A History of Malayalees in Penang: Part Two: The Second Wave – White-Collar Workers, Nationalists and Legislators (1920s-1957)

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The early wave of Malayalee immigrants was largely Muslim.

While the first wave of Malayalees contributed primarily to the physical and commercial development of Penang, the second wave of Malayalees made their mark in the political and social spheres.

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

In the earlier period of the second wave, the immigrants tended to be active 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 came in large numbers, and even in the post-war years, a substantial inflow of middle-class Malayalees continued.

By 1957 the Malayalees had already emerged as the second-largest Indian linguistic group in Malaya, despite constituting only about 7% of the Indian population (Arasaratnam, 1970:33-45). The second generation of these Malayalees advanced to hold various professional positions. Initially, they were content to make their little fortunes in Malaya before returning home. 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 on the land 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, along with other Indian educated and commercial classes, began to consider themselves to be more permanent residents of Malaya than even the labouring classes (Arasaratnam, 1970:82).

Indian associations sprung up in all towns and districts where educated Indians were concentrated. The first of these was formed in Taiping in 1906, which marked the beginning of active involvement by educated Indians in the affairs of Malaya.1

The Indian Association in Penang was formed by P.K. Nambyar, a brilliant Malayalee barrister with impeccable qualifications. He had graduated from Cambridge University in 1893 – no mean achievement during that time – and was called to the Bar in 1894. He was the first Indian advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States.

Nambyar 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, and it 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. Lebuh Nambyar, near the Penang General Hospital, was named after him. He was also one of the founding members and first president of the Indian Ceylon Association.

As their stake in the adopted land grew, the Malayalees sought representation in the legislative arena. During the period when the legislative councils of the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States 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 beyond labour concerns. The breakthrough came when P.K. Nambyar from Penang 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 (Arasaratnam, 1970:57).

Nambyar took 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 Nambyar 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 the sub-standard labour conditions in the plantations. This Act 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 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.

llustrations of Malabaris in the nineteenth century.

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, Menon became actively involved in the Indian National Army (INA), inspired by radical Indian nationalists opposed to the moderate approach of the Indian National Congress. They teamed up with the advancing Japanese 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 INA returned to India but Menon stayed on to serve in Penang until his demise in 1981.

Menon’s standing among the colonial administrators appears to have been unaffected by these adventures in radical nationalism, for in 1952, he was appointed 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. As Chairman of the Settlement Committee for Education, he played a notable role in serving both the English and Tamil schools in Penang. Menon was also the president of the British Medical Association of Malaya from 1955 to 1956. At different times he served as president of the North Malaya Kerala Samajam and the Malayan-German Society as well.

Malabar Street was extended to include areas of Chulia influence and renamed Chulia Street.

N.Raghavan, another Penang lawyer and son-in-law of Nambyar, was a leader of the Penang Indian Association between 1930 and 1937 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 (CIAM), a pan-Malayan Indian organisation, in September 1936. Raghavan was one of the founder members of the association, which was at the vanguard of the struggle to improve the political, social and economic lives of Indians under the colonial government.

Raghavan was the president of CIAM in 1941 when Rash Behari Bose arrived in Singapore

to organise 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 crystallise 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 (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 High School Association, a private school at Jalan Macalister. Nair was also deeply involved with youth organisations, and was the commander of the St. John Ambulance in Penang. He was active in the civil defence of Penang, served as a municipal councillor for George Town between 1956 and 1959 and was the president of the Indian Association of Penang between 1964 and 1969. Jalan Raja Gopal stands as a testimony to his contributions to the general community.

A. Balakrishnan, the brother of 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 formed by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). He was elected a Penang municipal councillor in 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 Women’s wing of the MIC. 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, vice-president of the Rotary Club of Penang, and 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 at 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. Pillai was also instrumental in obtaining over an acre of land for Hindu cremation in Prai. His son, K. Vijayanathan, is presently a lawyer and he was active in Penang 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 – the brilliant lawyer and fearless Judge of the Supreme Court of Malaysia, the late Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader.

By 1951 the Malayalee community in Penang had grown large enough to desire its own association. A group of about 300 Malayalees met at the Penang Indian Association on September 12 that year to celebrate the Onam and Hari Raya Haji festivals. 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. Its first Annual General Meeting was held on August 31, 1952 at the Indian Association in Penang, and it 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).2 However, 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 February 15, 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.

It is notable that Malayalees of other faiths continue to celebrate associated holy days and festivals in their own unique way. For example, 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 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 had diminished.

Later arrivals were predominantly Hindu and there was less inter-marriage with the local Malays. But 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.

The last wave of Malayalees were also mainly Hindu, but more 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 have 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 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 a minority within the Indian community, it continues to champion the causes of the larger Indian community, part from what it sees as national causes.

1 The descriptions of the personalities that follow were drawn largely from HPPC (1986), Netto (1961) and Arasaratnam (1970).

2This 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.).


Arasaratnam, S. Indians in Malaysia and Singapore. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1970.

HPPC. Historical Personalities of Penang. Penang: Historical Personalities of Penang Committee, 1986.

Netto, G. Indians in Malaya: Historical Facts and Figures, Singapore: George Netto (selfpublished), 1961.

Razak and Kunhimon (nd.) “A Cursory Glance at the Historical Background of Malabari Muslims.” (http://e-malabari.tripod.com/history11.htm). Updated; accessed on 14 Oct. 2017.

This is Part Two 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 One was published in the March issue of Penang Monthly.

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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