Looking for buried gold on Treasure Island

Mr Fuad (above) pointing to his team members who are digging to get into hidden chambers that they have identified under thick layers of quartz and sandstone on Nangka Island.

MALACCA - Mr Fuad Khushairi and his team of 22 from excavation company Smart Partnership International can't be faulted on their determination.

The team, with years of expertise in civil engineering, has lived in ramshackle tents hung from low-hanging branches on Nangka Island since April 2012, surviving on canned sardines, instant noodles and biscuits for days on end.

"We are very close," said Mr Fuad, an oil and gas consultant before this expedition which has cost his company some RM1 million (S$384,000) in salaries, food, transport and leasing of excavation equipment.

"We can see seven metallic and wooden boxes, each about the size of a 36-inch TV set," he told The Sunday Times, about the results of several scans into the ground to detect buried objects.

The boxes were found in several of the 20 chambers they had identified under the island, the smallest the size of a 44-seater bus.

The scans, made just over the last two months, have spurred the men to step up their attempts to break through the thick sandstone - softer than granite but sometimes harder than limestone - that covers much of the island and has prevented ordinary people from uncovering the secrets hidden beneath.

"This is why we knew our hard work would pay off. It's just a little bit more, I think, before we can reveal what's really inside the island," he said.

In fact, he is confident enough that the team has found the entrance to an underground cave that leads to the hidden chambers that his company has invited state government officials, including Malacca Chief Minister Idris Haron, to the island tomorrow to witness its unveiling.

News broke on April 14 that there is a billion-ringgit trove of gold chests, with bullion, a throne and other royal regalia on the island of about 80,000 sq m, or half the size of Singapore's Fort Canning Park. Though small, it is untamed with thick foliage and is off limits to the public.

Legends have it

Popular belief in buried treasure in the islands dotting the Strait of Malacca is hardly new and for at least three decades, local folk have talked about the riches of Nangka, a 15-minute boat ride from the mainland village of Umbai, itself a 20-minute drive from Malacca town.

Malacca was once the bustling port of the prosperous Malacca Sultanate (1400-1511) that at its height stretched from modern-day northern Thailand to the east coast of Sumatra.

Local legends tell of hurried attempts to hide the treasures of the sultanate, ruled then by Sultan Mahmud Shah, when the Portuguese invaded the port in August 1511.

But Nangka Island is hardly known by modern historians as it is not mentioned in any ancient Portuguese or Malacca sultanate manuscripts, said historian Mardiana Nordin.

"There is proof that the Malacca empire was rich because of commercial trade but direct mention of buried treasure offshore of Malacca is not available," said Dr Mardiana, who researches Malaccan history at Universiti Malaya.

She added that apart from the fact that there was no written evidence of attempts to hide treasure, it would be virtually impossible to do so.

"In a time of war with the Portuguese, there was no evidence that they could mount expeditions to cart off their gold and treasure to hide," said Dr Mardiana.

It is still not clear if the boxes scanned by Mr Fuad's team do contain Malacca Sultanate treasure.

Mr Fuad's set-up is not overly complicated: four diamond coring machines costing RM130,000 each are used to drill into the sandstone - they are not allowed to use explosives - and electromagnetic scanners and a ground-penetrating radar to look under the ground for anything that is not earth, rock or sand.

Although the engineers and geologists in his team know how to work the ground for public work projects like roads and drains, treasure- hunting is a new venture for them.

"We are doing this because we believe in the old tales about this treasure," said Mr Fuad. "Luckily, our finances have allowed us to pursue this until now."

His company was given permission to dig by the Malacca Museum Corporation which owns the island, with a deadline of April 30 to provide photographic evidence that they have found the treasure.

If treasure is found...

The payoff could be huge if there is indeed valuable treasure hidden on Nangka Island.

Any discovery will have to be reported to the Department of National Heritage because by law, unclaimed bullion, precious stones, jewellery and other artefacts made of gold and silver belong to the federal government.

The head of the state-owned Malacca Museum Corporation, Datuk Khamis Abas, told The Sunday Times: "An appraiser will be appointed by the government to evaluate the value of the discovery.

Then there will be a meeting to determine what portion of the find goes to the state, federal government and the company that found it."

Chief Minister Idris was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying: "The state government hopes the Federal Government will share the treasure with Malacca so we can channel the cash for development purposes."

Just one other company had been allowed to look for treasure on Nangka before Smart took over in April 2012. A third company will start searching if Smart fails to find anything by its April 30 deadline.

"They came here because of their belief in the buried treasure," said Mr Khamis. "We just want to make sure the environment is not destroyed so we set conditions that they cannot fell trees or use explosives."

The villagers living across from the island believe that the buried treasure is protected by either a curse or spirits. It has been reported that a small group went into a cave on the island but came out empty- handed yet insisting they had seen some treasure.

"No one really knows the truth," stressed Mr Khamis.

lestkong@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 27 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.