Their Language and History

Dr. Dipika (Molly) Mukherjee

The Malaysian-Bengalee community is a fairly new immigrant community, which, as a whole, is still searching for an individual identity in the larger Malaysian context. This community is constantly subject to many outside influences and the contact languages do not have strictly complementary functions. Bengalee usually dominates the domain of family and religious activities, but since almost all speakers of this community are competently trilingual, code-switching between Bengalee, English, and Malay is possible. For the younger generation especially, Malay and English are both more 'useful' languages, yet the ties to Bengalee, made stronger by the large Bengalee expatriate population, remain very strong.

The Bengalees who migrated to Malaysia were mainly from the Calcutta, Dacca, Chittagong and Midnapore areas of Bengal. As Bangladesh was a part of India until 1947, East Bengal (Bangladesh) shares a border with West Bengal in India. The few North Indians among the English speaking professional class in Malaya at that time were principally Bengalees from Calcutta or Dhaka (Kaur 1973; Sandhu 1969:119). The first Bengalees in Malaysia, because they were well educated, were also well positioned in Malaysia. Most took up jobs in plantations, either in supervisory positions, or as "estate dressers". The estate dresser was the medical assistant, popularly known among the laborers as doctor (Jain 1970:39).

As most of the North Indians had embarked for their voyage to Hong Kong or Malaya from the port of Calcutta, the term "Bengalee" became a misnomer in these two countries. The Chinese feared the stout Sikhs and Pathans recruited for the British security forces from India and named them "Munkali Kwai" or "Black Devils" (Sandhu 1969:73). A popular Chinese saying was that while "they could fight Europeans... no man could stand against the Black Devils...for whenever one of them lifted his rifle, a Chinamen fell and they did not know how to miss" (quoted in Kaur 1973:25). Kernail Singh Sandhu points out that although there were purportedly 5072 Bengalees in Malaysia in 1921 that figure is misleading, as many Sikhs, accustomed to being addressed as "Bengalees" when the census was taken, were included.

The number of Bengalees in Malaysia drops to 1827 in 1931, and 3834 in 1947 (Sandhu 1969:237). This mistaken notion about the Bengalees originating from a wider area in North India rather than only from East and West Bengal, persists until today.

The other factor that contributed to this sense of mistaken identity about the real Bengalees is that this community, perhaps due to its tiny population, has historically been very low-key in Malaysia. There is virtually no printed material on the Malaysian-Bengalees, and at best this community receives a mention in studies on other North Indian groups:

The non-Sikh North Indian groups, particularly the Gujeratis and Bengalees ... were mainly found in non-official employment (principally in commerce) and led a relatively isolated and quiet social life about which there is no record in either official or unofficial documents.

Secondly these groups were insignificant as minority groups and were not accorded any special rights by the British that served to distinguish them from the North Indian body (Kaur 1973:iv).

Some of the earliest Bengalee immigrants (who now have great-grandchildren within the community) are still alive and members of the Malaysian-Bengalee community form a multiplex dense network of relationships to one another including kinship and friendship. A large number of the Malaysian-Bengalees can trace their lineage to one of about ten interrelated family trees and there has been a great deal of intermarriage among the pioneering families as this is a very traditional community. Although arranged marriages are encouraged and Bengalee girls from India are also sought to marry the men, a growing number of interracial marriages are now bringing the influence of other races and other tongues into this fairly closed network.

There is also a large group of expatriate Bengalee families, many of whom have lived in Malaysia for a number of years and have become a part of this community, and this group significantly contributes to the continuity of the Bengalee language and culture within this community.

Most members of the Bengalee community try to meet everyone else in the community at least three times a year at the major Bengalee festivals: Durga Puja and Kali Puja (held between September-November) and Poila Boishakh, or Bengalee New Year (celebrated in April). The Bengalee community has its own property overlooking the sea in picturesque Port Dickson, and this is where a Prayer Hall has been erected. Bengalees congregate from all over Peninsular Malaysia as well as Singapore to celebrate Kali Puja and Poila Boishakh in Port Dickson. This property carries a sense of the community spirit and ethnic pride, as it was bought by a group of the original Bengalee immigrants who donated half a month's salary for the purpose. Thus their second and third generation descendants now see it as 'a shrine'.

Amarjit Kaur points out that the Bengalees appear to have close ties with the South Indians and generally worship at the South Indian Hindu temples (Kaur 1973:216). In fact, almost all Bengalee families in Malaysia have fairly elaborate private altars for their deities in their homes and thus most prayers are conducted within the home privately, or publicly by calling other community members and friends to "bhajans" within private homes. For other ritual worship, the Bengalees go to both South Indian and North Indian temples, and often the choice is determined by accessibility to the temple rather than any ethnic considerations, as Hindu deities differ very little in essence from one temple to another.

Reference :

Ampalavanar, Rajeswary. 1981. The Indian minority and political change in Malaya 1945-1957. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press.
Haji Omar, Asmah. 1982. Language and society in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Information Malaysia 1992-93 yearbook. 1992. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Berita Publishing.
Jain, Ravindra K. 1970. South Indians on the plantation frontier in Malaya. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: University of Malaya Press. Kaur, Amarjit. 1973. North Indians in Malaya: A study of their economic, social and political activities, with special reference to Selangor, 1870’s-1940’s. University of Malaya, Malaysia: M.A. Thesis.
Khoon, Tan Chee. 1984. Without fear or favor. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
Milne R.S and Diane K. Mauzy. 1986. Malaysia: Tradition, modernity, and Islam. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Sandhu, Kernial Singh. 1969. Indians in Malaya: Some aspects of their immigration and settlement. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
—, and A. Mani (eds.) 1993. Indian communities in southeast Asia. Singapore: Times Academic Press
Saw Swee-Hock. 1988. The population of peninsular Malaysia. Singapore: Singapore University Press.
Stenson, Michael. 1980 Class, race and colonialism in west Malaysia: The Indian case. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press.
Vasil, R.K. 1980. Ethnic politics in Malaysia. New Delhi, India: Radiant.

Bengal House
Batu 1 1/2 Jalan Pantai,
71000 Port Dickson,
Negeri Sembilan Darul Khusus,

(c) Malaysian Bengalee Association

Phone No: +6011-1097 2995

Email: info@mba.org.my