18 June 2016: Perniagaan Haji di Pulau Pinang dan Dokumentasi Sultan Kedah

The hajj trade flourished from the 19th century to the 1970s in Lebuh Acheh, George Town, transforming the enclave into a hive of entrepreneurial opportunities for the Malay-Muslims, Chinese and Indians. The correspondences of Sultan Abdul Hamid sheds light on the socio-economic affairs of Kedah, which involved the participation of Chinese investors from Penang and trade relations with Siam and Britain.

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Syed Omar Almashoor, a prominent hajj broker and businessman.

Our featured book this week comprises two award-winning Malay monographs in one slim volume: Perniagaan Haji di Pulau Pinang dan Dokumentasi Sultan Kedah. Both papers were jointly awarded the Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard Memorial Prize for the best-written academic essays. The first essay describes the hajj trade in Penang between the 19th century until its decline in the 1970s. The second builds on earlier scholarly efforts to study the Royal Correspondence of Sultan Abdul Hamid of Kedah (1864-1943, r. 1882-1943) while attempting a socio-economic survey of Kedah under his reign. Both monographs have been deftly edited by MBRAS Council member Dato Prof Abu Talib Ahmad, who also introduces the subject matters to readers.

Perniagaan Haji di Pulau Pinang: Although not openly acknowledged, there exists an inextricable link between organised religion and ‘entrepreneurship’. In Malaysia, for example, the pilgrimage to Mecca is both a significant event for Muslims as well as a form of business – over 22,000 pilgrims performed the hajj in 2015. Before Lembaga Urusan & Tabung Haji began operations in 1969, the hajj business was the sole monopoly of Malay-Muslim entrepreneurs in Penang. Based on data gathered from various sources, including advertisements, business directories, national archives and oral histories, Malay-Muslim owned businesses, including the hajj, were concentrated around Chulia Street (Lebuh Chulia), Penang Street (Lebuh Penang), Acheen Street (Lebuh Acheh) and Pitt Street (Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling).

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Advertisement for hajj pilgrimage of the time.

One type of business that was wholly run by the Malay-Muslims was the hajj pilgrimage and its related activities such as brokerage, runners (or brokers’ assistants), hajj merchandising, the sale of batek, footwear and headgears, and the publication of the Qur’an and other religious books. The trade flourished during the early to mid-19th century. Pilgrims from (then) Malaya, Indonesia and Thailand would gather at Acheen Street before departing for the holy land, thus earning the enclave the nickname The Second Jeddah. As a thriving business, the hajj not only benefited the Malay-Muslims, but the other races as well. For example, the Chinese profited from the rentals of lodging and lorries. The Indians, on the other hand, provided transportation for the peti sahara, an antiquated waterproof ‘holdall’ to pack one’s provisions, kitchen utensils, clothes and other survival necessities during a long voyage. So significant was the hajj trade at the time that when the season was in full swing, Acheen Street and the surrounding areas took on a festive air.

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Excerpt of letter from the Siam government to the Sultan.

Dokumentasi Sultan Kedah: Written materials, including personal documents like letters and journals, have proven invaluable as primary sources of historical information. Samuel Pepys’s diary, for example, provided contemporary historians with a record of life in London during the mid-seventeenth century. Pepys, who was born in 1633, was an exceptionally skilled chronicler of the political events of his time and also of everyday life. Likewise, a series of correspondences written by, or addressed to Sultan Abdul Hamid of Kedah have provided researchers from various disciplines – literature, politics, economics, linguistics and history – with valuable information on the administration and politics of the Malay government as well as its diplomatic and commercial relations with the outside world. The letters, written in Jawi, indicated that Malay was the lingua franca of commerce and diplomacy of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago.

This monograph analyses, over six chapters, 14 volumes of correspondences from which yield valuable insights into significant events, such as state council meetings, budget allocations and economic activities which served as indicators for progress in the state, or mundane affairs such as salaries paid to palace staff and deposits collected on leasing of commodities.