by Lin Hao
MALACCA, Malaysia, May 4 (Xinhua) -- More than 600 hundred years ago, the Malay dynasty of Malacca rose from the ancient maritime silk road to become a major trading hub in Southeast Asia, attracting traders and visitors from both east and west.
The Strait of Malacca was named in its glory years, but of late Malacca is no longer one of the world's busiest sea lanes and has become somewhat irrelevant as global trade has blossomed.
The visits of the great armada of Zheng He, a revered Chinese navigator during the Ming Dynasty, facilitated Malacca's rise in the early 15th century. Six centuries later, Malacca is once again looking to China on its quest for rejuvenation.
Jonker Street is the heart of Malacca's historic towns and has traditional Chinese-style arcades with overhanging stands on both sides of the street. They are mixed with multi-cultural heritage originating from Europe, the Middle East and Asia and brought into the town when Malacca served as a major port in the region.
In 2008, Malacca and George Town on Malaysia's northern island of Penang were inscribed on the World Heritage List.
Recalling the glorious days of Malacca, Idris Haron, Chief Minister of the State of Malacca said, "It was recorded that more than 84 languages were spoken in the state of Malacca at that time, and the volume of trade was tremendous."
For those who come to Malacca today to appreciate its great heritage, it's not difficult to notice that one significant thing is absent from the once famous trade hub, and that's a busy port.
After a century of prosperity, Malacca fell into the hands of the Portuguese in the early 16th century, before being taken over by the Dutch and subsequently, the British. Thereafter, it slowly lost out to regional rivals like Singapore.
Today, Malacca is among the smallest states in Malaysia with a population of less than one million people and due to a lack of natural resources and heavy industry, tourism is the pillar of Malacca's economy.
Gan Tian Loo, a former Exco member of the state government, said Malacca was at one time called a "sleeping town".
EMBRACING BELT AND ROAD
As Malacca seeks new impetus for its development, it has tapped into its historic ties and friendship with China and actively embraced the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, namely the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.
"To me the historical factor is the number one reason why I want Malacca to be part of the bigger Belt and Road picture," Idris told Xinhua in an interview.
"Malacca and China have long been associated and related and we are not going to compromise that, we are going to capitalize on this relationship," he said.
The chief minister said Zheng He was stationed in Malacca on five of his seven maritime expeditions. He and his great adventures are well remembered not only in China, but also in Malaysia.
"Zheng He is accepted by all races in Malaysia," said Gan, "He was an envoy of friendship and peace."
To foster ties with China and attract Chinese investment and tourists, Gan was appointed by the state government as a special business ambassador to China and has been a frequent visitor to China since.
"Malaysia has actively participated in the Belt and Road Initiative. And within Malaysia, Malacca is probably the most active participant," he said.
"The initiative has brought an historical opportunity to Malacca and we hope to seize the chance to regain our position as a major trade hub."
CATALYST FOR ECONOMIC TRANSFORMATION
For the state government, the building of a deep sea port will be the essential part of Malacca's revival and future development.
In 2016, Malaysia's KAJ Development announced that it would join hands with three Chinese companies, PowerChina International, Shenzhen Yantian Port Group and Rizhao Port Group, to build a deep sea port as part of Melaka Gateway.
Melaka Gateway is a mega project that also includes residential, commercial, cultural, entertainment and lifestyle elements on reclaimed islands.
"Building the deep sea port is not only about building the port itself, it's about building and carving the future of the nation," said Idris.
"This deep sea port is going to be one of the many other development like the Maritime Industrial Park, ship building yard, and the free trade industrial zone," he said. "All of these are going to be related and associated with the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road."
Noting that Singapore and other Malaysian ports exist nearby, Gan said Malacca's port would focus on the supply and replenishment of passing vessels. Meanwhile, Malacca is in close contact with China's southern Guangdong province to jointly develop a maritime industrial park.
Michelle Ong of KAJ Development said she expected the Melaka Gateway to transform Malacca's economy.
"We are building a new eco-system that would bring in hundreds of companies and will transfer the weekend economy into an all round economy," she said. "This is good for Malacca."
NEW GATEWAY FOR TRADE AND INVESTMENT
Meanwhile, Malacca government's effort to attract Chinese investment is already bearing fruit.
Xinyi Glass Holdings Limited, a major supplier in the industry, invested 200 million U.S. dollars in 2015 to build its first production base outside China in Malacca. Production started within a year and the company is investing another 200 million U.S. dollars in the second phase to expand production.
"This will not only cater to the demand of Malaysia's domestic market, but more importantly it will become an export base for the foreign market," said Zha Xuesong, the group's vice president.
The business friendliness and the efficiency of the state government is a major factor for Xinyi to invest, he said.
Chief Minister Idris has more ideas on his plate. He wants Malacca to become a new gateway for future Chinese trade and investment to Malaysia as well as to the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
He believes that prosperity will return to Malacca. "If the glorious days could happen 600 years ago, why not now? And I strongly believe Malacca will be the entry point of trade from China into ASEAN and I strongly believe former glory will return."