When Penang was known only for its oysters and Singapore was just a fishing village, the influence of MELAKA (also spelled “Malacca”) already extended beyond the Peninsula. Political and cultural life flourished in this trading centre under the auspices of the Melaka Sultanate, founded early in the fifteenth century, and helped to define what it means to be Malay.

The city subsequently suffered neglect from colonial rulers and fared little better after independence, but in some respects this added to its faded charm. Recent years, though, have seen such developments as a land reclamation project that created the Taman Melaka Raya district and, in 2008, the gaining of UNESCO World Heritage Site status jointly with Penang. The latter has helped to encourage the development of a new wave of guesthouses and restoration projects, but has also brought some less welcome tourism schemes. Melaka remains, nevertheless, an undoubted highlight of any Malaysian itinerary.

Brief history

Melaka has its roots in the fourteenth-century struggles between Java and the Thai kingdom of Ayuthaya for control of the Malay Peninsula. The Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) records that when the Sumatran prince Paramesvara could no longer tolerate subservience to Java, he fled to the island of Temasek (later renamed Singapore), where he set himself up as ruler. The Javanese subsequently forced him to flee north to Bertam, where he was welcomed by the local community. While his son, Iskandar Shah, was out hunting near modern-day Melaka Hill, a mouse deer turned on the pursuing hunting dogs, driving them into the sea. Taking this courageous act to be a good omen, Shah asked his father to build a new settlement there and named it after the melaka tree under which he had been sitting.

A trading centre

Melaka under its sultans rapidly became a wealthy and cosmopolitan market town, trading spices and textiles with Indonesia and India. This meteoric rise was initially assisted by its powerful neighbours Ayuthaya and Java, who made good use of its trading facilities, but they soon found that they had a serious rival as Melaka started a campaign of territorial expansion.

By the reign of its last ruler, Sultan Mahmud Shah (1488–1530), Melaka’s territory included the west coast of the Peninsula as far as Perak, the whole of Pahang, Singapore and most of east-coast Sumatra. Culturally, too, Melaka was supreme – its sophisticated language, literature, hierarchical court structure and dances were all benchmarks in the Malay world.

The colonial era

It took a sea change in Europe to end Melaka’s supremacy. The Portuguese were seeking to extend their influence in Asia by dominating ports in the region and, led by Alfonso de Albuquerque, conquered Melaka in 1511. They maintained their hold for the next 130 years, introducing Catholicism to the region through the efforts of St Francis Xavier.

The formation of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, in 1602 spelled the end of Portuguese rule. The primary objective was trade rather than religious conversion, but due to their high taxes the Dutch relied ever more on force to maintain their position in the Straits.

Weakened by French threats to their posts in the Indies, the Dutch handed Melaka over to the British East India Company on August 15, 1795. Yet the colony continued a decline that hastened when the free-trade port of Singapore was established in 1819. The British wanted Penang to be the main west-coast settlement but attempted to revitalize Melaka, introducing progressive agricultural and mining concerns. They invested in new hospitals, schools and a train line, but only when a Chinese entrepreneur, Tan Chay Yan, began to plant rubber were Melaka’s financial problems alleviated for a time. After World War I, even this commodity faced mixed fortunes – when the Japanese occupied Melaka in 1942, they found a town exhausted by the interwar depression.

Modern Melaka

Whatever damage was wrought during its centuries of colonial mismanagement, nothing can take away the enduring influence of Melaka’s contribution to Malay culture. Taken together with the long-standing Chinese presence – with intermarriage fostering the Peranakan community – and the European colonial influences, Melaka has a fascinating heritage that understandably appeals to tourists.

To the cynical eye, though, there’s something about the modern centre of Melaka that smacks of slapdash “preservation”, apparent in the brick-red paint wash that covers everything around Dutch Square. The UNESCO listing has, in some respects, not exactly helped. As landowners have scented money and rents have skyrocketed, long-established businesses have been forced out and replaced by shops aimed at the tourist dollar. Ill-fated and incongruous tourism projects have included a giant wheel called the Eye on Malaysia, and a monorail north of the centre that memorably broke down on its first day – it turned out that it couldn’t operate in the rain.

Worse is yet to come: almost unbelievably, a large Hard Rock Café is due to open right in the centre. It’s not all bad news, though, with the regeneration of the riverside particularly welcome; it is to be hoped that this kind of project may continue to breathe life into the historical core, rather than turning it into a theme-park version of itself.

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