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Indians in Penang

Oral histories can be a powerful way of looking back at the past, at the ordinary lives of ordinary people that make up the history of a
nation. As part of the Penang Story project, The Star and the
Penang Heritage Trust are organising a series of colloquiums to
collect the oral histories of the island's different communities.
recently concluded colloquium on the Indian communities of

EMCEE Himanshu Bhatt tickled the audience's tastebuds - not to mention
their funny bones - with his opening remarks about his sumptuous
breakfast of thosai, vadai and chutney, finished off with teh tarik at a
"banana leaf" restaurant in Little India, Penang.

It was a fitting opening to the Indian colloquium. After all, Penang is
renowned nationwide for its nasi kandar, the Indian Muslim food that
offers rice with a myriad mouth-watering dishes.

As different speakers came forward to share oral histories, however, it
became obvious that different communities of Indians have influenced not
only Penang's cuisine but also the island's culture and even its heritage.

FAMOUS FOOD...`nasi kandar` (rice and curry) stalls in George Town`sLittle India are doing good business during the fasting month selling
traditional Indian Muslim fare. Cuisine is one area that Indians - be they
Indian Muslim, Tamils or North Indians - have influenced with their

For instance, Prof Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, director of the Asian
Centre of Penang, spoke of a shrine called Keramat Tuah in Datuk
Keramat which is said to have belonged to one Sangli Perappa. The grave,which possibly dates back to 1715, was also known by another name,Fakir Melana, who could have been a Malabari from India. This is
possible evidence of Indian settlement in Penang before the British
acquired the island in 1786, he explained in his lengthy yet detailed keynoteaddress entitled The South Asian Cultural Impact Upon Penang, beforegoing on to provide a vivid description of the early Indian settlers in

"The Choolias, as Tamils from South India were known, were among the
earliest of South Asians to arrive in Penang. One Alaudin Meerah Hussein
Lebai is mentioned as the founder of the Ariffin Mosque and Mesjid
Kongsi. He is said to have arrived in Penang with Captain Francis Light,
the British trader who acquired the island for the British government," said
Prof Ghulam.

Following the establishment of the British trading port in Penang, the
English East India Company brought in Hindu labourers from South India
to develop the new colony, while others came in as traders. An indication
of their presence, he noted, was the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in
Queen Street, which was founded in 1833.

The arrival of Punjabis, or Pathans, from Bengal can be traced to the
establishment of the Bengali Mosque in Leith Street in 1803. There is also
reference to Punjabi "sepoys" (soldiers) guarding the northern boundary of
Province Wellesley in 1821.

A more definite confirmation of their arrival lies in the actions of Maharaj
Singh and Kharak Singh, who were exiled to the Straits Settlements
(comprising Penang, Malacca and Singapore) in the 1840s for their part in
the Anglo-Sikh Wars. The majority of North Indians, he noted however,
had come to the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements from
the 1930s onwards, attracted by business and job opportunities.

"The newcomers included Tamils, Malayalees,Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhis, Gujaratis, Marathis,Bengalis, Biharis, Oriyas and Uttar Pradeshis. In the
following decades, they were joined by IranianMuslims, Parsees, Nepali Hindus, Afghans and, even,in recent times, Kashmiris and Rohingyas," he added.

Prof Ghulam's address opened the floodgates to asteady flow of storytelling by speakers representing theTamils, Chettiars, Malayalees, Sikhs, North Indians,Indian Christians and Indian Muslims.

While the pride that came across was to be expected,there was also a slight air of prejudice now and then -but this was acceptable as it was, indeed, the rightforum for all to speak frankly about their roots and

Jessica Binwani, in her paper entitled The North Indians: Rediscovering
Roots in Penang, said despite being a relatively small community, the
North Indians were a colourful, interesting and important part of the vibrantmulti-racial population of Penang. This population has not changed muchsince the mid-1900s, though many have moved to Kuala Lumpur andSingapore in search for better prospects.

Many of the early businesses set up by the pioneer North Indians in
Penang no longer exist. As a result of higher education, many descendants
of the early settlers have become professionals instead of continuing in

"Those businesses situated in the inner city areas of George Town are
moving out or may even close as a result of the reduction of economic
activity there. The repeal of the Rent Control Act has also had dire
consequences for North Indian businesses in the 'Francis Light' grid of
Beach Street, Bishop Street, Penang Street, King Street and Chulia
Street," she said.

Prof Dr Suresh Narayanan, in a well-prepared paper entitled From
Malabaris To Malaysians: The Untold Story of Malayalees in Penang,
noted that, today, 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.

The task of tracing Malayalee contributions to Penang is complicated by
the fact that the early wave of immigrants was largely Muslim. 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 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 them under the
broad South Indian category, he said.

Although a minority within the Indian community in Penang, the Malayaleescontinue to demonstrate the remarkable sense of religious and socialtolerance and appreciation of their forbears, he added.

S. Seeni Naina Mohamed, in his paper entitled IndianMuslims in Penang: Role and Contributions, threwback a question to the community: had they donejustice in achieving a socio-economic balance. Today,45 years after Malaysia's independence, the IndianMuslims still maintain a notable place among othercommunities in Penang. "But have they kept up with
the process of progress around them?" This is aquestion that needs research and solid supportingfacts.

There is, however, one fact that is self-evident today:the Indian Muslim community was at its best in most ways when it unanimously and proudly identified itself as Indian Muslim. But, responding to economic and
political developments in the country after independence, it has created for itself an identity crisis.

Analyst Hanapi Dollah had once said that the identity of Indian Muslims
changed from Indian Muslim to Indian when they joined MIC and became
Indian Muslim again when they formed KIMMA (Kesatuan India Muslim
Malaya) and finally changed to Malay when they join Umno.

This dilemma of identity has hindered their unity, diversified talents and
efforts, and weakened the political strength they would have had, he said.

P. Rajavelan, better known as P. Krishnan, in his paper entitled Growing
Roots: The Story of Tamil Communities in Penang, said many Tamils
were brought in from the Tamilnadu state in India as indentured labourers
in the early 1800s. There were Tamils working in the departments of
sanitation, water, electricity, engineering, veterinary, transport, public
works and telecommunications.

In pre-Independent Malaya, Tamils dominated these industries as
labourers. Many of their descendants have since become educated and
moved into the middle-class.

Some of the Tamils in Argyll Road were apparently well off and they
seemed to have owned well-built houses and travelled in horse-drawn

"Tamils also worked on the road to Penang Hill, which was completed in
1920. The present day Youth Park in Jalan Utama was once a quarry
where many Tamils were engaged in quarry work. Apart from working in
plantations in Gelugor, Sungai Nibong and Sungai Dua, Tamils were also
engaged in the fishing industry in Tanjung Tokong and Telok Bahang," he

Other speakers were Taizoon Tyebkhan, Dr Satish Shukla, K.
Thiruvarasu, S.P. Annamalai and Rajindar Singh.

One participant, Pishu Hassarram, remarked that most of the speakers
failed to include current socio-economic problems faced by the various
Indian communities in their papers.

"As a participant, I am sure many of us hoped to receive a little more as to
how the communities propose to resolve some of the pertinent issues
afflicting them.

"For example, there are many North Indian shops in Little India which
have closed down due to the repeal of the Rent Control Act. But how the
North Indian community propose to overcome this issue was not touched
at all," he said.

Pishu noted that the colloquium was successful in presenting facts about thepast but had not addressed pressing current issues and those of the future.

The Penang Story is jointly organised by the Penang Heritage Trust
and Star Publications (M) Bhd to support Penang's nomination to the
World Heritage List together with Malacca. The project is sponsored
by The Japan Foundation, ABN-AMRO Bank and co-sponsored by the
state government; City Bayview Hotel is the official hotel. The Penang State Museum is planning an exhibition on the Early Views of Penang and Malacca in June 2002, in conjunction with the Penang Story project.

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