Article’s origin: http://thegreatrawthers.blogspot.my/
Seeni Rawther was born in Ramnad in South India in 1882. He came to Penang at the age of 7 and returned to India at the age of 11 to learn trading from his cousin, P.K. Shakkarai Rawther. A couple of years later he returned to Penang and started his business transporting labourers from India to Penang. He imported Indian foodstuff such as flour, sugar and cooking oil to Penang. Like the other Penang traders, he exported goods from Penang and the surrounding areas to India.
The Muslim community constantly turned to Tamil Muslim merchants for sponsorship of religious causes. Shakkarai Rawther and Seeni Rawther were members of the Mohamedan Advisory Board. They gave generously to mosques and Muslim schools and also sat on the board of the Al-Mashoor School. Although they acted as patrons to the larger Muslim and Malay community, they upheld their own Tamil Muslim religious identity.
P.K. Shakkarai Rawther’s contributions to Penang are many, namely he worked for a European shipping company and started his own cargo handling services. He formed P.K. Shakkarai Rawther & Co (early 1930s). Part of his land was used to build 240 kampung houses, which were offered free to the locals. P.K. Shakkarai Rawther, was a shipping contractor for British India Steam Navigation Co., Ltd. It was a venture which he operated with A.K. Seeni Rawther; K.E.A. Mohideen Kandu and Maricar & Co.. These general merchants and commission agents had their office at 43 Penang Street.
Another notable Rawthers with who I am associated with ware S.M. Mohamed Yusoff Rawther and K.K.M. Saleh Rawther. It is the later who named me as Buruhanudeen. My grandfather, Sulatn Rawther was S.M. Mohamed Yusoff Rawther’s brother. He donated money to the construction of Pykett Methodist School, which was the first primary school I attended. He was a very generous man and donated money to orphanages and old folks’ home. He was the president of the Muslim Mahajana Sabha (1930), a committee member of Al-Mashoor School, president of Darul Aihsan Football Club and a member of The Penang Mohamedan Advisory Board.
S.M. Yusoff Rawther came to Penang only in 1915. And his business was based on his stevedoring business. Large ships could not anchor directly at the Penang harbour because the sea was not deep enough. The unloading and loading business became very profitable. Indian Muslims from his village- Thinaikulam in South India and also from surrounding villages were employed and soon the villages flourished. . These workers were fondly called, ‘Mamak Tongkang’. Tongkang refers to the lighters, which were used to transport goods unloaded from ships to the port.
S.M. Mohamed Yusoff Rawther and Saleh Rawthers were successful and leading shipping chandlers, stevedores and boat owners. Their offices still stand at 127, Lebuh Kapitan Keling and 54, Lebuh Queen in Penang.
Another thriving Indian Muslim business at that time was the Penang famous, ‘Nasi Kandar’. One of the earliest entrepreneurs was M. Mohamed Thamby Rawther and his sons N.M. Seeni Packeer Rawther, N.M.Packeer Mohamed Rawther and Abdul Ghani Packeer Rawther. He started his nasi kandar business in the 1860’s. He sold his cooked rice and other assortments to go with the rice in two large rattan baskets hung on both ends of a pole. He carried the pole on his shoulder balancing the two containers, one in the front and the other at the back. Hence the word, ‘kandar’, the Malay word meaning to carry heavy materials on one’s shoulder. Together with his three sons he plied the streets along Dato Koya Road, Penang Road, Prangin Road, Pitt Street and sometimes they went as far as Tanjung Tokong with their nasi kandar. They vended their food on foot since British did not give them licences to safe guard public health.
Some of them married the local women even though they had wives in India. Many of the workers stayed in crammed conditions and had one foot in India and the other in Penang. They regularly travelled to India by ship and eventually brought their male children to Penang.
This rule was lifted after Second World War and the Rawthers stopped vending but started to sell from shops. This was the beginning of Hameediyah Restaurant at Campbell Street. It was named after Abdul Hameed. Packeer Mohamed Rawther expanded the business with other members of the family.
Even the rich Rawthers diverted their businesses in other fields. Many of their children have become doctors, lawyers, engineers and successful businessmen. As time passed with the declining business in the shipping industry due to modern technology, many of the Tongkang workers found themselves unemployed and turned to doing other businesses for survival.
Rawthers have left legacies to subsequent generations in Penang. They started trading on a small scale but their acumen and diligence made them very successful that later heightened their social prestige locally and in the vicinity.