Consisting of thirteen states and three federal territories and totalling almost 330 square kilometres of land, the country of Malaysia originates from the Malay Kingdoms and today has one of the most multi-culturally diverse regions in the world. Chosen from the hereditary rulers of the nine Malay states every five years, the head of state is the King, an elected monarch which the head of government is the Prime Minister.
The country has built its economy today off of the exportation of natural resources including palm oil, tin, rubber and petroleum oil as well as having a substantial amount of its money coming in from tourism, telecommunications and automobile manufacturing.
Stone Age History
In 2008 the very earliest evidence of human habitation in Malaysia was discovered, several stone hand-axes which have been dated at over 1.83 million years old. The oldest human remains in the region are in the Niah Caves – a human skull dating back 40,000 years. However, the oldest anatomically modern and fully complete human skeletons, Perak Man and Perak Woman, were discovered in Lenggong and date back 11,000 and 8,000 years respectively. The first inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula were most likely the Negritos, a tribe of hunter-gatherers.
Bronze Age History
A composite group from another part of South East Asia, the Senoi, another tribe of hunter-gatherers, are known to have migrated into the region around 4000 BC and likely merged with the already existing Negrito population, bringing their language and technology with them.
Iron Age History
By about 1000 BC, the Proto-Malays, a seafaring tribe from Mainland Asia, most likely China, also settled into the region. Around 300 BC they were forced further inland by the Deutero-Malays whom were the first group in the entire peninsula to use metal tools and more advanced farming techniques. It’s also believed that a race of Indian decent settled in the region around 300 BC as well and around 100 BC trade relations with China and India opened up.
1st Century – 15th Century History
Starting from the 2nd
Century onwards, the Malay kingdoms numbering over thirty began to appear mainly around the Eastern side of the Malay Peninsula; the earliest of these kingdoms is known as Langkasuka and was based on the northern Malay Peninsula in Kedah.
Becoming the dominant race on the peninsula, Malays were strongly influenced by Indian culture in the region and this was further strengthened by South Indian culture being spread around South East Asia by the Pallava Dynasty in the 4th
Century onwards. During these times the Malay people adopted the Indian Hinduism belief system as well as the Chinese Buddhism. Furthermore, from the 4th
Century onwards the Sanskrit writing system was used.
Up until the 6th
Century, Cambodia had ruled the northern reaches of Malaysia and it is believed that in the 8th
Century the Khmer Prince of the region, Raja Ganji Sarjuna, founded the kingdom of Ganga Negara, known as modern-day Beruas, Perak). From the 7th
Century onwards a large portion of the Malay Peninsula came under Buddhist rule through the Srivijaya Empire, a trading-strong empire based in modern-day Palembang. From this point on the Maharajas, High Kings of the Srivijaya Empire, ruled the country and became the main power in the region while still retaining friendly relations with the Chola Empire in South India. However, in the 11th
Century the Chola Empire attacked Ganga Negara and later on that century the Chola Empire succeeded in taking over Kedah, pushing the Srivijaya Empire back a little.
From the 12th
Century onwards the Srivijaya Empire declined in power through the combination of efforts by the Chola Empire and the Khmer & Siamese Kingdoms. Several wars with the Javanese and various Indian states drove the Srivijaya Empire to request assistance from China and after further undermining by the spread of Islam throughout the Peninsula, in which converted states broke away from the Empire’s control, the Srivijaya Empire dissolved.
By the 13th
Century the Siamese Kingdoms based in Sukhothai had taken most of the country over and through the spread of Islam via Arabian and Indian traders, Buddhism and Hinduism declined dramatically. As the 14th
Century rolled around, the Hindu Java-based Majapahit Empire possessed the region.
Considered the first independent state in the region, the Kingdom of Malacca was founded in 1402 by a Srivijiaya prince of Temasek (modern-day Singapore) named Parameswara, a supposed descendant of Alexander the Great, and rapidly became one of the most successful ports in the region. It was shortly after this founding and success that Parameswara was brought to China by Admiral Zheng He, where he was identified as the legitimate ruler of Malacca by the Ming Emperor and promised him protection from the threat of Siamese attack. It’s believed that Parameswara took the name Iskandar Shah, a combination of his ancestor’s name (Alexander) and the Persian title Shah (meaning King), when he married a Princess of Pasai.
In 1414 the son of Iskandar Shah approached the Chinese Empire to announce that his father had passed away. The Ming Emperor recognized him as the legitimate heir to the thrown and was given the name Raja (King) Sri Rama Vikrama, Raja of Parameswara of Temasek and Malacca. During the rest of the 15th
Century, the Kingdom rapidly developed into a dominant Islamic state and rising to power it assumed the prior place of Srivijaya. By the end of the 15th
Century, Islam had become accepted as the state religion. Furthermore, by the 16th
Century, Islam had converted almost the entirety of the Malaccan Sultanate, the Sultanate of Demak in Java and other parts of the Malay Archipelago and Sumatra, becoming the dominant religion in the region and leaving Bali as the singular Hindu nation in the region.
However, despite the speedy rise, Malacca too fell quickly, lasting a little more than a century. However through its efforts, the arts, fashion, literature, dance and music in the region became a standard for all ethnic Malays, as well as the developed language, Malay, being declared the official language of all Malaysian states.
16th Century – 19th Century History
Whilst looking for a new maritime route to replace the one closed between Asia and Europe by the Ottoman Empire, Afonso de Albuquerque led an expedition into the region and upon seeing Malacca they seized it to use it as a base for activity. The sons of the Sultan at the time fled to the southern and northern tips of the peninsula, founding the states of the Sultanate of Johor and the Perak Sultanate respectively, the latter growing wealthy through the export of Tin while the former grew its forces large enough to rival the Portuguese invaders.
Due to the Portuguese influence in the region, the population was aggressively converted to Catholicism. Meanwhile the Spaniards had taken the city of Manilla in the nearby Phillipines and forces the Sultan of Brunei’s forces out of the area. Despite the Sultanate of Johor’s attempts to take back Malacca, they were unsuccessful and the Portuguese retaliated ferociously with their raids reaching as far as Johor Lama, capital of the Sultanate of Johor, in 1587.
In 1607 the most powerful and wealthy state in the Malay region, the Sultanate of Aceh, began to take conquest over the region, taking over other states such as Perak. However, the ruler, Iskandar Muda, underestimates the forces in Malacca and after attacking the city with a full-force fleet, 19,000 of his troops and all of his ships were wiped out by a combination of Portuguese and Johor forces. However, after regrouping his forces, Aceh conquered Kedah and Iskandar Muda was succeeded by his son Iskandar Thani, the former prince of Pahang. However, fighting for control of the region surrounding Malacca didn’t cease just yet.
Due to the Iberian Union the Spanish obtained the Portuguese Empire during their war with the Dutch. After forming an alliance with Johor, the Dutch East India Company was established and pushed the Portuguese forces out of Malacca in 1641. With the support of the Dutch government, Johor was able to establish a loose hegemony within the Malay states besides Perak which retained its independence. The Dutch agreed not to interfere in matters in Malacca but instead successfully played off on the trade, diverting the trading groups to its colonies in Java.
Following the assassination of the last Sultan of Johor, the Bugis, a tribe from Indonesia, were able to take over Johor in 1699. With numerous settlements along the peninsula they were able to interfere with Dutch trade and take control of large parts of Johor, Selangor, Kedah and even Perak. In turn, the Minangkabau from Sumatra moved into the Malay Peninsula and established their own state, Negeri Sembilan. Due to Johor’s fall, the Siamese Kings of the Ayutthaya Kingdom took control of the five northern Malay states; Kedah, Patani, Terengganu, Perlis and Kelantan.
Due to the increase in the tea trade between China and Britain, Malayan tin was in high demand for lining tea chests. Additionally, Pahang & Kelantan had gold mines and Malayan Peppers were in equally high demand. This in turn caused an increase in foreign settlers in the region including Chinese, Indian, Arabic and even some British immigrants. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British actually occupied Dutch Melaka (Malacca) with consent of the Netherlands in order to deter the French away from the area.
In 1815, Malacca was handed back to the Dutch and the British acquired Singapore form the Sultan of Johor. Following this, the British exchanged their colony in Bencoolen for the Dutch’s Malacca and this left Britain as the only colonist power in the region. All of the areas dominated by the British were converted into free ports to allow trade, then, through use of the now broken monopoly once held by other colonial powers, they were able to control all trade through the straits of Malacca. Furthermore the Malay feared Siamese expansion and Britain took advantage of this fear to further their goals in the region.
Following this, the Sultans began to believe the British had a superior civilization and after seeing the benefits of being associated with Britain, they aligned themselves with the British Empire. Finally, the Dutch left the Malay Peninsula and renounced all claims on the area, in return for rule over the rest of the East Indies in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. In less than two years the British had taken control of Malacca, Singapore, Labuan and Penang.
Originally the British had decided not to intervene in relations between Malay states, however, the need for tin in Perak led to fighting between the rulers of the region and the British intervened to stop the destabilisation of the states and prevent the disruption of commerce in the area. The British set in place British Advisors in the region to help negotiate matters better and cease the fighting in 1874. By the start of the 20th
Century, Pahang, Perak, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan had British Advisors and were named the Federated Malay States.
20th Century History
Only Johor resisted the British Advisory Scheme but only when Sultan Abu Bakar was succeeded by Sultan Ibrahim in 1914 did the state accept a British Advisor too. Johor and the four once-Thai states became known as the Unfederated Malay States.
Throughout the 20th
Century, the Malay Nationals became afraid of losing their identity as their Sultans’ power depreciated and their lands were taken over with borders and advisors set up by the British. Through these fears Islam began to spread and revive itself due to the perceived threat of other religions in the region, mainly Christianity. These Islamic bases were steadfast in the northern reaches where western influence was high and to this day the region remains a stronghold of Islamic conservatism, however, it was more Chinese people than Malay that were converted to Christianity.
The British additionally allowed the Malay to run a monopoly of positions in the police and military and while the Chinese build and paid for their own schools and imported Chinese teachers, the British Government opened colleges throughout the country for the Malay in 1905, 1922 and 1935. During the 20’s and 30’s the Kuomintang, the Communist Party of China, built clandestine organizations in Malaysia which caused regular disturbances in the Chinese towns and villages.
During World War II in the Pacific in December 1941, the British in Malaysia had built a large naval base in Singapore but had not been prepared for an invasion moving from the north and due to the high demands of the war in Europe the British had practically no air support in the region. This allowed the Japanese to attack their bases and force the British, Australian and Indian forces out of Malaysia in only two months. In 1942 with no defences, water supply or air support, the base in Singapore too had to surrender as well as North Borneo and Brunei.
Although the Japanese had overrun the country, they attempted to foster nationalism with the Malay people which garnered them collaboration from the Malay rulers and civilians. However, the Chinese were viewed as enemies and over eighty-thousand Chinese civilians were slaughtered during the ‘Sook Ching’ (Purification through Suffering). Most Chinese businesses were burned down as were the Chinese schools with them. However, the Chinese which were led by the Malayan Communist Party became the most potent part of the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army, the most effective resistance force in wartime occupied Asia. Additionally, the Japanese lost the Malay support more so by allowing their ally, Thailand, to reclaim the four northern states of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis.
Due to the Japanese occupation in the country, Malaysia’s foreign export markets began to collapse in and this added fuel to the hatred of the Japanese occupants in the country. Thus, following the end of the War, the Malay people were glad to see the British back in control of the country in 1945. However, due to the mass nationalism that had swept through the country, independence was on the back of the minds of the Malay governing bodies and Britain in turn, which had been bankrupted and exhausted by the war, wished to assist the Malay people in their independence.
However, the Malay people were more worried about the Malayan Communist Party, run by the Chinese and in control of several heavily armed factions, than obtaining their independence. So the British government drew up plans for the Malayan Union in 1944 which would attempt to unite the Federated and Unfederated states as well as Malacca and Penang. Due to a recent view shift in British society on equality, the view was promoted strongly by the British but the Malayan people felt that the combination of the Chinese being granted citizenship as well as the weakening of their leaders would spell disaster and ruin for the country.
Founded in 1946 by Malay Nationalists lead by the Chief Minister of Johor, Dato Onn bin Jaafar, the United Malays National Organization wished to run a new independent state completely under Malayan control and only geared to benefit the Malay people. Due to the outstanding support that the UMNO received, the British were forced to give up on equal citizenship and rights for all. However, in the end the nationalist run Malayan Union was established in 1946 but was dissolved and replaced by the Federation of Malaya only two years later.
However, this new state had forced the hand of the Malayan Communist Party and the group had moved into insurrection and had set up its bases in the Chinese-run trade unions. Although the MCP was aimed at equal rights and citizenship for all, it was prepared to go to any end to obtain it and in 1947, after the replacement of the current MCP leader Lai Tek by Chin Peng, previous Communist guerrilla forces leader, the party moved into guerrilla operations in an attempt to force the British out of the country. After just a few months the Malayan governing forces struck back after the MCP assassinations of plantation managers. The Malayan forces banned the MCP and arrested its militants, whom could not be captured escaped into the jungle and forced the Malayan Peoples’ Liberation Army, numbering over thirteen-thousand armed Chinese.
The events surrounding the insurgency lasted until 1960 and were only ceased when the British were able to isolate the MCP from its support base by offering the Chinese people in the country brand new villagers in the country, free from the influence of the MCP. Due to this campaign, the number of new recruits that the MCP obtained dropped sharply and after new counter-insurgency warfare techniques had been developed and successfully used against the MCP by the British forces, the MCP collapsed in its entirety.
During the collapse of the MCP, the MCA, the Malayan Chinese Association, was formed as a method of showing Chinese political opinion. It’s leader, Tan Cheng Lock, formed a collaboration with Tunku Abdul Rahman, the leader of the United Malay National Organization, and the two agreed that the Malayan and the Chinese communities had to be able to live and work together in the same independent state, the two formed an alliance alongside the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) and the combination of parties won many elections in both Chinese and Malay dominated areas. In the height of the Cold War, independence for the Federation within the Commonwealth was granted in 1957, with the first Prime Minister elected as Tunku Abdul Rahman.
In 1961, Rahman proposed the concept of Malaysia, a state formed of the countries Brunei, Malaya, Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore. This would allow their combined governing body to combat the remnants of the communist insurgents and control their activities, especially in Singapore where it was feared that the country’s independence would lead to it being controlled by the Communist Party. The British supported the idea but it was opposed by all of the political parties of every other involved country. However, after agreements were drawn up and approved, the territories of Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore agreed to the merger. Brunei’s Parti Rakyat Brunei staged an armed revolt with the support of the Communist Indonesian Government, who believed that the new state of Malaysia was a Neocolonialist plot against their country, but it was crushed easily, despite at the time being viewed as a potential destabilization source to the new nation.
A constitution for Malaysia was written up and the included parties involved were all given some form of autonomy and in 1963 the countries of Malaya, Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore were approved to form the new state, Malaysia. The state began exporting palm oil, rubber, tin and iron ore and quickly built up a thriving economy. However, tensions grew between Singapore and Malaya as the People’s Action Party, which was essentially viewed as a successor to the Malayan Communist Party, began to attempt to run political candidates in Malaya in 1964 despite agreeing not to in an earlier agreement between the PAP and the UMNO. Under racial tension and threat of insurgency, Tunku Abdul Rahman demanded that Lee Kuan Yew, leader of PAP, pull their politics out of Malaya, which he did so in 1965.
Additionally, despite the combined campaigns of the MCA and MIC, the newly founded Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) gained an incredible number of seats in the Malaysian Government Offices and the victorious parties celebrated by holding a motorised parade along the streets of Kuala Lumpur. In fear of what these changes might mean, the Malay people lashed out at the Chinese, killing over one-hundred-and-eighty people and burning over six-thousand homes. In the state of emergency, the Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, assumed power from Tunku Abdul Rahman after he was forced to retire. The new governing body, the National Operations Council consisted of nine members wielding the country’s full military and political power. This new government brought in new laws making it illegal to criticise the Malaysian Monarchy, the position of Malays in the country and the status of Malay as the national language in an attempt to silence the government’s opposition.
However, in 1971 Parliament reconvened and in 1976 Abdul Razak passed away and was succeeded by Datuk Hussein Onn, before he was replaced by Tun Mahathir bin Mohamad. Parliament began once again making rapid changes, resettling a quarter of a million Malays on new farmland and investing into a more rural infrastructure as well as the creation of trade free zones in rural areas as to create new manufacturing jobs. After discovering oil and gas reserves during the 70’s and 80’s, the money brought in from the oil and natural gas exports as well as the government’s investment into rural economic growth brought the country into a much needed golden age.
21st Century History
By the year 2000, the Education Minister, later the Prime Minister, Mahathir, dramatically increased the number of schools, colleges and academic institutions throughout the country, enforcing the policy of teaching in Malay instead of English, this in turn created a language barrier which drove the Chinese out of higher education due to lack of fluent Malay language speakers and this caused the Chinese to attend universities in Singapore, Britain, Australia and the United States as an alternative.
During the 2004 election the National Front led by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had a huge victory, wiping out the Keadilan and the PAS parties and was due to Malaysia’s fully developed economy raising the standards to almost all Malaysians to first world standards. The new government aims to turn Malaysia into a fully developed country by 2020 and in turn these aims incorporate a free press, a multi-party democracy, the restoration of all civil and political liberties and an independent judiciary.
In 2007 the country was shaken by two anti-government rallies, the Bersih Rally held by the Barisan National Party and a second rally organized by HINDRAF, the Hindu Rights Action Force. The rallies were protesting the favouring of ethnic Malaysians over immigrants and other national minorities. The following year, HINDRAF was banned by the government, labelling the organization as “a threat to national security”.