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HISTORY: TOLD AS IT IS | Malaysia’s economic history is easily constrained to the notion that it owed principally to Chinese entrepreneurship and financial networks, capital inflows by Europeans, colonial economic policies, and South Indian labour, particularly Tamil labour. These elements are undeniable, but they do not, and are far from capable of, representing the entire story.

Many historically marginalised economic players have yet to be properly recognised. The Chettiar business class is one such actor. They were a principal money-lending business community, which was a major financial source for practically the entire social hierarchy of colonial Malaya in the 19th and pre-World War II 20th century.

The Chettiars who established themselves in Malaya were the Tamil-speaking merchant caste from the Ramnad and Pudukkottai regions of former Tamil Nadu (formerly Madras Presidency under the British), collectively known as the Chettinad region.

Historically, the Chettiars arose as a mercantile elite in their own right during the reigns of the first century south Indian kingdoms of India, especially the Cholas (100 to 1200 A.D.), Pandhya (200 to 1200 A.D.), and Vijayanagar (200 to 1200 A.D/1300 to 1500 A.D.). Their money-lending activities, in particular, most likely began in the 16th or 17th centuries, during the Portuguese era or the East India Company’s reign in India.

Under constraining conditions of the subsequent British colonial rule, the Chettiars were pushed to revive, expand, and even combine their money lending, trading and banking businesses in Madras Presidency. Due to their struggle to compete with Western corporate entities and other Indian rivals, as well as the introduction of rigorous colonial rules to regulate their activities in Madras, the Chettiars had no choice but to expand their base to the new British colonies in Southeast Asia, including Malaya, Burma and Indo-China.

In Malaya, the laissez-faire policy of the British colonial administration permitted the Chettiars to act as money lenders...

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