Populating the Peninsula (Prehistory to 1st Century B.C.)

If Malaysia can trace its success to one element, it is geographic location. Placed strategically at a major crossroads between the Eastern and Western worlds, the result of alternating seasonal northeast and southwest monsoons, Malaysia (formerly known as Malaya) was the ideal center for East-West trade activities. The character of the indigenous Malays is credited to their relationship with the sea, while centuries of outside influences shaped their culture.

The earliest human skeleton in Peninsular Malaysia was found in Perak state and is believed to be 11,000 years old; however, remains suggest humans lived on Malaysian Borneo 40,000 years ago. Stone Age inhabitants of the peninsula are believed to have migrated from Africa as early as 60,000 years ago. Today their descendents make up the orang asli (or "original people") ethnic group in Malaysia society. Around 35,000 years ago, new migrations brought waves of settlers from southern China, who established communities separate from the orang asli -- these new inhabitants would, over centuries, intermarry with migrants from Southeast Asia, China, South Asia, and even the Middle East to form what is today considered the Malay race. They ushered in the Bronze Age, and brought with them knowledge of metalwork and agriculture, as well as beliefs in a spirit world (attitudes that are still practiced by many groups today).


Malaysia's earliest trading relationships were established by the 1st century B.C. with China and India. India proved most influential, impacting local culture with Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that are evidenced today in the Malay language, literature, and many customs.

The Introduction of Islam (15th Century)

Recorded history didn't come around until the Malay Annals of the 17th century, which tell the story of Parameswara, also known as Iskander Shah, ruler of Temasek (Singapore), who was forced to flee to Melaka (which was known as Malacca during colonial occupation) around A.D. 1400. He set up a trading port and led it to world-renowned financial glory. Melaka grew in population and prosperity, attracting Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders.


With Arabs and Muslim Indians came Islam, and Iskander Shah's son, who took leadership of Melaka after his father's death, is credited as the first Malay to convert to the new religion. The rule of Melaka was transformed into a sultanate, and the word of Islam won converts not only in Malaya, but throughout Borneo and the Indonesian archipelago.

European Influences (16th-19th Centuries)

Melaka's success was not without admirers, and in 1511, the Portuguese decided they wanted a piece of the action. They conquered the city in 30 days, chased the sultanate south to Johor, built a fortress that forestalled any trouble from the populace, and set up Christian missions. The Portuguese ruled until 1641, when the Dutch took the town from the Portuguese in a bid to expand their trading power in the region.


The British entered the scene in the late 1700s, when Francis Light of the British East India Company landed on the island of Penang and cut a deal with the Sultan of Kedah to cede it to the British. By 1805, Penang had become the seat of British authority in Southeast Asia, but the establishment served less as a trading cash cow and more as political leverage in the race to beat out the Dutch for control of the Southeast Asian trade routes. In 1824, the British and Dutch signed a treaty dividing Southeast Asia. The British would have Malaya, and the Dutch, Indonesia. Dutch-ruled Melaka was traded for British-ruled Bencoolen in Sumatra. In 1826, the British East India Company formed the Straits Settlements, uniting Penang, Melaka (Malacca), and Singapore under Penang's control. In 1867, power over the Straits Settlements shifted from the British East India Company to British colonial rule in London.

The Anglo-Dutch treaty never provided for the island of Borneo. The Dutch loosely took over Kalimantan, but the areas to the northwest were generally held under the rule of the Sultan of Brunei. Sabah was ceded for an annual sum to the British North Borneo Company, ruled by London until the Japanese invaded during World War II. In 1839, Englishman James Brooke arrived in Sarawak. The Sultan of Brunei had been having a hard time with warring factions in this territory and was happy to hand control over to Brooke. In 1841, after winning allies and subjugating enemies, Brooke became the Raja of Sarawak, building his capital in Kuching.

Meanwhile, back on the peninsula, Kuala Lumpur sprang to life in 1857 as a settlement at the crook of the Klang and Gombak rivers, about 35km (22 miles) inland from the west coast. Tin miners from India, China, and other parts of Malaya came inland to prospect and set up a trading post, which flourished. In 1896, it became the capital of the British Malayan territory.


World War II & Malaysian Independence

In 1941, the Japanese conquered Malaya en route to Singapore. Life for Malayans during the 4-year occupation was a constant and almost unbearable struggle to survive hunger, disease, and separation from the world. After the war, when the British sought to reclaim their colonial sovereignty over Malaya, they found the people thoroughly fed up with foreign rule. The struggle for independence united Malay and non-Malay residents throughout the country. By the time the British agreed to Malayan independence, the states were already united. On August 31, 1957, Malaya was cut loose, and Kuala Lumpur became its official capital. For a brief moment in the early 1960s, the peninsula was united with Singapore and the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak. Singapore was ejected from the federation in 1965, and today Malaysia continues on its own path.

Post-Independence (Late 20th Century)


As Malaysia was emerging as an independent nation, its growth was stunted by racial tensions that eventually led to race riots. National policies favored ethnic Malays -- most of whom were living in rural poverty -- in an attempt to level the playing field in terms of access to education, jobs, and business opportunities. The policies were oftentimes at the expense of Chinese and Indian Malaysians, many of whom were business owners, as well as educated and wealthy Malaysians.

In 1969, following a national election, Chinese Malaysians demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur, sparking a backlash from Malays. Riots and violence led to the destruction of almost 6,000 homes and businesses and the deaths of 184 people.

In the 1980s, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Dr.Mahathir Mohamad, who led the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysia's economy grew steadily as the country industrialized. Mahathir served as prime minister for 22 years -- from 1981 to 2003. He was a popular prime minister who sought to create a competitive economic tiger while maintaining national policies that reflected liberal Islamic values. His outspoken nature created an endless stream of controversies surrounding policies that favored Bumiputeras, protected often shady links between government and industry, and opposed conservative Islamic policies. Under Prime Minister Mahathir, the country enjoyed social harmony until 1998, when Mahathir's Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked over a sodomy and corruption scandal. It is generally believed that the charges against Anwar were false and the work of a government who wanted to remove Anwar's dissenting voice.


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