1937 - Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru during a visit to Singapore in 1937 at the old Arya Samaj at Rowell Road

The Young Men’s Arya Samaj in Singapore, Since 1914

Community-based articles along with popular accounts of Arya Samaj Singapore, have tended to date the founding of the organization to 1927. The Colonial Registrar of Societies lends support to this claim, recording that the Arya Samaj Singapore was officially registered in 1927. What has been glazed over, indeed all but forgotten, is that an organization by the name of the Young Men’s Arya Samaj existed in Singapore well before the official registration of the Arya Samaj. It would be an error to view the Young Men’s Arya Samaj as simply a haphazard group of individuals who carried out activities in private, hidden from the official eye. From newspaper accounts of the period, it becomes quite evident that to the early 1920s this was an active body, carrying out its purposes in full public view, and with properly elected office-bearers. The reason why it was not registered, was not because it was informal, but because colonial authorities exempted the organization from registering. Indeed it was commonplace, well into the inter-war period, for many fully-functioning organizations in Singapore (especially those that were not perceived as a potential threat to the Colonial state) to be ‘exempt from Registering’. This article will attempt to elucidate on the make-up, development and the activities of the obscure Young Men’s Arya Samaj from the first mention of the organization in newspaper records to the time when the Arya Samaj was official registered in 1927.

Possibly the earliest newspaper account of Young Men’s Arya Samaj can be dated to 5 May 1915. In that report, the newspaper noted that the organization had been formed a year earlier “on a religious basis, to supply a want felt by members of the Hindu community, and to promote moral, mental and spiritual culture” (The Straits Times, 5 May 1915, p.8). The newspaper further informed that at the first Annual General Meeting of the organization held on 1 May 1915, the following had been elected as office bearers, “Messrs. Ram Singh, President; K. Coomaraswamy, Vice-President; S. Somasundaram, Secretary; Jawahir Singh, Assistant Secretary; M.C. Singh, treasurer; Rampolat Rai, Assistant Treasurer; Kanagasabai, librarian; T. Gopal, secretary for athletic department; V.P. Menon, T. Kanagaratnam, M.P. Chaubey, N. Somasundaram and A. Thambiyappa, committee””. At the AGM, the former President (i.e. of the interim committee from 1914 to 1915) Ganga Ram Upatria had been elected as the patron of the organization.

From this early report, an important characteristic of the Young Men’s Arya Samaj becomes clear. This was not an organization that represented just one Indian sub-ethnic community. The committee, as probably its membership, comprised of a mix of northerners and southerners, including UP-wallahs, Punjabis, Malayalis, and Tamils from both the Madras Presidency and the Jaffna Peninsular. Newspaper reports informing of its office-bearers in later AGM further testify that an ethno-linguistic mix was the norm in the Young Men’s Arya Samaj. Indeed at the second AGM in October 1916, Mr C.C. Halling – a name that suggests a European background – had been elected as the patron of the organization (The Straits Times, 25 October 1916, p.8). Possibly an advocate of vegetarianism, Halling was known to have delivered lectures to the members of the Samaj, including one titled “Shall we slay to eat?” in 1916.

Newspaper reports of the Young Men’s Arya Samaj also inform of the myriad activities of the organization. Dramas, lectures, and a variety of social cultural programs were carried out at its premises. In May 1915, a large crowd gathered for a wide-ranging programme to mark the first anniversary of the organization. The key item was a drama from “a part of the Great Indian Moral Play Harishchandra” (The Straits Times, 21 May 1915, p.6). The fact that a large number of Indians came to watch the drama was not surprising – ‘Raja Harishchandra’, the first full-length Indian feature film, had been produced only two years earlier by Dadasaheb Phalke. From its activities, it was clear that the Young Men’s Arya Samaj had a progressive outlook with a deep interest in the moral and intellectual upliftment of its members. Indeed by late 1916 arrangements had been made to carry out lecture and debates sessions “every Saturday at 7.30pm” (The Straits Times, 22 December 1916, p.8). Some of the lectures were titled as follows: “Renaissance in Asia” (by V.P. Menon); Maharishi Dayanand’s life and his struggle against prevailing issues in Hindu society; and “Female Education” (by T. Gopal)”. Amongst the interactive sessions carried out at the organisation included a debate on ‘Idol Worship’. The Young Men’s Arya Samaj was also known to reach out to non-Hindu groups. In June 1917 for example, Ibrahim Ghowse delivered a talk on “Hindu-Muslim” unity at the offices of the Association (The Straits Times, 5 Jan. 1917, p.8). While occasionally lectures and debates were conducted by visiting Arya Samaj missionaries from India, most sessions were run by members themselves. This was revealing of the make-up of this organisation, which comprised educated Indians and Sri Lankans, including lawyers, clerks and health professionals – a feature that was not commonplace at the time.

After the early 1920s, the lack of reports on the Young Men’s Arya Samaj in Singapore suggests that the organisation had grown less active. Indeed by May 1926, the organisation was called upon to “furnish proof of its existence to the Registrar of Societies” (The Straits Times, 17 May 1926, p.8) and by August 1926 had officially “ceased to exist” (Singapore Free Press, 28 Aug. 1916, p.8). The exact reason for the lack of activity of the organisation is unclear. One can conjecture that this may have been connected to the sojourning nature of the Indian population at that time – so that many key functionaries may have left. Or it may have been due to divisiveness or simply a matter of a lack of sustained enthusiasm. Another possibility is that Young Men’s Arya Samaj was not able to setup proper premises. Indeed reports of the organisation clearly suggest the lack of a firm location. In early 1916, 80 Dunlop Street was described as the Association’s Hall. A few months later a different venue was posited – i.e. 15 Kerbau Lane. Later still, its activities were carried out at 180, New Bridge Road.

The existence of a Young Men’s Arya Samaj in Singapore, predating the formation of the Arya Samaj, provides additional evidence that the spread of the ideas of Swami Dayanand outside India took place earlier than is often supposed. Indeed, similar organizations had already been setup in Mauritius (by the late 1890s), Trinidad and Fiji by the early 1900s. At the same time, the organizations development is also informative of the nature of Hindu Associations in Singapore in the early 20th century. Indeed right up to the early 1920s, it was often the case that many Hindu organizations were not necessarily divided along ethno-linguistic lines. An argument can be made that it was only following the large scale inflow of Indians, particularly after the 1920s that ethno-linguistic divisions became more salient amongst Hindu groups in Singapore. This to some extent is evidenced in the development of the Arya Samaj in the years that followed. After the Young Men’s Arya Samaj ceased operations in 1926, a notification in the Singapore Gazette informed of the official registration of the Arya Samaj a year later. Although there were continuities: (a) in that both organizations drew from the teachings of Swami Dayanand, and (b) that some functionaries such as M.P. Chowbay who served as President of the Arya Samaj from 1927 to the early 1930s, were also in the committee of the Young Men’s Arya Samaj; at the same time the ethno-linguistic make-up of the new Arya Samaj was more homogeneous – with northern Indian Hindus making up the overwhelming majority. The goals of the organisation also saw a change in focus with an emphasis on Sanskrit and Hindi language development evident as early as 1928. Notwithstanding the broader lessons that we can draw from the history of the Young Men’s Arya Samaj in Singapore, its very existence raises a more practical problem for the Arya Samaj Management Committee in the near future: Should the Arya Samaj celebrate its 100th anniversary in Singapore in 2014 or in 2027?

- Dr. Rajesh Rai

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