The Indonesians in Penang,
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,
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.
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
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