By Tunku Zain Al- A’bidin. Published in The Malay Mail Online 30 September 2016

Most young Malaysians first hear about the Portuguese in negative terms, as the invaders of the Sultanate of Malacca; the first of a line of imperialists who plundered resources and oppressed the people.  Ideally, students would learn about the many drivers of exploration and colonialism, and even once empires were created, to understand contention was normal within the imperial capital as well as in the place that was being colonised.

The likely academic prescription is instead simplistically dichotomous: perhaps deliberately so, since it suits today’s politicians who present politics as a conflict between the native “us” against the foreign “them”.  Alas, such lens distort the enduring impact of past interactions.

In the case of the Portuguese, this extends beyond obvious examples like A Famosa, the Portuguese Settlement and the Kristang community.  The joget, for instance, is influenced by dances of Portuguese origin — indeed the rhythm is uncannily similar to the Sri Lankan baila which emerged through cultural exchange between Portuguese and local populations.  But the most visible inheritance comes in Malay vocabulary, including Portuguese-origin words like mentega, bendera, keju, sabun and almari.

The Portuguese themselves seem cognisant of the global nature of their own heritage and proud they were the pioneer explorers of Europe.  Their Roman and Moorish past is recognised in their language and place names — Lisbon derives from the Roman Olisipo, while the Algarve is from the Arabic Al-Gharb Al-Andalus (“the west of Andalusia”).  Showcasing the Portuguese Age of Discovery are the architecture and decorations of the National Palace at Sintra and the Hieronymites Monastery in Lisbon, which are quite distinct from others I’ve visited in Europe. Today, you can hear Brazilian samba in Mozambican restaurants, though the Portuguese insist their egg tarts are better than Macao’s.

In Germany, I observed how the defeat of the Nazis is seen as a liberation to be celebrated, alongside a pervading national guilt which continues to influence policymaking. In Portugal, it is their internationalism of centuries ago (while obscuring the darker episodes of colonialism) which feeds into their national identity, while the legacy of an authoritarian regime which ended in 1974 is being discredited (a bridge once named after its foremost dictator Salazar has been renamed to commemorate the revolution that overthrew his regime).

Of course, both Germany and Portugal are committed to “ever closer union” through the EU and local narratives converge in remarkable ways. If in Cologne I learnt something unexpected about inter-religious harmony in its cathedral, in Lisbon I have been inspired by multi-faith initiatives in its central mosque.

There, the marble floor is a gift from Turkey, while the mihrab is inscribed with its Iranian place of origin: a marriage of Sunni and Shia  traditions.  “How can we be friendly with Christians but not to our fellow Muslims?” asked the imam rhetorically. In this Muslim place of worship — the first in five centuries since the Reconquista — the Catholic president of the country attended a multi-religious service on the day of his inauguration; and here the Dalai Lama attended a inter-faith dialogue in 2007 which also included Jews and Baha’is.

Our Portuguese host was as proud of this community spirit as of the Portuguese impact to Malaysians. Although Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan occupy the top spots in Portuguese accounts of world exploration, Alfonso de Albuquerque’s exploits in Malacca are also well known, although Tomé Pires’ account of the city is not.

Less popular too is the story of Henrique of Malacca, Magellan’s Malay interpreter who could have been the first person to circumnavigate the world.  Having already gone westwards with Magellan from Malacca to Portugal in 1511, Henrique returned to Malacca from Mactan (in present-day Philippines) after Magellan (variously described as his master or employer) died in battle there a decade later during his mission to find a western route to Asia.

Stories like this are fascinating, because they tell us amidst the many mistakes of those before us, there are also legacies that can bring people divided by geography closer together.

Every country has good and bad aspects of its history, and it is the job of academics to always investigate and question the truth — there should never be a monopoly of interpreting the past.

Yet, it is up to statesmen and collaborative institutions to highlight those aspects of history that will equip and inspire their citizens for the future.  If the two European countries I visited this month with such different histories can steer towards each other — and indeed the world at large —  I am hopeful the same can be achieved in Southeast Asia.

But first, we need the statesmen.

* Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of IDEAS.


Leave a comment