LOCATED in the middle of Asia’s most important maritime crossroads, the Malay Peninsula has long shaped the history of trade and empire-building in this region.

Until today, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore are celebrated as two of the most crucial straits used for international navigation that facilitate global economy.

When I watched U-Wei Haji Saari’s masterpiece ‘Hanyut’ recently, it got me reminded of how the Malay Peninsula used to be like in the past. Unlike the criss-crossing roads that we have now, river transportation was indispensible in Malaya at that time.

Deep inside the jungles of the Malay Peninsula, tucked 116 kilometers away from the shores of the Strait of Malacca, lies ‘Jalan Penarikan’ or ‘Penarikan Portage’, Malaysia’s oldest inland route that was discovered well before the establishment of the Malacca Sultanate in 1400.

Once an important riverway, Jalan Penarikan is now left abandoned, neglected and forgotten by most Malaysians.

How important was Jalan Penarikan in shaping the history of this country?

An Important Trading Route

The Malay Peninsula was home to several Malay empires of the past namely Langkasuka, Srivijaya, Majapahit, Malacca, Acheh and Johor.

These kingdoms flourished by exploiting maritime trade that flowed via the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

Nonetheless, for some sailors, the Straits were more of a gauntlet than a gateway due to the active pirate attacks particularly in the southern part where the Strait of Malacca meets the Strait of Singapore.

Pirate attacks were so rampant in areas near the modern day Singaporean holiday island of Sentosa so much so that this island was known in the past as ‘Pulau Belakang Mati’ or literally ‘the Hindmost Island of the Dead’.

Pulau Kukup an island near Kukup town in Johor, once a pirate haven, derived its name from the Malay word ‘gugup’ or ‘fear’, indicating how mariners felt when they were navigating via this perilous maritime route in the past.

There are no concrete historical records that accurately documented when Jalan Penarikan was discovered.

Jalan Penarikan was believed to have been discovered by nine families from Pasai (modern day Acheh), in their quest to search for a new settlement on fertile grounds.

Finally, these pioneers ended up in Jempol, Negeri Sembilan, an area located between two major rivers for inland transportation – the Muar and Pahang Rivers. The lands were fertile for paddy cultivation and the pioneers decided to name this place ‘Jempol’ which, according to the dictionary of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, roughly means ‘the best place’.

When the Pasai pioneers first arrived, they discovered that the Muar River and the Pahang River (via Serting River) were separated by a narrow strip of land of about 600 meters in distance. This required them to pull their boats off shore to get from one river to the other, hence the name ‘penarikan’ or ‘portage’. Since then, Jalan Penarikan became popular among Arab traders seeking a shorter and a safer way to the South China Sea without having to go around the Peninsula via the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

Besides serving as an important inland route for trade, Jalan Penarikan was also crucial in territorial expansion and conquest. Jalan Penarikan was navigated by the mighty Srivijayan army in extending their territory into the Peninsula as well as in spreading the Buddhist faith. When Malacca rose to pre-eminence, it was then utilised by the Sultanate not only as a trading route, but also a conduit to spread the Islamic faith.
Siam was believed to have utilised this route in their military expedition against the Malacca Sultanate.

This historical fact was strengthened by the discovery of the tombstone of a Siamese commander dated 1265 – which may suggest that Malacca could have existed earlier than 1400. Contrary to popular opinion, the Malaysian Patriotism and History Research Institute (IKSEP) suggested that Malacca might have been established in 1262.

When the Portuguese seized Malacca in 1511, Sultan Mahmud Shah used this route to flee to Pahang in his failed attempt to seek help from China.

The Europeans have also navigated through Jalan Penarikan. In 1613, a Portuguese navigator was reported to have sailed from Muar to Pekan via Jalan Penarikan. It took him six days to reach his destination. British records indicated that the portage from Muar to Pahang River generally took about two hours of effort with the might of 14 able-bodied men. The portage time will be longer if it involved larger boats.

As the main route linking the west and the east, Jalan Penarikan used to be a busy route with active trading activities particularly along the portage area. Although it is hard now to imagine that rivers in the interiors of the Peninsula could be navigated by large boats, these rivers once have the depths of about 6-9 meters. Due to urbanisation, logging and land-clearings, rivers around Jalan Penarikan now are silting up to only about 1.5 meters deep.

During British rule, modern roads and railroads were built connecting towns and cities in the west and east coasts. Road connection between Port Klang and Kuantan, known as Federal Route 2, of about 276 kilometers in length was built in 1915 and was fully completed two years after Malayan independence in 1959. The steady modernisation of Malaysia subsequent to independence meant that road and rail transportation have taken over the function of rivers in facilitating inland transportation, hence, decreasing the importance of Jalan Penarikan as the main conduit between the east and the west.

With modern highways criss-crossing Peninsula Malaysia, Jalan Penarikan is no longer a route of substantial importance and is now slowly forgotten and neglected in despair.


Jalan Penarikan played a huge role in shaping the history of the Malay Peninsula from the time of the mighty Srivijayan empire to the era of European colonisation. It was the first east-coast highway of Malaya, serving this nation hundreds of years before Karak Highway started its operations. Despite its mighty reputation in the past, Jalan Penarikan is now left abandoned. Unlike the famed Straits of Malacca and Singapore or the mighty Silk Road, Jalan Penarikan is gradually forgotten and neglected in the state of disrepair.

Most Malaysians are well aware of the colonial heritage of this country such as UNESCO’s Georgetown World Heritage Site, the Fort of A’Famosa, Stadhuys of Malacca and Sultan Abdul Samad Building – all of which were built not by the Malays or the local communities, but by the former European imperialists.

Jalan Penarikan, however, was discovered by Malay pioneers and should be equally glorified as the pride of the nation – a symbol of the glorious past of Malay seafarers and navigators seeking the nearest route linking the Strait of Malacca to the South China Sea. It is quite unfortunate that most Malaysians are more conscious of legacies of the former colonial masters without realising the fabled wisdom of our people of the past.

History is written by those who were in power and as we are no longer ruled and dictated by distant colonial imperialists, it is time for us to take charge of narrating the history our way to instill pride among the younger generation – to build a better, stronger and unified Malaysia.

* Dr Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli is a senior lecturer at the Syariah and Law Faculty of Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a visiting professor at the Law School of Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.