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History of Malaysia

Throughout its history, Malaysia has always been a place where different cultures and religions meet.

Pre-Colonial Era

In the first century AD, two far-flung but related events helped stimulate Malaysia's emergence in international trade in the ancient world. At that time, India had two principal sources of gold and other metals: the Roman Empire and China. The overland route from China was cut by marauding Huns, and at about the same time, the Roman Emperor Vespasian cut off shipments of gold to India. As a result, India sent large and seaworthy ships, with crews reported to have numbered in the hundreds, to Southeast Asia, including the Malay Peninsula, to seek alternative sources. In the centuries that followed, rich Malaysian tin deposits assumed great significance in Indian Ocean trade, and the region prospered. As maritime trade among Middle Eastern, Indian, and Chinese ports flourished, the peninsula benefited from its location as well as from development of its diverse resources, including tropical woods and spices. Malay ships became prominent in that trade, and Malay ports served as transshipment centers. Indian trade brought Indian culture, economy, religion, and politics, with historic results for what is now Malaysia.

The early Buddhist Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, based at what is now Palembang, Sumatra, dominated much of the Malay Peninsula from the 9th to the 13th centuries AD. The powerful Hindu kingdom of Majapahit, based on Java, gained control of the Malay Peninsula in the 14th century. Conversion of the Malays to Islam, beginning in the early 14th century, accelerated with the rise of the state of Malacca under the rule of a Muslim prince in the 15th century.

Colonial era

Malacca was a major regional entrepot, where Chinese, Arab, Malay, and Indian merchants traded precious goods. Drawn by this rich trade, a Portuguese fleet conquered Malacca in 1511, marking the beginning of European expansion in Southeast Asia. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese from Malacca in 1641 and, in 1795, were themselves replaced by the British, who had occupied Penang in 1786.

In 1826, the British settlements of Malacca, Penang, and Singapore were combined to form the Colony of the Straits Settlements. From these strong points, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the British established protectorates over the Malay sultanates on the peninsula. Four of these states were consolidated in 1895 as the Federated Malay States.

During British control, a system of public administration was established, public services were extended, and large-scale rubber and tin production was developed. British rule was interrupted by the Japanese invasion and occupation from December 1941 to August 1945 during World War II.

Post-war Reorganisation

In 1946, the whole of Malaya (except Singapore, which became a separate crown colony) was consolidated into a crown colony called the Malayan Union. Because of opposition from the Malays the Union was a political failure, and was replaced just two years later by a looser Federation of Malaya in 1948.

In 1948, local communists of the Communist Party of Malaya, nearly all Chinese, launched a insurgency, prompting the imposition of Malayan Emergency (the state of emergency was lifted in 1960). Small bands of guerrillas remained in bases along the rugged border with southern Thailand, occasionally entering northern Malaysia. These guerrillas finally signed a peace accord with the Malaysian government in December 1989.

Popular sentiment for independence swelled during and after the war and the Federation of Malaya negotiated independence from the United Kingdom under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman, who became the first prime minister. As part of their "Hearts and Minds" anti-communist strategy the British government agreed to give Malaya independence on August 31, 1957. Malaya remained part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and hosted a large British and Commonwealth military presence until the withdrawal of British forces East of Suez in the late 60s.


The independent Federation of Malaya combined with the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo (renamed Sabah) to form Malaysia on September 16, 1963.

The state's formation was highly controversial, and both the Philippines and Indonesia made claims to parts of East Malaysia. Internal rebellions supporting these claims or regional independence were suppressed by Commonwealth forces and three years of semi-war called Indonesian Confrontation on the borders to Indonesia ensued. As a concession to the widespread opposition, Brunei was kept outside the Malaysian federation, but remained under British military protection. The United States decisively agreed to support the formation of Malaysia after a 1964 secret diplomatic deal with the United Kingdom, in return for British support in Vietnam.

As a result of differences between the two governments, and tensions between Chinese and Malays, Singapore left the federation and became an independent republic on August 9, 1965. Continued ethnic tensions led to bloody racial riots in Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969, which resulted in a two-year state of Emergency, and the subsequent imposition of a New Economic Policy aimed at redistributing wealth to the Malays, who at the time owned 2% of the economy.

Malaysia has since maintained a delicate ethno-political balance, and developed a unique rule combining economic growth and a political rule that favours ethnic Malayans and moderate Islam. In the late 1990s, considerable opposition to the existing system was put down by the government, including democratic opposition as well as proponents of a stricter Islamic rule.

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