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THE CHILLI-PADI COMMUNITY -A Malayalee's musings and a community in revival mode
By P N Balji


A cruel joke about the Malayalee community that crops up regularly at dinner parties goes something like this: When you see a Malayalee and a snake, strike the Malayalee first.

At one time, the joke was so prevalent that when Mr Devan Nair, a Malayalee, visited the Zoo, his PA requested the media not use a picture of the former President near the snake enclosure.

This don't-trust-the-Malayalee joke is an unfair indictment on a community that has punched above its weight in Singapore. The top man at Singapore's central bank is a Malayalee. The top editors of the two leading English newspapers are Malayalees. You will find them doing good work in business, medicine, teaching, research and banking.

Their number is a drop in the Singapore ocean. Among a population of 5 million, they make up just about 35,000.

 So what makes them stand out?

 It goes back to the DNA that originated in Kerala, a narrow strip of land in the south-west of India. A state known for its vibrant politics, obsession with education, small size and an international outlook forced upon its population.

 Except for the politics, the modern-day Malayalee Singaporean is a microcosm of his ancestors in Kerala. Of the other three factors, education stands out when talk turns to this group.

 From early days, education was embedded in the Malayalee household in Singapore. If I look back at my childhood days, the herculean efforts my mother took to educate my brother and I are stuff that make powerful movies. She would do anything, practically anything, to make sure the home environment was peaceful and conducive and the money was somehow found to send us for tuition.

 I remember asking her many years later why she was so obsessed with educating the two boys. I am glad I asked her that question because her response was very illuminating. "That was the only way to take us out of  our wretched life."

 The Malayalee society is very matriarchal, and that might explain the community's ability to make its presence felt. The women rule the roost at home, even though they don't display this power on their sarees. A visitor to the Malayalee home is likely to go away with the the impression that, like in all Asian households, the men call the shots. But it is the women who supply the bullets.

 This innocuous influence has a big impact on how the children are brought up and how they eventually turn out.

 The fathers provide a different kind of influence. Generally, they help to expand the children's minds with their knowledge of world affairs, culture, drama, movies.

 I still remember the profound influence my father had on me as he wrote and recited poems, became an active trade union official, acted in dramas, took me to watch films and engaged me in endless discussions on the deeper meanings of those movies.

 The Malayalees have an opinion on nearly everything under the sun. And they are not afraid to articulate them publicly.

 I grew up in the old Naval Base in Sembawang, once celebrated as the Kochu Keralam (mini Kerala). It was the hotbed of political movements, vibrant cultural and entertainment activities and language emersions.

 Watching Malayalam movies while growing up in the backwaters of Singapore became a cherished activity. The movies explored themes of revolutions, extra marital affairs and contrarian values with a sharp artistic eye borrowed from the likes of Satyajit Ray.

 This tradition, though being undermined by modern cinema now, continues to display itself in at least a few movies every year.

 As Malayalees here became more and more Singaporean in oulook and thinking, there was a worry that the bedrock of values and culture will be lost. But the immigration of people from Kerala is beginning to ease that concern.

 Their presence in cultural activities and life in general here is beginning to see a revival of things Malayalee. Associations like the Singapore Malayalee Association are beginning to show a new spring in their step, the spoken language is seeing a mini revival and the entertainment scene is getting a boost.

 Those older Malayalees who worried about their culture, values and spirit being blown away by the winds of change can rest somewhat reassured.

 Like the chilli-padi, the community is keeping its fiery punch alive and kicking.
 -P N Balji is a media consultant