Hoping to foster national identity and cultivate patriotism, the Malaysian government announced that from 2013 history would be a required subject for the secondary school SPM examination (Malaysian Certificate of Education). This decision generated considerable public debate about the way Malaysian history should be presented and what citizens should know about their collective past. Even the apparently straightforward task of establishing a historical chronology raises questions because Malaysia is a relatively new country, and its current borders were only finalized in 1965. By the same token, the basic issue of when Malaysian history begins is problematic because developments in the Melaka Straits and western Borneo cannot be reconstructed with any certainty before the beginning of the fifteenth century CE. The rise around 1400 of a great entrepôt, Melaka, on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, has thus been accepted as the starting point for a ‘national’ history. Since the 1980s the ‘pre-Melakan period’ has been accorded more attention in school textbooks, but it is still generally regarded as of minor significance in the evolution of contemporary Malaysian society. Yet Melaka’s development from a quiet fishing village to a world-renowned emporium and centre of Malay culture cannot be explained unless one realizes that behind the splendour of its court and the vigour of its commerce lay traditions of trade, government and cross-cultural cooperation that had evolved over centuries. This chapter will therefore show that the story of Malaysia does not begin at Melaka but stretches back deep into the past. An examination of Melaka’s heritage not only provides the context essential for an understanding of later events, but reveals themes that continue to be relevant as Malaysian history unfolds.
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