A History of Malayalees in Penang: Part One: The First Wave – Traders, Convicts and Builders

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The Malayalees originate from the modernday 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 Older historical references identify them as Malabaris because they were from the Malabar Coast,1 which was made up of British Malabar2 and the princely states of Travancore and Cochin.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 but in fact, they have embraced all the major religions of the world – Hinduism, Judaism,3 Christianity and Islam – and are united by their language and common cultural heritage.

Small Indian vessels used on the coast of Malabar.

Early evidence of Malabari presence on 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 use of the Pallava Grantha script, dating from the fourth and fifth centuries, suggests strongly of links with traders from South India.

From the sixth century, the influence of South India on the Kedah region through trade is more concrete. Ports along the Kedah (or “Kataaram” to the Indian traders4) coast were popular with traders from India. Unmistakable remains of former Indian settlements have been found along the valleys of Sungai Bujang, Sungai Merbok and Kuala Muda. On mountaintops such as 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 ninth and mid-fourteenth centuries, South Indian traders were still active in South-East Asia, including Kedah. Inscriptions in Tanjore (Tamil Nadu), the seat of the mighty Chola Dynasty, record an attack by its king Rajendra Chola (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 Controlling Malabar was part of the Chola strategy to take on the Arabs, who were strong competitors in the South- East Asian trade (Thapar, 1966:195). In the fifteenth century, although Indian Muslims from South India became a well-established community in Malacca, there is no direct evidence of Malabaris being present there.

On September 1, 1509, the Malay Peninsula had its first contact with Europeans when five Portuguese ships under Diego Lopez de Sequeira visited Malacca. Despite the initial warm welcome, the Malays were subsequently instigated to attack the visitors, causing them to flee and leave behind two ships and 20 men – one of whom was destined to circumnavigate the world, Ferdinand Magellan.

Coast of Malabar circa 1775.

This episode presumably prompted the Portuguese Viceroy, Alfonso d’Albuquerque, to make a show of force in Malacca, accompanied by both Portuguese and Malabari soldiers. He set sail from Cochin (in India) to Malacca on May 2, 1511 with 19 ships and 800 Portuguese and 600 Malabari fighting men (Sabri, nd; Wright, 1989:127-8).6 This is the first unambiguous record of Malayalees setting foot on the Malay Peninsula.

While the immediate reason for Albuquerque’s appearance in Malacca was to avenge the perceived insult, larger objectives no doubt drove him. After the initial assault on Malacca, he reportedly motivated his captains with the declaration that “the great service which we shall perform to Our Lord in casting the Moors out of this country and of quenching the fire of the sect of Mahomet so that it may never burst out hereafter.” He also added, “I hold it certain that if we take the trade of Malacca away from them (the Moors), Cairo and Mecca will be entirely ruined and Venice will receive no spiceries, unless her merchants go and buy them in Portugal” (Panikkar, 1953:49; Ross, 1929:11). Given the anti-Muslim nature of his campaign, it is highly unlikely that Malabari Muslims would have accompanied him on this enterprise. This strengthens our point that the term “Malabari” also referred to non- Muslims from the Malabar region.

The Portuguese successfully captured Malacca in 40 days, and 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 eighteenth century, after Malacca fell into Portuguese hands, it was closed to Muslim trade. Tamil Muslim traders or Chulias, originating from the Coromandel Coast, started settling in Kedah. And when Captain Francis Light established a trading post in Penang, they began to move from Kedah to the island as well.

Malayalee Migration 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 voluntary individual immigrants, including those who came as traders; and convict labour brought into Penang after it became a penal settlement for India in 1789. The second wave was made up of educated young men who came voluntarily to the country in search of employment opportunities, primarily in white-collar occupations.

If British-based historical sources are to be believed, Penang was a sleepy island with a few scattered villages – mostly Malay fishermen – when Light established a trading post there in 1786 (Jessy, 1972:162).7 However, the number of inhabitants 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 being a commercial centre, alongside 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), 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 woodcutters and paddy 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 Muslims8 – 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 George Town, or the Jawi Pekan (Salleh Hussain, 1990:3).

That there was no mention of Malabaris is intriguing and one can only speculate on the reasons for this curious omission. One possible explanation is that the large subsequent waves of Chulias and the intermarriage of Malabaris with local women and their assimilation into local culture deprived the community of a separate identity. Indeed, Malabar Street was extended to include areas of Chulia influence and renamed Chulia Street. But all this occurred in a later period. Surely there must have been more than 100 Malabaris to attract Light’s attention when he was penning his letter, since he remembered to mention the 100 Siamese and Burmese. Another reason might be that all Indian Muslims, Chulias or Malabaris, were being referred to as Chulias out of convenience or ignorance. Nevertheless, other bits of evidence clearly indicate that the Malabaris had become a significant community, even before the Chulia population became important in Penang.

Cochin Jews, also called Malabar Jews. A small but thriving Jewish community exists to this day in Kerala.

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). 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 Nasution (2001), 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.9

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).10 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 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)11. The reference to Pillai’s “friends in Penang” points strongly to an established community with men of substance – most probably fellow Malabaris.

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 50 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 (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 endowed it with 20 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 the 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.

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 in 1864, more Indians than Chinese disembarked at Penang; second, throughout the first half of the nineteenth 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 that “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.

Keramat Dato Koya on Transfer Road.

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 could 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 plasterwork found in Penang’s elite Muslim homes and prestigious civic buildings. 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 George Town. Some rose from being contract workers to become reputed contractors themselves.

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 George Town. Some rose from being contract workers to become reputed contractors themselves.

Khoo (2001) 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 circa 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.

Chowrasta Market was at the centre of Malabari influence.

He is credited with raising the Police Headquarters building at Penang Road in 1938. After the Second World War, in around 1951, he undertook possibly the biggest council housing schemes 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 in 1953 by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the future prime minister of independent Malaya.

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

The Chinese…did small-scale bakau 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, 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 Mohammad Iskandar, rose to become the fourth prime minister of Malaysia (Morais, 1982:2).

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 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 Malabari ex-convicts grew to become Kampong Malabar. The ex-convicts, who had become petty traders, 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 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 who 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 group of predominantly Muslim people, the Khalasis of Malabar, famous for their boat building and boat repair skills using simple but cleverly designed equipment and devices put together by their ancestors (Abdurahiman, 2004:279-83).13

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. 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 the Madras Presidency in 1800. 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 Phoenicia 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 Canannore. The ships of King Solomon of Biblical fame visited Ophir in 1000 B.C. Ophir 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 Estimates vary; another source says 1,000 Portuguese and 400 Malabaris (Ross, 1929:11).

7 Light was reported to have found 58 men, women and children near the foothills of Dato Kramat. They subsequently were allowed to come and build houses in the little township he had founded (See Cullin and Zehnder, 1905).

8 Khoo (2014) speculates that people from the Chola Kingdom of South India were originally referred to as Chulia. Their area of influence (Cholamandalam in Tamil) became the Coromandel Coast in European sources. With the decline of the Chola dynasty, much of their trade in the Straits of Malacca fell into the hands of other South Indian traders who were largely Tamil Muslims. In time, therefore, the term Chulia referred exclusively to Tamil Muslims. Thus, Chulia appears to be a corruption of the original Chola (or Chula).

9 It should be added that Kaka and Mappla are terms commonly used to mean Malayalee Muslims and are current in Kerala until today. Koya, on the other hand, referred originally to members of a trading community among the Muslims in Malabar. The men among them add the suffix Koya and the women add Beebi to their names (Abdurahiman, 2004: 252-255).

10 In Netto (1961:14), however, Pillai is described as having been a clerk in Penang.

11 It should be added that since writing the original article, I have come across material that cast doubts on whether Pillai was a Malayalee because the caste name, Pillai (and its numerous variations in spelling), is common to both Malayalees and Tamils. Official references in Singapore, such as the e-resources of the National Library of Singapore, only describes him as the “first Indian to set foot in Singapore in 1819” (See http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/ infopedia/articles/SIP_771_2004-12-29.html). Subsequent references to him in popular writing and a Wikipedia entry claim him to be a Tamil but offer no support for this assertion. The fact that he worked largely among Tamils in Singapore and helped build temples for them cannot conclusively show that he is Tamil. Even on the Malay Peninsula, many Malayalees have worked with Tamils for larger Indian causes and headed organisations made up largely of Tamils.

12 Minattur (1968) has an interesting discussion on the Malabar influence on Malay language and culture.

13 They are found largely in Beypore, and its surrounding areas, in Kozhikode district in Kerala,


This is Part One of an updated version of the original paper that was presented at the Second Colloquium of the Penang Story Project on September 22, 2001 in Penang. The original paper was written with valuable input from Mukundan Menon, C.T. Padmanabhan and V.V. Sarachandran. Yet, all of them modestly declined any claim to authorship. Part Two will be published in the April issue of Penang Monthly.



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Suresh Narayanan has been teaching economics at the School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, for more years than he cares to remember; fortunately, his love of history has kept him sane.

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