From Malabaris to Malaysians

From Malabaris to Malaysians:
The Untold Story of Malayalees in Penang*
Professor Suresh Narayanan Universiti Sains Malaysia

The Malayalees have their origin in the modern day state of Kerala, on the south west coast of India, and Malayalam is their mother tongue. Older historical references identify them as Malabaris, because they were from the Malabar coast*(1). The Malabar coast was made up of British Malabar*(2), and the princely states of Travancore and Cochin. Only in 1956, well after Indian independence, did the state of Kerala come into existence, giving Malayalees a unified homeland. Drawing from the name of their state, they are also called Keralites. The people of Kerala may appear divided by caste and religion-in fact, they have embraced all the major religions of the world-Hinduism, Judaism*(3), Christianity and Islam- but they are united by their language, Malayalam, and a common cultural heritage.

Early evidence of Malabari presence in the Malay peninsula can only be inferred from existing sources. Arasaratnam (1970:3) argues that the earliest evidence of contact between India and the Malay peninsula was found in southern Kedah and the Province Wellesley region. Fragmentary inscriptions, in the form of prayers inscribed in stone, were probably the work of Indian merchants who came to these areas. The Pallava Grantha script used, dating from the 4th and 5th centuries, suggests strongly of links with traders from South India.

From the 6th century, the influence of South India on the Kedah region through trade is more concrete. Ports along the Kedah (or Kataaram*(4), to the Indian traders) coast were popular with Indian traders. Unmistakable remains of former Indian settlements have been found along the valleys of Sungai Bujang, Sungai Merbok and Kuala Muda. On mountaintops such as the Kedah Peak, Bukit Meriam, Bukit Mertajam and Bukit Choras, Hindu shrines identical in style to those common during the Pallava dynasty of Tamil Nadu have been found (Arasaratnam, 1970: 3; Jessy, 1972: 20). In all probability, Penang was part of Kedah though it did not feature in the trade of the period.

Between the 9th and mid-14th centuries, South Indian traders were still active in Southeast Asia, including Kedah. Inscriptions in Tanjore (Tamil Nadu), seat of the mighty Chola Dynasty, record an attack by its king Rajendra Chola (A.D.1014-1042), on the Kingdom of Kedah in 1025. The aim was to reassert control of trade in the region that was passing into the hands of Arab merchants (Jessy, 1972: 20-21; Basham, 1959: 79). The lingua franca of trade was Tamil and Javanese, but the Malabaris, being a seafaring and trading community, would have also been engaged in this early trade system since they were under Chola control*(5). The control of Malabar was part of the Chola strategy to take on the Arabs, who were strong competitors in the Southeast Asian trade (Thapar, 1966: 195).

In the 15th century, Indian Muslims from South India became a well-established community in Malacca but there is no direct evidence of Malabaris being present there. However, when the Portuguese Viceroy, Alfonso d’ Albuquerque, decided to make a show of force in Malacca, he was accompanied by both Portuguese and Malabari soldiers*(6). He had set sail from Cochin (in India) to Malacca on May 2nd 1511, with 19 ships, and 800 Portuguese and 600 Malabari fighting men (Sabri, nd; Wright, 1989: 127-8). This is the first unambiguous record of Malayalees setting foot on the Malay Peninsula! Since the Portuguese successfully captured Malacca in 40 days, it is tempting to believe that at least some of the Malabari soldiers stayed back. Unfortunately, this speculation cannot be confirmed.

From the beginning of the 18th century, after Malacca fell into Portuguese hands, it was closed to Muslim trade. Tamil Muslims traders or Chulias, originating from the Coromandel coast, started settling in Kedah. And when Light established a trading post in Penang, they began to move from Kedah to the island as well.

Malayalee Immigration to Penang
When exactly the Malayalees came to Penang will probably never be known. But based on available evidence, Malayalee immigration to Penang can be divided into two waves. The first wave was a mix of (i) voluntary individual immigrants, including those who came as traders and (ii) convict labour brought in to Penang after it became a penal settlement for India in 1789. The second wave was made of educated young men who came voluntarily to the country in search of employment opportunities, primarily in white-collar occupations. Although there is overlap between these two waves, it would be convenient to discuss them separately for our purposes.

The First Wave: Traders and Builders (? -1950s)
If British-based historical sources are to be believed, Penang was a sleepy island with a few scattered villages of mostly Malay fishermen when Francis Light established a trading post in 1786 (Jessy, 1972: 162)*(7). However, there is evidence of a shrine, Keramat Tuah, in Datuk Keramat that was already in existence prior to this date. This shrine belongs to someone known as Sangli Peerappa. It is speculated that he was also known as Fakir Melana, who was probably a Malabari. (Ghulam-Sarwar, 2001:3).

In any event, the number of inhabitants in the British trading post grew rapidly largely because of Light’s policy of permitting Asiatic settlers to occupy what land they could clear. This, coupled with the free trade allowed under British supervision, catapulted Penang into a port of commerce with lower Burma, the southern provinces of Siam, northern Sumatra and the northern states of the Malay Peninsula.

In a letter to the Government of India in Bengal in 1793 (seven years after the establishment of Penang), Francis Light described the main communities in Penang. He referred to 3,000 Chinese, who were involved in trades such as carpentry and masonry, and worked as shopkeepers and planters. They also adventured to surrounding countries in small vessels. The Malays, who formed the majority of the population, were described as being drawn primarily from Kedah, and to a smaller extent, other parts of the peninsula, Java, and Sumatra. They were largely wood-cutters and padi cultivators. Light also noted the presence of 100 Burmese and Siamese, and added that the Arabs, descendants of Arabs, and the Bugis were a part of Penang’s population. However, the only reference to Indians pertained to the Chulia Tamil Muslims*(8) – 1,000 of them, who worked as shopkeepers or coolies (Cullin and Zehnder, 1905: Chp. VIII). In later years, the Chulias grew in number and were assimilated into the local population through marriage to form the core of the Malays in Georgetown or the Jawi Pekan (Salleh Hussain, 1990: 3). That there was no mention of Malabaris is intriguing, especially since other evidence indicates that they had become a significant community even before the Chulia population became important in Penang*(9).

In 1789, just three years after Penang became a British trading post and well before Light’s letter (1793), a fire was reported in Malabar Street (see City Council, 1966:1), one of the key streets on the island at that time. Since trade and people depended on suitable winds and weather, and the journey to and from Malabar was very time consuming, it is significant that the Malabari presence was large enough for a street to be assigned to them. According to Heritage researcher Khoo Salma (2001a), the earliest wave of Malabari migrants lived along this street named after them, and also in the nearby Kampong Kaka, Kampong Malabar, and alongside the Dato Koya shrine*(7).

Another indication of a strong Malabari presence in Penang comes from the saga of one Narayana Pillai. He was a Malabari from Calicut (AMMA, 1990:17) and had become an important merchant in Penang (Turnbull, 1972: 22)*(8). Pillai and other Indians from Penang were brought by Raffles, on his second visit to Singapore in 1819. Although Raffles had promised Pillai a better living there, he apparently failed to keep his word and Pillai had to fend for himself. The other Indians, equally disappointed with the prospects in Singapore, sailed back to Penang. Pillai, on the other hand, was too proud to return as a failure. He therefore wrote to his friends in Penang to send him a few carpenters, bricklayers and cloth merchants. When the workmen arrived, the enterprising Pillai began to build houses in Singapore and in time became an important contractor. He had also set up a textile shop in the bazaar and subsequently rose to become the most important Indian merchant there (see Netto, 1961: 14). The reference to Pillai’s “friends in Penang” points strongly to an established community with men of substance, most probably fellow Malabaris.

Additionally, Malabaris in Penang are closely linked with the Tamil Muslims from Kadayanallur village, who migrated to the island in the 1880-90s. A close relationship already existed between Malabari Muslims and the Kadayanallurs in India. Malabari Muslims persecuted by the Portuguese in the 16th century had fled into Tirulnelveli, where Kadayanallur was situated, bringing Islam with them. This close relationship between the two continued in Penang. Kadayanallur migrants who worked with Malabari petty traders at the Chowrasta Market eventually took over as butchers, poulterers, fish-mongers and vegetable sellers (Khoo Salma, 2001b:6).

Regardless of whether or not Malabaris received official recognition as a separate group, they played a key role in the trade and commerce of Penang over the first fifty years, as part of the important Indian Muslim community.

At the turn of the century, Mohamed Merican Noordin (a Tamil Muslim who came to Penang around 1820), succeeded Kapitan Kling (or leader of the Tamils) as the most prominent Chulia in Penang. He had a family tomb built for his mother by Indian masons. The vestibule of the tomb accommodated one of the first schools for the Muslim community and he had endowed it with twenty dollars per month “for the learning of English, Hindoostanee, Malay, Tamil, Malabar and the Alkoran” (cited in Khoo, 1993: 73; emphasis added). That Malabar (presumably Malayalam, or Arabi Malayalam-Malayalam written in Arabic script which was popular among Malabar Muslims) was one of the languages being taught and studied in Penang speaks of the importance enjoyed by the Malabari Muslim community in the state during that period.

Nota Hujung

* I wish to express my gratitude to the North Malaysia Malayali Samajam for giving me the privilege of presenting this paper. The paper is, in reality, a joint effort. Mukundan Menon of PDC provided the initial inspiration with a brilliant piece of his own. C.T.Padmanabhan of MPPP facilitated research in many ways and provided useful materials. Finally, V.V. Sarachandran of Usains Holding painstakingly produced an initial draft. Yet, all of them modestly declined any claim to authorship.
*(1) Some (eg. Razak and Kunhimon, nd.) define Malabaris as Malayalee Muslims from Malabar. While most Malabaris in early Penang were probably Muslims, it would be incorrect to conclude that the term Malabari referred to only Muslims. The term actually would apply to all from the region of Malabar, Muslim or otherwise. It is also worth noting that the term Malabari is virtually unknown and unused in Kerala. For convenience and to be consistent with the sources we consulted, we use Malabari when referring to the earlier wave of Malayalees, and Malayalee when referring to the later wave of immigrants.
*(2) British Malabar, holding the important ancient ports of Calicut and Cananore, became part of Madras Presidency in 1800 A.D. British Malabar was subsumed by modern day Kerala only in 1956, as noted in the text (Fodor and Curtis, 1974: 469).
*(3) A small but thriving Jewish community exists to this day in Kerala.
*(4) See Thani Nayagam (1968) for a fascinating account of the identification of Kataaram
*(5) For centuries the Malabar coast served as a gateway to trade with lands as varied as ancient Phoencia Greece, Rome, Arabia and China. A flourishing trade in spices, ivory and sandalwood existed at that time and it still is a major centre of the spice trade in the world. The major ports on the Malabar Coast include Quilon, with trade contacts since Biblical times, Cochin, Calicut and Cananore. The ships of King Solomon of Biblical fame visited Ophir in 1000 B.C. It is believed to be the village of Puvar, located to the south of Trivandrum, the current capital of Kerala (Fodor and Curtis, 1974: 470).
*(6) On September 1, 1509, the Malay Peninsula had its first contact with Europeans when 5 Portuguese ships under Diego Lopez de Sequeira visited Malacca. Despite the initial warm welcome, the Malays attacked the visitors causing them to flee and leave behind two ships and 20 men, one of whom was destined to circumnavigate the world as Ferdinand Magellan! Albuquerque’s appearance in Malacca was to avenge this insult (Sabri, nd.).
*(7) It should be added that Kaka and Mappla are terms commonly used to mean Malayalee Muslims and are current in Kerala till this day. Koya, on the other hand, is a common Malayalee Muslim name.
*(8) In Netto (1961: 14), however, Pillai is described as having been a clerk in Penang.
*(9) One possible explanation is that the large subsequent waves of Chulias, and the intermarriage of Malabaris with local women and their assimilation into the local culture, deprived the community of a separate identity. Indeed, Malabar Street was extended to include areas of Chulia influence and renamed Chulia Street in a later period. Nevertheless there must have been more than 100 unassimilated Malabaris to attract Light’s attention since he remembered to mention the 100 Siamese and Burmese in his letter.
Another reason might be that all Indian Muslims, Chulias or Malabaris, were being referred to as Chulias out of convenience or ignorance.

Despite conjecture about when exactly the Malabaris came to Penang, it is reasonable to assume that their presence in Penang increased substantially on account of several factors noted by Turnbull (1972: 8). First, as late as 1864, more Indians than Chinese disembarked at Penang; second, throughout the first half of the 19th century Penang continued to be an Indo-Malay settlement; third, Indians played a more important role in Penang than in the other Straits Settlements; and finally, the vast majority of Indians – Hindus and Muslims – came from the Madras Presidency, which also included British Malabar from 1800-1956. Turnbull (1972: 8) also observed: “Europeans at that time referred to all South Indians as Klings and north Indians as Bengalis” (emphasis added). Already the Malabaris were being subsumed under the Indian Muslim category dominated by the Tamils and Chulias.

After 1789, the government of India began sending convicts sentenced to more than seven years imprisonment to Penang. The first government convicts arrived in 1790, and proved to be a source of cheap labour (Sandhu, 1968; Turnbull, 1972). Convicts were trained in useful trades in order to make them more productive and to give them a means of earning a living after they were released (Turnbull, 1972: 49,). Unlike Chinese convicts transported from Hong Kong, who caused trouble and it was feared would disappear into the general community with the help of secret societies, Indian convicts were allowed a great degree of freedom. They worked on roads and buildings often without guards, and as domestic servants or in government departments (Turnbull, 1972: 48).

According to Khoo (1993:97), the Malabaris, as convict labourers, were reputed to have built most of the government buildings and roads in Penang. Among them were also craftsmen who were responsible for the masonry and fine plaster-work found in Penang’s elite Muslim homes and prestigious civic buildings. Francis Light had also imported Indian and Chinese bricklayers in his attempt to build up infrastructure in Penang.

Even after Penang ceased to be a penal station in 1860, Malabari construction workers continued to be employed by Chinese and Indian contractors, as well as the Public Works Department and the City Council of Georgetown. Some rose from being contract workers to become reputed contractors themselves.

Khoo Salma (2001a) reconstructs the life of one such prominent Malabari, P.A. Mohd. Ibrahim. Popularly known as Ibrahim Kaka (and later as Indian Tuan), he had come to Penang around 1905, from Paravoor in Kerala as an 18 year old youth. Ibrahim Kaka worked in piling, construction and engineering before becoming a contractor himself. At the age of 30, he took a local girl as his wife and raised a family in Jelutong.

He is credited with building the Police Headquarters building in Penang Road and at Dickens Street in 1938. After the war, around 1951, he undertook possibly the biggest council housing scheme at that time, at Cheeseman Road, Taylor Road, Phillips Road and Jalan Sir Hussain. He also built the former UMNO Hall at Jalan Zainal Abidin (formerly known as Yahudi Road) which was officially opened by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the future Prime Minister of independent Malaya, in 1953.

Malabaris in construction were noted for their skill and daring. Khoo Salma (2001a), for instance, quotes the son of Ibrahim Kaka, Mohd. Rashid, as saying:

The Chinese did small-scale bake piling in swampy areas…[b]ut the risky piling work was done by the Malabaris. They used to climb up the piles and they were good at “guiding the monkey” – the weight used to hammer in the piles…the Malabaris were the ones who pioneered difficult techniques and the most dangerous ones.

It is perhaps not surprising to note that it was largely Malabaris who undertook the arduous task of not only constructing the Penang Hill Railway but also manning it till recent times. According to old-timer P.C. Kanan (interviewed on 9/8/01), Malabaris helped build the Penang jail, the Mariamman Temple in Air Itam, the Methodist Church in Kebun Nyor and ran much of Penang’s early tram services.

Other notable Malabari Muslim contractors who were contemporaries of Ibrahim Kaka were V.K.Ismail, T.A. Omar and B. Ismail. They were all registered government and council contractors. A close friend of Ibrahim Kaka Mohd., Ismail Kaka, specialised in engineering and road works. The sons of both Ibrahim and Ismail are now well-known Bumiputra contractors. Malabar Hindu contractors of the period include R.G. Senan, P.N. Kurup and N. Raghavan.

The list of famous Malabaris of the period cannot be complete without the mention of one Iskandar, who was of Kerala Muslim descent. His son, Mohammed Iskandar was born of a Malay woman (Siti Hawa). Mohammed Iskandar eventually left Penang to settle in Kedah and subsequently acquired fame as an English teacher and as the first headmaster of Alor Star’s first English School (now known as Maktab Sultan Abdul Samad). Mohammad Iskandar married a Malay, Wan Tampawan, and the union produced nine children. The youngest, Mahathir bin Mohammad Iskandar, rose to become the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia (Morais, 1982: 2).

Francis Light’s town planning included assigning streets to the historic communities. He laid out a grid of streets bordered by Light Street, Beach Street, Chulia Street and Pitt Street. It is significant to note that Chulia Street was originally known as Malabar Street before it was extended and renamed Chulia Street after the influx of Chulia Tamil Muslims from Kedah and Tamil Nadu. The original Indian neighbourhood formerly included Chulia Street, adjoining Argyll Road and Kampong Malabar (Khoo, 1993: 68).

The Malabari influence in Penang is evident from places such as Kampong Kaka, named after a prominent Malabari family that lived on the west side of Kampong Kolam. Additionally, a settlement that began with Malabaris grew to become Kampong Malabar. A Masjid Malabar built by the Malabaris in Beach Street was unfortunately destroyed in a bombing raid during the Second World War (Seeni Naina Mohamed, 2001:1). Malabari petty traders also formed the core group that started the Chowrasta Market. At the turn of the century, however, Chinese and Japanese traders moved into the Kampong Malabar area, changing its character permanently (Khoo, 1993: 97). One view holds that Penangites’ favourite cuisine of roti canai and teh tarik were Malabari concoctions popularised by the petty traders in the area. These were later taken over by Tamil Muslims (see Khoo, 2001).

Another famous shrine in Penang, the Keramat Dato Koya, developed around a Malabari Muslim personality who acquired the status of a saint and was known locally as Dato Koya. Dato Koya, alias Syed Mustapha Idris, had fled from Malabar to Penang to escape arrest on a murder charge that he denied. He reportedly worked miracles, healed the sick and fed the masses. He was believed to be a saint by the convict labourers among whom he was popular. On his death in 1840, Dato Koya’s followers built his tomb and shrine on the spot where he used to sit under the trees. The British authorities apparently shared the respect his followers had for him because they not only granted the land, but also named the nearby road Dato Koyah Road. Dato Koya’s original followers were, not surprisingly, drawn largely from the Malabaris of Kampong Malabar (Khoo, 1993:161).

Market Street, which now forms the heart of the Little India enclave, was called Kadai Teru or Street of Shops by the early Tamils in Penang. The British called it Chola Place or Little Madras. Among the other Indian communities, mainly merchants and traders who arrived in large numbers in later years were the Malayalees, Gujaratis, Punjabis and Telegus (Penang Insights, nd.). Unfortunately, the number of Malayalee merchants has dwindled over the years, leaving only one textile establishment to remind us of the legacy.

The contribution of Malabari Muslims to the Malay language requires a separate study*(12). However, old and original Malay terms describing sea-vessels bear a striking resemblance to terms popular among the Malabaris who used 19 types of vessels in trade and battle. For example, it has been speculated that sampan in Malayalam may have fathered sampan in Malay, parao became perahu, pathamari became petamari, kappal became kapal and sambuk is still sambuk (Razak and Kunhimon, nd.). While some of the Malayalee terms themselves may have been derived from Sanskrit or elsewhere, the argument being made here is that these terms were probably introduced into the Malay language via the Malabari Muslims. It must be added that kelasi, an old Malay word for sailor, is also the name of a village that exists in Kerala that is famous for its shipwrights and shipbuilders.

The Second Wave: White-Collar Workers, Nationalists and Legislators (1920s-1957)

While the first wave of Malayalees contributed primarily to the physical and commercial development of Penang, the second wave of Malayalees made their mark primarily in the political and social spheres. This is not surprising as the second wave was differently constituted from the first.

The second wave gained momentum in the 1920s when educated young Malayalees became aware of job opportunities in Malaya. The Malayalees were the beneficiaries of the extensive higher education facilities that had developed in the princely states of Travancore and Cochin and had emerged as the most literate linguistic group in India.

Early Malayalee immigrants of the second wave tended to concentrate in the private sector, in the lower grades of clerical employment in European firms and plantations, in heavy industrial labour and in the docks. They were among the first to come in large numbers and the post-war years also saw a substantial inflow of middle-class Malayalees. By 1957 the Malayalees had already emerged as the second largest Indian linguistic group in Malaya, but constituted only about 7 per cent of the Indian population. (Arasaratnam, 1970:33-45). The second generation of these Malayalees rose up to hold various professional positions.

Initially, these Malayalees were content to make their little fortunes in Malaya and return. As Arasaratnam (1970: 45) noted:

Among the Indian groups, they (Malayalees) tend to have the strongest ties with the motherland. Even after a long stay in Malaya, they will return to their homes in India.

This meant they showed little or no interest in making a mark upon the land that they were working in, despite their considerable advantage in terms of education and facility with the English language.

In time, however, with the acquisition of property and the ability to organise permanent institutions to serve their interests, this attitude changed. The Malayalees and other Indian educated and commercial classes began to consider themselves as more permanent residents of Malaya than the labouring classes (Arasaratnam, 1970: 82). Indian associations were the natural outcome of this search for unity among themselves. These associations sprung up in all towns and districts where educated Indians were concentrated. This marked the beginning of active involvement by educated Indians in the affairs of Malaya and several Penang-based Malayalees came to the fore*(13).

The first Indian Association was formed in Taiping in 1906 and was known as the Indian Association of the Federated Malay States. The president was P.K.Nambyar, a brilliant Malayalee barrister with impeccable qualifications. He had come to Penang in 1904 after graduating from Cambridge University in 1893 – no mean achievement during that time. He was called to the Bar at Inner Temple in 1894. He was the first Indian advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States.

Nambyar also founded the Penang Indian Association in 1924 and served as its President till 1927. Consisting of a large body of English-educated administrators and clerical workers, the Association was an arena for discussing Indian and Malayan political affairs. The Association started its own Bulletin in 1932. It also provided social services to the Indian community at large. Upon the passing away of Nambyar in 1928, the Association launched The Nambiar Free Dispensary. Leboh Nambyar, near the General Hospital, was named after him in recognition of his contributions. It should be added that Nambyar was also one of the founder members and the first President of the Indo-Ceylonese Association of Penang established in 1906 (Khoo, 2001:3).

As their stake in the adopted land grew, Malayalees, as part of the larger Indian-educated groups, sought representation in the legislative arena. During the period when the legislative councils of the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States were being expanded to accommodate representations from diverse interests and communities, the Indians were being ignored. The authorities, who viewed Indian issues as being largely labour-related, assumed that the Controller of Labour adequately protected the community in the highest councils of the country (Arasaratnam, 1970: 85)

However, the Indian Associations across Malaya campaigned actively for a representative who would protect wider Indian interests that went beyond labour concerns. The break-through came when the government of the Straits Settlements acceded to the request. It was P.K.Nambyar from Penang, with his brilliant legal reputation, who was appointed in 1923. He was the first and only Indian member in the Straits Settlements Council.

As a member of the Council from 1923-27, he was instrumental in passing the Straits Settlements Labour Ordinance of 1923, which was an improvement over the Labour Code of 1912. The Code of 1912, when it was first adopted, had already been hailed as a comprehensive legislation that unified all the piecemeal legislations passed in the State Councils of the Federated States and the recently formed Federal Council. Nambyar, while welcoming the adoption 1923 Ordinance, emphasised that it would amount to little unless the law was effectively enforced (Arasaratnam, 1970: 57).

Nambyar took a great interest in the social, political and economic life of Indian workers even prior to his appointment as a Councillor. The Indian Emigration Act of 1922 owes its inception to the deputation led by Nambiar to India, earlier in the year, for discussions with British Government officials (Netto, 1961: 28). He had vigorously championed the plight of Indian workers suffering abuse under the kangany system of labour recruitment and sub-standard labour conditions in the plantations. This Act, described as “a very important piece of legislation”, put in place a clear machinery to regulate emigration from India and to protect Indian emigrants abroad (Arasaratnam, 1970: 23). The Malayan Government also appointed P.K. Nambyar to the Indian Immigration Council, which regulated migration to Malaysia and recommended wage levels.

Nambyar’s son, Dr. N.K. Menon, rose to prominence in the state as well. Although born in India, he was educated at St. Xavier’s Institution in Penang and had his medical training at the University of Edinburgh, University of Tubingen in Germany and Madras University Medical College. He began his private practice in Penang in 1926.

In 1931, he attracted public attention because of his strong condemnation of the exploitation of Indian labour by the European capitalists. His outspoken views came by way of a Presidential speech at the Fourth Annual Conference of Indian Associations held in Ipoh. The speech created a stir both among the Indians as well as the European business communities. This prompted The Straits Times, the most influential daily in Malaya, to criticise the speech as being contrary to the tradition of Malayan politics, which according to the newspaper, was characterised by moderation and restraint. Menon’s speech and the reactions to it had the unfortunate effect of causing many frightened Indians to withdraw their support for these Annual Conferences. The conferences were no longer held thereafter, and ceased to be a platform for Malayan Indian opinion. (Arasaratnam, 1970: 97-8).

In the 1940s, Dr. Menon became actively involved in the Indian National Army (INA), an army inspired by radical Indian nationalists opposed to the moderate approach of the Indian National Congress. They teamed up with the advancing Japanese armies to expel the British from India-each for their own reasons.

Malaya was an important centre for the activities of the INA, not only because of its geographical proximity to India but also due to its large Indian community whose sympathy could be tapped for the cause. Additionally, the en masse surrender of units of the British Indian Army stationed in Malaya had the potential of being remobilised immediately for the INA cause. The INA objectives, however, were largely unfulfilled. After the war, several Malayan leaders of the INA returned to India but Menon remained in Penang until his demise in 1981.

His radical fire was not doused, however. Menon went on to stand as a candidate of the Radical Party (which he helped found), when the first elections under the Municipal Constitution were held in December 1951. His party swept in, winning six out of the nine seats (City Council, 1966:89). He served as a member of the Municipal Council until 1955. As Settlement Councillor in Penang and a member of the Settlement Executive Committee, he served the Indian community and the people of Penang with distinction. In his capacity as the Chairman of the Settlement Committee for Education, he played a notable role in serving both the English and Tamil schools in Penang State. Menon also had the distinction of becoming the President of the British Medical Association of Malaya between 1955-6. At different times he served as a President of the North Malaya Kerala Samajam and the Malaysian-German Society as well.

N. Raghavan, another Penang lawyer and son-in-law of P.K. Nambyar, was a leader of the Penang Indian Association between 1930-7 and from 1938-40. He was one of the two prominent lawyers who drafted the Constitution of the Malaysian Indian Chamber of Commerce, Penang

In the 1930s, the Indians were virtually a leaderless community. The vacuum was filled with the formation of the Central Indian Association of Malaya (C.I.A.M.), a Pan Malayan Indian Organisation, in September 1936. Raghavan was one of the founding members of the association. “The formation of the CIAM marks a turning point in the history of Indians in Malaya,” says Netto (1961: 61). It was in the vanguard of the struggle to improve the political, social and economic lives of Indians under the Colonial government.

Raghavan was the President of C.I.A.M. in 1941, when Rash Behari Bose arrived in Singapore to organize the political and military arms of the INA. The Indian Independence League (IIL) was formed as the political wing of the INA with Rash Behari as its leader. Raghavan was one of the five members of the executive committee of the IIL.

He suffered internment on charges of treason under the British Military Administration after the war, but a team of lawyers sent by the Government of India succeeded in gaining his release in early 1946. After Indian independence, Raghavan left to join the Indian Foreign Service and served as the Indian Ambassador to China.

It must be added that several other Penang Malayalees were also active in India’s independence, since the idea of a Malayan nation did not crystallize until 1952. Additionally, many local Indians who responded to the call to support the INA (and the IIL) felt they would be fighting for the freedom of India and for the independence of Malaya (cited in Arasaratnam, 1970: 108).

While there were many notable Malayalee personalities in Penang, a few more examples should suffice. A. Raja Gopal Nair, a Penang-born individual excelled in community service, and was responsible for establishing and managing the Parent Association High School, a private school in Macalister Road. The High School served a great need after the war. Nair was also deeply involved with youth organisations, and was the Commander of the St. John’s Ambulance in Penang. He was active in the Civil Defence of Penang, served as a Municipal Councillor for Georgetown between 1956-9 and was the President of the Indian Association of Penang between 1964-9. Jalan Raja Gopal stands as a testimony to his contributions to the general community.

A. Balakrishnan, the brother of A. Raja Gopal, was also Penang-born and worked as an insurance executive. He, however, made his mark in politics by being one of the founder members of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Balakrishnan spearheaded the move to get the MIC to join the Alliance party that had seen the coming together of the Malay-based United National Malay Organisation (UMNO) and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). He was elected a Penang Municipal Councillor from 1956-58 and also distinguished himself in social service.

In the male-dominated world of politics, their sister, A. Parvathi Nair, acquired distinction as a woman Municipal Councillor and as the Chairperson of the Ladies wing of the M.I.C. She currently lives in retirement in Penang.

Another Malayalee, P.G.S. Nair, was in insurance but served in various public positions. He was the President of the Indian Chamber of Commerce, a vice-president of the Rotary Club of Penang, a member of the Penang Port Commission and the Penang Port Advisory Committee. He was also a member of the Central Advisory Committee on Trade and Supplies.

If the list of prominent Malayalees of this period appears to be drawn entirely from an educated, elite group, the story of K.P. Keseva Pillai provides a refreshing contrast. A migrant from India, he worked as a locomotive foreman with the railways and was stationed Prai in the 1930s. The Tamil community in Prai lacked a school. The only Tamil school at that time was located in Butterworth and it required crossing a river by boat to access it. Pillai brought the plight of the Tamils to the attention of R.G. Sanders, the General Manager of Malayan Railways, suggesting that the railways give up some land for the building of the school. The effort was successful and Prai saw its first Tamil school. Keseva Pillai was also instrumental in obtaining over an acre of land for Hindu cremation in Prai. His son, K. Vijayanathan, is presently a lawyer of renown in Penang, and is active in state politics.

Finally, K.C. Alexander who arrived in Penang from Travancore in 1928, deserves mention. His enthusiasm for extending educational opportunities led him to establish the Benniel School in Dato Keramat. This subsequently became the Lutheran School in 1940. Although the school no longer exists, it holds the distinction of having produced perhaps the best legal brain in this region-brilliant lawyer and fearless Judge of the Supreme Court of Malaysia-Eusoffe Abdool Cader.

By 1951 the Malayalee community in Penang had grown large enough to desire their own association. A group of about 300 Malayalees met at the Penang Indian Association on 12th September, 1951 to celebrate the Onam and Hari Raya Haji festivals. It was at this gathering that the objective of bringing all Malayalees in Penang under an umbrella organization was first publicly articulated, and it led to the birth of the Penang and Province Wellesley Kerala Samajam (as it was then known). After the expected teething problems, the newly formed Samajam was officially registered in April 1952. The 1st Annual General Meeting was held on 31st August, 1952 at the Indian Association in Penang and the Samajam elected its first board of office bearers.

It is significant to note that the freely elected office bearers were Malayalees drawn from different faiths. The President, M. C. Chacko was a Christian, P. R. Nair, the Secretary was a Hindu, while Janab C. K. Abdullah, a Muslim, was the Treasurer. The Board of Trustees was similarly constituted with M.P. Mathew JP, Dr. N.K. Menon and Janab C. Musa JP. This came at a time when the united Indian face in Malayan politics was giving way to demands for separate representation. In particular, following political developments in India, Muslim Indians in Malaya had formed the Indian Muslim League and had appealed in 1947 “not to be yoked under a single representation.” (Arasaratnam, 1970: 117)*(14). The Malayalees in Malaya (and later Malaysia) have repeatedly demonstrated that their love for their language and culture goes beyond narrow sectarian interests.

At an Extraordinary General Meeting held on 15th February, 1953 in Penang, the name of the Samajam was changed to North Malaya Kerala Samajam to reflect the fact that its membership also included those who were from the northern states, outside of Penang. In 1990, the name was changed once more to North Malaysia Malayali Samajam.

In 1952, the Samajam purchased a humble attap building at 95-E, Jalan Sungei Pinang, Penang for RM14,750.00. About a decade later, this property was sold and the present Samajam premises at 213, Jalan Mesjid Negeri, Penang was purchased at a cost RM52,000.00. In 1988, for the benefit of members in Kedah, a premise (No. 74-A, Taman Bunga Raya, Sungei Patani) was bought for a price of RM60,500.00. Later in 1993, a 12-room hostel was constructed in Penang and 6 more rooms were added in 1996.

Apart from its social and cultural activities for Malayalees in Penang, Kedah and Perlis, the Samajam continues to cater for the welfare needs of fellow Malaysians. Many individuals and charitable organisations have benefited from the Samajam’s welfare and community services. It is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2001.

Malayalees in Malaysia have tried to keep some aspects of their culture alive, not an easy task in a multi-ethnic society where they are a very small minority. Among the uniquely Malayalee festivals celebrated by Hindu Malayalees in Malaysia are Vishu and Onam. Vishu is viewed as the start of the Malayalee New Year and is the first day of the month of Medam, which usually falls in April or May. The centerpiece of celebrating Vishu is the Vishu Kani which literally means “the first sight”.

Since it is believed that the fortunes of the year are determined by the first objects seen on Vishu day, every effort is made to ensure that the Kani contains auspicious objects that promise prosperity. The Kani itself is set up meticulously the previous night and every member of the family is woken up at dawn and led to face the Kani before they are told to open their eyes. Vishu always promises a sumptuous vegetarian feast and Vishu Kai Neetam-gifts of money given to by the elders and working members of the family to the children, non-working members and the poor.

Onam, on the other hand, coincides with the harvest month and is essentially a harvest festival. Celebrated on the day of Attam asterism, it nevertheless takes on a religious hue because tradition says that the great Kerala King Bali, returns on this day to visit his erstwhile subjects. Despite his goodness, Bali had been exiled to the nether regions by Maha Vishnu (a Hindu conception of God favoured by the Malayalees) on account of his inflated ego. Before leaving, Bali had asked that he be allowed to visit his people once a year and the wish was granted.

Onam is a time of getting together, exchanging gifts and enjoying a grand meal together (Onasadhya). The head of the family customarily distributes new clothes (Onapudava) to junior members, household helpers and tenants. While these aspects of Onam have survived in Malaysia, other elements like playing games like Talapandu, Kayyamkali, Onathallu, Karadi Kali etc., uniquely associated with this festival have largely disappeared.

Malayalees of other faiths continue to celebrate associated holy days and festivals in their own unique way. It is worth adding that the Malayali Samajam joins in the celebration of all festivals dear to Malayalees, regardless of whether they are Hindu, Christian or Muslim.

The task of tracing Malayalee contributions to Penang is complicated by the fact that the early wave of immigrants were largely Muslims. Their inter-marriage and assimilation into the local Muslim population makes it difficult to isolate their exclusive contributions since their identity as a separate community has diminished. In contrast, the subsequent wave was predominantly Hindu and there was less inter-marriage with the local Malays. Although this group has managed to preserve its unique identity, its contributions are equally difficult to isolate from early sources because most historians have placed it under the broad South Indian category

Even so, what evidence there is makes it clear that the early Malayalee immigrants have contributed directly and significantly to the physical development of Penang, and its commerce, particularly during the island’s formative years. By assimilating into the local Malay population, Malayalee Muslims contributed indirectly to the enrichment of local culture and religion as well.

On the other hand, the subsequent wave of Malayalees were mainly Hindu and from the middle-class. As part of a small but articulate group of English-speaking professionals and semi-professionals, they made their mark in community and political leadership. However, with Malaysian independence in 1957 and the shift of political and economic activity to the Klang Valley area, Penang Malayalees lost some of the early advantage they enjoyed in these spheres.

There remains a significant Malayalee community in Penang, active in many areas ranging from the professions, to the civil service, educational institutions, businesses and the financial sector. Among them are still to be found Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The Malayalee community in Penang continues to demonstrate the remarkable sense of religious and social tolerance and appreciation of their forbears. And although Malayalees are a minority within the Indian community, they remain proactive in championing the larger Indian and national causes.

There remains a significant Malayalee community in Penang, active in many areas ranging from the professions, to the civil service, educational institutions, businesses and the financial sector. Among them are still to be found Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The Malayalee community in Penang continues to demonstrate the remarkable sense of religious and social tolerance and appreciation of their forbears. And although Malayalees are a minority within the Indian community, they remain proactive in championing the larger Indian and national causes.

Nota Penghujung

*(12) Minattur (1968) has an interesting discussion on the Malabar influence on Malay language and culture
*(13) The descriptions of the personalities that follow were drawn largely from HPPC(1986) , Netto (1961) and Arasaratnam (1970).
*(25) This may have something to do with the way Islam was introduced and subsequently developed in Kerala. The King of Kodungallur in Kerala took a personal interest in Islam and “it grew and spread in Malabar under royal patronage…Islam grew, as it began, peacefully and steadily, in sharp contrast [to] the spread of Islam in North India..” (Razak and Kunhimon, nd.)


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