South Asians in Southeast Asia



There is a fairly large Indian and Pakistani population in Southeast Asia, primarily in Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, and Singapore. The great majority of these people were, and still are, plantation laborers, though a sizable minority are traders, and today many may be found in the urban professions of law, medicine, education, and administration. In 1947, in undivided Malaya (which then included Singapore), there were a total of 545,385 people of South Indian origin and a further total of 54,231 of North Indian or Pakistani origin. Today there are an estimated 1,466,000 people of Indian origin in Malaysia (excluding those of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin). Although these immigrants came from many parts of South Asia, and included Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and Christians, they were seen by most Malays as falling into two categories, "Bengalis" or North Indians, and "Klings" (possibly meaning Kalingas) or South Indians. In Myanmar the demographic picture is less clear. By about 1956 there were some 800,000 Indians and Pakistanis there, of whom about 100,000 were Pakistanis from what later became Bangladesh; the latter were concentrated in the area of Arakan. (Recent figures on the Indians in Myanmar are unobtainable.)

The main group of Indian immigrants in Malaysia and Singapore is the Tamils, of whom there were, in 1947, a total of 460,095 in undivided Malaya. Today there are approximately 1,260,000 Tamils in Malaysia, and many thousands more in Singapore. Most came from South India, some from Sri Lanka, during the past century, primarily to work as plantation laborers. There are, however, a number of Tamils in modern, urban professions. There were formerly many Tamils in Myanmar, especially members of the Nadukottai Chetti money-lending caste, who used to be major landowners in the Irrawaddy Delta.

Also scattered throughout Malaysia and Singapore, though fewer in number than the Tamils, are the Telugus, Pathans, Malayalis, Punjabis, and Sikhs. These groups together currently number about 145,000 in Malaysia alone. A few (perhaps 20,000) Bengalis also live in Myanmar, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Other countries of Southeast Asia that include populations of Indian or Pakistani origin are Thailand (about 50,000), Cambodia (about 200), Vietnam (about 6,000), Indonesia (about 40,000), and the Philippines (about 1,300). These figures relate to an estimate made in 1956, when Malaysia included about 696,000 and Singapore a further 91,000 Indians or Pakistanis.

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