Bigotry undermining Melaka’s historical identity

A curious paradox indeed that for a “historical city”, Melaka stands helpless in the face of the inexorable politicking that is threatening to muck up its historical identity

Melaka was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. Yet, when names of historical landmarks are changed to suit the local government’s taste, it does set off alarm bells.

The city’s name itself has not been spared. It has been “Malacca” all along but six months ago, on May 3, the state government declared that the Anglicised state name spelling of “Malacca” was no longer applicable and that reference to the state in English shall henceforth be exclusively “Melaka”.

Melaka State Secretary Naim Abu Bakar then said that all newspapers and other media would have to refer to the state as Melaka both in writing and orally.

“This is intended to standardise the use of the name Melaka, especially in English,” Naim said.

The name witch-hunt has continued, leaving the unassuming St John’s Fort, the 18th century fort built by the Dutch, the Stadhuys building, and Jonker Street, with an “identity crisis”.

The St John’s Fort located atop St John’s Hill and the road leading to it have for the longest time been officially addressed as “Bukit Senjuang” while the Stadhuys is known to locals as “jam besar” i.e. clock tower.

As for Jonker Street, tourists who use the city’s local bus service are left confused when bus conductors address it as “Chinatown”.

If these misgivings and distortion of historical names are not disconcerting enough, in comes another concern – that of bigotry when the Melaka Historic City Council (MBMB) last month issued a notice to tear down the replica of “Christ the Redeemer”, a statue based on the iconic Rio de Janeiro landmark that was being built in Melaka’s Portuguese Settlement.

While the application to build the 30-foot statue of Jesus Christ was made in September, MBMB never got back with a response.

Eager to have the “Redeemer” in place for Christmas, some residents who voluteered with the construction decided to go ahead and built the statue.

This led to MBMB issuing a stop-work order on Oct 30 and for the statue to be demolished. However, Melaka Chief Minister Idris Haron intervened and asked that demolition work be halted.

It appears that the statue of the “Redeemer” will never see the light of day as the community leaders have decided to shelve the project to avoid stirring any controversy.

The volunteers who were instrumental in constructing the statue have agreed to resubmit a proposal to MBMB to convert the present site into a “landscaping project”.

MBMB councillor Joseph Sta Maria was reported as saying that the decision to halt the construction was made to avoid any unnecessary problems.

“I have spoken to project leader Cyril De Mello, and his team has collectively agreed to shelve the construction.

“A unanimous decision was reached to convert the project into a landscaping site without religious connotations,” Sta Maria said, adding that with the latest development, there would not be any appeal to keep the statue until the end of the Yuletide period.

Identity crisis

Costing some RM30,000, the proposed statue, which was 70% complete, will now be taken down. The construction was made possible through fund-raising activities while the builders were also from the settlement.

It is a tragedy that the Portuguese Settlement has been denied the right to create the statue of the “Redeemer”, given the settelement’s historically bestowed heritage as a “beacon of Catholicism” for the last 500 years.

Councillor Joseph was reported to have said that Idris and Melaka Mayor Zainal Hussin had expressed their views on the matter, which the volunteers accepted with “open hearts”.

Now, what views could those be which finally led to the almost completed “Redeemer” having to make an exit?

Did both Idris and Zainal come clean on the MBMB not consenting to the project?

While the residents erred in going ahead with the construction of the “Redeemer” without gaining the MBMB greenlight, the onus was on the local authority and Idris to clarify why the state was not pleased to have the presence of the “Redeemer” at the settlement.

It does seem that the state government has no interest in welcoming the statue of the “Redeemer” at the Portuguese Settlement, hence the indifference towards the application submitted in September.

Had MBMB been earnest, a prompt “yes” or “no” would have been forthcoming. Instead, the residents were left in a limbo, by Idris and surprisingly, even by councillor Joseph, who failed to push the council for an answer and assist the community there appropriately.

A resident, who requested anonymity, told Berita Daily, the issue was racially motivated.

“Is the state government threatened by the statue of Christ standing tall at the settlement? It is very unsettling that even the ‘Redeemer’ is not spared racial connotations. It all seems like a conspiracy and sabotage to deny the ‘Redeemer’ a place at the settlement.

“Also, that Idris as Melaka chief minister has never set foot on the Portuguese Settlement speaks volumes. Be it Christmas or other occasions, we have never failed to invite him but he does not seem interested in wanting to know and mingle with the settlement community,” the resident bemoaned.

A curious paradox indeed that for a “historical city”, Melaka stands helpless in the face of the inexorable politicking that is threatening to muck up its historical identity – as proven by the rejection faced by the “Redeemer”.