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Scene at a typical Malayan rubber estate.

THE imposing laterite monument comes into view the moment I reach the top of a long flight of cobblestoned steps hugging the side a small hill just behind the Lembah Bujang Archeological Museum. Coupled with the cool morning breeze blowing gently from the north, and sounds of a gurgling brook nearby, this place is truly a picture of calm and serenity.

Inching closer towards the well preserved site that bears testimony to one of the earliest contacts between South India and Kedah, I start drawing on knowledge acquired during my museum visit earlier to understand what attracted the ancient visitors to this land more than 2,000 years ago.

Historians believe that during those very early days, trade and the endless pursuit of wealth were the general impetus for ships carrying hundreds of merchants from Banaras, Patna and Bhagalpur to set sail in the direction of the fabled Suvarnabhumi, the land of gold, of which Malaysia was a part. These voyages were no doubt inspired by legends of untold wealth in this Southeast Asian region.

Indian labourers helped to clear debris after the first bombs were dropped by the Japanese during World War II.

The remnants of the early Indian settlements, which number by the thousands and are scattered throughout the southern Kedah plains, are all that’s left of the once-flourishing centres of commercial activity. Their existence also prove that the early traders expanded their reach through gradual expansion of trade and religious beliefs rather than invasion or conquest.

These traditional sea routes between India and Suvarnabhumi were charted long before the arrival of the Europeans, and by the time Indian cultural and religious influences began to penetrate the region as a recognisable force, these sea lanes were already well known to seafarers from nearly every part of India.

Early accounts of how these merchant adventurers braved the perilous journey to bring back rich cargoes of gold, silver and emeralds were nothing short of astounding. Fa Hien, the Chinese traveller who journeyed to India in the 5th century on a wooden ship powered by monsoon winds and the sweat of 200 men, recounted feelings of terror as he ventured into the great unknown. He wrote of great waves crashing onto each other while huge turtles and other monsters of the deep emerged from the bottomless ocean.

Some 800 years later, the great Italian merchant explorer Nicolo Conti described the Indian dhows as huge ships, with capacity of up to a million litres and equipped with five sails and as many masts. The lower portions had triple planks to withstand the strongest of gales and tempests as the vessels made their way towards the hulking shadow of Kedah Peak (Gunung Jerai).

The immigrant traders, having established a home away from home, rapidly acquired a status of their own and built mutually profitable relations with the locals. This status was later reinforced by increasing wealth and power which in turn led to inter-marriages and the growing influence of Hindu ceremonial rites.

Indian ladies sorting through dried rubber sheets.

The Second Wave

Leaving the ancient ruins behind, I start tracing the road going downhill and head off in the direction of Sungai Petani, the largest town in southern Kedah. Along the way, I pass by the little town of Semiling which is strategically located on the banks of the Merbok River. Semiling's intertwined history with the development of the tin mining industry in the state inadvertently calls to mind the next wave of Indian emigration that happened in Southeast Asia during the early 1600s.

That migration phase happened when the British East India Company received its charter and English merchants, particularly those already based in India, were inspired to seek their fortunes in the 'land of gold'. Indian agents and English ships were largely responsible for an intensive expansion of trade with individual kingdoms along the western coast of the Malay Peninsula, bartering Indian products for tin and pepper.

The rapid expansion of trade eventually led to the establishment of Indian mercantile houses in Penang, Melaka and Singapore. The development of these important port cities, which were collectively known as the Straits Settlements by the third decade of the 19th century, was largely aided by the availability of cheap convict labour from India.

The practice of setting up penal colonies began in 1787 with the simultaneous dispatch of convicted felons from Britain to Australia and from India to Bencoolen in Sumatra. Penang started receiving Indian prisoners a year later while Melaka and Singapore became convict stations in 1825. Some of these inmates were political prisoners, a few with high standing in society, but the bulk were thieves and murderers who originated from overcrowded gaols in Bengal, Madras and Bombay.

The colonial administrators governing the Straits Settlements at that time found it economically profitable to engage convicts in tasks that contractors and free labour refused to undertake. The well behaved and hardworking Indian prisoners were given the role of reclaiming swamps, clearing land and rubbish, cutting timber, laying roads through the jungle and erecting buildings and bridges.

By 1841, the Straits Settlements received such a large number of prisoners that it gained the unenviable title of the 'Sydney Convict Settlements of British India'. Of the three Straits Settlement colonies, Singapore quickly emerged as the largest convict centre due to its relentless development rate. Furthermore, the smaller Indian population in Singapore compared to Penang made it harder for the convicts to escape and blend into the existing community there.

The Indian immigrants built temples to practise their religious beliefs.

Although the European community had no objections to receiving Indian convicts, some argued that such labour was inefficient, slow and ill-supervised. Despite these shortcomings, the ruling elite still voted in favour of the Indian prisoners when the idea to transport Chinese convicts from Hong Kong came up for discussion.

Their objection to Chinese prisoners was largely due to the notorious secret society activities in the Straits Settlements. It was feared that the existing problems with the triads would be further compounded when local secret societies helped the convicts to escape and blend into the general community.

The matter was finally put to rest in January 1848 when General Wood, a ship carrying 93 Chinese prisoners, was anchored near the Karimun Islands for the night when the prisoners broke free and murdered the captain, kidnapped three European passengers and forced the crew to set sail for China. The ship eventually ran aground, and Malays from a nearby island rescued the passengers and crew. The incident and a sensational trial led to appeals from the press, grand juries and public to stop transportation of Chinese convicts to the Straits Settlements.

The Indian convicts were treated fairly well in the Straits Settlements. Benefitting from an enlightened penal system, the prisoners were allowed to select their own warders, free to visit town and even worked as domestic help during their spare time. Over time, some managed to build up quite sizeable savings.

Despite the freedom granted to them, very few Indian convicts absconded. Over the years, many of those who were released at the end of their term married local women and settled down. By 1873, the convict labour system ended in the Straits Settlements. Instead of returning to India, many who had savings, went into business and bought property while other sought employment as sub-assistant overseers for public works.

A group of rubber tappers carrying latex.

Assimilation and Contribution

Despite the fact that Indian convicts didn’t make their presence felt in Kedah, the sight of numerous rubber trees lining the sides of the dual carriageway leading into Sungai Petani soon reminds me of Indian migrant contribution in the advancement of the agricultural sector in this country.

Since the 1830s, a large proportion of Indian labour that arrived at the shores of Malaya was absorbed into the sugar and coffee plantations in Negri Sembilan and Selangor. Things began to change by the first decade of the 20th century when both cash crops had to give way to the phenomenal progress of rubber.

The proliferation of estates all over Malaya led to a need for a larger labour force which was fulfilled either by way of the kangani system, in which an employer paid his Tamil foreman to recruit labourers from his home district, or by the illegal coolie trade. Working hours were long and the labourers received very little monetary returns for their backbreaking effort.

Tunku Abdul Rahman visited the archaeological sites at Lembah Bujang regularly in the 1950s.

Things only started to look up after the end of the Second World War. Newly established labour unions pressed for fixed off days so that the labourers could better organise their social life and arrange communal and recreational activities. The green light was finally given in 1964 together with an increase in paid leave to 19 days per year and increased eligibility for sick leave with pay.

Another major problem that used to plague estate labourers was the absence of provision for labourers in old age and retirement. Elderly workers often depended on their children and relatives for aid and if that wasn’t forthcoming, they were forced to seek refuge in Homes for Decrepits. The National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW) addressed this by starting its own insurance scheme to protect against old age, accident and death. Of the interest on the premium, 3 per cent was put into a scholarship fund for the estate workers' children.

A direct aid to education programme was put in place in 1962 which supported a certain number of children through secondary school in many parts of Malaya. A year later, the assistance was extended to include university education. A hostel was also established in Kuala Lumpur to enable children to leave their homes and take advantage of better schooling opportunities in the capital.

Many educated Indians went on to become professionals.

These proactive steps helped open doors to better employment opportunities and a marked increase in Indian professionals. Through the years, many distinguished Indians have made their mark in society by becoming prominent in the legal profession, medicine, journalism and banking.

As my car grinds to a halt in front of a popular banana leaf curry shop located along Jalan Pengkalan, I notice the place filled with quite a number of well-dressed office workers of Indian descent. The community has definitely come a long way after many decades of labour immigration where relative prosperity was earned at the expense of much hard work and suffering.

Through the years, Indians have contributed greatly to help lay the foundations of our country's economic structure and its community services. The plantation industry, government development services and municipal welfare services all made use of Indians at various grades.

Only by acknowledging the invaluable contributions of the Indian community through the ages and getting all Malaysians, regardless of race, language or religion, to work together in unity can we ensure the continued prosperity for this land that we all call home.

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