During the fifteenth century Melaka rose to become, in the words of the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires, ‘of such importance and profit that it seems to me it has no equal in the world’.1 Yet Melaka’s great success and its honoured place in Malay history were not due merely to its prosperity and renown as a trading centre. Building upon an illustrious past, it established patterns of statecraft and a lifestyle in which the Malay language and the Islamic faith were central. Emulated by subsequent Malay kingdoms, the values promoted by Melaka became the basis of what was later termed ‘traditional’ Malay culture. The rulers of Johor, direct descendants of the Melaka dynasty, could only partially replicate the success of their predecessors, but memories of Melaka’s formidable accomplishments lived on. Well after the Portuguese conquest of 1511, Malays told Europeans that their forebears had built a world-famous city from ‘seven or eight fishing huts’ and had there developed ‘a language named Malay’ that was regarded as ‘the most courteous and refined in all India’.2 As an inspirational emblem of Malay achievement, the 1957 decision to announce independence in Melaka even before it was proclaimed in Kuala Lumpur symbolized the town’s special status in Malaysia’s national narrative. This chapter accords Melaka considerable attention, not only because of its contribution to the evolution of Malay identity, but because its legacy has been subject to various interpretations, sometimes to further political, ethnic or religious agendas.
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