So what is the significance of Malaca (Portuguese), or Malacca (English) or, indeed, Melaka (Bahasa Melayu)? Founded around the 1400 by Raja Parameswara, later known as Raja Iskandar Shah, the Melaka Sultanate rose to the height of its power towards the end of the 15th Century. At this time, the Melaka suzerainty extended over most of the Malay Peninsula, the Riau Islands and parts of the Eastern coast of Sumatra. The port of Melaka, strategically located, as it is, at the mid-point of the Straits of Melaka, became one of the most important trading ports in the world. Melaka’s place in the geo-political paradigm of the day was exemplified in the oft-cited line by Portuguese explorer and apothecary Tomé Pires, “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice” – Venice being Europe’s centre of global trade.
While the Portuguese attained this prize in 1511, they killed the golden goose, so to speak! Other trading centers like Acheh, Banten, Bandjarmasin and Brunei arose in the Malay Archipelago and displaced the now Portuguese-controlled Melaka which was unenterprising and decidedly antagonistic to Muslim traders. Melaka never regained its place as the port of choice in the Straits of Melaka during the Colonial era. The British chose to develop Penang and Singapore and given Singapore’s astronomical ascendancy in the post-colonial era (Singapore was according to 2017 statistics the 2nd busiest port in the world), as well as Malaysia’s own development of Ports in Kelang, Johor, Tanjung Pelepas, Kuantan, Penang, Bintulu and Kemaman; Melaka has had to accept its status as a glorious historical relic of the past.
According to FMT Dr Mahathir Mohamad has in the past described the Melaka Gateway port project as a sign that Najib’s former government was ceding sovereignty to China for short-term political gains. In an interview with South China Morning Post (SCMP) in March 2017, Mahathir is reported to have said, “We already have enough ports and the necessary infrastructure to attract tourists. This [Melaka Gateway] is unnecessary.” Indeed, while the economics of the port is questionable, there is no doubt of the strategic importance of the Malacca Straits to China.
As he questions Beijing’s true motive for this 10 Billion Dollar investment, which includes a deep-sea port, Thomas Maresca writes in USA Today, “Neighboring Singapore has long had a close defense relationship with the United States, which has deployed naval combat ships there since 2013. Analysts see China’s closer economic ties with Malaysia as an opportunity to strengthen its own maritime footprint in a crucial region”. Maresca cites Johan Saravanamuthu of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, “There’s the argument that China is not getting favorable treatment from Singapore, so why not try Malaysia? …. With the Malacca Strait on one side and the South China Sea on the other, Malaysia is quite crucial.”
Given that the work on the Gateway Project had already caused severe silting in the Melaka Portuguese Settlement and that the demise of this community goes against all logic in the context of heritage and tourism, I hope the new State and Federal governments hear the people’s protestations. Now that Mahathir has successfully displaced Najib, and is seated as Malaysia’s Prime Minister once again, will he follow through with actions that show us that he was not speaking simply to undermine Najib?