The course of Malaysian history has been determined by its strategic position at one of the world’s major crossroads, its tropical climate, the surrounding environment and the regime of the north-east and south-west monsoons.

Its position and other geographical circumstances made the country a natural meeting place for traders from the East and the West. The lush tropical forest and the abundance of life existing in it and in the surrounding water made Malaysia an easy place for the settlement and sustenance of small, self-supporting human communities. At the same time the thick jungle and mountainous terrain of the interior inhibited communication, while the absence of broad, flood-proned river valleys and deltas precluded the development of elaborate systems of water control such as those upon which the civilisations of Java and the Southeast Asian mainland came to be based. In contrast Malaysia’s development has come from the sea. Its inhabitants quickly acquired a skill and reputation as sailors and navigators. Subsequent trading contacts have been responsible for the waves of outside influences which have modified their way of life.

Early Settlement

Nature’s bounty no doubt accounts for the fact that Malaysia was one of the earliest homes of Man. Stone implements found at Lenggong in Perak and the remarkable finds in the Niah Cave of Sarawak provide evidence for this.

The earliest of the present-day inhabitants of Malaysia are the orang asli of the Peninsula and people such as the Penan of Sarawak and the Rungus of Sabah, many of whom still pursue a largely nomadic way of life. Their presence in the country probably dates back to over 5000 years. These early settlers were probably the pioneers of the movement of peoples southwards from China and Tibet through Mainland Southeast Asia and the Malay Peninsula to the Indonesian Archipelago and beyond. The next arrivals to the country, the Malays, represented the second and third wave of this movement.

The first Malay settlers (the Proto-Malays) had probably established themselves here by 1000 BC. This movements were followed by other waves of immigrants (the Deutero- Malays) over the next few centuries, who came equipped with more advanced farming techniques and new knowledge of metals. The Malay peoples also spread out into the islands of the archipelago, settling down into small self-contained communities which gave rise to the
complex and variegated ethnic pattern of Malaysia and Indonesia today. The Malays of the Peninsula had their closest affinities with the Malays of Sumatra, and for centuries the Straits of Melaka did not form a dividing line between two nations but served as a corridor linking different parts of the same family. Until recent times the Malays and Malay-related inhabitants of the area remained politically fragmented, but they shared a common culture. Together with the orang asli they make up the indigenous peoples of Malaysia today, and are classified as "sons of the soil" or Bumiputera. Despite the considerable differences between the various Bumiputera groups, they all share certain characteristics which are the hallmarks of the indigenous culture of Southeast Asia. These characteristics are rooted in an agrarian-maritime economy and reflected in a village society where leadership was largely through consensus and those attitudes were informed by a belief in an all-pervasive spiritual world. Although the culture of the Malays in particular came to be overlaid by Hiduism and then prevaded by Islam, elements of this basic culture still persist.

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