Melaka In Fact project director and cultural activist Datin Saidah Rastam.

WHEN Tunku Abdul Rahman and the “Merdeka” delegation returned from London in 1956, Melaka was their first stop in the country.

It was in Padang Bandar Hilir that he announced the much-awaited news of the nation’s impending independence.

But the journey home was anything but easy.

There was not enough money for flights halfway around the world for the delegation, even with contributions from people from all walks of life who donated cash, jewellery and valuables.

“Melaka was chosen for the announcement as much of the funds for the Merdeka mission was raised there and the port city has a great historical significance,” said cultural activist Datin Saidah Rastam.

The journey of the delegation of 10 people also featured sea voyages and land journeys.

They travelled by ship to Karachi, Pakistan, before arriving in Great Britain where our future as a nation was inked.

She said from London, the delegation once again stopped over in Karachi before arriving by ship in Singapore.

From there, they took a flight to Melaka where the announcement was made.

“From there, they took a flight to the Sungai Besi airstrip. These were the optics that it was important that they were seen as flying back from London to bring the good news.”

Saidah is the project director for Melaka In Fact, an initiative for the cultural mapping of Melaka.

For stories on the delegation, she cited conservationist Datuk Hajeedar Abd Majid, whose father worked as a liaison officer for the Reid Commission, which was tasked with drafting the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya prior to independence.

However, this is just a teaser to Melaka’s significance.

MELAKA: A RENEWED INTEREST

As Malaysians continue to visit the glorious tales of Melaka’s colourful past, stories that now belong in the annals of Sulalatus Salatin (The Genealogy of Kings), the seat of the most glorious ancient Malay kingdom and port city has attracted a renewed interest in recent times.

Saidah gave an example of how China was zooming in on Melaka for its controversial Belt and Road initiative.

“We had concerns following China’s premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Jonker Street after a meeting in Putrajaya in 2015, where he bought jam tarts and talked about reviving links with Melaka due to their ‘long history’.

“Those links, from what we knew, were in the form of Admiral Cheng Ho coming to the region in the early 1400s with 28,000 armed men in warships and that put us on red alert.”

Saidah said this was reinforced by the fact that Chinese schoolchildren knew about Melaka’s history as the admiral had adopted it as the superpower’s naval base to expand into other territories.

She said the rise of the port city was fundamental to national history beyond the context of the Malay sultanate because that was where it all began for Malaysia.

“Although there were earlier polities (in the Malay peninsula), the rise of Melaka marked a significant point of interest because in half a century from the 1400s, this obscure fishing settlement had became one of the famous ports in the world.”

HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL DEVELOPMENTS

Saidah said a paper by Leonard Y. Andaya showed fascinating mechanics of trade that contributed to the rise of Melaka.

“Pepper was grown in the depths of Sumatra. It was sent down rivers and through junks to Melaka before it was shipped to the rest of the world, East and West.”

But while the small “mosquito” port was disadvantaged in terms of natural resources, the way it successfully managed trade, finance and governance, and rose to become the focal point in the Straits of Malacca was a subject of great interest.

Today, Melaka’s role is once again weighed not only against the backdrop of disputes in the South China Sea, but also alongside assertions made by other Southeast Asian nations.

“Singapore, for example, upholds that it predates Melaka, and claims that Melaka’s rise was on its back.”

The port city was depicted as where the pirate lord of South China Sea, Sao Feng, resides.

“So now, while other countries are making protests at regional levels, and people are renegotiating their national identities and geopolitics becoming more complex, Malaysians are fussing about whether nasi lemak and Rasa Sayang belong to us. Isn’t that crazy?”

PARAMESWARA, HANG TUAH AND BEYOND

It’s important to tell our children about Melaka’s history, Saidah said.

“The superb governance, savviness and nimbleness of Parameswara (Melaka’s first king) hopping between superpowers like China had made Melaka great. The rulers did it then and they can do it again now.”

She said the lack of research and educated debates on history, however, had turned it into an “explosive” subject.

In 2015, the Malaysian Heritage and History Club Facebook page posed a question on Parameswara, which garnered 200 comments.

“Most of the comments were on whether he was a Hindu, and if this led to the government not acknowledging it.

“ Then some history professors said Parameswara was just a title. Nobody was sure about his origins.”

She said ongoing debates on Parameswara pointed to the fact that even academics were unsure if the textbooks were accurate.

“What hit me was the history that we are being taught is standing like a pack of cards.

“On one hand, we have historical discussions that are explosive but, at the same time, nobody knows what we are talking about.”

Saidah drew on the late historian Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim’s statement that Hang Tuah might have just been a myth, which
also did not sit well with the public.

RETELLING MELAKA’S HISTORY

Saidah said the polemics about Melaka’s history were reflected in the way cultural groups were divided today.

“The conversation on Melaka often takes on an emotional tone, with the Malays thinking that the 15th century was the period when Malay kingdoms flourished, and the colonials came and took it all away.

“To them, Melaka is where it all started. That’s why politicians in the past used phrases such as ‘di atas runtuhan kota Melaka’ (upon the ruins of Melaka).”

However, she said, most non-Malays believed that the beginning of the nation’s history could be traced back to the 19th century, which was marked by a period of mass migration and economic prosperity that followed the colonial ventures into tin mining and the growing of cash crops.

“But if they look deeper, Melaka was our first point of integration. It is where Indians and Chinese first resided together in the country.”

Saidah said it was important to look back and understand where Malaysia had come from to counter divisive and racial politics, as populist leaders tend to quote history in their rhetoric.

“When you meet someone, you automatically try to place them based on their hometowns, where they went to school or other cultural markers.

“However, in Malaysia, we are ignorant of such information because we don’t know our history.

“And if you do not know anything about history, you are going to be fodder for the next person or leader who comes along.

“We have to look back to understand where we are now.”

MELAKA IN FACT

Saidah said Melaka In Fact hoped to address these gaps through its cultural mapping project.

“At the same time, we hope to boost awareness of Melaka’s historical and cultural significance,” she said, adding that 2,000 locals were interviewed for the project.

“Our field researchers have been doing this for more than a year. We go from door to door talking to people and putting interview transcripts without any editing in our online database.”

She said the project received grants from Khazanah Nasional, Think City, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as well as Google Arts and Culture.

Also roped in for their expertise are Universiti Malaya Architecture Department and Universiti Sains Malaysia Centre for Global Archaelogical Research.

“We are doing this so that people who want to know more about the history can access the data themselves. This will also ensure that the data adheres to Unesco guidelines,” said Saidah, adding that the organisation used evidence-based methodology to investigate and document findings while engaging stakeholders before disseminating things to the larger public.

On cultural mapping, she said it was an exercise that allowed researchers to gather cultural knowledge that encompassed traditions and rituals.

“We gather the data and chart its progress. We can then see the patterns that emerge from this, areas that are dense with historical significance for us to analyse.”

For example, she said the map would show historical areas, such as Tengkera, and cultures around the area.

“We can highlight the diversity of the area and take action to preserve its heritage value.”