Well known as a leader of the Tamil community and founder of the Tamil Murasu newspaper, G. Sarangapany was a monumental man of great influence and respect. His leadership and vision precipitated positive change for many since the 1930s.
Setting Foot in Singapore
21-year-old Indian immigrant Thamizhavel Govindasamy Sarangapany (1903-1974) first set foot on Singapore soil in 1924. Home was a few thousand miles away in Thiruvarur, Tamil Nadu, but for the highly educated young man who was bilingual in Tamil and English, Singapore was his future. He was tall and attractive with wavy hair that he wore slicked back neatly behind his ears, and was never seen in anything else other than his traditional Indian garb of a white dhoti and jippa (an ankle length wrap and a long sleeved shirt) paired with leather sandals.
Photograph of the late G. Sarangapany. Image Copyright: National Heritage Board
Sarangapany soon settled down and secured a job, making a living as an accountant. He was one of the select few who was educated, compared to the rest of the Tamil Indians who had made their way to Singapore; most of them were illiterate and had no choice but to do backbreaking work as coolies. As more and more Indians began to arrive on the islands’ shores, Sarangapany sought to reform them. Inspired by celebrated Tamil Nadu social reformer Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, he spearheaded a campaign and set up the Tamil Reform Association in 1930 to educate the Indian hoi polloi to rid the Indian community of its social problems of a strong belief in superstition, the caste system, and an addiction to toddy – a homemade concoction similar to that of whiskey.
Separately, Sarangapany, also affectionately known as Kosa amongst the Tamil community in Singapore, worked to distribute magazines and newspapers for the masses. He set up Munnetram (translation: Progress) in 1929, and Seerthirutham (translation: Reform) in 1939. In 1935, he established the Tamil Murasu, a newspaper for Tamil readers. To keep it affordable for the poor, he sold each copy for only a cent. The Tamil Murasu went on to become wholly owned by Singapore Press Holdings in 2004. Later in 1940, he launched an English daily called The Indian Daily Mail. Utilising the Tamil Murasu to rally the Tamil community, he explained the benefits of and stake in becoming a Singaporean to the immigrants.
Portrait of the late Mr G. Sarangapany. Image Copyright: National Heritage Board
Sarangapany was also a strong proponent of education. In 1949, he worked tirelessly to unify a cluster of poorly run Tamil schools under one umbrella body called the Tamil Education Society. By starting a weekly supplement for students and encouraging them to write and contribute poems, essays, and short stories, Sarangapany inadvertently helped to lay the foundation for the development of Tamil literature in Singapore.
Due to the concerted efforts of his and his colleagues’, Tamil also became a legally taught language in educational institutions in Singapore and Malaysia. Saraganpany also played a key role in the Tamil language joining the ranks of the other official languages of Singapore.
Umar Pulavar Tamil School Management Committee, 1949 - 1950. The late G. Sarangapany is on the first row, second from the left. Image Copyright: National Heritage Board
At the same time, social reformist Sarangapany continued his quest to abolish social ills. To deter the perpetuation of toxic Indian social norms of caste, he personally conducted the weddings of couples from different castes. Sarangapany understood the need to create a casteless society and sought to propagate it among the immigrant Indians. Despite facing resistance, he continued fighting for change, dedicating more than 50 years of his life championing for progress for the sake of poorly educated immigrant Indians.
In 1937, at the age of 34, he married a 19-year-old Lim Boon Neo, a Chinese Peranakan woman. Although there was a 15-year age difference between them, their unusual love story withstood the test of time and society’s disapproval.
G. Sarangapany and wife, Lim Boon Neo. Image Copyright: National Heritage Board
Family portrait of G. Sarangapany, wife, and children. Image Copyright: National Heritage Board
The couple had four sons and two daughters, and today have seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
In 1957, Kosa took the Singapore Citizenship Oath and became an official Singapore citizen. Till his death in 1974, he pursued his goal of getting immigrants to lay down roots here. When he passed away in March 1974, tributes were paid to him in Tamil Nadu, Malaysia and Singapore. Many, including decorated ministers, attended the funeral service of an indefatigable pioneer who helped his fellow Indians with no expectation of personal gain, and was the founder, publisher, and editor of the Tamil Murasu.