Malaysia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Malaysia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Malaysia, constitutional monarchy in Southeast Asia on the South China Sea. Malaysia is divided into two regions, known as West Malaysia and East Malaysia. West Malaysia, also known as Peninsular Malaysia, consists of the southern portion of the Malay Peninsula and nearby islands. Thailand borders West Malaysia on the north, and Singapore lies off the southern coastal tip. East Malaysia occupies the northern section of Borneo Island, as well as offshore islands. East Malaysia shares Borneo with Brunei, which lies on a small section of the northern coast, and with the Kalimantan region of Indonesia, which lies to the south. Malaysia is a federation of 13 states and 3 federal territories. The city of Kuala Lumpur, coextensive with the federal territory of the same name, is the capital and largest city. Located near Kuala Lumpur is the administrative center of the federal government, Putrajaya, which also makes up a federal territory.

From the late 18th to the early 19th century, Britain gradually gained control of Peninsular Malaysia, and most of northern Borneo fell into private British hands. During the same period, the largely Malay population became diversified, as ethnic Chinese and Indians immigrated to work in Malaysia’s tin and rubber industries. Since independence in 1957, ethnic tensions, especially between Chinese and Malays, have dominated political and economic issues. Despite the tensions, however, Malaysia has experienced rapid economic growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector, and economists include the country among Asia’s newly industrialized economies (NIEs).


East and West Malaysia are separated by about 640 km (about 400 mi) of the South China Sea, and together comprise an area of 329,758 sq km (127,320 sq mi), with West Malaysia accounting for about 60 percent of this total. Peninsular Malaysia extends more than 800 km (500 mi) from north to south and spans 330 km (205 mi) at its widest point. In the north lies the Main Range, a mountainous spine that separates the east and west coastal plains. The Main Range rises to a maximum elevation of 2,187 m (7,175 ft) at Mount Tahan, West Malaysia’s highest point. The southern portion of the peninsula is relatively flat. Numerous small islands lie off the coast, including Langkaw (Pulau Langkawi) and Pinang off the northwest coast, and Tioman, a popular tourist destination off the southeast coast.

The states of Sarawak and Sabah (on Borneo), and the federal territory of Labuan (an island off the coast of Sabah) make up East Malaysia. On Borneo, East Malaysia has a maximum width of 275 km (171 mi) and extends about 1,130 km (about 700 mi) in length. Its jagged coastline is about 2,250 km (about 1,400 mi) long. Sarawak, occupying the southwestern section of East Malaysia, consists of swampy lowlands along the coast rising to high mountains in the interior, especially in the east. Sabah, in the northeast, has extensive lowlands in its eastern section. Along Borneo’s northern coast in Sabah is the Crocker Range, which rises to a maximum elevation of 4,101 m (13,455 ft) at Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia. Several small islands, most notably Labuan and Banggi, lie off the coast of Sabah.

Rivers and Lakes in Malaysia

East Malaysia contains the country’s two longest rivers: the Rajang in Sarawak and the Kinabatangan in Sabah. They are each 560 km (350 mi) long and navigable for part of their courses. Also important is the 400-km (250-mi) long Baram River in Sarawak. Peninsular Malaysia’s longest rivers include the Pahang (470 km/290 mi long), the Kelantan (about 400 km/250 mi long), and the Perak (about 240 km/150 mi long), all of which are navigable for most of their courses. Most of Malaysia’s rivers have steep descents, especially those in Sarawak. Dam projects created Malaysia’s largest lakes, Lake Kenyir and Lake Temengor, both located in West Malaysia. Lake Kenyir is a popular tourist destination and borders on the Taman Negara National Park, the largest national park in Peninsular Malaysia. The country’s largest natural lake is Lake Bera, also in West Malaysia.

Plant and Animal Life in Malaysia

Malaysia has abundant plant life in its coastal mangrove forests; in lowland tropical forests; and, at elevations over 1,200 m (3,900 ft), in mossy or montane oak forests. The country harbors an estimated 8,000 species of flowering plants, including 2,500 species of trees. The lowland forests contain some of the most important commercial timber species, including mahogany and teak. These trees often attain heights of more than 50 m (160 ft) and grow to about 3 m (about 10 ft) in circumference. Where forested areas are cleared, the ground is rapidly taken over by a coarse grass called Imperata cylindrica, an invasive weed that displaces other vegetation. The world’s largest flower, the giant rafflesia (also known as corpse lily), grows in East Malaysia. Sabah contains the largest of the pitcher plants, the Nepenthes rajah, which can hold up to 2 liters (0.5 gallon) of water. Approximately one-quarter of the land in Malaysia is cultivated or used for plantation agriculture.

Like other tropical forests, Malaysia’s forests include an enormous variety of animal life. Large mammals include Asian elephants; tigers; sun bears; tapirs; several species of deer; and rhinoceroses, which are endangered. Malaysia’s primates include the endangered orangutans and three species of protected gibbons. Other animals include more than 500 known species of birds; more than 100 species of snakes, including king cobras and pythons; and many amphibians and reptiles, including crocodiles and 80 species of lizards. Malaysia is renowned for its huge insect population, including many species of butterflies and moths. Some insects, including mosquitoes, hornets, red ants, scorpions, and certain spiders, can be harmful to people.

Natural Resources of Malaysia

Malaysia has several important natural resources. Forests cover 63.4 percent of the land; Sabah and Sarawak are especially known for their tropical forests. West Malaysia has large deposits of tin and numerous rubber trees. Other minerals include copper and uranium. However, the country’s most important natural resources—and its most valuable exports—are oil and natural gas, found in onshore and offshore deposits, respectively. Petroleum reserves were estimated at 4 billion barrels in 2007, and natural gas reserves were about 2 trillion cubic meters (75 trillion cubic feet).

Climate in Malaysia

Except in the highlands, Malaysia’s climate is hot and humid year round. Average daily temperatures vary from about 20° to 30°C (about 70° to 90°F). Average annual rainfall for the peninsula is about 2,500 mm (about 100 in). The exposed northern slopes of Sarawak and Sabah receive as much as 5,080 mm (200 in) of rain per year.

Environmental Issues in Malaysia

Malaysia is home to some of the world’s most important tropical wildlife habitats, including rich rain forests and at least ten distinct types of wetlands. Malaysia has more than 2,000 plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. However, many species are threatened or endangered due to loss of habitat and poaching (illegal hunting).

Deforestation poses the main threat to Malaysia’s environment. Forests are cleared at an annual rate of 0.44 percent (1990–2005 average), mainly for the commercial export of tropical hardwoods and wood products. The logging of upland forests, which are particularly vulnerable, has led to slope erosion, siltation of rivers and streams, soil degradation, loss of wildlife habitat, and an increase in the amount of flood-prone areas. Many wetlands have also been disturbed or destroyed. The rate of deforestation is unsustainable in the long term, however, and the government’s forestry policies have drawn international and domestic criticism. In response, the government has somewhat reduced the extent of permissible logging areas and instituted reforestation programs. The government has also protected some areas as national parks. Kinabalu National Park, established in 1964 in Sabah, protects the area around Mount Kinabalu. The largest park of West Malaysia is Taman Negara National Park, covering more than 4,300 sq km (more than 1,600 sq mi) of dense tropical rain forest.

Urbanization and industrialization have caused problems with solid-waste management and water pollution, affecting many of the country’s coastal waters and rivers. Inshore and offshore fisheries resources are rapidly being depleted. The government of Malaysia is seeking to mitigate these problems through various means, including the Environmental Quality Act (1974) and the Fisheries Act (1985), but implementation and enforcement are often hampered by lack of resources.


Malaysia’s estimated 2009 population was 25,715,819. The population growth rate was 1.72 percent in 2009. The overall population density is 78 persons per sq km (203 per sq mi), but the population is unevenly distributed; West Malaysia has a population density about twice the national average. Some 65 percent of Malaysia’s population is urban. Like most developing nations, Malaysia has experienced high rural-to-urban migration rates since the 1950s. Urban unemployment is very low in Malaysia, and this contributes to the growth. The labor shortage for low-skill jobs attracts many immigrants, particularly from Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Skilled workers are recruited primarily from India, Japan, and China.

In addition to Malaysia’s largest city, Kuala Lumpur, large cities in the country include Ipoh, Johor Baharu, Petaling Jaya, Kelang, Kuala Terengganu, and George Town (formerly Pinang). Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, and Kelang are part of the Kelang Valley conurbation, which is Malaysia’s largest urban region. Most of the conurbation is located in the state of Selangor, which surrounds the Kuala Lumpur federal territory. Selangor is Malaysia’s most populated state, followed by Johor and Sabah. From 1991 to 2000, Selangor had an annual population growth rate of about 6 percent—the highest of any Malaysian state. The growth was largely due to employment opportunities in the Kelang Valley conurbation and to the sprawl of the Kuala Lumpur greater metropolitan area beyond the borders of the federal territory. Growth of the metropolitan area has been spurred since the late 1990s by the construction of a new administrative center of the federal government, Putrajaya, about 40 km (about 25 mi) south of Kuala Lumpur, and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, located south of Putrajaya.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Malaysia

Ethnic Malays and other indigenous peoples, sometimes known as Malayan peoples, comprised 65 percent of Malaysia’s population at the 2000 census. In Malaysia they are called bumiputera (sons of the soil). Other groups include ethnic Chinese, who constituted 26 percent of the population, and ethnic Indians, who made up about 8 percent. Small numbers of Indonesians, Thai, Europeans, and Australians also live in Malaysia. In West Malaysia ethnic Malays make up a majority of the population. In East Malaysia, however, numerous Dayak ethnic groups constitute a sizable population, as do Chinese, especially in Sarawak. The national language is Bahasa Malaysia (also known simply as Malay), a Malay language of the Austronesian language family. English, Chinese, and Tamil (a Dravidian language of southern India) are also widely spoken.

Religion in Malaysia

Islam is the country’s official religion, although the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. More than half the people of Malaysia are Muslims, including nearly all ethnic Malays. Most Chinese are Buddhists, although Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism) are also important. Most Indians practice Hinduism. In Sabah and Sarawak many of the indigenous peoples are Christians, although traditional beliefs are also widely practiced.

Education in Malaysia

In Malaysia education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 11, and an additional two years of free education are optional. In 2002–2003, virtually all Malaysian children attended primary school. Parents may choose between Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese, or Tamil as the language of instruction for their primary school children. Bahasa Malaysia is the primary language of instruction in all secondary schools, although continued learning in Chinese and Tamil is available and English is a compulsory second language. Enrollment in secondary education was 70 percent in 2002–2003. Malaysia has a number of institutions of higher education, including nine universities. Universities include the National University, in Bangi; the University of Technology, in Johor Baharu; and the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur.

Way of Life in Malaysia

The people of Malaysia have a variety of lifestyles. Important among ethnic Malays are respect and obedience toward parents and elders, community self-help, and, in rural areas, the maintenance of law and order through cooperation and respect for the village headman. Marriages, burial customs, and other aspects of Malay life conform to Islamic law. In general, religion plays a major role in each group’s way of life. Wedding ceremonies of ethnic Indians, for example, follow Hindu traditions, whereby the wedding takes place on a day and hour prescribed by a Hindu astrologer. Traditional Chinese family structure is patrilineal and patriarchal; as in China, sons are preferred over daughters in order to maintain the family surname through descent. Kinship ties among the extended Chinese family are very strong and carry into the business environment. Because ethnic Chinese own many Malaysian businesses, these ties hinder occupational mobility among Malays.

Rural ways of life differ significantly from urban lifestyles. In East Malaysia, about three-quarters of the population is rural. Many indigenous ethnic groups, including the Iban (Sea Dayaks), Bidayuh (Land Dayaks), and Kadazan, practice shifting cultivation (also known as slash-and-burn agriculture). In this type of agriculture, trees and grasses are burned from an area so a crop may be planted; after several seasons, the land is abandoned and a new area is burned for planting. These groups live mostly in single-family housing units, but many indigenous people in East Malaysia live in longhouses, a traditional dwelling of Borneo.

Social Issues in Malaysia

Since Malaysia gained independence, there have been significant differences in the social standing of the three main ethnic groups—indigenous bumiputras (mostly Malays), ethnic Chinese, and Indians. Many of these differences are holdovers from the colonial period. While Malays have traditionally predominated in politics and government, ethnic Chinese and Indians have been disproportionately successful in the economy. The incidence of poverty is significantly higher in rural areas, where the majority of bumiputras live. Bumiputras generally work as laborers on estate farms, raise crops on small plots, or practice subsistence agriculture (farming to meet family or village needs rather than for profit). In general, ethnic Chinese have played the major role in both the rural and urban sectors of the economy, and this has been an issue of contention for many bumiputras. In May 1969 ethnic-based tensions erupted into violent riots in Malaysia. In 1970 the government introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) to try to eliminate the relationship between ethnicity and income. The 20-year period of the NEP produced some improvements, including a reduction of people living at or below poverty level, from 52 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 1990. However, the income gap between groups, especially bumiputras and ethnic Chinese, remained substantial. In 1991 the government introduced the New Development Policy (NDP) as a successor to the NEP, continuing many of the same initiatives but with a stronger emphasis on increasing business ownership among bumiputras. In the early 2000s economic and social differences continued to be a significant social issue in Malaysia.


Malaysia reflects different cultural traditions, including those of China, India, the Middle East, Europe, and the entire Malay Archipelago. Early Malay empires absorbed Indian influences, such as Hindu epics and the Sanskrit language. The kingdom of Malacca, centered in the present-day state of Melaka, developed as an Islamic state, or sultanate, in the 1400s. Later, new cultural influences from Europe and China mixed with Hindu and Islamic traditions. A collective but distinctively Malay cultural pattern has emerged out of all these influences, with artistic expressions in literature, music, dance, and art forms.

Literature in Malaysia

Malaysia’s most important literary work is the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). Written in the 1500s, this work presents a somewhat romanticized account of the Malacca sultanate. European colonizers on Peninsular Malaysia (the Portuguese in 1511, the Dutch in 1641, and finally the English in the 18th century) greatly affected the local literary style. In print, the vernacular, or spoken language, replaced the classical literary style of Malay, and in 1876 the first Malaysian newspaper used the vernacular.

Art and Architecture of Malaysia

Malaysian decorative art forms include colorful batik cloth, silverware, pewter items, and woodcarvings. Like other elements of Malaysian culture, its architecture reflects influences from India, China, and Islam. These influences are most pronounced in religious structures. The British introduced colonial architecture and, in buildings such as the old post office and railway station in Kuala Lumpur, the Moorish style. From 1998 to 2003 Malaysia boasted the world’s tallest buildings, the Petronas Towers. Each tower rises 452 m (1,483 ft). The architect, Argentine American Cesar Pelli, found inspiration for the design of the buildings in traditional Malaysian Islamic architecture.

Music, Dance, and Drama in Malaysia

Hindu, Islamic, and Indonesian forms influenced music in Malaysia. For example, wayang kulit (shadow-puppet theater), was introduced from Java in the 13th century, and today is most commonly found in the state of Kelantan. Malaysian musical instruments include distinctive drums (gendang), of which there are at least 14 types; gongs and other percussion instruments made from native materials such as bamboo (kertuk and pertuang) and coconut shells (raurau); and a variety of wind instruments, including flutes. Ensembles (nobat) and orchestras (gamelan) play these instruments at special occasions. Chinese musical forms, including Chinese opera, were more recently introduced into Malaysia.

Libraries and Museums in Malaysia

Three of Malaysia’s major museums—the National Museum of Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur; the Sabah Museum, in Kota Kinabalu; and the Sarawak Museum, in Kuching—exhibit collections of regional ethnographic and archaeological materials. The National Library of Malaysia and the National Archives are in Kuala Lumpur. Each state has its own museum exhibiting local items.


The economy of Malaysia once relied principally on the production of raw materials for export, most importantly petroleum, natural rubber, tin, palm oil, and timber. After Malaysia gained independence in 1957, however, the development of the manufacturing sector took priority. From the mid-1970s to mid-1990s Malaysia had one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, mainly due to rapid industrialization. In the late 1980s industry replaced agriculture as the largest contributor to the gross domestic product (GDP). The services sector, especially tourism, also drove growth.

In 1991 the Malaysian government launched the ambitious “Vision 2020” program, which envisions Malaysia attaining the status of a developed nation by 2020. Toward this goal, the government has invested heavily in modernizing the infrastructure of the Kuala Lumpur metropolitan area. The modernization is designed to propel Malaysia into the digital age and position it as a hub for high-technology businesses in Southeast Asia. However, the country’s reliance on exports of manufactured goods, such as computer microchips and other electrical components, has made its economy susceptible to regional and global economic downturns. Malaysia was one of many Asian countries that suffered economic decline during a regional economic crisis in 1997 and 1998. This crisis led to the delay of some infrastructure projects and possibly of the Vision 2020 goal.

The nation’s economy expanded an average of 6.3 percent annually in the period 2007. In 2003 Malaysia’s annual budget included revenues of about $21 billion and expenditures of about $25 billion. The country’s GDP was $186.7 billion in 2007. Industry, including mining and construction, accounted for 48 percent of the GDP; services, 42 percent; and agriculture, forestry, and fishing, 10 percent.

Labor in Malaysia

In 2007 Malaysia had a labor force of 11.6 million workers. Some 15 percent of Malaysian jobs were in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; 30 percent in industry; and 53 percent in services. Unemployment was comparatively low, with only 3.1 percent of the workforce unable to find work in 2007.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing in Malaysia

Some 5 percent of Malaysia’s land is under cultivation for field crops and 18 percent is used for plantation agriculture. Malaysia ranks as the world’s leading producer and exporter of palm oil. The country was once the leading producer of natural rubber, but in the early 1990s Thailand and Indonesia surpassed Malaysia after Malaysia began shifting to more profitable crops such as palm oil. Other important export crops are cacao, sugarcane, pepper, coconuts, and pineapples. The principal subsistence crop is rice. Cassava and bananas are also important.

The country is a leading world supplier of tropical hardwoods. Exports of raw timber have declined since the mid-1990s, in part because the government of Malaysia introduced measures to encourage the local production of finished goods, such as plywood and furniture. Most wood processing takes place in West Malaysia, where log exports are banned, while Sarawak provides the bulk of raw timber.

In 2007 Malaysia’s annual fish catch was 1.5 million metric tons, nearly all of it from ocean waters. Aquaculture (the farming of fish and shellfish) has expanded rapidly to help supply the domestic market. However, domestic production of fish has not kept pace with increasing consumption, and Malaysia is an importer of fish products.

Mining in Malaysia

Production of petroleum and natural gas has increased greatly since the 1970s, and the refining of crude oil is a major industry. In 2006 mineral fuels provided 14 percent of Malaysia’s export revenues. Malaysia’s tin reserves rank among the largest in the world, although production has declined sharply, from about 70,000 metric tons of concentrates in the early 1970s to about 3,000 in 2006. Much of the decline is due to a sharp fall in the world commodity price for the metal. Mining activity also yields bauxite, copper, iron ore, silver, and gold.

Manufacturing in Malaysia

In 2006 manufactured items accounted for 73 percent of exports by value. Electronic goods constitute most of Malaysia’s manufactured exports. Principal industrial activities are the processing of palm oil, petroleum, timber, rubber, and tin; and the production of electrical and electronic equipment, processed food, textiles, chemicals, building materials, and handicrafts. In addition, Malaysia produces its own automobile, the Proton.

Services in Malaysia

Among the most important of the service industries is tourism. The government has launched successful international campaigns to promote tourism in Malaysia. In 2007, 21 million tourists traveled to Malaysia for short visits from nearby Singapore or other Southeast Asian countries, although a large number arrived from more distant places, including Japan and Taiwan.

Energy in Malaysia

Malaysia is self-sufficient in energy. In 2006 annual production was 99 billion kilowatt-hours. Some 94 percent of the country’s production came from thermal plants burning fossil fuels (petroleum and natural gas), and 6 percent was from hydroelectric sources.

Transportation and Communications in Malaysia

The framework of West Malaysia’s system of roads and railroads was laid down during the British colonial period. A main highway in western Peninsular Malaysia extends over 800 km (500 mi) from Singapore to the Thai border in the north. The road system in Sabah and Sarawak is much less developed; a main road runs along Borneo’s northern coast but there are few good interior roads. The state-owned railroad system consists of 1,667 km (1,036 mi) of track, most of which is in West Malaysia and with a short stretch in Sabah. Malaysia Airlines, founded in 1971, offers both domestic and international flights. Other domestic carriers also offer local flights. Malaysia has a number of international airports, including the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, located south of the city at Sepang. Major seaports in West Malaysia are Port Kelang, George Town, and Melaka. Kuching and Labuan are the major seaports serving Sarawak and Sabah, respectively.

The government of Malaysia tightly controls and monitors most public communications. Government censorship, and the expectation of it, imposes restrictions on the news media. Malaysia has 35 daily newspapers publishing in four languages. A government agency, Radio Television Malaysia, controls and monitors radio and television broadcasting. The state-run Radio Malaysia operates six radio networks, and Television Malaysia operates two television networks; two private television networks also exist. The government has made it a policy to not censor the Internet, which as a consequence has become an important alternative source of information for the Malaysian public.

Foreign Trade in Malaysia

Export trade totaled $176 billion in 2007. Major exports include semiconductors and electrical equipment, palm oil, chemicals, petroleum, machinery appliances and parts, wood and wood products, and textiles. The chief buyers of exports are the United States, Singapore, Japan, China (including Hong Kong), and Thailand. Imports were valued at $147 billion in 2007. Major imports include electrical and electronic products, machinery and transportation equipment, chemicals, manufactures of metal, petroleum, and iron and steel products. The leading suppliers of imported goods are Japan, the United States, Singapore, China, Taiwan, and South Korea.

Malaysia is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and is a full participant in the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), established in 1992 with the goal of establishing nearly free trade among member nations. With the formal implementation of AFTA in 2002, member nations were to gradually reduce tariff barriers to 5 percent or less. Malaysia became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

Currency and Banking of Malaysia

The Malaysian unit of currency is the ringgit, consisting of 100 sen (3.40 ringgits equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). Malaysia’s central bank and bank of issue is the Bank Negara Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur. There is a stock exchange in Kuala Lumpur.


Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy with a two-house legislature. The government is based on the 1957 constitution of the Federation of Malaya, which was an independent nation from 1957 to 1963 that occupied present-day West Malaysia. The Federation of Malaya joined with Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, although Singapore became an independent republic in 1965. All citizens of Malaysia who are at least 21 years old may vote.

Executive of Malaysia

The head of state is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (Paramount Ruler), who is selected by and from nine hereditary sultans, or rulers, and serves a five-year term. Executive power is exercised by the prime minister, who is the leader of the majority party or coalition in the House of Representatives (the lower house of the legislature) and is appointed by the head of state.

Legislature of Malaysia

The parliament consists of a House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat) with 219 members and a Senate (Dewan Negara) with up to 70 members. Representatives are popularly elected for five-year terms. Senators serve three-year terms, and may serve no more than two terms. Two senators are elected by each of the 13 state legislatures, and the head of state appoints the rest, including senators for the federal territories. Legislative power is divided between the federal and local state legislatures.

Judiciary in Malaysia

The Federal Court (formerly the Supreme Court) is the highest court. Below this are two High Courts, one serving West Malaysia and the other serving East Malaysia. A Court of Appeal hears appeals from the Federal Court, and the Federal Court hears appeals from the High Courts. Each High Court has a chief judge and several other judges; the Federal Court consists of the chief justice, the president of the Court of Appeal, the two chief judges from the High Courts, and five other judges. The chief justice, chief judges, and other judges from the Federal Court and High Courts are appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on the advice of the prime minister and the Conference of Rulers, which consists of the nine hereditary rulers and the heads of the other states. Lower courts include the Sessions Courts and the Magistrates’ Courts. Islamic laws apply to Muslims and Muslims may be prosecuted in Islamic courts at the state level.

Local Government of Malaysia

West Malaysia is divided into the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya and 11 states: Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Pinang, Selangor, and Terengganu. East Malaysia consists of the states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Federal Territory of Labuan. Each of the 13 states has a titular ruler whose title varies in different states. Effective executive power in the states rests with the chief minister, who heads an executive council, or cabinet. Each state has its own written constitution and a unicameral legislative assembly empowered to legislate on matters not reserved for the federal parliament.

Political Parties of Malaysia

The leading political party in Malaysia is the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The UMNO is the dominant party in a coalition called the National Front (Barisan Nasional). Other parties include the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Islamic Party of Malaysia (Parti Islam se Malaysia, or PAS), and People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or PKR).

Social Services in Malaysia

The Ministry of Health operates a comprehensive health-care system. Government hospitals provide care for all who need it. In addition, most large towns and cities have private hospitals that provide sophisticated medical treatment for those who can pay. There is no national comprehensive system of social welfare, although there are programs that protect workers against, for example, sickness, accidents, and arbitrary dismissals. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) carry much of Malaysia’s social welfare burden.

Defense of Malaysia

In 2006 the Malaysian armed forces included 109,000 active-duty personnel, of which 80,000 were in the army, 15,000 were in the air force, and 14,000 were in the navy. Military service is voluntary. Malaysia’s military plays an apolitical role and is under the complete control of the civilian government.

International Organizations

Malaysia is a member of most major international organizations, including the United Nations (UN) and many of its member agencies. Other organizations to which Malaysia belongs include the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of mostly former British colonies, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which promotes solidarity among nations where Islam is an important religion.


Humans lived in the area of present-day Malaysia as long as 40,000 years ago. The early history of the area is obscure because there are few local documents and almost no archaeological remains, especially any with inscriptions. According to Chinese sources, however, early contacts were made with China. Traders also spread Hindu influences from India, which affected people’s customs and the rituals of local rulers. Peninsular Malaysia was not unified politically but was split into small kingdoms and subdivided into chiefdoms defined by river valleys. Political rule of Borneo was even more fragmented. Some of the mainland kingdoms may have been subject to a degree of control by larger empires centered in Cambodia or Java, such as Majapahit.

About AD 1400 Parameswara, a Sumatran prince, founded the kingdom of Malacca on the site of present-day Melaka. He was converted to Islam, which traders from India had already brought to the area, and Malacca became a center for the further spread of the Muslim faith. Malacca prospered and expanded its influence into most of the Malay Archipelago, but in 1511 it was conquered by the Portuguese under Afonso de Albuquerque. The Portuguese in Malacca survived constant fighting with neighboring Johor, Aceh in Sumatra, and other states. In 1641, however, Malacca fell to the Dutch, who replaced the Portuguese as the leading European trading power in the region. Like their predecessors, the Dutch were frequently at war with neighboring kingdoms and succeeded in extending their influence to parts of Johor. In this period the northern Malay kingdoms—Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu—were frequently under the influence of Siam (present-day Thailand).

The Imposition of British Rule

The British became active in the area in the 18th century, partly because they sought trade, but also to check French power in the Indian Ocean. The sultan of Kedah, looking for help against the Siamese, leased the island of Pinang to the English East India Company in 1786, and Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a company administrator, founded Singapore in 1819. Under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, Britain secured Malacca from the Dutch and in return relinquished its claims to Sumatra and nearby smaller islands. Singapore, Pinang, and Malacca (which collectively became the Straits Settlements in 1826) were then administered by Britain.

In the mid-19th century tin-mining activity greatly expanded in the Malay Peninsula, and Malay rulers and the immigrant Chinese they employed became involved in territorial disputes. Fearful that these disputes might disrupt trade, the British took control of the peninsular states, working indirectly through the Malay rulers. Using diplomacy and taking advantage of dynastic quarrels, the British persuaded the rulers to accept British “residents” or “advisers,” who dictated policy. Before World War II (1939-1945) the native states were classified as either federated or unfederated, with British control somewhat looser in the unfederated states. The federated states were Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang. The unfederated states were Johor and the four northern states, which were acquired from Thailand in 1909. At the top of the British system of rule was a high commissioner, who was also governor of the Straits Settlements.

The present Malaysian territories in Borneo were largely under the domination of the powerful Muslim state of Brunei until the 19th century. Before then, Europeans traded on the island but made no permanent settlements. In 1841, however, the sultan of Brunei rewarded Sir James Brooke, an English adventurer who helped to suppress rebels, with a gift of land and the title raja of Sarawak. Brooke and his successors expanded the territory. To the east, the sultans of Brunei and Sulu also granted land to Europeans. In 1882 the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company purchased the European-held territory. British North Borneo and Sarawak became British protectorates in 1888.

British colonial impacts on Malaysia, especially West Malaysia, while not always positive, were profound. For example, Britain was directly or indirectly responsible for the establishment of the plantation system and the commercialization of agriculture; the framework for the present-day transportation system; multiracialism (through the importation of Chinese and Indian labor); the introduction of English and an educational system; and modern political institutions.

The Coming of Independence

Malaya, Sarawak, and North Borneo were seized by the Japanese in 1941 and 1942 and remained under Japanese occupation until World War II ended in 1945. Ethnic rivalries complicated the movement for independence that emerged after the war. The British had encouraged Chinese and Indian immigration to supply labor needed by the tin, rubber, and other industries. In the 1940s the population of the Malay states was approximately 50 percent Malay, 37 percent Chinese, and 12 percent Indian. Deep divisions separated these groups, coinciding substantially with religious and linguistic differences. With independence approaching, Malays expressed concern that immigrants would acquire political power. In 1946 they protested successfully against a scheme, known as the Malayan Union, that would have given most immigrants citizenship and voting rights while reducing the power of the Malay rulers. In 1948 the peninsular states formed the Federation of Malaya, which retained the power of the sultans.

The Alliance, the dominant political party that emerged in the 1950s, was multiethnic in its leadership but also ensured separate representation of ethnic groups through three component parties: the United Malays National Organization, the Malayan Chinese Association, and the Malayan Indian Congress. The Alliance won an overwhelming victory in the first nationwide elections in 1955. The British and the Alliance worked out the constitution, providing for a federal state; a bicameral parliament consisting of one elected and one appointed body; citizenship for most non-Malays; and special provisions for the Malays, who were regarded as less economically developed and were given preference for civil service jobs, scholarships, and licenses. In 1957 the Federation of Malaya (which occupied what is now West Malaysia) gained independence from Britain. It joined the United Nations that same year.

Meanwhile, the government had been fighting a Communist-led rebellion, known as the Malayan Emergency, since 1948. Most Communists were poor ethnic Chinese who were opposed to British colonial rule. When the Federation of Malaya became independent in 1957, they continued to fight for Communist rule. By the time the conflict finally ended in 1960, about 11,000 people had died. Not until 1989, however, did the Communists formally agree to lay down their arms.

An Independent Malaysia

In 1961 Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaya’s first prime minister, proposed a Malaysian federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo (later called Sabah), and Brunei. All but Brunei joined the federation in 1963. Economic and political disputes based on racial differences led to Singapore’s exit in 1965.

Since independence, ethnic disputes have dominated Malaysian politics. In the 1960s these disputes centered on the preeminence of Malays in politics and the supremacy of Chinese and Indians in the economic arena. In the 1969 general elections, the Alliance faced opposition from both Malay and non-Malay parties. Immediately afterward serious rioting broke out in Kuala Lumpur and at least 200 people were killed. The government invoked emergency powers and imposed restrictions on raising ethnically sensitive issues; parliament did not meet again until 1971.

The new prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, announced a new program called the New Economic Policy (NEP) to alleviate poverty in general, but also to improve specifically the economic condition of the Malays. Among the goals of the NEP was to increase the employment of Malays in occupations dominated by non-Malays. He also broadened the Alliance (already extended to Sarawak and Sabah) into an organization called the National Front, which included some opposition parties. The National Front won the 1974 elections decisively and also, under Prime Minister Datuk Hussein Onn, the 1978 elections. Ethnicity, however, still dominated the political scene, and two major opposition parties opposed the National Front: the Islamic Party of Malaysia and the Democratic Action Party. When Hussein Onn retired in 1981, he was succeeded by his deputy, Mahathir bin Mohamad, who would lead Malaysia for the next 22 years.

The Mahathir Era

A constitutional conflict in 1983 between the Mahathir government and the hereditary sultans led to a compromise restricting the power of Malaysia’s head of state (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong) to veto certain legislation. In 1987 the Mahathir government responded to the alleged threat of rising tensions between Malays and Chinese by arresting opposition leaders and suspending four newspapers. Constitutional amendments passed in 1993 and 1994 further restricted the powers of the head of state. The amendments prohibited the nine hereditary rulers from pardoning themselves or their families from criminal charges and removed the head of state’s power to delay legislation. The National Front, having won three consecutive victories in 1982, 1986, and 1990 with Mahathir as prime minister, gained an even greater majority in the elections of 1995. Mahathir again retained his position as prime minister.

In 1991 Mahathir launched his “Vision 2020” program to propel Malaysia into the ranks of developed industrialized nations by 2020. In 1997 and 1998, however, Southeast Asian financial markets suffered a serious blow when investors lost confidence in a number of Asian currencies and securities. During the regional economic crisis, the Mahathir government scaled back or postponed several important infrastructure projects. The impact of the crisis was not as severe in Malaysia as it was in some other Asian countries, but in the long term it was expected to delay Malaysia’s attainment of developed-nation status beyond 2020. Nevertheless, Malaysia continued to attract foreign investment and to develop as a major center of electronics manufacturing.

The economic crisis raised a political rift between Mahathir and Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who had also served as deputy prime minister and was regarded as Mahathir’s most likely successor. They differed on what Malaysia’s response to the sudden economic downturn should be, and in September 1998 Mahathir dismissed Anwar from his government posts. Anwar and his supporters then launched a campaign against government corruption, and demonstrations in support of reform began to gain momentum around the country.

In late September riot police arrested Anwar, and he was subsequently charged with abuse of power and personal misconduct. He denied the charges, claiming they were part of a political conspiracy against him. In two separate and highly publicized trials in 1999 and 2000, Anwar was convicted of abuse of power and sodomy and sentenced to a total of 15 years in prison. Despite the controversy surrounding Anwar’s arrest, the National Front decisively won November 1999 legislative elections, and Mahathir retained the office of prime minister.

New Prime Minister

In June 2002 Mahathir abruptly announced his resignation as the leader of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in the National Front coalition. The announcement shocked his supporters, and he immediately agreed to remain in office until October 2003, thereby providing a transition period for his chosen successor, Minister of Home Affairs Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi. Mahathir formally resigned on October 31, and Badawi became Malaysia’s new prime minister as the leader of UMNO.

Badawi soon demonstrated his own stature as a leader when the National Front won an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections of March 2004. Even under Mahathir, the National Front had never won by such a landslide. The front won 198 seats, or 90 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives, an increase from 77 percent. The National Front also won control of 12 of Malaysia’s 13 state legislative assemblies. The elections represented a major defeat for the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), a fundamentalist party that had been the official opposition party and had previously controlled two state assemblies. PAS won just 7 seats, a decline from 26 seats, and it lost control of the state legislature in Terengganu, where it had imposed religious bans on alcohol and gambling. The official opposition party became the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), which won 12 seats.

However, in 2008 the National Front coalition suffered its worst election result in decades, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority and control of five state assemblies. Malaysia’s three main opposition parties—PAS, DAP, and the People’s Justice Party (PKR)—won a record number of seats and agreed to set aside their differences to form a coalition that could present a challenge to the National Front’s hold on power. These efforts were led by former government minister Anwar Ibrahim, who had been released from prison in 2004 after the Federal Court (Malaysia’s highest court) overturned the sodomy conviction against him. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Badawi came under sharp criticism for his leadership and faced a revolt within UMNO, with former prime minister Mahathir calling for his resignation in order to save the party. In October 2008 Badawi announced that he would resign his party leadership and step down as prime minister in March 2009. He urged party members to select his deputy, Najib Razak, as his successor.

© The Globe Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. Distributed by ASThemesWorld