After a 4 1/2 hour bus journey across the border from Singapore to Malaysia and then into Malaka-ville, I hunted around Malacca Sentral Bus Station for an iced coffee before taking the local bus no 17 into the centre of town. After being served my first iced coffee in a bag for 1.70 Malaysian Ringgits, I hopped on to the first bus. Buying my ticket at 1 MR, I was relieved to see the cheaper prices in relation to Singapore. It was also a relief to see that cheaper prices didn’t come at the expense of peace of mind, as Indonesia is all about haggling a price, rather than accepting a reasonable fixed rate.
The bus driver looked like he was about 16 years old. Oh wait! That’s not the driver; that’s the driver’s son just pretending to be the bus driver. (I did feel more comfortable when I realised the real driver was in his 50s. I had started to worry…).
Uncertain of when exactly to get off the bus… I kinda waited until the scenery appeared to be more touristy, and decided to just hop off, and look at a map… (a warped sequence of events – usually you would look at a map before hopping off the bus, but never mind).
First impressions of the city: the Town Square looks touristy and colonial. In principle Malacca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Well. It IS a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, as far as World Heritage Sites go, it’s isn’t as awe-inspiring of a city as Bath, for example, which is also classed as a UNESCO site.
Nonetheless, Malacca’s significance in trade – pre-Portuguese, then Dutch, then British colonisation – made this area an international hub for traders from China, Siam, India, the Middle East and Venice. I read a quote somewhere in one of the museum’s writing something like: ‘any ruling sultan of Malacca held a knife against Venice’s throat’.
At the time, Venice received great wealth from other European traders as they had a stronghold on trade with Asia through Malacca. The Portuguese – aiming to eliminate their dependence on Venice for Asian commodities – sent 18 heavily armed fleets to the Malacca Straights to demand trade dominance in the area.
Though victorious, the Portuguese attempt of converting all locals to Christianity was ill-received. When the Dutch arrived from neighbouring Indonesia, their nonchalance towards Christianity enabled them to form an ‘alliance’ with the Sultan to oust the Portuguese from the Malacca Straights and to become the next European colonists in the region.
Dutch influence was relatively short-lived, as in the early 1800s, Sir Raffles made a stronghold in Malacca – negotiating an exchange of territory with the Dutch. The British would then have Malacca in exchange for giving Indonesian Sumatra to the Dutch.
Admittedly, before arriving in Southeast Asia, I had little knowledge or interest in the history of European colonisation. But after a few observations and a few conversations, I am now curious to test the validity of a number of statements that – thus far – appear to be true. Someone (I cannot recall who) said to me:
Though it is generally accepted that colonisation is bad, if one is to be colonised, it is better to be colonised by the English than by the Dutch.
I’ve been trying to understand what this means. I was told the Dutch have been historically known to serve their purpose: divide, conquer, exploit and abandon. The British have been known to have done the same – but have endeavoured to ‘abandon’ with a strong legacy. The legacy has been felt through the remaining infrastructure, political systems, language, architecture and current development of the country.
Whether the above is true or not is not really for me to say. However, it cannot be disputed that Singapore and Malaysia are significantly more advanced, modern and developed than the Indonesia I’ve seen and experienced thus far.
In actual fact, I’m quite amazed at how developed Singapore and Malaysia really are… travelling solo here feels like a breeze in relation to my experience of travelling across Eastern Europe and and Russia 6 years ago. Systems and processes are logical… they run smoothly, quickly and efficiently. People appear to be more open-minded, progressive, friendly…willing to acknowledge ambition and success, but not at the expense of harmony.
When teaching English in Bali, another TESOL trainee asked the class the question: ‘who would consider themselves to be ambitious?’. This question seemed entirely appropriate as one in the West would be proud to refer to themselves as ambitious. The students, however, squirmed and looked around amongst themselves, and no one volunteered to accept such a status. We were then informed that ambition – in the Western sense – had negative connotations in Balinese culture, and compromised the desired communal ‘harmony’. It is therefore more respected to be like one’s peers than to stand apart, and to achieve, or to break from the norm of one’s community.
So – whilst most (I say ‘most’, as I haven’t asked all of my students – but I’m inclined to say ‘none’) of my Balinese students had never been on a plane or even left Bali for that matter, all of the Singaporeans and Malaysians that I’ve spoken to thus far have travelled.
Whether these socio-cultural observations are pure coincidence or whether there is some correlation between different European approaches to colonisation and current development, I don’t know… but I find it interesting, and I’m curious to observe, reflect and draw more comparisons as I continue travelling.