Contributions of the Chettiars in Malaya

Still on the subject of what may be culled from past English newspapers in Malaya, today’s focus will be on the much-maligned Chettiar Community. It may interest readers to know that they were not frowned upon by everyone. Their existence helped considerably to promote the early development of this country and many individuals benefited from the quick loans they could obtain from the Chettair.

They are well known for their charitable work. Their contributions to the funding and maintenance of Hindu Temples in this country are not forgotten. But sadly, there is no published history of the Chettiar in Malaya.

There are 16,000 families with a total number of 50,000 people and being mixed together by strong communal ties they help one another to a remarkable extent. According to R.M.M.L. Letchumanan Chettiar, who addressed the Klang and Coast Rotary Club in early September 1940, there were several sub-divisions of the community. His own group was generally known as the Nattukottai Chettiars. They lived permanently in 75 places in the Ramnad & Pudukottai districts. There were in 1940, about 45000 Nattukottai Chettiar and they were further divided into 9 divisions, each possessing its own temple of the family deity managed by the temple trustee. Among these 9 divisions there are again 14 smaller divisions, both major and minor. Each division claimed a common ancestor (therefore, it can be called a clan). Marriage with a clan is forbidden.

Owing to its proximity to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was the first country to attract the Nattukottai Chettiar. The first business was established in 1730. About 50 years later, a few more enterprising Chettiars crossed over to Burma and established business houses on a small scale. It was not until after 1885, after the 3rd Burmese War when the whole Burma passed inot British hands, that a great impetus was given to the Chettiar to invest heavily in Burma.

In Malaya, the Chettiar began to commence business around the turn of the 19th Century. It was more particularly the growth of Singapore, which encouraged their presence here. By 1930, the capital invested here was Rs500 million (Rs1=RM1). By then they were also present in Indo-China, Siam and Sumatra but the amount invested was comparatively small, in the case of Sumatra it was only Rs.50 million.

The Chettiars came to Malaya primarily as moneylenders. This contributed significantly to the opening up of the country. Chinese entereprenuers in the early days greatly depended upon the Chettiars from whom they would borrow without unnecessary administrative delay. Still the Chettiars had their own system – there were recognised scales of interest and they did not lend money without securing sufficient guarantees. They also carefully enquired into the antecedents financial standing and position of the would be borrowers. However once confidence has been established, money was advanced without even taking promissory notes. However there were also Chettiar who operated as small moneylenders, who "by their usury, drive poor families to ruin". "They lent to any Tom, Dick and Harry provided their severe conditions are accepted."

These constitute "black-sheep" of the community. But strict code of honour was practised and a Chettiar explained to a member of the Straits Legislative Council in 1929 that "ostracism or excommunication from our society befalls anyone caught transgressing that code." But neither the Chettiar himself nor his commercial system was static. In India with the introduction of modern education, to the Chettiar began to assimilate new ideas. They extended their activities in different commercial undertakings such as insurance, shipping and banking.

There was also an observable process of evolution among the Chettiars in Malaya especially after the 1930 Depression. For example until then the Chettiars were essentially moneylenders. The Depression resulted in rubber estates and properties at first mortgaged to them, becoming their own. Indeed probably more than half of the smaller estates which belonged to the Chinese and others in the government and mercantile offices passed on to Chettiar hands. In the difficult times that followed and with a large capital sunk in these estates, there began a period of "marking time" for the the Chettiar. With less capital available, there was less lending. Also, those who were in a position to lend became more cautious.

The Chettiars were forced to look around for other forms of investment. Like their counterparts in India, they also diversified their business activities and many decided to run rubber estates that came into their possession.

Socially, the Chettiar also began to lead a less secluded life. Many brought their wives and families to Malaya. More of the younger generation went to English schools. They took to modern sports and became professionals.

The Chettiar also started to seek representation in official bodies after they began to form the Chettiar Chamber of Commerce in the bigger Malayan Towns; the first was founded in Singapore in 1931.


By Professor Datuk Khoo Kay Kim, Sunday Star , 26th January, 1996


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