Traditional Malay World

The Malaysia of today, with its roots firmly planted at the end of the 18th century, has replaced a totally different kind of polity and economy. In 1786, the Peninsula was divided between the seven Malay principalities of Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Perak, Selangor and Terengganu, each taking its name from the main river flowing through its territory (except Negeri Sembilan).

These were port-states, controlling trade, which came down the rivers from the interior, and tapping the international trade in precious goods that passed their shores.

With the exception of the Kedah Plain, the Kelantan Delta and the hinterland of Melaka, the interior was very sparsely populated. A Malay Ruler gauged his power by the subjects under his control rather than the land that he owned. Land was abundant, people were not. The traditional Malay State was an interesting combination of Muslim autocracy and feudal decentralisation. The great chiefs of State owed unquestioned loyalty to the Ruler but were allowed to rule their districts and raise their own taxes, although homage also must be paid.

The style of government and administration, the principles of justice and law, the traditions of the royal courts and the culture which they created were all the legacy of the great 15th century Sultanate of Melaka. Just as Melaka itself had controlled the principalities on both sides of the Straits, so were the Malay states of the Peninsula, which formed part of the Malay world embracing Sumatra and beyond. Melaka itself was founded circa 1400 AD by a Sumatran prince.

The Straits of Melaka bridged two parts of the same polity; it was the British and Dutch who turned the bridge into a barrier, drawing a political boundary between them.

Melaka played a significant role in the Peninsula's history. It was the first power to establish its base on the Peninsula. For over 100 years it was the leading emporium and the region's trade hub. It became the role model for its successor states, leaving its legacy of law, administration and culture for them to adopt.

Melaka's role as an emporium was brought to a sudden end by the successful Portuguese attack of 1511. It caused the centre of power to be shifted to wherever the Ruler moved, so that Melaka's last Sultan became the first Ruler of Johor, and the Sultanate of Johor took over the mantle of Melaka. For the best part of 100 years, Johor's rulers managed to keep the allegiance of Melaka's former vassals. But it was weakened by the three-sided contest for the trade of the Straits, fighting its rivals the Portuguese in Melaka and the Acehnese in North Sumatra.

The Dutch capture of Melaka from the Portuguese in 1641 changed the picture. The victors crippled the trade of both Johor and Aceh, causing both to succumb to internal dissensions. In the 18th century, the same triangular struggle in the Straits of Melaka continued but now the protagonists were the Bugis from Sulawesi, the Minangkabau from Sumatra (Siak) and the Dutch. The result of this struggle was the further weakening of Johor, which became a satellite of the Bugis. It also resulted in the creation of an independent federation, called Negeri Sembilan, by the Minangkabau settlers of the Melaka hinterland who could no longer look for support from their traditional protector, Johor against the Bugis. At about the same time, the Bugis themselves established a new sultanate of Selangor (at Kuala Selangor).

The presence of the Bugis and the Dutch in Melaka undermined the trading economy of the traditional Malay States and so prevented the emergence of a new Malay trading empire which could threaten them. But, the Portuguese and the Dutch achieved little else. The Malay way of life continued as before, and the pattern of trade and economy were modified without being altered. Such was the Malay world when the British came in 1786. The Dutch still ruled in Melaka but were hard put to it to survive. Johor had become a Bugis enclave. There were the two new states of Negeri Sembilan and Selangor. Terengganu and Johor, the rulers of whom could claim direct descent from the Melaka royal family, were independent but were facing the ever-growing threat of the Siamese. Still more threatened by the Siamese, because they were all that much closer, were Kelantan and Terengganu.