How do you think a Malaysian child today will answer the question “who is a Chettiar?” Does it matter?
The book Contemporary Malaysian Indians: History, Issues, Challenges & Prospects, includes a chapter titled “The Chettiars Role in the Colonial Economy of Malaya during the British Era.”
The chapter was contributed by Dr Ummadevi Suppiah, a lecturer at Institut Pendidikan Guru (Teachers Training Institute), Kampus Perempuan Melayu (Malay Women’s Campus), Melaka.
Since the book’s purpose is to provide Malaysian policy makers with a set of policy choices to address issues facing the Malaysian Indian community, why does it discuss (1) the Chettiars and (2) the British colonial economy of Malaya?
There was a time when “Chettiar” conjured the image of an Indian man in a veshti (white cloth in lieu of sarong or long pants) carrying a black umbrella.
“Chettiar” also brought to mind shop houses with rows of small wooden boxes on both sides of the entrance. The boxes served as desks. On one side of each box would be a Chettiar sitting cross-legged, and on the other side would be a client, also on the floor.
Clients would be there either to arrange loans for their needs or to make repayments of loans, for Chettiars were money-lenders.
Most people agree that you can’t grow your businesses if you can’t borrow money.
For example, if you wanted to plant rubber in the early 20th century, you had to buy the land; fence it; clear it; buy seedlings; plant and water them; clear weeds and keep animals out for 7 years; pray that the price of rubber will be attractive, and that you’ll be in good health and the country will be at peace when the trees mature; tap the rubber, collect it, transport it, and so on.
How could you do any of that without a large sum of money? No British banker would lend you money, because the risk of him losing his money was too high.
This is where the Chettiars came in. Chettiars are from a geographic area in Tamil Nadu called Chettinad. They come from a land where a person’s occupation was determined by his or her caste. They can trace their lineage through the centuries. They began as salt merchants and evolved into money-lenders – and now are in every profession.
They were endogamous, which means they insisted that Chettiars must marry only Chettiars if they wished to continue enjoying the benefits of caste membership.
What were the benefits? I’ll just list three benefits for Chettiars who wished to engage in money-lending.
First, they could tap into established banking practices, for example bills of exchange, like our cheques today. Through the Chettiar network of ‘agents,’ people could transfer money without transporting cash over the oceans.
Second, they could work with standard rates of interest which they established – for them to borrow from each other as well as for them to lend to clients.
Third, they could operate out of Chettiar ‘shops’ in major towns. They looked out for each other, established temples and did some social work.
Chettiars took risks the British banks wouldn’t take. Clients who borrowed wisely from them prospered; those who borrowed unwisely or were victims of the recession lost what they pledged as collateral.
One result of the depression in the 1930s was that many Chettiars in Malaya became owners of rubber estates which clients had pledged to them as security for loans.
Because so many Malays defaulted on their loans, in 1933 the government amended the Malay Reservations Enactment in order to prevent Chettiars from continuing to gain Malay Reserve Land through defaults.
Chettiars also financed rice paddies in Burma and tea plantations in Ceylon. Ultimately, due to changes in government policy, their businesses there failed, just as in Malaya.
Though the public are more likely to name “Brahmin” and “Pariah” as Indian castes, it was Chettiars who had the biggest impact in the history of development in Malaysia.
Why does that matter? It matters because Chettiars no longer play a part in the economy of Malaysia – even the “Chettinad” restaurants aren’t owned by them. They reaped the results of their decision to opt out of wider society and the political process – though the third president (1950-51) of the Malaysian Indian Congress was a Chettiar.
Dr Ummadevi tells us that in 1929, R Jumabhoy, the Indian-Muslim president of the Indian Association of Singapore, said:
“The Chettiar community . . . are a self-contained and secluded lot. [They] should abandon their present silence on Indian matters and . . . assist in building up the community of which they are an integral part.”
Dr Ummadevi tells us that earlier in the same year, Sir Annamalai Chettiar, a leading figure in India, had expressed the same thoughts.
Policy choices must be informed by history. Our history includes caste. What are Malaysian children – in Tamil schools and in other schools – taught about caste?