02 Oct 2016: The Chettiar Role in Malaysia’s Economic History

This meticulously researched book represents a noteworthy contribution to our understanding of the ’subaltern’ economy of Malaysia during the colonial period and to our appreciation of the changing role of the Chettiar in modern times. ‒ Barbara Watson Andaya, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Hawai’i

chettiars-source-1-bp-blogspot-comOur featured book, The Chettiar Role in Malaysia’s Economic History, provides a fascinating study on how, since the formation of the Federated Malay States in 1896 until independence, the Chettiars emerged as one of the major financiers in helping the Malays, Chinese and Indians to progress in the economic sector.

Many Malaysians remember a time when ‘Chettiar’ conjured the image of an Indian man in a white cotton veshti carrying a black umbrella. But what role did the Chettiar community play in the country’s history? Chettiar (or ‘chetty’ as some locals call them) was the title given to an indigenous money lender, who provided financial assistance to individuals in various trades and professions. Few are aware of the fact that the Chettiars played a crucial role in the economic development of Malaya, particularly when the British failed to provide sufficient financial aid to local and foreign capitalists to develop the economic infrastructure and undertake commercial economic activities such as rubber and tin mining. “Chettiars,” says author Ummadevi Suppiah, “took risks the British banks wouldn’t take.” Others go so far as to claim that Chettiars were the bankers before there were banks!

Beginning with the origins of the Chettiar community in Malaysia, from the 15th century to Malayan independence, the seven chapters also cover a wide array of research themes, ranging from the scope and operation of money lending activities, to the contributions made to economic activities peculiar to different communities. The book concludes with a discussion on what lies ahead for the Chettiar community as they gradually move away from money lending to other vocations like accounting, teaching and medicine.

The Chettiar Role in Malaysia’s Economic History is based on a doctoral thesis entitled ‘The Money lending Activity of the Chettiars in Malaya, 1896-1957’ written in Malay by Dr Ummadevi Suppiah of the History Department, University of Malaya, under the supervision of Dr Sivachandralingam Sundara Raja.