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A champion of Tamil causes who raised profile of Indians here

G. Sarangapany unified Tamils in S'pore at a time when their loyalty was to India and drove home the message that Indians must make S'pore their new home. -ST
M Nirmala

Mon, Feb 11, 2013
The Straits Times

He was an indefatigable pioneer Indian community leader who championed the cause of Tamil education and devoted more than 50 years of his life to fighting for social reform among the poorly educated immigrant Indians in Singapore.

The late Govindasamy Sarangapany was a Tamil reformist and a staunch Singaporean whose work in the social and literary fields started in the 1920s.

He took the Singapore citizenship oath in 1957. Until his death in 1974, he diligently pursued his goal of getting immigrant Indians to sink their roots here.

His legacy is kept alive through a Tamil newspaper, an education trust fund, a society and many books. Had he been still alive, he would have turned 110 this year. In a ceremony befitting his status in Tamil society, two books chronicling his life and achievements were launched on Jan 26.

Singapore's former President, Mr S R Nathan, was the chief guest at the evening's three-hour programme at Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre. More than 250 guests attended the event.

"He pushed the Tamils vigorously to acquire education and Singapore citizenship, personally going around with application forms for people to fill up and apply... Although he championed Tamil language, he did not seek to exclude other Indian languages from being used in Indian gatherings," Mr Nathan writes in the event's souvenir magazine.

The two books were written by a father and son. The one in Tamil, titled About Thamizhavel, was written by textile merchant M. Elias.

His son, Mr Irshath Mohamed, a National University of Singapore undergraduate, surprised the audience when his book in English, The Legacy Of G. Sarangapany, was brought out.

Former MP R. Ravindran stressed the need for a book in English. He felt that the leader's work should be understood by non- Tamils, a younger group of Singaporeans and the growing number of expatriate Indians here.

Book sales after the launch were brisk as Mr Nathan stood patiently on stage for more than half an hour, giving out books and receiving donations from guests. A total of $32,565 was raised for Sinda, the Singapore Indian self-help group, and Semmozhi, a Singapore literature magazine.

Reforming Tamils

Who was Mr Sarangapany and why is his work for language and community still remembered? Born in Thiruvarur in South India in 1903, the young bilingual- educated youth came to Singapore in 1924. There was an aura about the tall and handsome man whose wavy, slicked-back hair fell below his ears.

He wore traditional Indian clothes - a white dhoti, the long wrap worn around the waist, a pristine white juppa, a long, loose sleeved shirt, and a pair of Indian leather sandals.

Only once did he ditch this attire. It was during the Japanese Occupation, when he joined the Indian National Army, led by Mr Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian revolutionary leader who fought against the British for an independent India. Mr Sarangapany donned the army's khaki-coloured uniform and traded his pen for a rifle.

Mr Sarangapany worked as an accountant in Market Street. He belonged to a small group of educated elite. The majority were illiterate Tamils who slogged for 12 cents a day as coolies.

Malaya then was seeing the largest average influx of Indian labour. Between 1911 and 1920, more than 90,000 Indians arrived, more than double the figure from 1901 to 1910.

Mr Sarangapany set out to reform this group, drawing inspiration from Mr Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, a great social reformer in Tamil Nadu in India. In Singapore, Mr Sarangapany spearheaded a campaign to educate the masses, rid Indian society of its social ills of addiction to toddy - the poor man's whisky - a strong belief in superstition and the caste system.

He set up the magazines Munnetram (Progress, in 1929) and Seerthirutham (Reform, in 1939). His most significant achievement was to start a newspaper, Tamil Murasu, on July 6, 1935. To put the paper in the hands of the poor, he sold it at one cent a copy.

To reach non-Tamils, he launched an English daily, The Indian Daily Mail, in 1940. In 2004, Tamil Murasu became wholly owned by Singapore Press Holdings.

He unified a cluster of poorly run Tamil schools in 1949 under one umbrella body, the Tamil Education Society. In Tamil Murasu, he started a weekly supplement for students, motivating them to write poems, essays and short stories.

In this way, he helped to lay the foundation for the development of Tamil literature in Singapore.

The private man HE ALSO set up the Tamils Reform Association in 1930 to eradicate the community's social problems.

He personally conducted some Hindu weddings, minus the Sanskrit-speaking and Hindu priests, at which couples from different castes exchanged vows.

These marriages were considered taboo by many Indians.

With dogged perseverance, he kept the reform movement going. Some labelled the association atheist.

At one meeting, some participants disrupted proceedings by throwing chilli powder.

His own marriage encapsulated the ethos of the man. It was an unusual love story as he married a Chinese Peranakan woman, Lim Boon Neo, in 1937.

She was 19, and he was 15 years older. They both spoke English and Malay.

The couple had six children and there are now seven grandchildren and five great-grand children.

One of his two grandsons at the book launch, Dr Baskaran Surendran, 45, said: "So many people still remember him and the seeds he had planted will continue to help the community grow."

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