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Parameswara

Palembang Prince or Singapore Renegade?

TThere are basically only two historical records which give in some detail the beginnings of Melaka - the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) written some time in the 15th or 16th century, and modified in 1612 by the Johor court; and Suma Oriental, by Tom Pires, a Portuguese who lived in Melaka after its conquest in 1511.

Both accounts do contain a core of similar information. Both trace the lineage of the Melaka Sultans to a ruler of Palembang in Sumatra; both describe his departure for Temasek (Singapore); both describe a flight to Muar, Bertam and finally Melaka; and both have an account of the famous mousedeer story that prompted Melaka's ruler to choose it as the base for his new kingdom.

Beyong this, however, the two accounts differ markedly.

Not many people realise this, but the famous Sejarah Melayu does not even mention the name Parameswara at all. It relates how Sri Tri Buana (a magical, mythical ruler supposed to be a desendant of Alexander the Great) leaves Palembang to found a new city and establishes it on the island of Temasek, calling it Singapura. His descendants rule for another five generations. During the rule of the last Sultan, Iskandar Shah, Majapahit invades but the attack is repulsed. But he is betrayed by a Court Minister/Treasurer, who sends a message to the King of Majaphit to attack. Majaphit sends a fleet of three hundred ships carrying no less than 200,000 men. The gates to the city are opened by the Minister and a terrible massacre ensues. The red stains on the laterite soil of Singapore are said to be blood from that massacre. Iskandar Shah flees north, eventually to found Melaka.

Pires, on the other hand, describes how Parameswara, a Palembang prince, flees Sumatra following an invasion by Majapahit. He arrives in Singapura, then a vassal of the Siamese state of Ayudhya, kills the local chief there and sets himself up as ruler. Five years later, the Siamese attack and drive him out of Singapore. He flees to Muar, then Bertam, where he founds a settlement. His son Iskandar Shah finds the Melaka site and asks his father's permission to settle there.

Three other texts - the Chinese Wang Ta-yuan, 1349; Pararaton, a Javanese history of the period; and the 14th Century Javanese epic poem the Nagarakritagama, also have some references to events relating to Temasek at the time. Wang Ta-yuan wrote of a Siamese attack on Singapore with 70 junks, the Siamese fleet fleeing with the coming of a Chinese fleet. About two decades later, a Majaphit fleet attacks and sacks the city.

The Pararaton tells of how Gajah Mada, a famous minister of Majapahit, swore not to taste his favourite dish until until he had conquered Pahang, Palembang and Temasek. In 1365, the Nagarakritagama lists Temasek as a subject of Majapahit.

You can see that the early history of the peninsula is not an exact science and you can sympathise with the poor modern historian who has to consolidate and reconcile such differing accounts. Was it Parameswara or Iskandar Shah who started Melaka? Were they not in fact the same person? Was he from Sumatra or was it his great-great-great-great grandfather? Was it the Siamese or Majapahit who attacked Singapura?

The Sejarah Melayu's account mentions only one date, but some events described in it can be verified by other historical sources. However, the main theme of this work was to laud the spleandour, greatness and superiority of the Melaka Sultanate - and it was written at a time when the Johor court, successors of the Melaka sultans, were being attacked by Portuguese and Achinese, their capital sacked many times and having to be moved from one place to another, the court frequently on the run from marauding invaders, their territories being overrun. The Sejarah Melayu was probably an attempt by the Johor court to overcome its sense of lost fortunes by regaining the past glories of a mythical golden age.

That said, one must also remember that Pires himself intended the Suma Oriental to serve as a reference book for the new Portuguese masters of Melaka and, as such, while appearing more 'authentic', could not have been completely free of bias against their vanquished foes.

About the Author

Write to the author: sabrizain@malaya.org.uk

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