Malaysia is one of the great confluences of history. The Indian Ocean washes one shore; the South China Sea the other. To the southwest, beyond Sumatra, lies Africa. Conquerors, pilgrims, traders, artists, industrialists—and now shoppers—have all passed through the narrow Malacca Strait that connects the waters of India and Asia.
So many visitors, over such a long time, have given modern Malaysia a long blend of cultures. The history of Southeast Asia has been shaped by four great epochs. The Hindu-Buddhist era, from the seventh to the 13th century, was centered in Sumatra and produced temples and monuments still renowned today: Angkor, Pagan, Sukhotai and Borobudur are the best known. Colonization began with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1509, and during the following four and a half centuries the region passed through Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese overlordship. Independence came in 1957, ushering in a new era in the region's history.
But before the Portuguese, there was a brief but vastly influential time: a Malayo-Islamic period that began with the conversion of a Hindu prince named Parameswara in a place he called "Melaka."
From 1414 until the Portuguese arrived, the sultans of Melaka built and social and religious covenants that give Malaysian life so much of its character today.
The economy of all of Southeast Asia has always been dominated by inland agriculture, which requires little capital but abundant land. Nearly everyone had a property to protect, however modest. From this fact developed customs associated with property rights, judicial authority and political fealty. These are collectively known in Malay as adat. Along the coasts were known other maritime peoples, from Gujarat, Malabar and Coromandel in India; Acheh and elsewhere in Sumatra; Shahru'n-nuwi (an early name for Thailand); and China.
Although the Malaysian coastal villages strengthened their economic hand with trade, they were too small to assert themselves politically. From the seventh century, the region came under the influence of the Hindu-Buddhist empire called Srivijaya. By the 12th century, Srivijaya controlled all of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, the greater part of Java and many other islands in the region. There was trade with China and at least some awareness of the empires to the West: Roman coins were common dockside currency in Sri Lanka and Cochin in the fifth century. Since this trade embraced such extremely profitable luxuries as camphor, aloes, cloves, sandalwood, nutmeg, cardamom, ivory, gold and tin, the maharaja of Srivijaya was as well-to-do as his counterparts in India.
In the 14th century another powerful state, Sukhotai, emerged in what is now Thailand. Its aggressive politics might have turned the Malay Peninsula onto a different historical path but for the fact that, at about the same time, the dhows of Arabia began to arrive in the Peninsula in greater numbers. With them came Islam. The Muslim traders did not have far to travel, for Marco Polo described Islam as firmly established at Perlak on the north coast of Sumatra in 1292, and when Ibn Battuta visited Pasai in 1345, he considered its inhabitants devout Muslims.
Then, within a single century, a fishing village at the narrowest point of the Malacca Straits rose to become the most powerful state in Southeast Asia: the Melaka Sultanate.
Of Melaka's founding, this much seems certain: A Sumatran prince named Parameswara landed one day at a village part way up the west side of the Malay Peninsula. He was fleeing corsairs loyal to the Majapahit Empire of Sumatra. Majapahit was an empire in decline, faced with trade rivalries with Siam, squabbles over the throne and secessionist states. When those corsairs let Parameswara slip away, they unwittingly sealed their masters' doom.
Parameswara's choice of location is attributed to a charming, possibly apocryphal tale that while he was resting on the shore his dog attacked a kantjil, or mouse deer, which fiercely returned the attack and gave the dog a most unexpected drubbing. Parameswara decided that this must be a propitious spot, where even the tiny mouse deer was fearless. He called the place Melaka, after the melaka tree (Phyllathus emblica) under which he was resting. Truth or none, the mouse deer today is a symbol of Melaka: Two of them flank the tree on the state flag, and a popular compact auto is named for it, as is one of the country's leading publishing houses.
More solid economic facts justified Parameswara in founding the kingdom of Melaka in approximately 1402. He knew that Melaka was at the narrowest point of the Strait, and he was not slow to see the political implications of controlling passing trade. More critically, he appears to have been the first non-mariner in Malaysia to have realized that a warehousing and transshipment center in the relatively placid waters of the Malacca Strait would be an attractive alternative to the facilities of the increasingly unreliable Majapahit Empire. His landing- and warehousing-fee policies quickly made Melaka the most attractive transshipment spot in this part of the world. Traders from Java, Sumatra, Borneo, the Celebes, the Moluccas, Burma, Siam, Cambodia, India, Arabia and China soon flocked to the new port.
Perhaps realizing that a change in economic practices would be reinforced by a change in leadership practices, Parameswara changed Malay court customs to a more hierarchical system. He also reshaped the administrative hierarchy along functional rather than hereditary lines, resulting in a government based more on economic purpose and less on personal fealty. Trade and commerce rapidly developed.
Parameswara was also astute enough to see that the Sukhotai kingdom to the north was no less ruthless than the Majapahits. Thus he promptly established relations with the one power the Sukhotai feared: China. In 1403 the first official Chinese trade envoy visited Melaka, and in 1409 Admiral Cheng Ho—a Muslim—arrived in Melaka with the Chinese fleet on the first of his seven voyages to the Indian Ocean. In 1411 Parameswara himself traveled with an entourage of 540 people to the court of the Ming Emperor Yung Lo.
Both the Sejarah Malayu and the Chinese Imperial Chronicles have it that Melaka's wealth was well known in the Chinese court during the reign of Yung Lo, who ascended the throne in 1403, just as the Melaka Sultanate was born. It was a time when China had grown isolated and weak because of Mongol incursions from the north. The overland Silk Road had succumbed to banditry; exports to Arabia and the Levant had withered. The solution, as the Chinese saw it, was trade by sea, and whom better to ally with than this promising new entity named Melaka?
The first official Chinese trade envoy arrived in Melaka in the same year Yung Lo took power. Six years later, Admiral Cheng Ho sailed into Melaka harbor leading what the chronicles, perhaps wishfully, record as 317 ships crewed by 37,000 officers and men.
Between then and 1433, Cheng Ho made Melaka his headquarters for expeditions to Ceylon, the Maldives, Jiddah and Zanzibar, where his fleet came almost within sight of Portuguese explorers, who were likewise seeking a maritime alternative to the caravan route, but from the West. Such a massive fleet as Cheng Ho's could hardly fail to impress, and today in the town of Melaka there is a much-visited monument to the Chinese admiral.
The Sejarah Melayu also relates that during the rule of Sultan Mansur Shah (1456-1477), the emperor of China sent envoys bearing a shipload of needles. The letter accompanying this curious present said, "We hear that the raja of Melaka is a great raja and we desire accordingly to be on terms of amity with him. Certainly, however, there are no rajas in this world greater than ourselves, and there is no one who can count the number of our subjects. We have therefore asked for one needle from each house in our realm, and these are the needles with which the ship we send to Melaka is laden."
Mansur Shah ordered the emperor's ship cleared of the needles and filled with sago pellets, each the size of a sesame seed. His own letter to the emperor followed similar lines, and the emperor is said to have taken the riposte in good humor, saying "Great indeed must be this raja of Melaka! The multitude of his subjects must be as the multitude of our own. It would be well that I marry him to my daughter!"
And so it was that Princess Hang Li Po was married to the sultan of Melaka, beginning a decades-long political and mercantile alliance with China.
Islam's progress through Southeast Asia was not the sudden sweep that it had been across the Middle East and North Africa. Mostly it involved the gradual embrace of several ideas lateened over from the far side of the Arabian Peninsula. Paramount was the monotheism at the heart of the religion, a concept more sweeping, easier to understand and more satisfying than the notion of uncountable—and unaccountable—deities symbolizing random events, objects and emotions.
Hardly less important was the effect that shari'a—Islamic law—and the Qur'an had on Muslims' personal behavior. Where Muslim traders went, the religion grew. The main reason was that Islam's stress on collective prayer and reading the Qur'an and the Hadith (the recorded statements and practices of the Prophet) encouraged an ethos of collective responsibility that no other trading community possessed. In time, local converts became an economic nucleus influential enough to decide such matters as the just price for the transport or warehousing of goods.
Though it is not often regarded as such, honesty is an efficiency-enhancer. Muslim traders were more efficient, and could therefore offer the best prices. Trade conducted by men who lived according to the shari'a was more productive than trade organized by guesswork or opportunism.
Furthermore, the Muslim traders tended to be investors rather than profiteers. They were known for turning part of their profits into warehouses and docks, and for their encouragement of local shipbuilding and ship maintenance. This produced a broad prosperity that gave rise to a larger and more well-to-do middle class whose discretionary wealth in turn created a demand for luxuries. In modern terms, they created a "virtuous circle" and the first true commonwealth, in the literal sense of the word. No less important was aristocratic alliance by marriage. As Javanese, Sumatran, Malay and other aristocracies from non-Muslim regions entered into diplomatic marriages with Muslim families, the non-Muslim spouses embraced the new Islamic faith, and everyday people eventually followed.
Malaysian Muslims have a less verifiable but certainly more colorful tale of their embrace of Islam in the Sejarah Malayu. The story is worth quoting:
One night the king [Raja Tengah] had a dream that he saw clearly our Prophet Muhammad, who said to Raja Tengah, "Recite: 'I testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Apostle of God.'" Raja Tengah repeated word for word what the Prophet had told him, whereupon the Prophet said to him, "Your name is Muhammad. Tomorrow, when it is the time for the afternoon prayer, there will come a ship from Jiddah; from that ship a man will land on this shore of Melaka. See to it that you do whatsoever he tells you." Raja Tengah answered "Very well," whereupon the Prophet disappeared.
When day broke, Raja Tengah awoke from sleep and saw that he had been circumcised. He kept continually reciting [in Arabic], "I testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His Prophet." This astonished all the women attendants of the palace. The king's ministers said, "Is this raja of ours possessed by the devil, or is he mad?"
When it was the hour of 'asr [afternoon prayer], a ship arrived from Jiddah and proceeded to anchor. And from this ship a man from Makkah disembarked, Sayyid 'Abd al-'Aziz by name, and prayed on the shore. There was a general scramble to see him, the people crowding together. There was such a disturbance that the noise of it came to the ears of the raja inside the royal apartments of the palace. Straightaway the raja set forth on his elephant, escorted by his chiefs, and he perceived that the Makkan's behavior in saying his prayers was exactly as in his dream. He said to the bendahara [prime minister] and the chiefs, "That is exactly how it happened in my dream!"
When Sayyid 'Abd al-'Aziz had finished his prayers, the raja made his elephant kneel and he mounted the Makkan on the elephant and took him to the palace. The bendahara and the chiefs embraced Islam. The raja received instruction in the Faith from Sayyid 'Abd al-'Aziz, and he took the name Sultan Muhammad Shah.
The conversion of Raja Tangah is said to have occurred in 1424. Gradually, in a confluence of religion and economics, the faces of Arab, Gujarati, Bengali, Malabar, Coromandel, Sumatran, Javanese and Chinese traders became familiar sights in Melaka. With hindsight, we can see how Melaka's three great sultans, Iskandar Shah, Muhammad Shah, and Mansur Shah, who ruled, collectively, from 1402 to 1477, accomplished the vast changes that characterized their reigns. First they changed the economy. Then they changed the laws. Then they changed people's ideas. They redefined Malayan life and culture so thoroughly that the effects survive to this day.
When Islam arrived in Melaka, it encountered a people with well-established behavioral codes of their own—a system called adat. From the earliest written accounts, three traits stand out as Malay hallmarks: muafakat, mesyuarat, and gotong royong, respectively translated as "consultation," "consensus" and "joint responsibility and cooperation." These are the foundations of Malay culture even today.
Alongside these, three loyalties also were—and still are—vital to the Malay people: loyalty to ruler, to religion, and to adat. In their respect for law's duty to society and society's reciprocal duty to law, Muslim and Malay had much in common.
Before the time of the sultans, an adat perpateh or community-law system, based on matriarchal clan lineage, existed in much of old Malaya. Land passed from mother to daughter. The clan and the community were responsible for the errors of an individual, and restitution for wrongs was made to the aggrieved clan.
Islam inspired the Melaka sultans to turn the adat perpateh into what they called adat temenggong, transferring responsibility from the collective to the individual. Adat temenggong replaced unwritten and mutable local ways with a codified legal architecture that rested on three pillars: fundamental order, clear process, and appropriateness to situation.
The change strengthened the nobility, because inheritance switched to the male line and sultans could thus designate their heirs. Economic development was fostered because individuals became responsible for the consequences of their own decisions. Fines for offenses were channeled to the coffers of the sultan rather than directly to offended families.
Less momentous, perhaps, but no less significant to the culture of Melaka was the way the Melakan sultans perfected the local minangkabau ("water-buffalo-horn") architectural style, with its upswept curved roofs. The Sejarah Malayu tells us that Sultan Mansur Shah, flush with the riches of mercantile success, wished to reside in an istana, or palace, like none ever seen before. His builders duly constructed a most imposing royal edifice: Its seven-gabled roof surmounted a sprawling floor plan divided into 17 chambers. The façade spread along as many colonnades, in which each column was so large a man could not encircle it with his arms. The building was profusely decorated with gilt spires and copper and zinc shingles in geometric patterns; the interior was illuminated using wooden wall panels jigsawed into elaborate arabesques, through which light and air streamed. It was crowned with a spire of red glass, and all 40 of its doors were gilded.
Sultan Mansur Shah and his family had barely moved in when a fire broke out and destroyed the istana completely. Yet so spirited was Melakan trade that within a month, a new istana was under construction that surpassed the first.
Many admiring things have been said of the sultan's palace—the rhythm of its roofs, the geometry of its proportions, its restraint in decoration serving restraint in shape. Yet on careful examination, Mansur Shah's istana is composed of but two simple visual elements: one straight line and one complex curve. Alone they accomplish nothing; together, they are an incomparable mix of strength and beauty.
The same could be said of Islam's broader effects on Malaysia. "The Melaka Sultanate established a set of traditions which crystallized into what may be justifiably termed the 'political culture' of the Peninsular Malays," says Khoo Kay Kim, professor of Malaysian history at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur."Colonial administration introduced some significant changes, but there has been no total break with the 15th century, even today."
Despite their alliance with the Chinese, the Melaka sultans still had to contend with the Thais, their powerful neighbors to the north. After the Cheng Ho era ended in 1433, the Thais attempted to invade Melaka by land in 1445 and by sea 11 years later. The second invasion was repulsed using a Malay quality called cherdek ("cleverness") that the Sejarah Malayu extols:
Tun 'Umar was sent by the bendahara Paduka Raja to reconnoiter. He set forth with a single boat, now edging forward, now coming back. When he encountered the Siamese fleet, he straightaway attacked and sank two or three Siamese ships, then shot off to their flank. Then he returned and attacked other ships, again sinking two or three, after which he withdrew. The Siamese were astounded.
When night fell Awi Dichu [the Thai commander] advanced. Bendahara Paduka Raja ordered firebrands to be fastened to mangrove and other trees growing along the shore. When the Siamese saw these lights, so many that no man could number them, their war-chiefs said, "What a vast fleet these Malays must have, no man can count their ships! If they attack us, how shall we fare? Even one of their ships just now was more than a match for us!" And Awi Dichu replied, "You are right, let us return home!"
Sultan Mansur took advantage of the breathing room he had won and gradually, through diplomacy, established good relations between the Thais and Melaka.
Would that all Melaka's rivals could have been won over by bluff followed by an olive branch! Unfortunately, a greater threat was to come from the West.
In September, 1509 European contact with the Malay Peninsula was established when a Portuguese squadron sailed into Melaka. They were considered oddities at first: The Malays called them Bengali putih, meaning "white Bengalis."
Melaka's Indian merchants are said to have pressured the sultan into attacking the Portuguese both because the merchants feared trade rivals and because word had reached them that the Portuguese were cruel to Muslims. The small squadron was duly driven off, leaving behind 20 Portuguese prisoners. (Curiously, one of the men who escaped was Ferdinand Magellan, whose fleet was later to become the first to circumnavigate the world.)
On July 1, 1511 Alphonso d'Albuquerque arrived with 19 ships and 800 Portuguese and 600 Malabar seamen. He demanded the return of the prisoners, with compensation. The sultan erected stockades decked with war flags and made a show of his fleet of river-boats. Albuquerque responded with cannon, destroying the royal istana and setting fires in much of the town.
The sultan surrendered the prisoners and agreed to some of the demands for compensation, but Albuquerque knew that "he who is lord of Melaka has his hand on the throat of Venice"—then the dominant European power in trade with Asia. Albuquerque was after more than the prisoners: He wanted the port.
Over the next 130 years, Portuguese policy in Melaka was one of maritime trade control, not one of religious conversion, and the Portuguese showed little interest in expanding either their economic or religious influence inland. The Portuguese modus operandi was to bombard a principal port into submission, build a fort, and use fort and fleet to control regional trade. Melaka was never occupied by more than 600 Portuguese at any one time.
In 1641, the Dutch captured Melaka after an eight-month siege—the Dutch legacy in today's Melaka includes the Stadthuys ("Government House") and Dutch Square—but to them Melaka was never much more than a military outpost.
In 1824, Melaka became a possession of the British East India Company, but Penang and Singapore eclipsed Melaka as the main entrepôt on the Strait. The shallow waters that had made waves so gentle in the days of shallow-draft dhows and junks presented an impossible dredging problem when deep-draft iron ships came along.
Then, in the middle of the 19th century, another minor village, this one at the confluence of the Gombek and Kelang Rivers, grew almost as swiftly as Melaka had in its heyday to become the great metropolis and present national capital, Kuala Lumpur. More recently, Malaysia has become one of the world's leading "value-adding" economies, specializing in electronics assembly and garment making. Sea trade is still an economic mainstay, though today it is managed more efficiently at the state-of-the-art container entrepôt at Port Kelang, only some 100 kilometers (60 mi) from Melaka, where the Kelang River's flow into the sea has scoured a channel deep enough to dredge into a harbor.
Melaka's great significance was not in its military prowess or its prosperity and riches, now faded. Rather, its glory was in the flowering of Malay culture and literature, and the creation of the first true national identity of the Malay peoples. Melaka was a remarkably cosmopolitan society, and the influence of its golden days has endured more than 500 years.
Douglas Bullis, a specialist in the economic development of Asia, divides his time between Southeast Asia and India. His 1996 book A Soul You Can See , published in Singapore by Times Editions, analyzed the modern transformation of Sarawak, in Borneo, from a largely agrarian economy into a regional power, much as Melaka was transformed by Parameswara. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Kevin Bubriski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a frequent contributor to Saudi Aramco World.