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Harun Aminurrashid’s novel ‘Panglima Awang’ is set against a backdrop of colonial era Melaka to provide a narrative on nation-building, nationhood and national identity.

IN a recent International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation-International Islamic University Malaysia (ISTAC-IIUM) forum, themed “Panglima Awang@Enrique de Malacca: Melaka, Globalisation and Malay Civilisation”, I suggested at a re-understanding and a reinterpretation of the past of Melaka, of Malay society, and the archipelago. I hinted at the use of history, for the present and the future.

Harun Aminurrashid’s 1958 novel Panglima Awang has the ingredients in charting the past for possible, probable or preferable futures. Harun (his real name was Harun Muhammad Amin) was born in 1907 in Teluk Kurau, Singapore. He presented to us a piece of factual fiction (some may term it a historical novel) that tells the story of a Malay man from Melaka, enslaved by the Portuguese and who subsequently managed to free himself, regaining his sense of self and identity.

In Portuguese sources, he was identified as Enrique (de Malacca). In Panglima Awang, Harun rewrote the colonial condition, at times justifying European colonialism, at other times, describing the Ferringhi as the problematic other. Harun used such a background to inform us on nation-building, nationhood and national identity. He turned the narrative into an allegory of Malay historical experience of colonialism under the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

The trajectory of time is relative to how we want it to be. Harun dabbled with time — the linear and the cyclical. Questions of possibility, probability and preferences emerge.

Harun based his story on the persona of Enrique de Malacca, captured by Ferdinand Magellan in Malacca in 1511, and served as interpreter and navigator for the Portuguese in circumnavigating the globe.

While the first person to sail around the world is still disputed, the story of Panglima Awang, the name given by Harun, is the story of Melaka, the history of Melaka and its links with Europe, the story of the Malay maritime world, cosmopolitanism and Malay consciousness.

The recent surge of interest in Panglima Awang or Enrique de Malacca is not confined to Malaysia, but stretches to the Philippines, Portugal and Spain. These interests and the recent ISTAC-IIUM forum have incited various thoughts, ranging from the rewriting of history viz the circumnavigation of the globe taking claims in the national interest.

The developing narrative on the figure still continues — as to where he went, or whether he returned to this part of the Malay archipelago when Magellan was killed in Mactan, the Philippines. The period which recorded the life of Panglima Awang was from 1511 to 1522.

In my talk at the forum however, I posed the possibility of reassessing the past and the present in light of the man from Melaka — mindful of the disputes of his origins, Sumatra or Maluku. I listed down several themes:

MALAY encounters with the Europeans, and by name, we can say that he was one of the earliest Malays to meet the Portuguese;

THE Europeanisation of the Malays — in that he was captured by Magellan who took him to Portugal and Spain (as well as Morocco), stayed there and learnt their language and their ways;

THE globalisation of Bahasa Melayu as lingua franca to more than 80 languages spoken in the Port of Melaka;

THE globalisation of Malay civilisation against the milieu that he came from, that is Melaka; and,

THE enlightenment of the Melaka Malay Sultanate against conditions in the Malay archipelago and in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.

There is a lacuna on works comparing the history of Melaka and the history of Europe. And much is needed to reassess and recast Melaka as not only a component of the history of Malaysia, the Malay archipelago and Southeast Asia, but also the rest of Asia and Europe.

The history of Melaka and that of Europe has been intertwined — and it is not only to Venice, citing historian Tome Pires’ famous words: “Whoever is lord of Malacca shall have his hands on the throat of Venice”.

The history of Melaka is integral to that of medieval Europe (to use the Eurocentric periodisation) — especially Portugal and Spain. Melaka should be cast as a component of European history. Our narrative must put the history of the Malay Sultanate of Melaka as the emergence of a phase in Malay civilisation integral to global history.

In this regard, we cannot ignore Harun’s novel on Panglima Awang. It sets the basis for a Futures Studies approach to an epoch. The work in the factual fiction matrix lays the basis for world views and myths underlying Malay society, the possible, the probable and the preferable.

The past is the future. Through the story of Panglima Awang, Harun maps alternative futures in the continuum of colonialism, enslavement, decolonisation and empowerment. Panglima Awang, the novel, and the man, embodies an approach in the climate of Futures Studies.

Science fiction and other works of fiction are ingredients in shaping the desired futures — either at the individual or collective levels. The story, set against the Melaka that has been narrated, brings to light predictive capabilities while engaging in interpretive and competitive images of the future of the nation.

The writer is a professor at ISTAC-IIUM

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