Bintan Island and Penyengat

Big and Small Centres of Malay Language

The tale begins with Bintan island. After Portuguese conquered Malacca, the role of a centre for Malay language and culture gradually shifted back to its place of birth in Riau.

It was like a twist of fate that pushed Riau into a more important political role as well after decades of obscurity as an appendage of the Malacca Sultanate.

Rise and Fall of Bintan

The royal fugitive Sultan Mahmud Shah of Malacca, not ready to give up on his kingdom, formed a resistance base in Bintan from which he managed to lay siege on Malacca but in vain. The Portuguese attacked and defeated him in Bintan. He died an exile in Sumatra.

Mahmud Shah's son founded the Johore Sultanate, which came to cover the Riau archipelago as it grew into an empire. Bintan was once the capital of Johore.

But it was outsiders - Bugis aristocrats from Sulawesi - who made Bintan prosperous. The Bugis made use of an internal strife to become dominant in Johore, they developed Bintan into a powerful international trading port of the Malay language speaking world.

In fact, Bintan island even became a competitor of its previous master Malacca and Jakarta which had come under control of Dutch colonists.

Clash of interests led into tensions between Dutch and Bugis, escalating into a warfare during which the Bugis hero Raja Ali fell in battle.

Eventually the Dutch took over Bintan island along with Riau, spelling its decline.

Bintan Today

A visitor to Bintan observes two worlds on it.

" Bintan leads a double life...Bintan a colony of Singapore in all but name, full of expensive resorts and manicured lawns," is the description of Wikitravel,"...Separated by checkpoints and armed guards, the southern half of the island is 'real' border town Indonesia,home to electronics factories, fishing villages, many prostitutes and some low-key beaches."

Under Indonesia's new autonomy law, Riau's allocation from the central government has increased tremendously. So theoretically, Bintan island is no longer poor.Besides, a legacy lives on.


Accessible by boat from Bintan is a small island called Penyengat, long time associated with the Bugis people and shrine of Raja Haji.

Bintan island, penyengat island

Raja Haji's story did not end with his death. The tale continues on Penyengat.

Raja Haji had a son, Raja Ahmad who was only 11 years old when he died. Raja Ahmad was a keen student of history and a poet. He drafted an epic of his Bugis ancestors involvement in the Malay world.

25 years after the death of Raja Haji, a son called Raja Ali Haji was born to Raja Ahmad. Raja Ali Haji grew up to be an accomplished historian and scholar who completed the epic drafted by his father. The result of this father and son's teamwork is Tuhfat al-Nafis, an invaluable source for history of Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra.

Lauded by Encyclopedia Britannica as one who " led a renaissance in Malay letters ", Raja Ali Haji also produced his own literary writings which included the first grammar book on Malay language and his famous couplets. Raja Ali Haji was also credited for being the first native Malay scholar to write the first Malay grammar book based on Arabic linguistic structure.

A daughter of Raja Haji, Raja Hamidah became the fourth wife of the Sultan of Johore. Her royal husband presented her with Penyengat island as a wedding gift. She was an influential figure entrusted with the royal insignia which empowered her to enthrone the next Sultan.

In effect, Raja Haji's progenies made Penyengat island blossom into a centre of government, Islamic religion and Malay culture - long enough to contribute to what is called the purest Malay language, leaving behind a legacy that the Dutch can never take away.

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