What is the Death Railway? How many Malayans were engaged in building it? How did they become participants in the project? What is their impact on our nation?
One of the contributors to Contemporary Malaysian Indians which I reviewed earlier, is Dr Pushpavalli A Rengasamey, a lecturer in the Institute of Teacher Education (Ilmu Khas) in Kuala Lumpur. Her contribution is titled “Historical Development of the South Indian Labour Fund, 1907-1999.”
Pushpa says “Indian labourers from Malaya were recruited to work on the Japanese Siam-Burma railway which is often called “The Railway of Death.” Thousands perished under this project…between 1942-43,…75,000 Indian labourers were brought to work in the “Death Railway” construction. From this total, 45,000 labourers were reported to have died in Siam and their families in Malaya were left without any care.”
Pushpa adds that the scholar P H Kratoska (author of The Japanese Occupation of Malaya: A Social and Economic History; 1997) “reports a drop in the Indian population from 744,202 in 1941 to 599,616 in 1947, more than 19%.”
Before reading Pushpa, all I knew of the death railway was what I’d seen in the 1957 movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” I thought all the death railway labourers were prisoners of war.
After reading Pushpa, I did some research. I learned that over 100,000 Malayans had been forced to work on the Death Railway. They were mostly Tamil labourers.
Many of them were in Malaya thanks to the “South Indian Labour Fund” which was the eventual name of an entity formed in 1907 with the name “Tamil Immigration Fund.”
The Fund, formed by the government to help overcome labour shortages in Malaya, marked the beginning of 31 years of “assisted migration” from India to Malaya.
Pushpa says “the objective of the fund was to spread out the cost of recruitment and subsequent repatriation to all employers of Indian labourers. Employers by law had to pay assessment calculated on the number of days of work done in each quarter by Indian labourers on their property. The fund was managed by a statutory body called the Immigration Committee.”
The fund was intended to focus on “recruiting Indian labourers on an organized basis from South India to Malaya and providing welfare services to Indian labourers.”
The main role of the Fund was to “defray cost of train fares of Indian emigrants and their dependants from their villages to the camps at Madras and Nagapatnam; feeding and medical attention of emigrants and their dependants awaiting shipment at the Indian camps; steamship passages from India to Malaya; quarantine charges in Malaya; transport charges from ports to places of employment and payment of food and transport expenses to repatriates and their dependents from ports of disembarkation to their homes and villages in India” (citing Majouribanks & Marakkayar, 1917).
Pushpa notes that “in 1938 the Government of India forbade the emigration of unskilled Indian labourers to become rubber tappers to (sic) Malaya…[by] 1941, the collection of assessment ended.”
Why was the ban imposed?
In 1938 the United Planting Association of Malaya (UPAM) proposed to reduce rubber tappers’ wages from 50 to 40 cents per day. Knowing this would further worsen the lot of Indian labourers in Malaya, the Central Indian Association of Malaya got the Government of India to impose the ban.
Despite “welfare” appearing in the list of goals of the Fund, Indian labourers suffered so much hardship that in 1938 the Government of India banned further emigration.
When the British Government abandoned Malaya during WWII, the Indian labourers lost even their meagre pay. They foraged for food, suffered ill-health and dressed in rags.
When the Japanese arrived, they tried to put Indian labourers back to work to produce the rubber needed for the war effort. They also needed labour for the death railway.
The Indian labourers had to “choose” between three options: join the “Indian National Army” (INA, led by Subhash Chandra Bose) which collaborated with the Japanese, go to Siam and work on the death railway or join the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA).
About 45,000 Malayan Indians died during the construction of the Death Railway. They left widows and orphans in the estates. None received welfare support from the Fund.
Malayan Indians were politicised by their experiences before, during and after the Japanese occupation.
The hardship they endured made them eager for democracy – an eagerness whose seeds had been planted by news of political agitation for independence in India. They would soon form unions, agitate for labour rights and face the wrath of the Brits.
Where are the monuments to civilian Malayans whose lives were broken during the war? How often are they remembered? How have they impacted the character of our nation?
“History offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives.” (Peter N Stearns)