IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 24 | Regions | Southeast Asia

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The Indonesians in Penang,
1786-2000

Long before the founding of the British settlement on Penang island by the East India Company in 1786, the island was already inhabited and its dwellers included people from the 'Indonesian' archipelago. Some years before the arrival of Captain Francis Light, the founder of the British trading post on Penang, three brothers connected to the Minangkabau (modern West Sumatra) royal family in Sumatra came to Penang to make their fortune.

BY ABDUR-RAZZAQ LUBIS

The trio sought and obtained the permission of the Sultan of Kedah, Ahmad Tajuddin, himself of Minangkabau descent, to settle on the island. At the time, Penang was part of Kedah, and Kedah was a vassal state of Siam. In order of seniority, the three brothers were Nakhoda Bayan, Nakhoda Intan, and Nakhoda Kechil. Between them, they controlled Bayan Lepas, Balik Pulau, Glugor, and the site of present day George Town.

Nakhoda Intan opened up a settlement at Batu Uban and founded the Batu Uban Mosque, the oldest in Penang. To this day, Nakhoda Intan's grave is considered a kramat, a holy place. A descendant of Nakhoda Intan, Aziz Ishak, became Malaysia's first Minister of Agriculture, while his brother, Yusuf Ishak, became the first president of Singapore. Nakhoda Kechil helped to clear Jelutong, the site where the Jelutong Mosque, Jelutong Road, stands today.

With the help of the 'Malays' and the Minangkabau, Captain Light built a stockade of nibong, palm fibres, that became known as Fort Cornwallis.

A prominent Minang historical figure who migrated to Penang in the early part of the twentieth century was Syekh Tahir Jaluluddin, an Islamic modernist and nationalist reformist. Syekh Tahir Jaluluddin was the father of the present governor of Penang, Tun Hamdan Syekh Tahir.

The majority of Indonesian migrants in the early days of Penang were Acehnese. Light wooed Tunku Syed Hussain, an Acehnese Arab, to move to Penang to help spur on the island's economic growth. Syed Hussain claimed to be the grandson of Sultan Jamal Syah of Aceh (1703-1726), who married the daughter of a Sultana of Aceh.

Around about the same time, another Arab family, of the qabilah (clans) Badridzwan and Bafadzal, arrived in Penang from Aceh. This family has produced generations of Islamic teachers, da'wa (missionaries), the propagators/practitioners of the Naqshabandiah tariqa (spiritual path), and has held the much coveted positions of Qadi and Mufti. Until the early nineteenth century, Arab migration to Penang was drawn primarily from Aceh, and this first wave settled around Acheen Street (today known as Lebuh Acheh). In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Acehnese and the Bugis people from Sulawesi (Celebes) used Sungai Pinang as a transport artery. The Acehnese built the Masjid Lama Sungei Pinang, Jelutong Road.

George Town, the capital of Penang, was recognized by the locals by the name Tanjung. Its southern part was either granted to or acquired by Syed Hussain. This part of the town was named Acheen Street after its Acehnese settlers. It was there where Syed Hussain took up residence, where he founded his mosque in 1808, and where was eventually laid to rest in this quarter. Through his wealth and philanthropic contributions, he emerged as a leader of the Arab and Acehnese trading community in Penang.

Indonesian founders

The Acheen Street Mosque is the oldest mosque in George Town and still stands today. During the Aceh War of the 1870s, as prayers were performed there for the success of the Acehnese struggle, this mosque became one of the focal points of the resistance against the Dutch. Chinese Muslim influence in the architecture is reflected in the swallow-tail ridged roof. Of the sixty-nine mosques in Penang, seven had Indonesian founders.

Syed Hussain also owned the four-storey building at the junction of 'Beach Street' (today Lebuh Pantai) and Acheen Street, later known as 'Gedong Aceh'. The Gedong Aceh served as a kind of market place for buying and selling spices from Aceh. It was the first high-rise landmark in George Town and is to this day still popularly referred to as 'Rumah Tinggi'.

In April 1873, the Dutch attacked Aceh. Prominent Penang personalities like Syed Mohamed Alatas, the leader of the Muslim secret society called Bendara Merah (Red Flag), smuggled arms to the Acehnese resistence. His bungalow has been restored by the authorities and now houses the Heritage Centre Penang. Acehnese exiles on Penang formed the Dewan Delapan (Council of Eight) to champion the Acehnese cause.

Since the early nineteenth century, Penang has been the transit point for the haj pilgrimage. The famed Tengku Tjhik di Tiro, who was the most aggressive opponent in the fight against the Dutch, left for the Holy Land from Penang in the 1850s. Before the al-Mashoor Arab family took over the haj business, the management of the pilgrims was in the hands of one Pak Ma'sum Mendeleng (Mandailing).

The pilgrim agents, or 'pilgrim brokers', were called 'Sheikh Haji'. There were Sheikh Haji for the Talu, Rao (called Rawa in Malaysia), Kerinchi, Minangs, and others. The Sheikh Haji business in Lebuh Acheh survived up to the 1970s until the kapal Haji was replaced by kapal terbang (pesawat, or airplane), and the management of pilgrims was taken over by the Tabung Haji (The Pilgrimage Board).

Baba and Nyonyas

Slaves from Nias, Bali, Java, Toba, Karo, and elsewhere in the archipelago were sold in Penang and in the main were bought by wealthy Chinese merchants. They became the progenitors of the Baba and Nyonyas (Cina Peranakan: people of mixed Malay and Chinese descent). Chinese and Indian (Tamil) coolies were taken to the Dutch plantations in East Sumatra from Penang. Chong Ah Fie of Medan and Cheong Fat Tze of Penang were related, as is the case with many of the Cina Peranakan in Penang with the Cina Peranakan in Medan. The present chief minister of Penang, Tan Sri Koh Su Koon, himself grew up and was educated in Medan.

One of Malaya's (as Malaysia was called then) best known novelist before WWII was Ahmad Rashid Talu. His novel Iakah Salmah? was the first with a local setting and was considered the best pre-war Malay novel. Many of his literary works were published by the printing press owned by Rawa (Rao) publishers, who came to dominate the publishing scene from the 1920s onwards. The best known member of the firm in the modern period was Haji Yusuf Rawa, the former president of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which now rules the States of Kelantan and Terengganu.

Many of the leading journalists in Penang and Perak before the war were trained on the press at Medan. Many were political refugees and migrants. Foremost among them were Halalloedin Hamzah (a Mandailing), Kamaluddin Nasution, Mohd. Samin Thayeb (a leader of Sarekat Islam in Sumatra), Mohd. Amin Nayan (a Tamil Muslim convert). To prevent detection by Dutch agents, Halalloedin Hamzah, changed his name to Ahmad Noor Abdul Shukoor. In Medan, he wrote for the periodicals Pewarta Deli and Kompas. Kamaluddin Nasution changed his name to Abdul Rahman Abdul Rahim. In Sumatra, he was a partisan in the Sumpah Pemuda group that initiated the struggle for Indonesian independence.

The famous Indonesian nationalist Tan Malaka, dressed as a Chinese, sought refuge with Mohd. Samin at his shop in Chulia Street before boarding Samin's ship to sail to Belawan.

The state's foremost literary figure, Sastrawan Negara, Dato'Abdullah Hussain, one of Malaysia's best-loved writers, was very much involved in the fight for Indonesian independence in Aceh in the 1940s. Dato'Abdullah is a friend of the leg endary film director and actor, P. Ramlee, whose real name was Teuku Zakaria bin Teuku Nyak Putih, a second generation Acehnese. In 1995, Abdullah, with three of his Malaysian compatriots, was given recognition for his contribution to the Indonesian cause by being made special guests of the Indonesian government during the golden jubilee celebrations of Indonesian independence.

All this only goes to show that there has been and always will be a historical and cultural heritage relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia in general, and between Sumatra and peninsular (West) Malaysia in particular. Indeed the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) covering Aceh, North Sumatra, and West Sumatra in Indonesia, the southern States of Thailand and the northern States of peninsular Malaysia now presents a new means of building linkages between people through their common legacy.

This is a summary of a twenty- page paper read out to the Perhimpunan Pelajar Indonesia Kawasan Utara Malaysia (PPI-KUM), at the Pusat Pengajian Jarak Jauh (Centre for Distance Learning), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), 23 July 2000.


Abdur-Razzaq Lubis is the Malaysian Representative of Badan Warisan Sumatra (Sumatra Heritage Trust) and the project leader of The Toyota Foundation grant researching the migration of the Mandailing to nineteenth-century 'British Malaya', their system of governance, cultural heritage, music and arts.
E-mail: lubisksn@pd.jaring.my

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 24 | Regions | Southeast Asia