Malaya’s Ceylonese Connection

By Preveena Balakrishnan

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Group photo of Jaffna Tamils in Ipoh, 1948.

The relationship between Malaya and Ceylon was established long before East India Company days through trade in spices, tin, elephants and peacocks.

When exactly the Ceylonese first came to Malaya will probably remain unknown, as the British categorised them within the general Indian population. Formally, though, Sri Lankans, referred to as Ceylonese, had been settling in Malaya since the nineteenth century.1 They, together with the Indians, formed an important human resource for the British Crown Colonies.

The Ceylonese – comprising Tamils, Sinhalese, Eurasians, Burghers and Ceylonese Malays – settled largely in the Straits Settlements. In the early days of British Malaya, the low literacy rate of the local population meant that only a few could work in government services and administration, and this resulted in Malaya appealing to the Ceylonese government for crucial manpower.

Map of Ceylon.
Ceylonese Malays. Sri Lanka still has a sizeable Malay community.

The first migrants to Malaya after 1867 mostly worked in the clerical services and consisted of Ceylon Tamils. They were the most literate among the various Indian groups – 70% of them could read and write English.2 They played an important role in developing the finest roads and railway tracks in Malaya.

Rise of the Railway

Between 1815 and 1914, Malaya witnessed an enormous expansion in world trade, owing much to high international demand for tin. The discovery of large tin deposits in Perak and Selangor3 led to rivalry between the European powers for control of the tin deposits in Malaya, as well as intense competition among Chinese secret societies intersected with political strife within the Malay ruling elite.

Trade was disrupted as tensions escalated into widespread unrest in the decade leading up to the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874. With this, the British moved in thoroughly to control the unrest in the tin-producing areas.

After the signing of the treaty, the British embarked on the construction of railways and government offices to develop the country and to increase revenue. The railway system in Malaya was initially built to service the tin mining industry, particularly to carry tin ore from Perak and Selangor to the coast.

The first railway line was built from Taiping, the mining centre of Larut, to Port Weld – eight miles away by the shores of the Larut River. Construction on the railway began in 1882 but was halted due to shortage of labour.

The project was saved by the Ceylonese government, which lent two divisions of Ceylon Pioneers Corps at the request of the Strait Settlements government on behalf of the Perak government. They sent in a 200-strong group consisting of assistant engineers, overseers, clerks, dressers, surveyors and road artisans who had worked on the Nawalapitiya and Nanu Oya railways in Ceylon.

Construction of the railway faced engineering difficulties such as the cutting and blasting of tough rock, and the building of retaining walls as well as culverts on a scale that was never before attempted in Malaya. The men had to trudge through thick virgin jungle, exposing them to malaria and beri-beri, which took a heavy toll on their numbers – scurvy and dysentery not excluded.

The Taiping-Port Weld railway line was opened a mere three years later, in June 1885. In 1886 a second railway was built, measuring 22 miles long and connecting Kuala Lumpur with Bukit Kuda, Klang via Connaught Bridge. This was also the work of the Ceylon Pioneers Corps.


The racial composition of the railway workforce consisted mostly of Tamils – largely Ceylonese – with one-fifth Chinese and one-tenth Malays. Such a racial makeup remained the norm for much of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century – a pattern found in all railway stations from Tank Road in Singapore to Padang Besar at the Kedah-Siamese border; practically all the station masters and booking clerks working at the various Malayan railway stations were Ceylonese Tamils.

The Ceylonese played an important role in developing Malaya's roads and railway tracks.
Sri Lanka Buddhist Temple, Sentul, KL.

The children of the railway employees were given preference when it came to railway appointment. Arrangements were also made with institutions in Jaffna, such as St John’s College, to recruit youths for employment in Malaya.

The railways were always headed by a trained British or Australian general manager; the Tamil Ceylonese held positions such as traffic inspector, pay master, station master, booking clerk, overseer, storekeeper, telegraph clerk, railway dresser and draughtsman.

As the Ceylonese made excellent accountants, the accounts departments were mainly staffed by Jaffna clerks to deal with the whole range of railways accounts, involving revenue and expenditure, station accounting, as well as rendering railway statistics.

The traffic men were responsible for train punctuality; trains were regulated using a hand tablet system. Some station masters who had been posted to certain locations for a long time acquired appellations to their names of their respective places, such as Serendah Canagasabai, Port Weld Sabapathy, Sungai Besi Shanugam and Port Swettenham Thambipillai.

The existence of Sinna Yalpanam, or “Little Jaffna” in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur; Jalan Ceylon in Penang; and Ceylon Road in Singapore is a reflection of significant Ceylonese presence in these places. They did not only build the first railways in Malaya; they also made distinctive contributions towards the country’s modernisation and growth. Their loyalty and efficient services towards laying the foundations of the country deserves wider recognition – they are, after all, part of the force that built Malaysia.


1“Indian” was used to denote all persons of Indian origins, including Pakistanis and Ceylon Tamils.
2Jaffna was under Portuguese rule from 1620; later, in 1685, it came under Dutch rule. The British took over control in 1795. It was only from 1850 onwards that the British began to develop Jaffna and introduce English education, which became very popular with the Tamils. Soon, bilingual schools (English and Tamil) began to sprout all over Jaffna, and it is said that within the radius of a mile there were to be found several colleges and schools for boys and girls in the town itself. These colleges and schools were soon to become the main source of English language-trained manpower needed for the development of Ceylon and Malaya.
3Large tin deposits were discovered in Larut in Perak and in the valleys of Klang River and at Sungei Ujong.

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  •, visited January 25, 2019
  •, visited January 6, 2018
  •, visited January 6, 2018
  •, visited January 6, 2018
Preveena Balakrishnan

specialises in ethnoscapes and intangible cultural heritage valuations.