UJONG PASIR: Richard Hendricks shields his eyes as he looks out to sea like his predecessors have done for more than 500 years.
Hendricks, who is the current regedor, a title given to the headman of the Portuguese Settlement here, sees a great change on the horizon.
The headmen before him had also witnessed much change since 1511 when their ancestors captured Melaka, then one of the world’s most renowned ports.
But unlike them, Hendricks sees a different kind of change on the horizon, one that reflects the rise of an Asian superpower.
Not far from where Hendricks stands, the foundations are being laid for the RM43 billion Melaka Gateway project, one of the many Chinese-funded infrastructure projects along Beijing’s ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative.
The project will feature a deep-sea port to be built on Pulau Melaka by 2019, as well as a cruise terminal and a waterfront district with hotels and a giant observation wheel.
Hendricks says the project, which is in its early stages, has already had an effect on the inflow of water to the settlement, resulting in the area in front of the settlement’s pier becoming muddy.
Portuguese and the horizon inseparable
Hendricks has his concerns about the project, but is also optimistic about the benefits it will bring to the state.
“We aren’t against development because the project will benefit everyone in Melaka and provide business and job opportunities.
“The key is to strike a balance between development and our heritage. We have to move with the times but retain our heritage.
“Where there are Portuguese around the world, there is the sea. There is no separating the Portuguese from the sea.
“We understand that land needs to be reclaimed and that eventually, the project will obstruct the horizon, and we must make sure we don’t lose the sea.”
Hendricks said if the community were to lose the horizon, hopefully the authorities would give its members a piece of land to establish a mini-Portuguese square at the Melaka Gateway.
This way, he said, the community would still have a place which overlooks the horizon, and where people from all over the country and the world can bask in the rich culture of the Melaka Portuguese.
Of canals and fishermen
An integral part of protecting the heritage and rice bowl of the settlement and its people is the construction of canals as part of the Melaka Gateway, to allow the inflow of water into the settlement’s shores.
“We need the canals, otherwise it will look horrible. The canals will also ensure that our fishermen will not be adversely affected by the development, even though there are few fishermen left here,” Hendricks said.
He added that better access to education over the years had seen fishing change from being the main economic activity to a minor one in the settlement.
At one time, he said, some 90% of the settlement was involved in fishing activities, but now only 10% of the 1,000-odd residents are fishermen.
“We have many professionals within the community, and now the main economic activity here is tourism.
“If most of us were still in the fishing industry, then the Melaka Gateway project would be disastrous, but now I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.”
The Melaka Gateway, like other China-led infrastructure projects, has come under scrutiny from opposition leaders including former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who questioned the need for the project.
Concerns have been raised that the project will help advance China’s military might with the eventual port to be used by its naval force.
Another allegation is that the land will be ceded to Chinese investors, although this has been denied by Melaka Chief Minister Idris Haron.