The Malay Annals, or “Sejarah Melayu” in Malay, are a romanticized history on the rise and fall of the Malaccan Sultanate interspersed with mythical and fantastical elements. To put the text in historical context, it was composed approximately a century after the fall of the Malaccan sultanate, marking the end of the sultanate’s undisputed rule over both sides of the Strait of Malacca. The oldest version is dated approximately two centuries after the end of the Ming Dynasty’s short-lived maritime Pax Sinica that extended from East Asia to the tip of the Indian sub-continent.
Within its text are key passages describing the Malay worldview of their relationship with the Sinic empires, specifically the Ming dynasty. The interactions cited within afford a remarkably contemporary frame of Malaysia’s current foreign policy towards China, its status as regional power and an emerging superpower, as well as Beijing’s claims towards almost the entirety of South China Sea. Selected texts from the Malay Annals reproduced in this article are drawn from Dr. John Leyden’s translation published in 1821 and are presented in the order as they appear in the Leyden manuscript.
“Sit atop the mountain and watch the tigers fight” – Chinese saying
Then, it was reported in the land of China, that Raja Suran was advancing against them with an innumerable army, and had arrived at the country of Tamsak. The raja of China was alarmed at hearing this intelligence, and said to his mantris and chieftains, “If Kling Raja approach, the country will be inevitably ruined; what method do you advise to prevent his approach?” Then, a sagacious mantri of China said, “Lord of the world, your slave will fall on a device.”
King Suran is described in the text as a true descendant of Alexander the Great. At this point, there is no mention yet of the Malays or Malay lands, only that King Suran set forth from India intending to conquer China. The king of China, upon learning of King Suran’s approach, appreciated this new danger and consulted with his court. One of his ministers contrived a plan to deceive King Suran regarding the distance of China from India with the use of rusty needles and aging sailors. The ruse succeeded in deterring King Suran from invading China.
What is striking is that the Malaccan sultanate perceived the need for another great power to balance and counter the hegemony of the Ming dynasty. When the Trump administration recently announced that the U.S. explicitly considers the PRC’s territorial claims in South China Sea as illegal, it merely elicited a decidedly neutral statement couched in non-committal language from Malaysia. Malaysia’s foreign minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, stated, “Malaysia looks forward to continuing the discussions to conclude an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that would encompass elements which reflect the rights and interests of all parties.”
It should be noted that Malaysia conducts, with little to no domestic fanfare, far more bilateral military exercises of substance with the U.S. than with PRC. A recent standoff between China’s state-owned and military vessels with a Malaysian-chartered Panamanian-flagged drillship and several U.S. Navy ships did not even make the local news cycle in Malaysia. In other words, while Malaysia may loudly proclaim strict neutrality or assign tensions solely to ambitions of superpowers, at best, Putrajaya, the seat of Malaysia’s federal-level government ministries, quietly aspires for U.S. alone to do the heavy lifting. At worst, it hopes that an American presence gives considerable pause to China’s assertive ambitions, sans a hint of Malaysian participation.
“That’s the way the cookie crumbles” – American saying
Then the raja of China sent to Palembang, to Raja Sangsapurba ten prows, to ask his daughter in marriage. They brought with them as presents three bahars of gold, and a great quantity of articles of China. Along with them one hundred male Chinese slaves, and a young Chinese of noble birth; a hundred female Chineses; all to convey the raja’s letter to Sangsapurba. They reached Palembang, and delivered the letter of the raja of China, in the most respectful manner, in the hall of audience.
King Sangsapurba is represented by the Malay Annals as the first Malay king who also laid claim as a direct descendant of Alexander the Great. His appearance in the Annals suggests that the Malays drew heavily from Hindu cosmology (Shiva possibly) in that he was hinted as a sort of demi-god, being deigned to descend from the heavens in order to rule over the Malays. Upon receiving the proposal for the hand of his daughter from the king of China, Sangsapurba consulted with his retinue. They concurred that Palembang, Sangsapurba’s capital, would be at great risk should the proposal be refused and, at the same time, counseled that there was no greater king than the king of China.
While there are historical accounts of Chinese vessels operating around Malay territory for centuries, it would be Zheng He’s famous treasure fleets that would leave an indelible mark and distinct impression on the Malaccan sultanate. The above passage informs readers that the sultanate was more than aware of the proximity of the Chinese mainland to Malacca. Additionally, with the appearance of several large multi-masted ships crewed by hundreds, the Malaccan sultanate understood that the fiat of the Ming Dynasty would not, and could not, be denied. Thus, the Ming dynasty records duly noted visits by Parameswara, the founder of the Malaccan sultanate, and later of his successor, to the Ming capital to receive gifts from the Ming emperor as acknowledgment of their legitimacy as rulers of the Malacca city-state.
Translated today, Malaysia would unlikely initiate or risk direct action to contest incursions by China’s Coast Guard or the People’s Liberation Army Navy into Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Unlike Vietnam, which could fall back on a long history of resisting Chinese invasion and occupation to rally its people in the face of overwhelming numbers and odds, Putrajaya seems to accept that it would likely be fruitless to contest regular incursions by China. Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, then speaking as prime minister, affirmed the long-held precept in late 2019 during an interview discussing China’s maritime claims, saying, “We watch what they are doing, we report what they are doing, but we do not chase them away or try to be aggressive.”
“The measure of clothing against yourself” – Malay saying
The sago was then brought before the raja, and the raja of China asked how it was made. Tun Parapati Puti replied that it was made by rolling it up into grains, and that the raja of Malacca had sent him a grain for every person in his dominions, till the prahu had been loaded, for so great is the number of the subjects of our raja that it is impossible to count them. The raja of China said, “of a truth the raja of Malacca is a powerful raja, his subjects are in truth very numerous, and no wise inferior to mine. It will be very proper for me to connect myself with him.”
The Malaccan sultanate would not have easily accepted the conceit of being in the thrall of the Ming dynasty. The above passage indicates that the sultanate sought a level footing as either an equal or a near-peer to the Ming dynasty. It may have likely been aimed at placating the domestic audiences within the palace, seeing that as it was successive Malaccan rulers that regularly paid court to the Ming emperor rather than the other way around. Unsurprisingly, the above passage cites the marriage of the “Ming princess” Han Li-Po to Sultan Mansur Shah of Malacca as a mark of high esteem by the king of China.
The annals also describe an unusual event which further buttresses the Sultanate’s desire for equality or near-peer status. Shortly after the above passage, the text reveals that the king of China was “seized with an itch of the whole body”. Upon consultation, it was discovered that this itch could only be cured by “drinking the water which has washed the feet and face of the raja of Malacca.” An emissary was dispatched from China to the Malaccan court to apply for said healing waters. The bodily itch subsided after it was applied as prescribed. The king of China pledged that the king of Malacca would no longer be required to pay obeisance at the Chinese court thanks to this miraculous cure. In this, the third and final leg of Malaysia’s diplomatic stance towards China is revealed.
So long as China is willing to acknowledge or publicly confer a near-peer status to Malaysia, “give face”, and support inconsequential initiatives sponsored by Putrajaya, the latter will not rock the boat. Former Malaysian foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, reiterated the point in late 2019, citing that bilateral ties were that of “friendship based on civilization”. It is not a new stance and was first iterated by Malaysia’s second prime minister Tun Razak in 1974, who followed in the wake of Nixon’s ground-breaking visit in 1972, by stating Malaysia’s ancient ties with China. On a more cautionary note, this story from the Malay Annals may not bode well for Malaysia’s Sinic minority should future events transpire that are detrimental towards Malaysia’s maritime claims.
“It’s the same ol’, same ol’ situation” – Motley Crue
To place the historical context of the Malay Annals in modern perspective, at the peak of Pax Sinica under the Ming dynasty, Zheng He’s treasure fleet carried out counterpiracy operations near Palembang, Sumatra, and instituted regime change in Colombo, present-day Sri Lanka. Just as it was then and today, a superpower’s reach that meddled in regional politics and exuding a somewhat condescending attitude would have likely triggered internal resentments that needed to be addressed or tamped down in favor of expediently and profitably managing their kingdoms’ generally unequal relationship with the Ming dynasty. The encounter between the Ming dynasty and Malaccan sultanate resulted in a foreign policy primer encapsulated by these key passages in a classical Malay text that is still assiduously cultivated by modern-day Malaysian diplomats and public officials.
Teoh Jit Khiam works in private practice. He writes on topics concerning Asian politics and history.