Date of Award:
Master of Arts (MA)
The Indian labor diaspora that settled in Malaya, now known as Malaysia, was a diaspora that was used to further colonial ambitions. Large scale agricultural projects required a workforce that Malaya did not have. South Indian peasants from the untouchable Madrasi caste were taken to Malaya, initially, as indentured servants. When indenture was abolished, they were engaged as contract workers. Inferiority and backwardness were common colonial perceptions that were held against them. These laborers were exploited by the British as they had no bargaining power or the ability to demand more than a meager wage.
World War II redefined the way these laborers started to view the British. Having suffered defeat in the hands of the Japanese, the colonial power retreated meekly. This was a significant development as it removed the veil of British dominance in the eyes of a formerly docile people. When the British returned to Malaya after the war, it was a more defiant Indian labor community who greeted them. These wanted more concessions. They wanted citizenship, better wages and living conditions. They wanted a future that did not retain them on the rubber estates but one where they could finally shed their subaltern roots and achieve upward mobility.
This new defiance was met with antagonism by the colonial power whose main concern was to get the lucrative but stalled rubber industry up and running again. The destitution and impoverishment suffered by the Indians during the war was ignored as they were rounded up like cattle to be put to work again on the estates.
When their demands were not met, Indian laborers joined forces with the heavily Communist influenced Chinese migrant community to go on strikes, the strongest weapon they had at their disposal. The creation of the All Malayan Rubber Workers' Council, a predominantly Indian trade union, is essential in showing how Indian labor became a threat to the British that they eventually had to retaliate with draconian military suppression through the imposition of the Emergency in 1948.
Archival material from the Malaysian National Archives, The National Archives of the United Kingdom, the Labor History and Archive Study Center at the People's History Museum in the United Kingdom, and the Hull History Center in the United Kingdom, were analyzed to present an alternate narrative as opposed to the colonial narrative, in recognizing and attributing a modern spirit and agency amongst this formerly docile labor diaspora. This work presents the events of 1945-1948 as a time when Indians rejected the colonial perception of them as an inferior people, and challenged the colonial power. However, their efforts were subverted by the British and by doing so, the British ensured the maintenance of a labor diaspora that would continue to be exploited by those who ruled over them.
Spencer, Patricia Annamaria, "Malaya's Indian Tamil Labor Diaspora: Colonial Subversion of Their Quest for Agency and Modernity (1945-1948)" (2013). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 1463.
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