First Advisor

Sharon A. Carstens

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Anthropology






Malayalis (Indic people) -- Singapore -- Ethnic identity, Malayalis (Indic people) -- Race identity -- Singapore



Physical Description

1 online resource (2, iv, 77 p.)


This thesis is an ethnographic examination of the significance of Malayalee ethnicity in Singapore. Ethnic identity is important in the daily lives of Singaporeans, due in part to the government-directed public focus in Singapore on the ideal of multiculturalism through which it is asserted that to be Singaporean, one must be, in the main, Chinese, Malay, or Indian. But other identities, such as Malayalee, a subset of the larger category "Indian", have not decreased in importance. They, in fact, remain important in identifying what kind of Chinese, Malay, or Indian a person is, as Chinese, Malay, or Indian identifies what kind of Singaporean someone is. In the thesis I focus on a core contradiction in Singapore Malayalee culture. In Singapore it is perceived as very important to know one's 'mother tongue' in order to know one's culture and heritage. But Malayalees growing up in Singapore have not had much chance to learn their language, Malayalam, nor have they had much practical use for it outside of the home. Therefore, many Singapore Malayalees feel a sense of alienation from Malayalee culture. Many feel they know little about their own culture because they do not speak their own language. With the emphasis on multiculturalism the sense of a distinctive Malayalee culture will remain in Singapore, as will the sense of alienation from it felt by many Malayalees. In the analysis practice theory and the concept of habitus are used to identify how people's actions have been affected by particular historical circumstances, and how their actions have, in turn, structured the form of Malayalee ethnicity in Singapore today. It is asserted that practice theory gives a much better explanation of Singapore Malayalee ethnicity than primordialist or instrumentalist theories. There have been only five previous studies of Singapore Malayalees, all Bachelor's Honors theses at the National University of Singapore. This study contributes, therefore, to a sparse literature.


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