Travel Notes on Melaka, Malaysia: July 2009

The City

Melaka is a city apart. You know it the instant you approach the city by road: no towering skyscrapers and condominiums to cower you. It’s a city laidback, almost dreamily, sprawling horizontally, content with its traditional architecture and at home with modern infrastructure. Unlike the gloom and decadence of a typical old city in the subcontinent, Melaka exudes freshness and contentment.

A unique blend of history and modernity, the city lifted up my spirit as the inter-city bus wound its way on the solidly laid, immaculately tarred and well-marked two-laned road through the leafy neighbourhoods lined on both sides by houses with sloping, red-tiled roofs, open verandahs and no boundary walls! The verandahs had slippers and sandals lined up at the front doors; many had a chair or two, or a sofa, ironing stand or bed holdings stacked up. From the bus window, glimpses of people’s private property out in the open, gave a comforting feeling to me: there are cities in Asia where people live in an atmosphere of security, and trust for each other. Melakans must have their own share of discontentment and grievances for being relegated to the backwaters of Malaysian economy–compared to Kuala Lumpur and Penang—and for not receiving a fair share of development budget from the federation, but that’s what I felt as a traveler on 13th July when we first entered the city. Good that globalization has not yet engulfed Melaka and as yet the city is spared the ugly division between the ordinary people and the ultra-rich though shiny cars abound on its streets and huge retail outlets– Tesco, Macro, Cold Storage—line the city’s centre.

The Architecture

Located on the west coast of Malaysian Peninsular, facing the blue waters of the Straights of Melaka, the first thing that made me wonder was how its multi-ethnic and poly-cultural citizenry would have reached a consensus to retain the city’s 500 year old style of architecture and living. It is difficult to fathom the binding force, the unifying shared values (other than economic interests) that have sustained this heritage despite many ethnic tensions, overt and covert. I found Melakans jubilant that their city was included by the UNESCO in the World Heritage list a week before I arrived in the city. (On 7th July 2008 Melaka and the George Town in Penang had been declared World Heritage.)

In the city of Melaka, you still find houses on stilt, particularly at the fringe of the city, and in some small pockets hidden in the centre such as Kumpung Morten. The dwellers have done away with the stilts but the form of the house has remained the same. The builders seem to put up real hard work to firm up the soil. In many places I found the house sitting on the coal-tarred terrain, as if you have built a house right in the middle of a newly constructed road! The houses are now made of concrete instead of wood—though you do come across wooden houses– and material for roof varies from ceramic tiles, tin, and tin alloys with ceramic texture. Multi-storeyed buildings are few and far away and it appears that the city is adhering to elongated, horizontal structures rather than vertical towers. Hence, the most modern mega mall in Melaka, Dataran Pahalwan, in Jalan Merdeka, with its rows of designer shops, restaurants and all paraphernalia gives an impression of a mall in the suburbs of Toronto.

The Highways

All the way from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka, I had tried to look for the traditional Malaysian dwelling—a house on stilt. Hidden deep under the thick foliage of oil and rubber plantations spreading on both side of the highway, interspersed with undulating green hills, some denuded by tin mining, you would once in a while spot such houses—built on marshy land, standing on stilt, made of wood, with slanting tin-roof. Unlike populous Pakistan, you find no ribbon development along the highways connecting the cities in the peninsular. Hence you spot no habitats. You keep wondering where is the rural population, perhaps tucked away in the hinterland or nestled in the heart of rain forests, some where. The quality of highways and road networks in this hilly and very fertile land tells you what pains they must have taken to cut the hills and clear the wild growth. On both sides of the highways, the struggle to keep foliage from running amok and taking over the tarmac is obvious: the hills’ facades are denuded of shrubbery and jungle growth and just a thin layer of grass is kept through, I suppose, persistent trimming. On the hilly slopes terraced, narrow waterways are built to drain out the rain water that cascades down the steps when it rains.

The Historic Centre

On the eastern side of the murky, narrow river–Sungei Melaka–lies the historic part of the city. The St. PaulChurch is the oldest structure built in 1521, and is the only structure that looks authentically ancient because it has been left untouched hence it broken walls are blackened with moss and wild growth. The remaining buildings, most of them dating back to 17th and 18th centuries are kept spic ‘n span, freshly painted, mostly in red, surrounded by manicured plantations and pedestrian streets. The Christ Church Melaka (1753), the Clock Tower and many old building turned into museums are all located in this area, thronged by visitors, tourists, and cycle rickshaws call trishaws decorated with plastic flowers and buntings and many blaring loud music, often Indian songs. On weekends, the old fountain square has a row of stalls selling crafts and knick knacks. The whole area exudes brightness, though for people like me, from the Indian subcontinent where historic buildings look historic, this area looked artificial as the old buildings have been reconstructed, albeit as original, and painted and re-painted. Even the fabulous Palace of the Sultan, made of timber, teak I suppose, on stilt, with sloping green, multi-layered roofs looked very new. I later learned it was a reconstruction of the original 16th century palace, though I must say, a very meticulous reconstruction and spotless maintenance. However, the ForbiddenGarden facing the Palace was an aesthetic eyesore, with its flooring of ugly and multi-design tiles, saving the numerous species of trees, shrubbery and flowers that adorn the garden.

The real Melaka you wouldn’t find in this circular Jalan Kota surrounded by these buildings but everywhere else apart this tourist spot.  If you walk down the adjacent Jalan Laksamana, lined by rows of shops and a narrow arched passage, all painted red, you would suddenly come across the river and stop by the eerie sight of a whole stretch of old dilapidated, decaying traditional houses that seemed uninhabited. Perhaps the town authorities have plans to re-design the area as a river promenade and the houses are waiting to be pulled down. This eyesore, the authorities have tried to hide behind huge sign boards and decorative screens but they have not made the place inaccessible so I have nothing to complain. There are stairs, neat and tidy, that take you down, closer to the river and they have put up a bench or two for you to sit and ruminate at the soon-to-disappear old, river-side, city-scape. We also discovered a shabby café-bar facing the river, with some bohemian tourists sitting under the balustrade sipping beer.

The Mosque

In Melaka we were keen to visit the Kumpung Kling Mosque, said to be oldest in town. But somehow we got on the wrong bus as no Malay, or non-Malay, for that matter, was friendly enough to guide us correctly. Instead we were made to get down at the bus stop that led to Bukit China, the China town  where we did not venture. Instead we entered a Muslim graveyard by the road and looked at the graves covered by shady trees. That reminds me to note about the graveyards in Melaka. I found them fascinating because unlike Kuala Lumpur and Penang all the graveyards are open, with no boundary wall and all are located besides busy roads in the heart of the city. We came across several Chinese and Muslim graveyards.

We boarded the bus again in search of the old mosque. The bus glided on the winding roads and we had a good look at the two parts of the city divided by the river. On the way we again glimpsed the National Mosque (not the Kumpung Kling Mosque). I decided to get down there. It is a very grand mosque built on high ground in the Melakan style, with conical green roof– instead of a dome—a minaret, arched passageway and sloping, grassy field. Well-kept neat and tidy and a bit lonely. Yes, that’s the fact. Unlike mosques in Pakistan, mosques in Malaysia appear deserted, with few faithful during prayer times and almost none at other hours. But one must keep in mind the population of Malaysia, which is just 27 million, unlike Pakistan’s 130 million. Also, 55 percent of the Malaysian population is Muslim. There are many mosques and I came across several madaresahs. Most of the state mosques have attached seminaries.

I and Nudrat offered Asr prayer in the women’s section where about 12 to 15 women had gathered to pray. All of them wore white gallabiya. After the prayers they took it off, folded it and put it in the bag. It was in this mosque that I met the first Malay, a woman, who greeted me and asked my whereabouts. When I told her we are from Pakistan, she said ‘Welcome’. After the prayer I asked her if she was a teacher (as she could converse in English). She said she was a student, learning Quran (I think she meant tafseer). We two chatted for a little while and her talk drifted to the topic of lack of safety (in Malaysia) and the role of foreigners.

The Immigrants

By foreigners she meant the immigrants. ‘Do you mean the Chinese?’ I wanted clarification. She was irritated. ’No, no. I mean the foreigners who come to work’. She was talking about Thais, Burmese and Bangladeshi immigrants, both legal and illegal. She said ‘they rob people. It is dangerous to walk on the streets these days. Be careful. Few months ago three women were killed by the robbers’. She was civil enough not to point out the probability of me and Nudrat coming across such robbers.

We two had come across a couple of nice Bangladeshi young men, waiters in bows and jackets, at Jonny’s Restaurant in Dataran Pahlawan Mall. Shahzad was in his mid 20s, fair and shy, and spoke Urdu. ‘I learned a little bit from Hindi movies’. He told me he came to Melaka in a dinghy. I was so flabbergasted that I did not ask him to explain ‘dinghy’. ‘I am legal here. I have got a work permit’, he tried to calm me down! Shahzad was in Melaka since a year and was dreaming to venture out to a European city. ‘I will work here for another year. Two year’s experience in this big restaurant would be acceptable in Europe. This restaurant has 26 outlets in Malaysia’, he told me proudly. It was a nice Thai chain restaurant run by a Chinese. We dined there twice.

So, yes, I was talking about immigrants. Malaysia being one of the richest countries in Asia attracts a lot of workers from Thailand, Indonesia, Burma and Bangladesh. As is the case elsewhere, the Malays and the non-Malays dislike immigrants, discriminate against them and the government too is getting tough on them and because it has the wherewithal, I read in the Straights Time, the government was planning to deport 150,000 illegal immigrants from Sarawak on its own expense.

I think most of them would have sailed down there in dinghies.

The People

I was expecting Melakans to be friendly and warm, unlike Kuala Lumpurians and Penangans. But no way! Not to the foreigners and tourists. I found them as tight-lipped, indifferent and even curt to us as Malaysians are in other cities. It was just on my third day in Malaysia (KL) that while looking at those different, indifferent, silent faces and wondering about their mixed ethnicities—Malays, Chinese, Thais, Burmese, Javanese, Tamils, Telengus, Arabs—I had said to myself ‘perhaps the centuries of living together and tolerating each other has exhausted these multi-ethnic and multi-religious people and they have left with no smiles and no warm gestures for foreigners’. They must be full to their throats of seeing different faces all these centuries and want to see no more different faces!

But indeed how tolerant, civil and accommodative they are, at least on the surface, to each other, that I learned very soon. In public spaces, they are most patient and seem to be able to endure any situation. For instance when I and Nudrat rode a bus from Kuala Lumpur to Penang—mind you, it was an air-conditioned, comfortable bus—we had a very strange experience. For a 4 and a half-hour journey, the driver took two breaks, one 45-minute long and the other lasted 35 minutes. While all the passengers looked fed-up and restless, none asked the driver about his lazing around. They strained their necks to see what the driver is up to but they all sat tight-lipped. Also, when the bus reached Penang state, but not the island, the driver stopped the bus without telling any one any thing and we all lingered and waited till finally we were told to get down and board another bus that would take us to George Town. Nobody asked any thing, what to say of complaining! All endured in silence.

I reflected on this episode and conjured up a bus on its way to Hyderabad or some other city in Pakistan and the driver behaving in this way! No one could have tolerated this behaviour. But I said if the passengers to Penang would not have tolerated the driver’s behaviour, would should have they done? Engaged in a shouting match, a brawl, threw temper tantrum? But against whom? The driver, who was an Indian? Had not it generated an inter-ethnic conflict, flaming inter-ethnic hatred and ill-feeling?

At that very instant it became clear to me how essential tolerance and endurance is to the Malaysian society. It is, in fact, one of the precious tools to survival of their unique society, of its apparent civility and humaneness. Though may be it is all chimera. After all, ethnic riots are not just a distant possibility: these did actually happen. On the surface all is calm, though there are undercurrents of ethnic divide and ethnic discrimination, visible even to a traveler. So it seemed to me. Most of the places, residential and commercial both, are divided along ethnic lines. In every city you have ChinaTown and Little India. You have residential enclaves of Malays and other ethnic groups. The big trade is dominated by Chinese and small trade by Indians. Government offices and public services are manned by Malays. In the private sector transport, the low-quality buses plying on less-populated routes are operated by Indians. In public sphere I never saw Malays looking at Chinese or Chinese smiling or chatting to Malays or Indians. By the way, Malaysian Constitution does not confer equal rights to Chinese and Indians and others non-Malays no matter if they have been living in the peninsular for the last 200 to 300 years!

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