Most people judge the ‘glory’ of an Empire by its conquests. Melaka was certainly an imperial power and had its share of conquests. It dominated almost the whole of the peninsula and the eastern coast of Sumatra. But not all of these ‘conquests’ were done by warships bristling with cannon and filled with men armed to the teeth with krises, spears and swords, led by heroic laksamanas. Some lands were acquired by marriage. Some kingdoms actually begged to be vassal states – for protection against bigger enemies. Some were prizes from successful wars with the two exisitng regional powers – Siam and Majapahit. Melaka’s fleet was not very large – just large enough to have full control of the Straits and small enough not to antagonise its much bigger, more established Siamese and Majapahit neighbours. In terms of trade, it was certainly the centre of commerce in Southeast Asia – the largest marketplace in the world for goods from India and the West, China and the Spice islands.
But Melaka’s greatest glory was not in its miltary prowess or its prosperity and riches – it was in the flowering of Malay culture, literature and society. It was a remarkably cosmpolitan society – Malays, Muslim Indians, Hindus, Chinese, Javanese, Turks, Arabs, Burmese, Siamese, all flocked to share in its peace, stability and prosperity. The stories (some myth, some historical) of the Sejarah Melayu, Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, Tun Teja, have lasted 500 years of persecution and suppression by foreign powers and colonial rule. It was the first and most memorable civilisation to have emerged from the peninsula – and none have equalled it since – and the first truly national identity, in the modern sense of the word, the peninsula had. The spirit of Melaka still exerts its influence today.
How did this great empire come into being?
About 1400 A.D., the Hindu ruler Parameswara, of the then insignificant island of Singapore known in history as Temasek, ran away with a handful of followers after constant attacks on Singapore by raiders from Majapahit. From the Seletar river, Parameswara fled to Muar and later moved further north and founded the kingdom of Malacca in about the year 1402 AD. He became a Muslim when he married a Princesss of Pasai and took the fashionable Persian title “Shah”, calling himself Iskandar Shah. Records of Admiral Cheng Ho’s visit to Melaka in 1409 indicate that Parameswara was then still ruler of Malacca, and there are references to the ruler and the people of Malacca as being already Muslims.
At the beginning of the 15th century, Malacca was just an insignificant fishing village inhabited by a handful of Malay inhabitants from Singapore or Temasek, from Muar, Sungei Ujong and by a number of Orang Laut or sea-gypsies. During that early period of its existence, its rulers were in constant fear of Thai attacks, and yearly sent forth tahils of gold to the King of Thailand. Parameswara carried out reforms that made Malacca the centre of trade in this part of the world. Traders from Java, Sumatra, Borneo, the Celebes, from the Moluccas, Burma, Siam, Cambodia, India, Arabia and China traded in the port. He laid laid the foundation of the Malay court procedures, that were to be adopted by succeeding Malay royalties all over peninsula in centuries to come. Among these were the royal regalia of the Nobat, and the custom of having ceremonial white and yellow umbrellas for royalty. He also started the system of administration based on a hierarchy of court officials. These chief officials were the Bendahara (equivalent to the post of prime minister), Temenggong, Laksamana (Admiral), Shahbandar (Harbour master), Panglima Perang Darat, Bentara Dalam and Bentara Luar. Each official had specific responsibilities in the administration. With this stream lining of administration, trade and commerce rapidly developed in Malacca.
Chinese chronicles mention that in 1414, the son of the first ruler of Malacca came to China to inform the Chinese Emperor that his father had died. A “symbolic” grave of Iskandar Shah is at present worshipped as a “Keramat” or shrine, near Fort Canning in Singapore. I refer to this grave as a “symbolic” because it is generally accepted that he died in Malacca and was buried at Tanjung Tuan, near Port Dickson. His was then made the second ruler of Malacca by the Chinese Emperor. His name is believed to have been Megat Iskandar Shah, or Sultan Megat Iskandar Shah, and he ruled Malacca from 1414 to 1424.
The third ruler of Malacca is known among the Malays as Raja Tengah or Radin Tengah. He took the title Seri Maharaja but, according to the Sejarah Melayu, he then embraced Islam and took the title Muhammad Shah. Other scholars believe this could also have been due to him marrying a Tamil Muslim wife. On his death, he was succeeded by the son of a Princecess of Rokan, Raja Ibrahim. By this time, there could have been some tension in Melaka between the growing Tamil Muslim community and the traditional Hindu Malays, for Raja Ibrahim does not seem to have embraced the new religion but instead adopted the title Sri Parameswara Dewa Shah. He ruled for less than seventeen months – in 1445, he was stabbed to death. He had an elder half-brother, by a Tamil Muslim mother, called Raja Kasim. He assumed the throne, taking the name Sultan Mudzafar Shah – signalling a new golden era for the Melaka Sultanate.
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