From Kerala Mahajana Sangham to
Singapore Malayalee Association
Service to the Community – Service to Singapore
The evolution of the Singapore Malayalee Association from Kerala Mahajana Sangham to its present form in many ways reflects the evolution of the migrant Malayalee from Kerala to a Singapore Malayalee. Sometimes spelt as Keraleeya Mahajana Sangham/Keraliya Mahajana Sangham in news reports and documents.
Kerala Mahajana Sangham/ Keraliya Mahajana Sangham
The association was founded about 100 years ago in 1917. It was started as Kerala Mahajana Sangham and is believed to be the first Malayalee association to be registered outside of India. The first committee members were V R Menon (President), R P Pereira, Francis Neelankavil, G B Pereira, M V Albert, Messrs C H S Iyer, K S Kochupillay, I N Benjamin, C B Gomez and K P K Pillai.
It is not surprising that the first committee comprised of all men as there were only 23 Malayalee females and 1,185 males in Singapore in 1911.
The first item on their agenda for the association was to collect funds from its members for the ‘Our Day Fund’. ‘Our Day Fund’ was raised in the Straits Settlements to support “the sick and the wounded of His Majesty’s forces”. This altruistic act of serving the society has continued over the years.
Judging from the names of the past presidents  and the office bearers it is clear that they were from various sub-communities, indicating that there were no religious or other affiliations present. As a minority within the Indian minority group in Singapore, the common binding factor for the members of the association seemed to have been their mother tongue, Malayalam.
The affinity towards their mother tongue has held the community together for the last 100 years. This was also an observation that our former President S R Nathan made about the Malayalee community in 2015.
The one unifying fact amongst Malayalees, whether you are a Christian, Muslim or Hindu, the moment you speak in Malayalam, everything else is forgotten. The language is the binding factor of the community.
In 1918, barely a year after it started, the association was renamed as the Malayalee Association (sometimes referred to as the Singapore Malayalee Association in the press). While there are news reports on the meetings in the press, there is no indication as to why the name of the association was changed. On 11 March 1918, the association was formally registered with the registry of societies.
The members of the Malayalee Association met once a week on Sundays and the program of the day comprised “the reading of clippings of important and interesting news from the local and Indian papers, a lecture or paper presentation in Malayalam, musical entertainment, and a lecture of paper presentation in English”. The topics for several of their talks tended to be philosophical in nature such as “Past is the best prophet of future” by C N Menon, “Western civilization and its effect on Malabar” by C H S Iyer and “India’s progress” by Swayam Prakasini Yogini Amma.
In the early years, the association’s members were clearly deeply rooted in the affairs of Kerala, for instance, in fund-raising for the victims affected by floods in the Malabar district. They also met to express strong objections to a policy by the Travancore government to repress protests in the state or to send felicitations to the Maharaja of Travancore for “having thrown open the temples of the state to all people irrespective of caste or creed”.
While they were understandably invested in the affairs of their native homeland during the early years, they were also focused on the needs of their adopted land, Singapore. For instance, the Malayalee Association marked its first anniversary with an Onam celebration in 1918 by providing meals for the “poor and homeless” and hosting a variety show.
It must have also been a well-sought after membership as they were asked to move their meetings to Friday evenings to accommodate those who wanted to come from Johor to attend them as there were no train services running between Johor and Singapore on Sundays in 1918.
The Singapore Kerala Samajam
In 1947–1948, the Malayalee Association was renamed the Singapore Kerala Samajam and one of the important tasks that it undertook was to take a census of Malayalees in Singapore, particularly their employment status, and identify children who were not attending school. The objective was to provide support for families and workers in need.
Viswa Sadasivan, a former nominated Member of Parliament and former president of the Singapore Malayalee Association, recalled how his father, Sadasivan, Uncle Damoo, and friends would sieve through letters from Kerala from men. The men would generally write to their relatives or someone from their village who was already working here indicating their arrival. These letters were read and sorted out at the Singapore Kerala Samajam by volunteers who would receive them at the port.
Funerals too were a grave concern of the community who were far from their kith and kin in Kerala. The community arrived in droves for a funeral and shared the expenses. These were the days before telecommunication was widely available. Surprisingly, word of mouth was sufficient to inform fellow Malayalees of a funeral.
Though the members continued to meet once a week, they did not have a permanent meeting place. The purchase of the current association’s premises was supported by Abdul Shukoor, a prominent Malayalee Muslim businessman in the construction industry, and the president of the Singapore Kerala Samajam in 1952. This finally put an end to the practice of holding meetings at various venues such as in members’ homes, the Ceylon Sports Association, the Mercantile Institute, the Standard Institute, to name a few. The Singapore Malayalee association has been at this premise, 44 Race Course Road since then.
By 1947 the community had grown to 9, 712, with 1,489 females. A women’s and youth wing was then set up in 1948. Over the next ten years, the number of Malayalees in Singapore grew steadily and by 1957 there were 21, 783 Malayalees in Singapore.
In order to meet the various needs of the growing Malayalee community, by 1953, the Kerala Samajam had 14 branches in Singapore. The branches were located in Little India, Tanjong Pagar, Kampong Bahru, Pasir Panjang, Alexandra, Bukit Timah North, Bukit Timah South, 6th Mile Bukit Timah, Upper Serangoon, Sembawang, Nee Soon, Jalan Kayu, Katong and Changi.
Singapore Kerala Association (SKA)
Eight Malayalee associations chose to merge in 1959 to form the Singapore Kerala Association upon the request of the then President J P Gomez, who emphasized the need to have a single organization for Malayalees.
The new committee of SKA, comprising E V N Nair, V Surendranath, A Majeed and other committee members, also decided to ask the government to recognize them as the main organization that represented the 22,000 Malayalees in Singapore. Following this development, a few other organizations such as Kairali Nadana Kala Samithi (Keralite’s Dance Art Form) merged with SKA in 1960. By pulling their resources together, the association was able to better serve the needs of the community.
Apart from continuing with similar activities as the predecessors, the association also raised a request to set up a Censor Board to assess Malayalam language publications and media. Unlike the Internet era today in which Malayalam movies and publications are readily available, there were strict restrictions on what was brought into Singapore. Hence, this was an important initiative to maintain the language and to provide more opportunities for the next generation to be exposed to Malayalam.
Fittingly, in 1961, the association’s focus shifted to assimilating their members into the larger “Malayan culture” rather than to remain divided over the states they came from in Kerala. By now, the association had 850 members but only five branches in “Alexandra, Kampong Bahru, the City, Katong and Sembawang”. It is likely that these branches were where many Malayalees lived.
The association mounted several initiatives to benefit the community such as the Blood Donation Drive in 1970 . The association also conducted both Mandarin and Malayalam classes at its premises.
In 1990s, in keeping up with the times, the committee served the traditional Onam meal or Onasadya as a buffet rather than on a banana leaf. The committee also invited members of other communities to the Onam celebrations. They then organized monthly youth engagement events and even a ‘Malayalee Youth Dinner & Dance’ to attract the younger members of the community. These events were widely successful and boosted youth membership.
In the later part of the 1990s, the Malayalee community in Singapore grew steadily from 16,329 in 1990 to 21, 747 in 2000. In order to connect the community further, the association took on the herculean task of putting together a directory listing a substantial number of Malayalee families in Singapore. Although many of the members may have changed residences since the publication, this directory continues to be referred to by the older members of the community.
Singapore Malayalee Association (SMA)
Over the years, the association went through several name changes to better reflect the identity of its members. Finally, 11 years ago, on 19 October 2006, it was renamed The Singapore Malayalee Association (SMA) .
The change in names of the association were reflective of the change in the composition of the Singapore Malayalee community and the community’s increasing rootedness to Singapore. As evident from the changes, Singapore became an integral part of the Singapore Malayalee identity as early as 1918. The current name reflects the growing number of the members of the community who are born and bred in Singapore as well as the influx of new immigrants in recent decades.
In the last decade, the Singapore Malayalee Association has organized mega Onam Night shows with celebrity artists, several cultural events throughout the year, drama productions, frequent literary events, sports events as well as conducted Malayalam classes. They have had the privilege of organizing the Asia Pacific Malayalee Conference (APMC) with World Malayalee Council in 2004. The association has also focused on serving the larger Singapore community through activities such as proving meals for the residents of Sree Narayana Mission and financial assistance for low-income families.
Currently, SMA has 581 active members and its events are well attended by many of the 26,348 members of the Malayalee community.
Looking forward, the then president of SMA Mr Jayakumar Unnithan shared:
“This year is a milestone for SMA. We have made much progress as a community through hard work. We are grateful to all our pioneers and past leaders. My committee now hopes to reach out and give back to the Singapore society in the future.”
Mr Jayakumar Unnithan and his committee hope to establish a heritage center documenting the rich Malayalee culture and the contributions of the Malayalee community to Singapore; support the education of needy tertiary students; provide assistance to the elderly in Singapore and foster a supportive environment for people of different age groups to interact.
As an association that started with a meeting of a few Malayalee men in 1917, whose first initiative as an association was to raise funds to support the British forces’ ‘Our Day Fund’, it is not surprising that the Singapore Malayalee Association’s plans for moving forward focuses on continuing to serve the Singapore society in various ways.
This article is adapted from Pillai, A. D. (2017). Malayalees in Singapore. In Pillai, A. D. & Arumugam, P. ‘From Kerala to Singapore: Voices from the Singapore Malayalee Community’. Singapore. Marshall Cavendish Pte. Ltd. 6-61. & Pillai, A. D. SMA is 100. Tabla!. 1 September 2017. p. 13-15. An earlier version of this article was published in Onopharam (2017). P. 146-153.
They say you never know how far a good conversation can take you. I am grateful that the presidents and committee members who always made the time to respond to the several emails and questions that I posed when researching on SMA: Dr V P Nair, Dr G Raman, Mr and Mrs K O George, Mr M M Dollah, Mr P K Koshy, Mr Viswa Sadasivan, Mr Jayakumar Unnithan, Mr Ullas Kumar, Mrs Padma Vikraman Nayar, Mr M K Bhasi, Ms Sunu Sivadasan, Mr Parameswaran Prem and Mr Krishna Kumar. Thank you so much!
I would also like to thank those who willingly shared photographs: Ms Sreedevi Rajagopal, Mr NC Prakash, Mr Binod Therat, Mr Lijesh Karunakaran, Ms Sheela Westre, Focus Malayalam, National Library Board.
About the Author
Dr Anitha Devi Pillai is a fourth-generation Singaporean Malayalee. She is an applied linguist and a teacher educator at National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. She has published widely in her areas of expertise and in creative writing. In 2013, she won a National Heritage Board’s (Singapore) research grant to study the Singapore Malayalee community. Her publications on the Malayalee community in Singapore include books: Singaporean Malayalam: The Presence of a Hybrid Language (2010), From Kerala to Singapore: Voices from the Singapore Malayalee Community (2017), The Story of Onam (2019), book chapters: Malayalee Community and Culture in Singapore (2017), Transforming Oral Narratives of Singapore Malayalees into Written Discourse for a Wide Audience (2019), Generational Shifts in the Use of Malayalam in Singapore (2020) as well as articles in the press. Anitha has also delivered several invited talks and Keynote addresses at international conferences on the Singapore Malayalee community.
Past Presidents of Singapore Malayalee Association
|Kerala Mahajana Sangham /
Keraleeya Mahajana Sangham
|1917||Mr V R Menon|
Singapore Malayalee Association
|1918 – 1919||Mr V R Menon|
|1920-1922||Mr K P Menon|
|1923 – 1927||Not known|
|1928||Mr KMR Menon|
|1934-1936||Mr K Raman|
|1937-1939||Mr K M R Menon|
|1940-1941||Mr Francis Neelamkavil|
|1942-1943||Mr K P Mohd. Yusoff|
|1946||Mr K. Purushotaman|
|Singapore Kerala Samajam
|Mr M B Bhaskaran Nair|
|1948-1951||Mr G.S. Muthu Krishnan|
|1952-1953||Mr A Shukoor|
|1954||Mr C Ramakrishnan|
|1955, 1957||Mr Cyril Peter|
|1958||Mr J P Gomez|
|Singapore Kerala Association||1959||Mr JP Gomez|
|1960||Mr Cyril Peter|
|1969||Mr Cyril Peter|
|1970-1971||Dr V P Nair|
|1972||Dr G Raman|
|1973-1974||Mr S M Haneefa|
|1975||Mr M G Mathews|
|1976-1979||Mr S M Haneefa|
|1980-1981||Dr M G John|
|1982||Mr Aravindakshan Nair|
|1983-1986||Mr S M Haneefa|
|1987-1990||Mr K O George|
|1991-1992||Mr Aravindakshan Nair|
|1993-1994||Mr Viswa Sadasivan|
|1995-1997||Mr Michael Fernandez|
|1998-2005||Mr M M Dollah|
|Singapore Malayalee Association
|2006-2008||Mr M M Dollah|
|2009-2014||Mr P K Koshy|
|2015 – 2019||Mr Jayakumar Unnithan|
|2019 – current||Mr Parameswaran Prem|
1 Sometimes spelt as Keraleeya Mahajana Sangham/Keraliya Mahajana Sangham in news reports and documents.
2 Madhavan, S, Raman, R, Ng, L, Vasudevan, I K, Kumar, A P (2012). Singapore Malayalis: Looking Back and Beyond. In Vilanilam, J V, Palackal, A and Luke, S. Introduction to Kerala Studies. IISAC: USA. p. 1163–1170.
3 Kerala Mahajena Sangham, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 October 1917, p. 8.
4 Marriott, H. (1911). Report on the Census of the Colony of the Straits Settlements taken on 10 March 1911.
5 Kerala Mahajena Sangham, The Straits Times, 1 October 1917, p. 10.
6 Refer to Table 1: Past Presidents of Singapore Malayalee Association.
7 Pillai, A. D. (2017). “In Conversation with S R Nathan,” in From Kerala to Singapore, In Pillai, A. D. and Arumugam, P. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, p. 68.
8 Madhavan, S, Raman, R, Ng, L, Vasudevan, I K, Kumar, A P (2012). Singapore Malayalis: Looking Back and Beyond. In Vilanilam, J V, Palackal, A and Luke, S. Introduction to Kerala Studies. IISAC: USA. p. 1163–1170.
9 Malayalees’ Resolution To Travancore, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 27 September 1938, p. 3.
10 Malayalee Association, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 26 March 1918, p. 7
11 Untitled, The Straits Times, 25 May 1918, p. 8.
12 Untitled, The Straits Times, 27 April 1918, p. 8.
13 Untitled, The Straits Times, 26 August 1924, p. 8.
14 Malayalees’ Resolution to Travancore, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 27 September 1938, p. 3.
15 Untitled, The Straits Times, 27 November 1936, p. 13.
16 Untitled, The Straits Times, 21 August 1918, p. 8.
17 Untitled, The Singapore Free Press, 21 June 1918.
18 According to SMA records and M M Dollah, the longest-serving president of SMA, the name was changed in 1947. The change in name was reported in the newspapers in 1948. New Name for Malayali Association. Malaya Tribune. 29 November 1948.p. 2.
19 Malayalees: Census Plan, the Straits Times, 17 December 1948, p. 10; Association Changes
Name, the Straits Times, 29 November 1948, p. 5.
20 Singapore Man Mas ‘Beaten Up’, The Singapore Free Press, 17 January 1953, p. 1.
21 Interview with Sreenivasan with author in May 2015.; Interview with S. Gopalakrishnan with author in May 2015.
22 Social Aid Programme, The Straits Times, 17 October 1952, p. 9.
23 The Malayalees Of Singapore, The Straits Times, 4 September 1936, p. 13.
24 Pillai. A. D. (2017). Malayalees in Singapore (1871 – 2010). , In Pillai, A. D. and Arumugam, P. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, p. 334.
25 From the 1840s to 1970s, the British marked the roads in Singapore by milestones which were about a mile or 1.6km apart in both rural and urban parts of the island. These milestone markers were made of sandstone and granite. They were labelled with numbers such as 6th Mile or 13th Mile. (Untitled. Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 22 June 2016).
26 Madhavan, S, Raman, R, Ng, L, Vasudevan, I K, Kumar, A P (2012). Singapore Malayalis: Looking Back and Beyond. In Vilanilam, J V, Palackal, A and Luke, S. Introduction to Kerala Studies. IISAC: USA. p. 1163–1170.
27 Madhavan, S, Raman, R, Ng, L, Vasudevan, I K, Kumar, A P (2012). Singapore Malayalis: Looking Back and Beyond. In Vilanilam, J V, Palackal, A and Luke, S. Introduction to Kerala Studies. IISAC: USA. p. 1163–1170.
28 They Seek A Censor Board To Vet Publications From Kerala, The Singapore Free Press, 5 August 1960, p. 7.
29 Menon, S (1976). Role of religious institutions and associations in a Malayalee neighbourhood. Unpublished Academic Exercise: University of Singapore.
30 They Seek A Censor Board To Vet Publications From Kerala, The Singapore Free Press, 5 August 1960, p. 7.
31 Now it’s Malayan Culture, The Singapore Free Press, 19 January 1961, p. 7.
32 Personal communication with Dr V P Nair with author in May 2017. The blood donation drive was organized by Dr V P Nair and his committee members.
33 Personal communication with Mr Viswa Sadasivan with author in May 2017. These events were organized by Mr Viswa Sadasivan and his committee members.
34 Pillai. A. D. (2017). Malayalees in Singapore (1871 – 2010). , In Pillai, A. D. and Arumugam, P. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, p. 334.
35 This herculean initiative to document as many Malayalees as possible had been mooted by Dr. V. P. Nair in 1996 and was completed successfully by his sister, Mrs. Sarojini Chandran, in 2004. The directory was launched by Mr M M Dollah’s committee.
36 Personal communication with Mr. M M Dollah with author in June 2016. Mr M M Dollah and his committee members organized The Asia Pacific Malayalee Conference.
38 Personal communication with Mr P K Koshy in May 2017.
39 Personal communication with Mrs Padma Vikraman Nayar in August 2017.
40 The latest available census of population states that there were 26,348 Malayalees in Singapore in 2010. Singapore Department of Statistics. (2010). Census of Population, 2010. Singapore: Ministry of Trade and Industry.
41 Personal communication with Mr Jayakumar Unnithan and Mr Ullas Kumar with author in June 2017.
(Written in Sep 2017)