Penang Story is story of Penang by fjzhxb

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									The Penang Story – International Conference 2002 18-21 April 2002, The City Bayview Hotel, Penang, Malaysia Organisers: The Penang Heritage Trust & STAR Publications

Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History

Dr. Tan Liok Ee School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang Email


The four separate colloqia on The Penang Story have stimulated tremendous interest in the recovery of memories and stories about Penang‟s past and in the rich possibilities of memoirs or biographies of individuals, family, clan, and occupational histories, as well as the histories of various groups and sub-groups that have been part of Penang history. In line with the theme of celebrating cultural diversity, the emphasis was on the plurality of peoples, social institutions, and political and cultural influences that have converged here and sustained a unique vitality. This vitality was sometimes precarious as shown in the stories of marginalized groups, dying art forms and lost causes. These different histories are interesting and legitimate in their own right, but can they be interpreted and understood as part of, a “larger” story?

This paper suggests a perspective centred on three key concepts. The first sees Penang as a “confluence” where peoples, institutions, movements, ideas, cultural practices have regularly converged. The flows of these arrivals at different points in time have continuously linked Penang to social and cultural networks or economic and political structures, both regional and global. Yet Penang was always in a sense on the periphery; it was rapidly eclipsed by Singapore as an entrepot, by Kuala Lumpur as administrative centre, later capital, and it did not have Melaka‟s stature as the seat of a Malay empire. Being a confluence yet on the periphery, Penang not only attracted merchants and craftsmen of diverse ethnic origins but was also a sanctuary for Islamic reformers and Malay, Chinese and Indian nationalists. Thus it was, from its earliest days, a centre for the dissemination of new ideas through schools and publications.

Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


The second suggests that there have been “conjunctures” of political and/or socio-economic change – the British takeover of the island in 1786, the Japanese invasion in 1941, the determination of the Malayan nation-state from 1945 to 1957 and post-1969 changes to the Malaysian political economy – which mark points of critical changes, framing the limits of individual choices. These conjunctures help us to see the relative roles of social forces and human agency in the emergence and vitality of particular movements, groups or individuals and the fading away of others. A third dynamic of change came from the many dimensions of conflicts and contestations – within families between genders and generations, between social classes and/or ethnic groups, amongst competing political cultures, movements, and ideologies – that arose from within Penang‟s diverse and plural society and its constant exposure to external factors as a confluence within regional and global systems. Educational developments in Penang will be used as a specific case to illustrate how seeing Penang‟s history from the perspective of particular confluences and contestations within critical historical conjunctures helps us to understand why some individuals, groups have had only brief moments of glory while others have withstood better the tests of change and time.

Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History



I would like to begin by congratulating the organizers of this conference on their success in arousing tremendous interest amongst Penangites in the recovery of memories and stories about Penang‟s past. The four colloqium, leading up to this conference, brought out the wealth of historical knowledge that remains buried in individual or group memories, and in stories about outstanding individuals, prominent families, major clans and important social institutions. Of equal, if not greater importance, as several speakers during the colloqium emphasized, is local knowledge about ordinary people from all walks of life. The colloqium, held between August 2001 and February 2002, were occasions for „the retelling of history in the light of its own people, the purveyors of the multicultural heritage of this unique place on earth‟ (The Star, 21 Sept.2001). They were moments of historiographical excitement as a multiplicity of local voices and narratives claimed their place in the making, and writing, of The Penang Story. Ironically, it is the objective of getting Penang listed on UNESCO‟s list of global cultural heritage sites that has prompted so many Penangites to begin delving into their own local history. But perhaps this is appropriate given that, as I shall argue in this paper, the most important points in our history have come from intersections between global and local forces. The colloqium‟s focus on the people of Penang, as the historical subject of The Penang Story, is understandable and legitimate given the following factors that distinguish Penang from many of the other states of Malaysia. Penang was originally part of Kedah, the oldest of all the Malay states. But, after becoming a colony directly ruled by the British, Penang‟s history, unlike that of the Malay states, was no longer linked to a sultan and Malay ruling class. Penang‟s history is also different from that of the other two Straits Settlements, though all three shared a common political and administrative system for almost a hundred years.1 Melaka‟s history tends to be dominated by its past as the seat of the Melaka Empire, which has become a centrepiece of Malaysia‟s national narrative. Singapore‟s, on the other hand, is often treated, particularly by its leaders, as a narrative celebrating a small and vulnerable nation-state‟s development into a global hub and international financial centre. Foregoing such approaches to writing Penang‟s history, the challenge then is what concepts, structures or framework can hold the diverse stories of the people of Penang together in an overall perspective that can, at the same time, project those aspects of Penang‟s history that make it different. This paper suggests a perspective that sees Penang‟s history through a series of conjunctures, each of which provided the context or space for particular confluences and contestations to occur.

Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


Historical conjunctures are seismic shifts in the social, economic and political landscape that create new spaces for confluences to gather strength or deepen old fissures, bringing long simmering contestations into the open as outright confrontations. The major conjunctures in Penang‟s history came from the meeting of local, regional and global forces, reminding us that writing the Penang story requires a perspective that is not narrowly focussed just on events that happened within the political boundaries of the state itself.2 The concept of conjunctures as points of dramatic change also reminds us that while it is people who make history, they do so in particular circumstances over which they do not have total control but which present them with possibilities as well as problems. „They came from all over the world,‟ says the poster as you enter the Penang museum‟s main hall with exhibits on the diverse peoples that make up Penang‟s population. The concept of

confluences, meaning the point where two or more streams meet and intermingle, projects and explains this diversity, emphasizing the fluid dynamism of multiple „waves‟ of people flowing in to Penang, from different directions at different points in time, bringing with them different ways of living and thinking, beliefs and value systems, social institutions and organizational structures, and, the particular agendas of their time. The stories of these „waves‟ of human settlements were told separately during the colloqium, as stories of particular groups, from the nomadic Semang-Pangan and early Malay settlements to the influxes, in large numbers and of great diversity, that came in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The concept of confluences brings these separate stories together as successive overlays of social encounters in which new identities were defined and inscribed, emphasizing the creative energies of human agency in the process of adapting to living in a new environment.

The metaphor of flows and confluences implies, of course, both the possibilities of convergences and divergences, neither of which would, in any case, remain static for too long. As the site of multiple social encounters, Penang has, inevitably, also been the site of confrontations and conflicts. This is an important aspect of Penang‟s history that did not come out so clearly during the four earlier colloqium, partly perhaps because they were focussed on the theme of celebrating diversity. I have chosen the term contestations, that can cover all kinds of acts or processes of strife, struggle, contest, dispute, controversy, or conflicts pushing for resolution, because it allows for a wider range of different kinds of tussles. Contestations can occur within families between genders and generations, within or between social classes and/or ethnic groups, amongst competing political parties, cultures, movements, and ideologies. There can be, and there have been in Penang‟s history, different kinds and levels of contestations – from schisms that have set one branch or generation of a family against another, to intense verbal contests between rival newspapers or magazines, to fierce contests for leadership and
Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


political power. Some conflicts have led to violent confrontations in the streets, as occurred in 1867, or tear-gas being used to against students, as happened during demonstrations by Chinese school students in 1956, or as part of the outright war between the colonial government and supporters of the Communist Party of Malaya that began in 1948. Contestations may have tragic consequences and are almost certain to leave bitter memories. Nevertheless, as an important part of the dynamics of historical change, we have to face them, warts and all, as integral aspects of Penang‟s past.

Confluences and Contestations after 1786 Light‟s takeover of the island in 1786, though illegal until the Sultan of Kedah was forced by military defeat to sign the 1791 treaty, is clearly the first major conjuncture in Penang‟s history. To see it as a conjuncture emphasizes not the single event or human act but the combination of forces that led to it, and the impacts emanating from those forces. It was not just Light‟s determination, and the tactics he used, to occupy an island he saw as having immense potential. It was also Sultan Abdullah‟s desperate bid to gain a European ally in Kedah‟s struggle for security and survival as an independent polity that led him to allow Light to set up a British settlement on an island on the periphery of his kingdom. This takes us, in turn, to Kedah‟s vulnerability in the long-standing regional power struggle between Siam and Burma, both of which then had militant and ambitious men on their thrones. And to economic and political changes in Europe contributing to Britain‟s growing power abroad (Bonney, 1971).

1786 marked the entry of British power in the Malay Archipelago. After 1786, Kedah was further weakened. No protection from the EIC came in the face of Siamese attacks and its economy went into steep decline after two decades of resistance against Siamese conquest. Refugees from Kedah flooded into Penang, boosting Province Wellesley‟s agricultural sector. while the town grew as a port and trading centre. From a relatively obscure corner of Kedah, Penang became a centre of regional trade in the early 19th century. It‟s status as an entrepot was over-shadowed after 1819 by Singapore, which also took over as the administrative centre of the Straits Settlements in 1832. Nevertheless its economic base was strengthened from the second half of the 19 th century by the growth of the tin and later rubber industries in the Malay Peninsula. Penang then became part of the global political economy of colonial capitalism.

Unlike Singapore and later Kuala Lumpur, Penang was not an administrative or legislative centre, leaving it slightly on the periphery of the main focus of colonial power in the Malay Peninsula. Apart from some changes in political administration, Penang remained essentially within the same basic economic and political landscape until the Japanese occupation began in 1941. It was in this
Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


long period of 155 years of relative continuity, during which its population grew from a few hundred to over 300,000, that multiple confluences took root and the first contestations emerged. Light‟s takeover of the island was followed immediately by the first influxes of settlers. The first flows came from within the region - most immediately from Kedah as well as other states in the peninsula, from Aceh and other parts of Sumatra and the Malay archipelago, from neighbouring Siam and Burma, followed by those who came from further afield - Hadramaut, India, and China. Among the earliest arrivals on the island were those who came with wealth and capital, such as Tengku Syed Hussein, a member of the Aceh royal family and Cheah Eam, a Chinese from Kedah, the wealthiest men on the island in their time. Kader Mydin Merican, the first Kapitan Kling, is reputed to have come to Penang, from Kedah, in 1786, with Light and Koh Lay Kuan, the first Chinese Kapitan, also from Kedah, came within a few days after Light. There were European traders and adventurers such as James Scott, who was Light‟s business partner and David Brown, who became the biggest landowner on the island in his time. At the other end of the social scale were convicts from India, coolies and craftsmen from China and Malay peasants who flooded in from Kedah after the Siamese attacks began in 1821.3

After the Siamese conquest, Sufis from Kedah sought refuge in Penang, just as earlier during Light‟s time, Catholics led by Bishop Garnault had come from Kuala Kedah, where his congregation had taken refuge from persecution by Siamese authorities in Ligor and Phuket. Similarly, Portuguese Eurasians were among the Catholics who left Melaka, then still under the Dutch, to come to Penang. The imprints of the multiple flows of peoples can be tracked through successive maps of Penang, showing the town expanding outwards from its earliest streets and the growth of agricultural settlements on the mainland (Khoo, 1994; Ooi, 2002; Tan, 1981). As the first generation of occupants was displaced by subsequent arrivals, the names and character of some streets changed. Names of streets reflected the diverse origins of its inhabitants and their occupations, while the architecture of the houses exhibited a creative eclectic mix of European and Asian features (Khoo, 2001).

The confluence of different peoples and ways of life within the boundaries of early Georgetown is also manifested in the places of worship, located cheek by jowl, along the same, or on neighbouring, streets. By the early 19th century, the Guangfu Gong or Kuan Yin Temple, the Kapitan Kling mosque, Acheen Street mosque, Nagore Shrine, Mahamariamman temple, St. George‟s Church had been built on their present locations, within walking distance of each other. Nearby were the Catholic Church and not so far away there was an Armenian church. Similarly different streams of Buddhism, from Siam, Burma, Ceylon and China, had their temples, and their followers, here. The increasing number of Chinese association buildings spreading from King Street to other roads in the
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vicinity, indicated the growing network of social organizations as the Chinese populace began putting down its roots (Khoo, 2001; Tan, 1987). The expansion of colonial enterprise on the peninsula in the late 19 th century brought additional waves of immigrants while smaller flows resulted from regional upheavals, such as in Aceh and Burma, where the Dutch and British fought to extend the boundaries of their colonial empire. By the early 20th century, Penang was a sanctuary for political and social activists of various persuasions and a base from which leaders of nationalistic or social reform movements launched their activities. Living on the same or neighbouring streets, supporters of Turkish nationalism, Achehnese independence, Arab religious reformers, Chinese nationalists and republicans could well have met and compared notes with each other.

Penang became an important centre for the Islamic reform movement, which had begun in Singapore with the launching of Al-Imam in 1906. The Jelutong printing press, under Syed Sheik AlHadi‟s leadership, published periodicals such as Al-Ikwan, Saudara, Suara Malaysia, Semangat Islam as well as pamphlets and books. The Kwong Wah Yit Poh was established in 1910 by supporters of Sun Yat Sen to counter the Penang Sin Po, established earlier in 1895, which had become a mouthpiece for royalist supporters of the Qing. The publisher of the Penang Sin Po, the Criterion Press, founded in 1883 by Lim Hua Chiam, was also the publisher of Chahaya Pulau Pinang, a Malay weekly, and from 1903, of The Straits Echo, an English daily claiming to be „the people‟s paper‟.

Successive influxes of settlers thus brought new ideas and new ways of disseminating those ideas. Penang‟s diverse peoples set up equally diverse kinds of educational institutions for their children. Malay children living in the rural outskirts were taught in traditional pondok schools while in the town Muslim children went to religious schools, the earliest of which were those set up in the early 19th century by Indian Muslims. The beginning of vernacular Malay education was marked by the establishment of the Gelugor Malay School in 1826. From the 20th century, madrasahs set up by Arabs became more prominent. Two famous examples are the Madrasah Suluk Kampung Melayu, which was started in 1806 as a centre for Sufi education by Hamid bin Bahman from Hadramaut, and the Madrasatul Mashoor Al-Islamiyah set up a century later in 1916 (Omar Farouk, 1978).

In 1808, the College-General, a seminary that trained clergy for Catholic churches throughout Asia, had found a permanent home in Penang. English education became available with the establishment of the Penang Free School in 1816, followed by Hutchings School in 1821, the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and St Xavier‟s in 1852, St. Georges Girls School in 1885, and two AngloChinese schools, one for boys in 1891 followed the year after by another for girls in 1892. Small
Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


Chinese sishu, or private schools, reported to exist since the early 19th century were slowly replaced by public schools, the first of which were Nanhua Yixue and the Tong Xian Yixue, founded in 1888 and 1897, respectively. Modern or „new style‟ Chinese schools began in 1904 with the Chung Hwa Confucian School.

Teachers for this wide range of educational institutions came, literally, from all over the world. The schools were confluences where children from different ethnic and social backgrounds met and new social unities were explored or inculcated. Islam was the unifying element for Muslim children of Malay, Indian or Arabic descent; the Chinese schools brought together children from different clans and dialect groups; and the English schools produced a multi-ethnic elite strata which played an increasing role in the political life of the colony. But the sheer diversity of types of education available also sustained differences and divergences. By the early 20th century, Penang was already a regional educational centre. The Madrasatul Mashoor Al-Islamiyah as a leading centre for modernist Islamic education in the region had students from all over peninsular Malaya, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia and even India. Premier English and Chinese schools had students not only from neighbouring states, but also from neighbouring countries, particularly Thailand. Penang was also a centre where intending Muslim pilgrims, from Thailand, Sumatra, as well as from all over the peninsula, gathered to depart on the Haj.

Families could be confluences in microcosm. Among the first few generations of settlers, mixed marriages were not uncommon. An English doctor stationed in Penang between 1857 and 1865 was shocked to find that „all the respectable islanders are mixed‟ and Mr. Brown, the most important planter, was „one of a family of four racially mixed brothers none of whom shared the same mother‟ (Ross, 1980: 89). As is well known, Light himself had as his life partner, Martina Rozells, a local Eurasian woman. Both the first Kapitan Kling and his successor, Mohamed Merican Noordin, had wives of various origins. Other notable examples are Syed Alatas, prominent Arab merchant and leader of the Red Flag Society whose second wife was the daughter of Khoo Poh, wealthy businessman and leader of the Tua Pek Kong society, and Lee Hin, founder of the Foochew Association, leader of the Ghee Hin, was reported to have a Malay wife.

More important than such individual examples, is the long history of Arab, Indian Muslim, and to a lesser extent, Chinese settlers marrying local women, cementing political and economic ties between families. From this long history evolved the peranakan communities, paradigms of the unique results of the intermingling of different cultural elements that inscribed their impact on many
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aspects of life in Penang. Similarly, the diversity that is contained within the single label „Eurasian‟ can be unravelled across the centuries, to ancestries from many different parts of the world.

The list of different confluences that can be plotted in The Penang Story could go on speakers at the colloqium touched on the evidence of mixed heritage in language, music and entertainment, the arts, even food. Perhaps particularly worthy of note is the unique blend of intonation and eclectic vocabulary in both the Hokkien and Malay spoken in Penang, commented on by observers as early as the beginning of the 20th century. The overlay of multiple confluences, of cultural hybridising of polyglot elements, was particularly intense within the town area where peoples, buildings, streets, and especially entertainment centres, all partook of a vibrant urban cosmopolitan cultural life that reached a climax in the decade just before the Japanese invasion.4

Simultaneously, as the confluences were being formed and taking root, contestations were taking place. In October 1786, barely three months after Light brought in the first group of settlers to the island, he reported that they were „already disputing the ground, everyone building as fast as he can‟ (as quoted in City Council of Georgetown, Penang, 1966: 4). Disputing the ground continued, even after a legal framework was put in place. Contestations over land and control of economic resources, including labour, intensified and became more complex as Penang-based Chinese financiers and leaders of secret societies, became involved in the contest over tin-mines in Perak, which was in turn intertwined with power struggles between rival claimants to be sultan (Khoo, 1972). The town was the scene of repeated violent clashes between rival alliances of secret societies, with Chinese, Malay and Indian leaders and members on both sides. Religious celebrations, or street festivals, sometimes erupted into street brawls. Such violent and rowdy confrontations became less frequent after the secret societies were driven underground and the colonial administration exerted greater control over the population. But even after they were proscribed, the secret societies continued their territorial contests for members underground, as hidden networks of supporters who could be swiftly mobilized for various causes (Mahani, 1999).

Two local scholars see 1786 as marking the beginning of a leadership and identity crisis for Malays in Penang (Md. Salleh, 1984:4; Mahani, 2000:61). Cut-off from their traditional focus of political loyalty and leadership of an established elite, they lived no longer under the authority of a raja or pembesar. Those born in the colony were in fact technically British subjects living under what they called a „gobermen‟ (Muhammad Ibrahim Munsyi, 1980: xLiii), a foreign authority that left them largely to their own devices. On the island, the Malays found themselves rapidly outnumbered, and marginalized, to the rural periphery of a cosmopolitan town. In the town, Jawi Peranakan and Arab leaders had gained ascendancy because of their wealth or their religious learning. There was no
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official religious hierarchy in the absence of a traditional elite, and a colonial administration that avoided direct involvement in religious matters, leaving the ulamas to compete for influence (Mahani, 1999). Malays who had fled from Kedah after 1821, continued to be drawn into Kedah‟s military revolts against Siamese rule, until the Sultan returned to Kedah in 1843. Even those who were not enlisted directly into battle would have remained embroiled in Kedah‟s politics (given the fact that, for many years, the Sultan himself was a refugee in Penang, from which base he organized his supporters against Siam) and that of the neighbouring Malay states (as pembesar from those states frequently came to Penang to solicit financial support in their intrigues against one another).5

It was under such conditions that secret societies emerged among the Malay-Muslim population in Penang. The Red and White Flag Societies may have had their origins as loose secret organizations behind three revolts against Siam, between 1831 and 1839, with links between them and Chinese secret societies developing as the latter took sides in the conflicts between Kedah and Siam through Ligor. A more likely possibility is that they originated on the island where, like the Chinese secret societies, they began as self-help kongsi that provided protection and assistance to members. 6 The Chinese, and to a lesser extent also the Malay, secret societies functioned as imperium in imperio in a situation where the colonial administration fulfilled the minimal functions of a state.7 Secret society violence was rarely racial as there were usually Chinese, Malays and Indians involved on both sides. Other types of social organizations did not emerge until the first few decades of the 20th century when a modern elite, comprised of educated intelligentsia, led an Islamic reform movement amidst growing awareness of Malay backwardness, especially in comparison to the dynamism of the immigrant urban population (Roff, 1974:Ch.3). Initially, the predominance of Jawi Peranakan and Arab leaders in movements that addressed Malay issues and organizations that claimed to represent Malay opinions, indicated that they identified themselves easily with, and were accepted by, Malays within a broad rubric of a Malay-Muslim society in which ethnicity or descent was secondary. The earliest organizations such as Muslim Merchants‟ Club, Mohamedan Football Association and Young Muslim Union left out any reference to descent. Men of Arab descent, such as Syed Sheik Tahir Jalaluddin, spearheaded the Islamic reform movement and Jawi Peranakan leaders predominated in later organizations such as the Penang Malay Association, formed in 1927, and the Persaudaraan Sahabat Pena, launched in 1934 (Fujimoto, 1989; Md. Salleh, 1984).

Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


However, the issue of the nomination of a Malay representative to the Straits Settlements Legislative Council brought simmering resentment of Arab and Jawi Peranakan dominance into the open. In the 1930s, the Arab and Jawi Peranakan elite in Penang and Singapore were increasingly perceived as intruders by leaders in the mainland Malay states who began to draw tighter boundaries around a definition of „Melayu jati‟ to exclude those who were perceived as „not truly Malay‟.

The Penang Malay Association, with members and leadership from an urban Englisheducated Jawi Peranakan base, was challenged by the formation of the Seberang Prai Malay Association in 1930, whose membership comprised rural Malays and leaders came from a more religious background and the Penang Malays Union in 1937. Branches of the Persaudaraan Sahabat Pena in the Malay states rebelled against the organization‟s Jawi Peranakan central leadership based in Penang and the Penang Malay Association was not invited to the 1939 national congress of Malay organizations in Kuala Lumpur, further weakening the standing of its Jawi Peranakan leadership. Meanwhile, the formation of a Penang branch of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda, soon after the party was launched in Kuala Lumpur in 1937, indicated the emergence of a separate, more radical nationalist group whose objective was freedom from colonial rule (Md. Salleh, 1984:18-26).

The heterogeneity of immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, differentiated by ethnicity, language, religion, caste, and class made attempts to find cohesion under common social organizations difficult. The first Indian Association in Peninsular Malaysia was formed in Penang in 1892. But it lapsed into inactivity and was revived several times, as its English-educated leadership struggled to bring together Hindus, Muslims, Tamils, Ceylonese, Punjabis, within a single umbrella organization (Khoo, 1992).

There were, similarly, fissures amongst the Chinese living in Penang. Particularly apparent was a divide between the old established, and wealthy, Straits-born families, which comprised an elite strata of English-educated „King‟s Chinese‟ who were proud of their status as British subjects, and the newly-immigrant Chinese, who were legally „aliens‟ and whose ties to their ancestral homeland remained strong. Leaders of both groups sometimes came together in the Chinese Town Hall and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce as well as various organizations, based on clan, district, and occupation, which were the main channels of Chinese social and political life, but the English and Chinese-educated Chinese were „virtually separate communities‟ (Ooi, 1967:72).

The Hu Yu Seah, formed in 1914, was a conscious attempt to bring the English-educated and Chinese-educated Chinese together to explore their common concerns while the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA) in Penang, formed in 1920, represented the relatively small number of
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Chinese who were British subjects. The SCBA in Penang, like its counterparts in Singapore and Melaka, tried but failed to win a greater role for the Straits-born Chinese within the colonial government (Tan, 1978). One Penang voice that spoke loudly for the Straits-born, English-educated Chinese was Lim Cheng Ean. Lim is famed especially for a speech in which he claimed that the Chinese who had lived here all their lives had „become inseparable from this country‟ and could claim it equally to be theirs. His rhetorical question, „Who said this is a Malay country?‟ denying sole proprietary claims by any one group reflected a perspective formed within the cosmopolitan port-city of Penang. This jarred against the totally different view of Malays in the peninsular states, intensifying Malay nationalist claims that „this country‟ was historically Tanah Melayu. Even as Lim focussed on the local identity of the Straits-born Chinese, Malay leaders pointed to the growing appeal of Chinese nationalism in Malaya, especially after Japan‟s invasion of China in 1937.

These contestations, reflecting increasing political awareness amongst the local population, indicated the impact of nationalist awakenings in other parts of Asia and Africa. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was followed by the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, launching a nationalist movement against British rule while in China the Boxer uprising in 1900 was followed by the republican revolution of 1911, and in turn by the May Fourth Cultural revolution of 1919. Impacting more directly on the Muslim population were the rise of Turkish nationalism after the Young Turks revolution of 1908, the 1919 uprising in Eygpt, the Achehnese war against the Dutch from 1881 to 1908 and the formation of the Sarekat Islam in 1912, the first mass-based organization in Indonesia. These events, of great moment in their respective locations, also had tremendous impact among the intelligentsia in Penang, especially those who had been educated abroad, in West Asia, Europe, India or China. The crosscurrents of nationalist movements were building up towards a conjuncture that would again see the intersection of global, regional and local forces, opening a new phase in the exploration of confluences and contestations by the people of Penang.

Contestations within the Nation, 1946-1969

The Japanese occupation years, from invasion in 1941 to surrender in 1945, stand apart as years of repression and terror on a scale Penang inhabitants had hitherto not experienced. There was loss of life, economic hardship and much suffering. It is a period about which many stories have been, and many more can be, written as few, if any, escaped the impact of a world turned upside down. 8 More important still is the fact that the end of World War II brought with it seismic changes in the international order and the beginning of the end of colonial rule for most colonies, including Penang. For all Penangites, there was no possibility of return to the status quo ante as a conjuncture of

Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


international, regional and local forces brought with it the necessity of redefining their political identity.

From the proposal of the Malayan Union in 1946 to its replacement by the Federation of Malaya in 1948, Merdeka in 1957, formation of Malaysia in 1963, separation of Singapore in 1965, up till the May 13th racial riots of 1969, and its aftermath, Penang together with the other states of Malaysia were brought within the structure of a nation-state to face the many contentious issues in its formation and consolidation.9 In this process, new convergences and divergences emerged as

different groups confronted the demands of a modern nation-state.

The Malayan Union galvanized Malays in the peninsula into a national movement, the sense of crisis pushing aside the issue of who was or was not „truly Malay‟. Members of the Penang Malay Association, the Seberang Prai Malay Association, the Penang Malay Union found a new unity among themselves, and with Malays in the Malay states, within the new mass-based struggle of Bangsa Melayu. Their members, together with those of other Malay organizations, took part in the mass rally held on June 1 1946, in the Francis Light School compound, to oppose the Malayan Union. And, when Penang UMNO was formed, the Jawi Peranakan leaders of the Penang Malay Association were accepted among its leaders (Md. Salleh, 1984).

There was more divergence in non-Malay responses to the Malayan Union. Some groups welcomed the Malayan Union, especially the promise of equal rights for all citizens, as a necessary step towards eventual self-government while others were still distracted by or engaged in political developments in India and China. A clearer sense of direction was found after the Federation proposals were announced following negotiations between the colonial authorities, the sultans, and UMNO leaders. Penang organizations were part of the first multi-ethnic coalition, the PUTERAAMCJA, which objected to the undemocratic manner of negotiations toward the Federation proposals and called for a new constitution providing for an elected legislature, equal rights for all citizens and a Federation that included Singapore. The PUTERA-AMCJA can be regarded as a new, and significant, confluence in the development of a multi-ethnic Malayan nationalism (Cheah, 1985). Its mass base was indicated in a successful hartal in October 1947 during which all major towns in the peninsula, including Penang, were shut down. Nevertheless, it failed to prevent the Federation from coming into force in February 1948. The anti-Federation movement dissipated with the proclamation of a state of Emergency by the British in June, as Malay and non-Malay activists seen by the British as „radicals‟ were detained or deported. In effect an open war between the colonial state and the Communist Party of Malaya, whose objective was liberation from colonial rule through armed struggle, the Emergency was frequently cast in racial terms.
Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


In Penang, Eurasians and Straits-born English-educated Chinese, two groups that had enjoyed privileged positions under British rule, found these changes in the political rubric particularly traumatic. The SCBA became a political anachronism, cast off from the two anchors of its identity – British subjects in the Straits Settlements. Straits Chinese were grouped together with „alien‟ Chinese, equally subject to the possibility of „repatriation‟, whereas recent immigrants from the Malay archipelago were accepted as Malays, and eligible for the special status accorded to those considered to be indigenous „sons of the soil‟. „Stranded by the tide‟ of post-war political change and apprehensive of their future within what they saw as a Malay-centred polity, leaders of the SCBA felt, in addition, that their economic interests were threatened by the proposed abolition of Penang‟s free port status. In 1948, they joined a movement to take Penang out of the Federation.

The Penang secession movement was led by the Penang Chamber of Commerce, representing European business interests in Penang, and included organizations such as the Settlement of Penang Association, Penang Eurasian Association, the Chinese and Indian Chambers of Commerce, and the Penang Clerical and Administrative Union. Some of these organizations were driven by economic interests, others by a yearning to return to their pre-eminent status in pre-war days, yet others by a fierce, if parochial sense of „Penang patriotism‟. But the fact that only 212 persons were present at the meeting to launch the movement indicated the movement‟s lack of mass support and mobilizing skills.

There were also brief attempts by Johor and Kelantan to secede from the Federation of Malaya but the Penang secession movement lasted longer and had a greater impact on the widening political divide between Malays and Chinese in the state.10 People increasingly identified themselves, or were perceived, in racial terms - as Malay, Chinese, or Indian, the third major category that included all those whose forefathers had come from the Indian subcontinent. Eurasians, together with all those who did not fall into, or could not identify with, the three main ethnic groups, were grouped together as „the others‟. Peranakan communities with their long history of intermingling of ancestries and cultures found the space for exploring the ambiguities within mixed identities diminished as they were pushed to identify with one or other of the „three main races‟. Penang was never „returned‟ to Kedah, as some quarters demanded, but remained a state in its own right within the Federation of Malaya. The idea of secession faded as the majority of the people of Penang were increasingly drawn into the mainstream of political developments that led to Merdeka
Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


in 1957. Participation through involvement in political parties, and as voters, in the electoral process was an important channel through which Penangites adapted to their change of status, from British subjects or alien immigrants to citizens with rights in an independent nation-state. The first local level elections in the country were held in Georgetown in December 1951.11 There were 24 candidates, five from UMNO, nine from the Radical Party, seven from the Labour Party, and three independents.12 Candidates of the Radical Party and the Labour Party came from different ethnic groups, consistent with their parties‟ multiracial platform. Elections for all local councils in Penang were held regularly from then on until the suspension of the Georgetown Council in 1966 and of the remaining local authorities in 1971. At that point, Penang was the only state in which all members of its local authorities were elected and every local authority was financially autonomous of the state government (Tennant, 1973). From 1957 to 1966, Georgetown City voters consistently elected the Socialist Front, a Labour Party and Party Rakyat opposition coalition, to run their local council while putting the state government in the hands of the Alliance coalition of UMNO, MCA and MIC, which controlled the state and Federal government. For nine years, Georgetown had a Socialist mayor leading a local council that was financially stronger than, and frequently at loggerheads with, the state and central government. Penang was known then, and continues to be known until today, for its particularly exciting electoral contests.

But Penangites found that there was much less space for contestations in areas of policy that fell within the Federal government‟s ambit, especially when these are seen as critical to the nationbuilding process. Education is one area in which the nation-state projects itself, and is projected as, the major confluence towards which all flows must converge. Since the 1950s, there have been determined moves to create a national system that can cultivate a national identity and integrate children from different ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

Starting with the implementation of a new Education Ordinance in 1957, all existing primary schools in the Federation were brought within the rubric of a national system that required them to follow a common syllabus but allowed them to continue teaching in different languages. Four years later, the 1961 Education Act required secondary schools to fall in with the policy of teaching and examining in either English or Malay, the two official languages of the country. A third phase began in 1971, when English medium primary schools began the switch to teaching in the National Language followed six years later by a similar switch in all secondary schools.

Thus, by the mid-1970s, schools in Penang with as diverse identities and backgrounds as the Penang Free School, St. George‟s Girls‟ School, the Convents, the St Xavier‟s schools, Methodist
Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


Boys‟ and Girls‟ Schools, the Chung Hwa Confucian, Phor Tay School, Chung Ling Boys and Penang Chinese Girls‟ School, the Gelugor Malay School, the Abdullah Munshi School, the Madrasah AlMashoor, to name just a few, as well as Tamil schools in the towns as well as plantation areas, were brought together under one common system. Their teachers and principals became civil servants working under the same rules and regulations and salary scales. Their pupils wear the same uniform, are taught the same curriculum (albeit still in three different languages at the primary level), sit for the same public examinations, and compete for places at the same public institutions of higher learning. Diversity, perceived as inimical to the national project, was allowed on the margins of the national system - in private schools and, more recently, in private institutions of higher learning.

The 1970s and after: Going Global Again Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Penang‟s trade-dependent economy was sliding rapidly downwards even as the population of the state grew as a result of the post-war baby boom. The outlook became increasingly gloomy as the effects of the Korean War boom wore off and economic nationalism in Thailand, Burma and Indonesia, Penang‟s traditional entrepot partners, led to drastic reductions in their export-import trade through Penang as each country developed its own ports. The period of Konfrontasi, when Indonesia opposed the formation of Malaysia, reduced trade with North Sumatra to a bare trickle. And the development of Port Swettenham to the south further reduced the hinterland served by Penang. Nevertheless, commercial interests resisted all talk of abolishing the island‟s free port status as a necessary step in turning to industrialisation as an alternative (Courtenay, 1972: 208-212).

Trapped in this cul-de-sac, Penang, as opposition members in the state assembly repeatedly warned, faced slow death as a „sleepy hollow‟. The Alliance state government, led by Wong Pow Nee as Chief Minister from 1957 to 1969, managed to increase productivity and employment in agricultural sectors on the mainland and the first industrial estates, in Mak Mandin and Prai, were laid out in the early 1960s (Tang, 1993). But the slide continued, especially on the island where those who serviced various aspects of the port‟s functioning, for example Indian harbour workers and Chinese clan jetty dwellers, lost their livelihood.13 By 1969 Penang‟s GDP was below the national average and unemployment in the state stood at 15%.

In the 1969 elections, Penangites soundly rejected the Alliance, which only managed to cling on to four out of twenty-four seats in the state assembly. They gave their support to a newly formed multi-ethnic opposition party, the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, which won 16 seats and the right to form the next state government. The Alliance loss in Penang was part of a national trend in the 1969
Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


elections that was perceived as a drastic „change in the ethnic configuration of power‟ (Goh, 1971). The May 13th riots, and its aftermath, mark a major conjuncture in Malaysia, and Penang‟s, political and economic history, leading among other things to the Gerakan joining the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which replaced the Alliance. Political contestations nevertheless have continued to be exciting and Penangites have sustained a vibrant civil society with many active and vocal social action groups. Penang‟s economic problems reached a fortuitous resolution as the more dynamic and urbane leadership of Lim Chong Eu, Chief Minister of Penang from 1969 till 1990, identified a new niche for Penang. The switch from dying entrepot to manufacturing centre finally took off on the waves of the computer revolution just as the electronic industry was seeking off-shore manufacturing facilities with educated but cheap labour. This, too, can be considered a conjuncture of global economic change, comparable perhaps in its impact to that of the industrial revolution in Europe that arrived here through the expansion of colonial enterprise. As „Silicon Island‟, we are today trying to sustain our niche in the new international division of labour within a global economy. The conjuncture of the 1970s has thus taken Penangites global again. New cultural hybridities, the rage in the globalized world of today, make Penang with its heritage of multiple confluences from the past a popular tourist destination. Sustained by manufacturing and tourism, rather than trade, Penang‟s GDP is now higher than the national average and its unemployment, until the recent crisis, was among the lowest in the country.

The economic growth of the past two decades has fuelled rapid development of suburban areas stretching out from the older town centres and growing into satellite towns, both on the island and mainland. There is a continuous stretch of suburbia from the inner city northwards to the tourist belt of Batu Ferringhi and southwards to Bayan Baru, and westwards from there towards Balik Pulau. Across the Penang Bridge, the mainland is no longer an agricultural hinterland but a complex of industrial estates, satellite towns and new suburbia. Successive property booms have also brought urban renewal, „old‟ buildings giving way to „modern‟ structures as a new style of cosmopolitan living becomes popular among younger Penangites. The market forces in the new global Penang are now „disputing the ground‟, threatening Penang‟s heritage from an earlier global era. In 1982, the Catholic Church sold a large part of the property on which the old College General stood. The Gurney Plaza and several blocks of high-rise apartments now stand where the old seminary was located. Another contestation began, also on land owned by the Catholic Church, around the same time and in the same area. Here, too, high-rise „modern‟ complexes have taken over the site of Kampong Serani, an historical Eurasian enclave
Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


(Goh, 2002). But it is in the inner city, that the contestation over our heritage is, or will be, at its most intense – which brings us back to the objective of today‟s conference and the four colloqium leading up to it. I have tried to argue that it is the particular aspects of Penang‟s history - from port-city in a mercantile and capitalist global trade economy to „Silicon Island‟ in a digital global economy - that have made Penang a unique interstice of socio-cultural transformations. An important part of that uniqueness lies in the diversity of ways the people of Penang have lived out their lives, within the three major historical conjunctures that have confronted them. That diversity has meant, and will continue to mean, engaging in contestations as much as finding confluences. Recovering the past itself is a process of contestations. But, recovering the past, in all its fractious diversity, through the different voices of those who have lived in Penang throughout its history, is a necessary route through which those living in Penang today can re-establish their links with the material, as well as living, heritage of earlier generations of Penangites.

1 2

See Jocelin Tan Poh Choo, 1991, for a bibliographic survey of research on Penang. This was a point made in many papers presented during the colloqium, in particular the keynote

addresses; see Ghulam Sarwar, 2001 and Ong Seng Huat, 2002. The papers presented at this conference further bring out these dimensions.

Details in this and the following paragraphs are drawn variously from City Council of Georgetown,

1966; Fujimoto, 1989; Historical Personalities of Penang Committee, 1986; Khoo Su Nin, 2001; Omar Farouk Shaeik Ahmad, 1978; Tan Kim Hong, 1987; Wright and Cartwright, 1908.
4 5 6

Tan Sooi Beng, 1993, Ch.2, provides a glimpse of urban life before the war. See Mahani Musa, 1990 on the former and Khoo Kay Kim, 1972 on the latter. In an earlier article, Mahani Musa (1990) veered towards the first possibility but in a later piece

(1999), she has come down in favour of the second.

The Chinese case is well known and covered in many studies while Mahani Musa (1999 and 2000)

argues that the Malay secret societies initially also performed this role.

For three accounts specific to Penang, see Jaafar bin Hamzah, 1978; Lim Kean Siew, 1999;

Saravanamuttu, Manicasothy. n.d.

In the first post-war constitutional arrangement planned by the British, the Straits Settlements was

dismantled. Singapore was separated from, while Penang and Melaka were included in, the Malayan Union, a political entity that was essentially stillborn in 1946. The political boundaries of the
Tan Liok Ee, Conjunctures, Confluences, Contestations: A Perspective on Penang History


Federation of Malaya that replaced the Malayan Union in 1948 remained the same. But significant changes were made in the provisions for the special status of the Malays, the position of the sultans and the Malay states in relation to the Federal centre, and the conditions of citizenship for nonMalays. The terms of the Federation of Malaya of 1948, after some important changes in citizenship provisions for non-Malays in 1951, remained essentially the basis of the Merdeka Constitution of 1957. When Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963, some amendments were made but the main provisions remained essentially in place. See Mohamed Noordin Sopiee, 1976 and James Ongkili, 1985 for two general accounts.

See Mohamed Noordin Sopiee, 1976: Ch. 4 and Clive Christie, 1996, for two different views on the

Penang secession movement.

Municipal Commissioners were elected as early as in 1888 but the majority of town dwellers did

not participate until 1951.
12 13

See Md. Salleh b. Md. Gaus, 1984: 98 for list of candidates. See Chan, 1980, for a study of the impact on the clan jetties of Penang.


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Fujimoto, Helen. 1989. The South Indian Muslim Community and the Evolution of the Jawi Peranakan in Penang up to 1948. Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. Ghulam Sarwar. 2001. The South Indian Cultural Impact upon Penang. Keynote Address at Indians in Penang – A Historical Perspective, Second Colloqium of the Penang Story, Penang: 22nd September 2001. Goh, Beng-lan. 2002. Modern Dreams: An Inquiry into Power, Cultural Production and the Cityscape in Contemporary Urban Penang, Malaysia. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program. Goh Cheng Teik. 1971. The May Thirteenth Incident and Democracy in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. Guang Guoxiang. 1958. Bincheng Xanji (Random Records of Penang). Singapore: Shijie shuju. Historical Personalities of Penang Committee. 1986. Historical Personalities of Penang. Penang: The Historical Personalities of Penang Committee under the auspices of Penang Festival, 1986. Jaafar bin Hamzah. 1978. The Malays in Tasek Gelugur During the Japanese Occupation. In Malaysia in History. 21 (2): 56-65. Khoo Kay Kim. 1972. The Western Malay States, 1850-1873: the Effects of Commercial Development on Malay Politics. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. _______. 1992. The „Indian Association Movement‟ in Peninsular Malaysia: the Early Years. In Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 65 (2): 3-24. Khoo Su Nin. 1994. The Development of Georgetown‟s Historic Centre. In MPPP, Georgetown, Bangunan-Bangunan Warisan di Pulau Pinang, Heritage Buildings of Penang Island George Town (Streets bounded by Lebuh Light, Lebuh Pantai, Lebuh Chulia and Jalan Mesjid Kapitan Keling) unpublished, Penang. _______. 2001 (3rd Edition). The Streets of Georgetown, Penang. Penang: Janus Print & Resources. First edition, 1993. Leong Kok Kee. The Chia-ying Hakkas in Penang, 1786-1941. In Malaysia in History. 24: 39-48. Lim Kean Siew. 1999.Blood on the Golden Sands: the Memoirs of a Penang Family. Selangor: Pelanduk Publications.
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Low, James. 1972. The British Settlement of Penang. Singapore & Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press Oxford in Asia Historical Reprint. First published in 1836. Mahani Musa. 1990. Perang Kedah-Siam 1821-1848 dan Kesannya terhadap Asal-usul Persatuan Sulit Melayu (Bendera Putih dan Bendera Merah): Satu Tinjauan Awal. In Kajian Malaysia 8 (1): 49-67. _______. 1995. Buku Catatan Peribadi Sheik Omar Basheer dengan rujukan terhadap Rusuhan di Pulau Pinang pada tahun 1867: Satu Dokumen Sejarah Pulau Pinang Abad ke-19. In Abu Talib Ahmad and Cheah Boon Kheng (eds.). Isu-isu Pensejarahan (Esei Penghargaan kepada Dr. Suntharalingam). Penang: Universiti Sains Malaysia Press for School of Humanities, 116-139. _______. 1999. Malay Secret Societies in Penang, 1830s-1920s. In Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 72 (2): 151-182 _______. 2000. Masyarakat Melayu-Muslim Pulau Pinang, 1830an-1930an: Masalah Kepimpinan dan Pengaruh Kongsi Gelap. In Mahani Musa and Tan Liok Ee (eds.). Sorotan Terpilih Dalam Sejarah Malaysia (Esei Sumbangsih kepada Dr. Cheah Boon Kheng). Penang: Universiti Sains Malaysia Press for School of Humanities, 61-87. Md. Salleh bin Md. Gaus. 1984. Politik Melayu Pulau Pinang, 1945-1957. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Mohamed Noordin Sopiee. 1974. From Malayan Union to Singapore Separation: Political Unification in the Malaysia Region, 1945-1965. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press. Muhammad Ibrahim Munsyi (pengenalan dan anotasi oleh Mohd. Fadzil Othman). 1980. Kisah Pelayaran Muhammad Ibrahim Munsyi. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. First published 1919. Omar Farouk Shaeik Ahmad. 1978. The Arabs in Penang. In Malaysia in History. 21 (2): 116. Ong Seng Huat. 2002. Reconstructing Penang‟s Social History from a Regional and Global Perspective. Keynote Address at History of the Chinese Communities in Penang, Third Colloqium of the Penang Story. Penang: 5 & 6 January 2002. Ongkili, James. 1985. Nation-building in Malaysia, 1946-1974. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

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