The year was 1482, a delegation of 1,900 people in about 40 Melakan ships arrived at the heart of the Ottoman world, Istanbul, to purchase firearms. At the head of the mission was Hang Tuah, the legendary Admiral of Melaka. The reason for the purchase of such a large amount of firearms was because Melaka’s elderly Sultan wanted to ensure that his successor would be able to rule peacefully once he was gone, and indeed his time was running out.
The old Sultan had five children. The eldest, Raden Bahar son of the Majapahit princess Raden Emas Ayu was already appointed ruler of Majapahit to replace his grandfather, while his younger brother, Raden Bajau was sent to be king in Palembang. The Sultan’s second wife, the indomitable Tun Teja also had two sons, Raja Mahmud and Raja Ahmad who were enthroned as minor kings in Lingga and Bentan respectively.
After seven generations, the throne of Parameswara was destined to be passed to the Sultan’s only daughter, Puteri Gunung Ledang. Yes, Melaka would finally have a female ruler.
As the expedition returned from Istanbul, the old Sultan decided to abdicate. His beloved princess Puteri Gunung Ledang was then enthroned in the grand rituals set by her ancient ancestor, Sultan Muhammad Syah, the third ruler of Melaka.
The chronicler recorded her reign as one “with justice and generosity towards all her subjects, and likewise towards all the foreign merchants and scholars. Whenever any case was brought before her, she would examine it thoroughly. Melaka was at peace, its population increased under the nurturing care of the Bendahara, the Temenggung and the Laksamana. Many were the merchants and scholars who travelled to Melaka to trade.”
The old wooden fort of Melaka was demolished, and in its place, artileries of powerful cannons were lined in tiers around the city. The Portugese who arrived at the region about the same time wrote of the bustling port where 2,000 ships berth daily. It was said that whoever is the lord of Melaka has his – or in our case, her – hand on the throat of Venice. Such is the grandeur, and richness of Melaka under the reign of Puteri Gunung Ledang, the first and the only female ruler as well as the last Sultan of the great Malay empire.
The above story of course was partly fiction – we know there were no female rulers in ancient Melaka.
And Puteri Gunung Ledang was rather known as being the love interest of Sultan Mahmud Syah, the last ruler of Melaka when Portugese attacked in 1511 (He abdicated around the same time in favour of his son, Sultan Ahmad, but later took back the throne after Ahmad’s failure to fight the invaders).
But the fact is, the story of the first and last female ruler of Melaka was not my invention. It was told in Hikayat Hang Tuah written over 300 years ago, perhaps within just a couple of generations after the fall of Melaka.
Some scholars have postulated that Hikayat Hang Tuah was written to encourage scions of Melaka to reclaim their lost kingdom. After all, Sejarah Melayu recorded that Melakan princes and soldiers read the heroic tales of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah and Hikayat Amir Hamzah to motivate themselves the night before their battle with the Portugese. Thus, Hikayat Hang Tuah offered both a new reminder of the glorious Malay empire and a new inspiration to rise up and retake the kingdom from foreign rule.
It is interesting that in his literary call to revolution, the author of Hikayat Hang Tuah had imagined a righteous woman Sultan in the place of the brutal, womanising Sultan Mahmud.
Perhaps in the patriarchal minds of the feudal society, it was unbearingly humiliating for a male king to lose a kingdom, and hence, better rewrite the story to blame it on a woman.
But, perhaps also the Malay ancestor was reimagining what would it be like if a better king was to rule Melaka at the time of Portugese invasion instead of the erratic Sultan Mahmud and his incompetent son, Ahmad.
In fact, instead of trying to shift the blame to a woman because of the embarrassment of losing a kingdom, perhaps the author was really trying to erase the embarrassing male kings from their storied world and reenacted a righteous female ruler in the line of the great Melakan kings. In other words, the fantasy of a female Sultan was a criticism of Sultan Mahmud himself – and if so, no wonder the author used the character of Puteri Gunung Ledang whom the Sultan so coveted that he was willing to exhaust state treasury to gain her hand in marriage.
Whatever the reason, it was really interesting that the Malay ancestor imagined a female Sultan.
Today, as we discuss whether to have more female participation in politics, as we look to female leaders in the world such as Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern and ask ourselves whether Malaysia is ready for a female Prime Minister, as we deal with chauvinistic objections citing old customs and traditions and “not our culture” excuses, please know that the Malay ancestors when imagining an epic tale to inspire heroism and patriotism, had written of the glorious reign of a female Sultan of Melaka.
Happy International Women’s Day 2021.
Steven Sim is the Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam.