Malaysian Tamils & Japanese Death Railway – A Heartbreaking Sad Story

Malaysia is a beautiful country known for its multiracial citizens living together in harmony. But how did Tamils from South India Tamil Nadu end up in Malaya and become an important part in forming Malaysia?

The ill-fated story of ‘the railway of death’ may have been forgotten by many – or not even known by some younger Malaysians. But as Malaysians, we need to learn what happened and how our ancestors contributed to the nation we live in today!


The peaceful life we enjoy today would not be possible without the immense sacrifice of our forefathers; our ancestors who lost their lives during the British-Japanese govern. In 1907, the British government formed the ‘Tamil Immigration Fund’, which was later replaced by ‘South Indian Labour Fund’, to overcome the labour shortages in Malaya, especially in plantations. The formation of this fund marked the beginning of 31 years of assisted migration from India to Malaya, and was managed by a statutory body known as the ‘Immigration Committee’. The objective of the body was to recruit labourers from India in stages and manage their welfare in Malaya.

The committee was also in charge of managing the train trips of labourers and their dependents from their villages to camps in Madras and Nagapatinam; provide food and medical treatment while awaiting ships; quarantine charges upon arrival in Malaya; transport charges within Malaya and so on.

In 1938, the United Planting Association of Malaya (UPAM) wanted to reduce rubber tappers’ wages from 50 cents a day to 40 cents, which caused the Government of India to ban the emigration of unskilled labourers to Malaya.


Despite having the funds in place to manage their welfare, the labourers who migrated to Malaya were struggling. But their suffering got even worse when the British abandoned Malaya during World War II (WW11). The labourers lost even that meagre pay. They were left with no money, proper clothing, medical supplies and even struggled to get a decent meal. They were dressed in rags and suffered ill-health.


When the Japanese conquered Malaya during WWII, Tamils had three options:

  1. Join the Indian National Army, to fight alongside the Japanese
  2. Work on the death railway in Siam (Thailand)
  3. Join the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), to fight against the Japanese


Over 300,000 labourers were forced to work on the construction of the Siam-Burma Railway, known to many as the Death Railway, under Japanese soldiers who were known to be very cruel and inhuman. The construction of the 415km Thai-Burma Death Railway started in June 1942 and lasted up to October 1943. The Japanese brought Malayan Tamils from estates, war prisoners, romusha (Javanese labourers), Burmese, Thailand labourers and also Malays mostly from state of Kelantan and Terengganu to work on the railway construction – some were deceived into taking up the job on empty promises of high pay while others were forced into it.

In a 2016 interview with R.AGE, Death Railway survivor Arumugam Kandasamy said he wanted to flee to Singapore, but took up the construction job at Siam when the Japanese soldiers threatened to kill his family. He continued the journey to Siam to look for his brother, despite being warned by others about the tragic fate of the railway’s workers.

“We walked for 12 days and dead bodies were lying on the walking path throughout the way.”

The workers were required to cut through cliffs and mountains, and many died due to the brutal treatment, starvation, overwork and diseases. Some even committed suicide due to their unbearable situation. Thousands of workers were also massacred to prevent their deseases from spreading, while many women lost their lives due to rape.


An estimated 45,000 Tamilians died during the construction, leaving their families bereft. Some report that the number exceeds 60,000. But the actual number of Tamilians who died during the construction remains unknown. The roots of Malaysian Tamils in this nation goes way back even before the murderous tracks of the death railway. But it’s our responsibility to remember the unknown brave souls on this independence day who lost their lives in some of the darkest moments of our history.


A group of Tamil women near Kinsaiyok, Thailand, October 1945. These women have been recruited from Malaya. Women and children worked on the Thailand–Burma railway, as some families followed when their men were conscripted. Life for these people was extremely hard, and they shared the same deprivations as other *rǒmusha* (Bruce A. Reddaway, Australian War Memorial 120516)

References: TheStar, UUM, FreeMalaysiaToday, Star2, Write2Rest
Image Credit: Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, Star2, BBC, RestStopThoughts,StrikingWomen, Cilisos, FMT, TheSunDaily and 9News, (Bruce A. Reddaway, Australian War Memorial 120516)


  • தமிழ்மது

    2ம் உலகப்போரின் போது கேள்விப்பட்டிராத இலட்சத்திற்கும் மேற்பட்ட தமிழ் நாட்டு தொழிலாளர்கள் ஜப்பானியர்களால் சுரண்டப்பட்டு கொல்லப்பட்ட கருப்பு சரித்திரம்


  • what does the govt of malaysia think ,nothing


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