Tuesday, June 16, 2015

FMS Railway Workers on Strike - 16th July 1913 - The Earliest Record of Indian Retaliation in Malaya

I am was curious to find out when was the earliest strike took place among Indian workers. I was sure at one point that retaliation among Indians would have been taken place in a plantation. But this was proven to be wrong.

One of the earliest records of Indians retaliating in strike in Malaya can be found in news articles published in The Straits Times. The newspaper dated 17th July 1913, reported that a group of 80 Tamils employed as fireman (the one who shovels coal into burning chamber and checks the boilers) by Federated Malay States Railways staged a strike for they were unhappy with the menial and degrading tasks assigned to them. Even though, the Malay Mail (which initially reported the workers grievances) was not able to find out the root cause of the trouble, some sources claimed wages and uniform could be two of the major grievances.

Fireman (source: www.usgennet.org)
Another sources claim that these menial tasks referred to tasks that required cleaning.  

The railway authority claimed that the strike was frivolous. The authority also claimed that the strike was been induced by an agitator.

The strike effected the train scheduled to Singapore and Penang. The service to Seremban had been suspended.

The authority had announced that they will be filling up these gaps left by the strikers with fresh men as a lesson for staging strikes.

I am puzzled to understand the logic behind this. Indians who were brought to Malaya were docile in nature, obedient with a slave mentality. Referring to the Klang Strikes 1941, the whole phenomena of retaliation occurred because there were elements of radicalism of Tamil educationists, Indian nationalist and awareness of suppression. The elements proven to be a dangerous mixture by the British.

But, who were these Tamils who retaliated almost three decades much earlier to the Klang unrest? Why they were different that the earlier migrated Tamils?  

Answers to these questions are lies in the recruitment of Tamils by the British to build and operate railways in Malaya. To run the railway network effectively and efficiently, the British needed a labour force who could think, make decisions and work independently with minimum supervisions. 

At that time, the British government in India was known for operating a huge network of railways in South India. The Malayan British government too ambitious to implement the same system in Malaya especially in transporting tins and rubber to be exported to Europe via Part Swettenham and Singapore. The Malayan British recruited these Tamils who had experience in serving the Indian Railways, including many technical and administrative officers. Thus, Malaya saw a different breed of Tamil migration.  The railways sector in Malaya saw domination of Tamils to the extend the work instructions were given in Tamil language and signboard were designed in Tamil language .          

Sign board with Tamil in middle 

Notice the sizes of the fonts - Tamil shows domination among Bahasa and Mandarin 

The Straits Times 17th July 1913


  1. I just read ur latest article. Its interesting. Catch up with you later.Mr.Banu gave me this link.Thank You.

  2. Very efficiently written information. It will be beneficial to anybody who utilizes it, including me. Keep up the good work. For sure i will check out more posts. This site seems to get a good amount of visitors. rrb naukri


Jananayagam - 5th May 1945 - Ganapathy's Short History

Jananayagam (Democracy) published on the 5th May 1949 carried the life story of Ganapathy on its first page - "Thukkilidapatta Ganapath...