The story of the Malays.
The Malay states of the archipelago and the peninsula flourished through trade. Situated on the sea routes between east and west, they benefited from the passage of trading vessels calling at their ports to replenish and water. The region produced spices, scented wood and various gums from forest trees, which were much in demand by the foreigners. Trade with the merchants of China, India and Arabia developed, bring prosperity the numerous principalities on the sea coast.
The first of these entrepot ports was Fu-Nan in the gulf of Siam. It was already thriving commercial centre in the second century CE. Strategically located, it was accessible by land to ports on the west coast of the Isthmus of Kra, where goods from India, Arabia and even Mediterranean countries landed. The overland route to Fu-Nan was preferred because the voyage down the coast of the Malay Peninsula was very long and the sea there was infested with pirates. Because of this, the exchange and sale of goods from China, India the Arabian Peninsula, and the Southeast Asian islands took place in Fu-Nan. From there, Chinese ships would carry goods back to China, while the Malays ships took their to the budding entrepot ports in Southeast Asia. Later the ethnic Malay traders from the archipelago bypassed Fu-Nan and sailed on to China. According to European records their ships weighed more than 200 tonnes, clearly the creation of master shipbuilders. Chinese traders did the same and sailed to ports in Southeast Asia. Fu-Nan went into decline and in its place, the great entrepot ports of Java, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula developed.
All these trading ships, and later those that came to Southeast Asia from Europe, sailed with the help of the monsoonal or ‘trade’ winds. They were dependent upon these biannual wind patterns because naval architecture of the time did not allow the traders to build ships capable of ‘tracking into’ or sailing against, the prevailing wind. So the ships from China, India, Arabia and the outlying southeast Asian islands had to remain in the port at their destination for almost half a year, waiting for the wind to change and blow them back to their homelands.
The enforced stay of traders of many nationalities gave these ports an international or cosmopolitan flavour. Their human diversity enriched the culture of the region’s states and cities. In its heyday, Malacca had the populations of 100,000- at that time when the population of London was about 200,000. Sometimes the rulers of these port cities also involved themselves in trading activities, naturally giving themselves various privileges above those of their own subjects. This was not unusual in those days, when European royalty in the same area also used to invest in the trading expeditions of their merchants. A taste or inclination for trade has remained characteristic of a number of tqhe ruling families of the region. In modern Malaysia, for example, the royal family of Negeri Sembilan has become one of the nation’s major corporate and entrepreneurial forces.
The commercial life and success of these maritime trading port required great administrative skills among their local ruling classes. Competition was keen as new port emerged, always seeking to attract canny traders through better security, efficiency and the fairness of the Rulers of the states. In the administration of entrepot ports, some foreigners played functional roles in governing foreign merchant communities and overseeing port activities. But the life of the maritime port city remained under overall supervision of the local ruler, together with his close family and associates. They had to maintain the success of the city as a trading centre, or else other Rulers would seize the opportunity to build their own port. Taxes and dues were levied by the Ruler’s administration, but care was taken that they did not become excessive and drive the traders away. The same approach is evident in Malaysia today; far from new, the business-friendly attitude of Malaysian government has deep cultural origins and historical precedent. The competing entrepot ports of Southeast Asia set out to be attractive to foreigners long before modern Malaysia was ever imagined.
In the early fifteenth century CE, the new entrepot of Malacca was founded on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. There were already ports in Kedah and Perak, and in Terengganu the east coast. But these were small and not successful or as well administered as Malacca. The Hindu prince Parameswara, who founded Malacca, and his successors were far more astute. Parameswara built an entrepot port at the mouth of the Malacca River. Coming from Palembang, part of the powerful Sri Vijaya empire, he saw how wealth had been created through providing port facilities and the exchange of goods at entrepot ports. The Malays of Malacca adapted easily as they were an urban people. The city was surrounded by forest and there was little cultivated land. Evidently, the Malays in those days thrived in a trade-based urban economy. It was only later that they were driven into the countryside as peasants.
Beginning with Parameswara, who founded Malacca in 1400, the Rulers of Malacca built up a sound administration, providing laws for both land abd sea. The Ruler managed the city’s affairs through his high officers headed by bendahara (Prime Minister or Chief Minister), a shahbandar (harbor master), and various panglima (generals or commanders) and laksamana (admirals). In Malacca, as in Sri Vijaya, success was due to Malay nautical skills and organizing abilities. Location also played a role, as it did later with Singapore. But without the right human talent and abilities – or social infrastructure as we would now say – location by itself was no guarantee of commercial success.
Of the foreign traders, the most numerous were the Chinese. They were everywhere, from Manila in the Philippines to Aceh in North Sumatra. Like all the traders, they did not bring their women along, and as a result many married locals. When their numbers were small they assimilated, adopting the language, culture and religion of the locals. This locally integrated Chinese community was favoured by Chinese mainland traders when making commercial transaction in the region. Some of these mixed and locally assimilated Chinese became involved in the cultivation of cash crops. In the Philippines, Java and elsewhere, as their numbers increased, they tended to keep more of their Chinese character. They gradually became a separate component of society, distinct from the local people.
When the Europeans came to Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century CE they introduced a monopolistic trade culture. Under these arrangements the Chinese traders and settlers took on a greater role since it was they who collected various kinds of produce from the local people and supplied them to the European traders. Close and strong connections were also formed from the high level of intermarriage between Spanish traders and Chinese woman. A Spanish/Chinese Mestizo community soon emerged and the Spanish and the Chinese naturally gravitated towards them. Gradually, as the Chinese Mestizo communities in Southeast Asia began to take away the business of the locals, tensions grew between the two groups. In the Philippines and Java, clashes took place and many Chinese were killed. Conflict arose now and then, but the business potential of the Southeast Asian entrepot port and their hinterland was so great that, as soon as things settled down again, the Chinese would come back.
To be continued