna work ethic.
Many of the chief clerks and Office Assistants wielded so much influence that enabled them to contribute to policy decisions at that time. Their views on the sound implementation of policies, be it in the Railways, Labour, Postals, Customs, Telecoms, Central Electricity Board and in the private sector were well recognized by the British Administration. Given this expertise and experience, their British Masters in the civil administration gave preference to Jaffna Tamils in the recruitment practices. In the rubber and palm oil plantations around Klang, British planters did not hesitate to recruit them as well as migrants from Kerala as new entrants into field conductor positions and as junior factory hands or hospital assistants.
In the Klang Valley, the successive station masters in the 1950’s were Jaffna Tamils. Likewise, the senior positions in the Postals, the Telecoms, Customs, Police, Labour Department, Social Welfare department, Veterinary and Public Works was dominated by this minority community.
Others through sheer hard work and educational advancement were able to move to the upper echelons of the British Administration in Klang and Port Klang. With their promotions came social influence and the benefits of occupying senior government quarters on the Fort Hill near the District Officer’s House and the middle-level residential quarters along Jalan Raya West. In terms of numbers, the Jaffna Tamils were really an insignificant lot but through dedication, hard work, motivation and self-actualization, they projected themselves as an affluent class in the 4th largest town in the country.
As a community, the Jaffna Tamils dominated the settlements along with Jalan Dato Amar, Jalan Raja Muda, Riverside Road and Telok Pulai Road in the1930’s to 1950s. Of all these settlements, Telok Pulai Road witnessed the most rapid growth. Between 1945 and 1955, the community grew like mushrooms after rain. So dominant was this community in Telok Pulai that it came to be known as Little Jaffna of Klang. Many speculate that the name Telok Pulai was named after Tellippalai or Thellippalai which represented a small town in the northern Jaffna District located along the Kankesanthurai road. The availability of freehold land, reasonable rental and its proximity to secondary schools, the Klang town centre and the Subramanya Temple made it an ideal place for settlement. The Railway Halt at Telok Pulai which became operational in early 1900 provided commuting facilities both to Port Klang as well as to Kuala Lumpur.
By the 1950s when my grandfather Ayadurai Sinnathambar made Telok Pulai his retirement home, it was one of the most visible ethnic districts in Klang if not in Malaya itself. The Tamil Jaffna homes stretched from Selvaratnam’s home from the entrance at the Telok Pulai junction to Teacher Rasiah’s home near Simpang Empat. Along this little Jaffna Road was the Subramayana Swami Temple built by pioneering Jaffna Tamils, the adjourning Tamil School built for Tamil Education for their children and the Navalar Mandapam for their cultural and religious activities. They saw the importance of linking with their fellow countrymen in Kuala Lumpur through associations like the Devine life society, Jaffanese Cooperative Society and its housing arm to build one of the first housing estates along Telok Gadong Road. All these institutions and initiatives showcased the legacy of the pioneers for the preservation of their distinct identity as a separate ethnic group. The religious events such as the Guru Pooja’s staged by the senior Temple administrators at the Navalar Mandapam was unique in the country and a great contribution to the growth of Hinduism in Malaya. The cultural events presented by the Hindu Youth Society of Klang during its golden era and the annual Tamil School concerts were important events for the reconnection to the Jaffna community in the Klang Valley as well as to link them with their homeland family, friends and neighbours left behind.
In about half a century, the community left an indelible mark in Klang and Port Klang thanks to the pioneers who laid the foundation for this success story. They were men of vision, integrity and calibre. For them, keeping the community as a distinct and unique ethnic group was of paramount importance. They spoke Tamil with a distinct accent, prayed at their own temple and chose to live an exclusive life. Most of all, their determination and perseverance rewarded them with upward mobility and a better quality of life than those they left behind in Jaffna. Even today, their distinct institutions in Telok Pulai Klang are a hallmark of the legacy they left behind for us.