A Guardian of Acheen Street

loading Acheen Street Mosque is a gazetted site protected under the Antiquities Act 1976.

Cikgu Mat, a community leader, teacher and records keeper recently passed away. His contributions to Acheen Street and the surrounding area were great and should not be forgotten.

Lebuh Acheh or Acheen Street, as it is popularly known among those old enough to remember, is a hugely significant thoroughfare. For example, it was once the centre of Malay-Muslim trading in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula, and also the hub for Arabic education as well as hajj activities.

Tengku Syed Hussein Idid, a prince who came to Penang from Aceh in 1791, founded this urban Muslim village. He was a merchant who had made his fortune in the lucrative trade of pepper, rice, betel nut, dammar, gold and other commodities from Aceh. His tomb is located behind the Acheen Street Mosque.

Among Acheen Street’s collection of unique pre-war buildings is house No.69. Unimposing yet possessing an air of significance, it was where the affable Muhammad Yahya, or Cikgu Mat, as he was affectionately called, lived until his death on September 1, 2017 at the age of 79. Coincidentally, September 1, 2017 was Hari Raya Aidiladha.

Second Jeddah

A descendant of the much-revered Basheer family, which has resided on Acheen Street for over a century, Cikgu Mat was born on February 1, 1938 in the house itself. It was originally owned by his great-grandfather, Sheikh Omar Basheer (1811-1884), who was the first Penang mufti and leader of the Tariqat Naqsyabandiah Al-Khaledi. Cikgu Mat’s paternal grandmother, Rahmah Basheer, was Sheikh Omar Basheer’s daughter.

No. 69, Acheen Street was originally owned by Cikgu Mat’s great-grandfather, Sheikh Omar Basheer (1811-1884), who was the first Penang mufti.

Sheikh Omar was a man with many social roles: he was a religious and community leader, scholar and trader. He is famous for the fatwa he issued in 1867 which prevented the influence of secret societies from seeping into the religious order.1

The house was turned into the first registered kathi’s office in 1888, when Sheikh Omar’s eldest son, Haji Yahaya Basheer (1853-1902), became a kathi (Muslim registrar). Yahaya was also involved in the hajj travel business, catering to the lodging needs of pilgrims; many houses on Acheen Street were converted into lodging quarters. This in turn helped Penang earn the title of “Second Jeddah”. The premises of his office still exists on Lumut Lane, off Acheen Street.2

After Yahaya’s death, the post of kathi was accorded to his youngest brother, Haji Mohamed Natt Basheer (1862-1910), who lived there until his death.

Other remarkable personalities who lived at the same address were the Malay media pioneers Abdul Wahab Zain (1914-1995) and Mohamed Saman Zain (1905-1959), who were born and raised there too. They were uncles of Cikgu Mat, and it was they who founded the Penang-based Warta Negara, the most popular Jawi newspaper in the northern region before its demise in 1969. The Zain brothers also established Berita Harian, Malaysia’s first Malay daily to bbe published in the Rumi script in July 1957.3

Another well-known figure of Acheen Street is Sheikh Zachariah (1855-1926), Yahaya’s brother. Sheikh Zachariah was appointed mufti of Penang by the British government. He originally owned a house beside 69, Acheen Street, which was later donated to the Madrasah al Quran in 1917. He was a very successful businessman ,operating through his company, Sheikh Zachariah Basheer and Sons. He traded primarily with Europe, India, the Middle-East and Aceh in the 1900s.

Muhammad Yahya, or Cikgu Mat.

Sentinel of the Community

Cikgu Mat was an important personality of Acheen Street because he was ever-willing to share his knowledge and memories of Penang. Nephew Zakaria Basheer Ahmad Basheer says that Cikgu Mat followed in the footsteps of his father, who liked collecting newspaper cuttings and historical documents. This explains why a lot of people came to him for historical data: “He was always there for the people,” recounts Zakaria.

Cikgu Mat was one of the interviewees of Memori di George Town, published by George Town World Heritage Incorporated in July 2015. In the book, he shared his experiences living in Acheen Street during the Japanese Occupation and hajj seasons.

After graduating from Penang Free School, Cikgu Mat served as teacher there up till his retirement in 1993 – hence the moniker “Cikgu”. Another side of him that is not well known is that he was also a qualified music teacher who liked playing the saxophone and guitar. According to Zakaria, Cikgu Mat loved jazz, classical music – especially ethnic and classical Malay music – as well as old English songs.

Cikgu Mat tenaciously guarded the Malay enclave of Acheen Street, as can be discerned in a court case involving the Penang State Islamic Council (MAIPP). In May 2002 residents of Acheen Street were presented with a new development scheme by MAIPP and trustees of the Muslim endowment land (waqf). The project involved the demolition of the Indo-Malay compound houses, which MAIPP considered as having no historical value, and their replacement with modern apartments. The project was aimed at attracting the Muslim community back into the inner city, especially tenants evicted by MAIPP who used to live along Acheen Street in the late 1990s.4

Acheen Street used to be the center of Malay-Muslim trading in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula.

The reason for the evictions was the Lebuh Acheh-Lebuh Armenian Heritage Development Project, which was planned in 1993 to make the historical and cultural enclave of Acheen Street and Armenian Street focal tourist attractions in the city. Through this project, some of the heritage buildings were required for different purposes, including a gallery, hajj museum, souvenir shops, Quran school and cultural centre.

Not only did forcible evictions occur; as the mosque underwent the first phase of restoration works in 1995 to replace the leaky asbestos roof, there was no canopy placed over the structure. The interior of the mosque was completely flooded after a few nights of rain.5 The same thing happened in Cikgu Mat’s house during renovation works in 2007: he was promised that his collection of books and documents would be safely stored inside a container, but most of the objects became damp from the rain.

Soon after MAIPP’s proposal, the residents of Acheen Street approached the Penang Heritage Trust and publicly raised the issue. Cikgu Mat revealed that MAIPP made the decision to develop the area without first considering the space and consulting the people.6 He urged MAIPP to find an alternative solution since the waqf properties of Acheen Street were protected under the Antiquities Act.7

A Community Participation in Waqf Revitalisation project was coordinated by the Penang Heritage Trust. The project was supported by Unesco’s Local Effort And Preservation (LEAP) programme, whichpromotes active community participation in the development and management of local economies, grounded on local culture, history and environment. The Penang Heritage Trust also ran a series of workshops and roundtable talks, with the permission of community leaders, including Cikgu Mat. As a result, a youth group (Kelab Belia Warisan) was formed to run a small-scale rehabilitation project to demonstrate physical upgrading as a means of heritage revitalisation and community development.8

While Acheen Street is no longer the hub it used to be, memories of its golden era live on, thanks to folks like Cikgu Mat. And more importantly, its houses still stand solid and proud, a village cocooned by history.

The abandoned house (middle) just next to No. 69, Acheen Street was originally owned by Sheikh Zachariah (1855-1926), who later donated it to Madrasah al Quran in 1917.

1Mahani Musa, 2006, “Malay Secret Societies in the Northern Malay States, 1821-1940s”, the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, pg. 10.
2Khoo, Su Nin. “The Acheen Street Community: A Melting Pot of the Malay World” Pulau Pinang vol. 2, no. 2 (January 1990), pg. 19-29.
3Izrin Muaz Md Adnan, 2012, “A History of the Acheen Street Malay Enclave from Oral History Accounts”, JMBRAS, Vol. 85, Part 1, pg. 1-44.
4Gywnn Jenkins, ‘Chapter 6: Heritage, Culture and Tourism’, “Contested Space: Cultural Heritage and Identity Reconstructions. Conservation Strategies within a Developing Asian City”. pg. 175-179
5“National Monument in Peril: The Acheen Mosque (Destruction in the Name of Conservation)”, PHT newsletter, Sept 1995
6“The Acheen Street Controversy”, Utusan Konsumer, November 2002, pg. 12-13.
7The act was abolished together with treasure Trove Act 1957 and both replaced by National Heritage Act 2005.
8“Revitalization of 67 Acheen Street”, PHT newsletter, November 1999
Lim Sok Swan is a research analyst at Penang Institute. Her current research focuses on cultural heritage studies.
Dr Mustafa K Anuar was a Senior Fellow at Penang Institute who appreciates, among other things, history and heritage as they help him to understand the present. He now writes for an online newspaper.

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