Strong links with Malaysia

  • Nation
  • Saturday, 07 Jun 2003


BANDA ACEH: Saifudin Hussein has a grandfather somewhere in “Pulau Pinang” but has never met him.  

Bapak tidak benarkan saya rantau (My father did not allow me to travel),” said the 46-year-old Acehnese stall operator explaining why he has yet to set foot in Penang which is only a five-hour slow boat ride across the Indian ocean.  

Now that his father was dead, he said, his family had lost contact with his grandfather whose name was Hassan and should be in his 80s if he was still alive.  

From what his father had told him, Saifudin believed his grandfather married a Penang Malay and settled down there, leaving his father’s mother behind in Aceh.  

Hassan left Aceh during the Dutch administration before the Japanese Occupation in 1942.  

“My father didn’t allow me to go to Penang,” said Saifudin, who recollected stories of how closely knitted the Acehnese were with the people in Penang and the then Malaya.  

Saifudin rattled off the names of several Malaysians who he knows have Acehnese blood or are related.  

PROUD ACEHNESE:Saifudin (in front)standing beside his stall with theMesjid Raya Baiturrahman in the background.

He is unsure about the Acehnese origin of the legendary Tan Sri P. Ramlee.  

Lamenting that the people here preferred watching Hindi films instead of P. Ramlee movies these days, he related an Acehnese tale of Sultan Iskandar Muda from the Acehnese sultanate marrying a Pahang princess.  

Standing by his cigarette stall next to one of Aceh’s 13th century historical sites, Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman, which the Dutch once burnt and later rebuilt.  

As a gift to her, Sultan Iskandar, who reigned from 1608 to 1636, built a playground resembling the Main Range running through Pahang at Gunongan for her to climb and view the sunset.  

The past glories of the Acehnese sultanate is a source of pride for Saifudin. 

The Acehnese, like the early people of Makassar, Sulawesi, Sulu, Brunei and the Malay peninsula, were open to the outside world well before the arrival of the Westerners.  

Using the monsoon winds, South Indian and Chinese merchants had sailed their craft to the tip of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, where their influence was accepted and welcomed by the wet rice farmers and fishermen of South-East Asia.  

There is also evidence of an era of Malay maritime supremacy, where with their craft built without nails and screws, they had sailed to China from as early as 300BC to trade in cinnamon.  

They were believed to have had an advanced system of local self-government although pre-colonial Malay history was dotted by wars and feuds.  

If not for the latest never-ending war since 27 years ago against Jakarta’s rule, Aceh, with its idyllic beaches and island diving spots under blue skies, could well have been another prosperous pearl of the orient.  

The friendly Acehnese, wrongly portrayed as hostile Islamists, have so much in common with the people of Malaysia, especially Penang. 

Intertwined with culture and tradition, life here through narrow streets of becaks (trishas), cycles and bikes looks no different from the old Penang. 

Today’s four million Acehnese in Sumatra are a blend of Indonesian, Arab, Tamil, Chinese and indigenous mix because of a history of migration.  

“You know what Aceh stands for?,” asks Saifuddin. “A is for Arab, C is for Chinese, E is for European and H is for Hindi or Indian.”  

Trapped in the latest military offensive between Tentera Nasional Indonesia and Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, which is fighting for an independent state, Saifuddin’s hope is for peace so that the education of his four children, one of whom is entering university, will not be disrupted. 


“One day, when my children are out of university and everything is peaceful here, I may go to Penang,” said Saifudin without giving an indication as to where he stood in the latest Aceh war that has disrupted the lives of some 26,000 civilians since May 19.  

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