Malaysia Anthropology: History
Wikipedia, the encyclopedia says: “the history of Malaysia is a relatively recent offshoot of the history of the wider Malay-Indonesian world”. It is so because anthropologists and historians could see very little aspects culturally and linguistically, to distinguish today’s Malaysian territories from the lands of the Malay Archipelago. According to their research, today’s division of the Malay world into six different states– Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and East Timor – is largely the result of external influences, like the Hindu India, the Islamic Middle East and Christian Europe (west), China and Japan (north-east). Besides, the most direct shipping route passing through the Strait of Malacca, Malaysia has naturally been a melting pot of trade routes and cultures. Thus, it has been found out that the geographical position of Malaysia has literally made it difficult for the Malay people to resist foreign influence and domination.
If one analyses the history of Malaysia, he can see these successive phases before the final assertion of Malay independence.
• The domination of Hindu culture imported from India reached its peak in the great Srivijaya civilisation in Sumatra (from the 7th to the 14th centuries).
• The arrival of “Islam” in the 10th century, leading to the conversion of the Malay-Indonesian world, having a profound influence on the Malay people. The Srivijayan empire broke up into smaller sultanates, the most prominent one being Melaka (Malacca).
• The intrusion of the European colonial powers and European domination: (i) Portuguese, (ii) Dutch and (iii) British, who established bases at Penang and Singapore. This triggered off the most revolutionary event in Malay history – the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, which drew a frontier between British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia). Thus, the division of the Malay world was established permanently.
• The British had obvious economic intentions in establishing their empire in the Malay world. In colonizing the Malay world, they had forseen financial profit, banking on the obvious attractions of Malaya, the tin and gold mines. However, soon after, the British planters started exploring the tropical plantation crops including pepper and coffee. On the other hand, there was a mass immigration of Chinese and Indian workers to meet the needs of the colonial economy. To meet the needs of a large and disciplined work-force, plantation workers, mainly Tamil-speakers from South India as well as immigrant workers from southern China were imported to the land. Thus, the Malay society suffered the loss of political sovereignty to the British and of economic sovereignty to the Chinese.
However, after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in the 1930’s, Chinese emigration to Malaya stopped significantly, thereby stabilising the demographic situation. In 1957, Malay became an independent nation, with 55%
Malay population, and with rich export industries, consisting of rubber, tin, palm oil, and iron ore.
1963 was a significant year for the Malay world, when Malaya became Malaysia with the acquisition of the British territories in North Borneo and Singapore. It was followed by various political onslaughts like confrontation with Indonesia, the race riots of 1969, the establishment of emergency rule and a curtailment of political life and civil liberties forever. However, after the New Economic Policy introduced by the government in 1971, the Malaysian economy improved significantly, with the elimination of rural poverty, and with the identification between race and economic function. The political culture of Malaysia, on the other hand, remains increasingly authoritarian till recent times, with a notable decline of democracy. The question of when and how Malaysia will acquire a multi-party democracy, a free press, an independent judiciary and the restoration of civil and political liberties remain unanswered, despite its economic maturity which has been quite a phenomenon in the Malaysian history.
Malaysia Anthropology: Economy
With a small and a relatively open economy, Malaysia is a country on the move. Earlier what had been a country dependent on agriculture and primary commodities has today grown to be an export-driven nation, thriving on high technology, knowledge-based and capital-intensive industries.
This drastic structural transformation of Malaysia’s economy which has been quite spectacular in these forty years, has been the result of pragmatism and a number of decisive steps taken by the Malaysian government. Largely depending on its wealth of mineral resources, fertile soils, agriculture and manufacturing, the Malaysian economy achieved average annual growth rates of about 7% during the last decade. And it has been possible because the government did not rest on its laurels, but took important steps instrumental to the country’s economic progress, like eradicating poverty with a controversial race-conscious program called New Economic Policy (NEP). First established in 1971, it was designed in particular to enhance the economic standing of ethnic Malays and other indigenous people, collectively known as “bumiputras”.
The results of such a revolutionary economic policy introduced by the government clearly shown, as the GDP doubled to reach an estimated RM219.4 billion (US$57.7 billion) in 2002. On the other hand, the country has shown tremendous potentials in its exports and imports which have almost quadrupled to reach RM349.6 billion (US$92.0 billion) and RM298.5 billion (US$78.6 billion) respectively. These highly contributed in placing Malaysia among the world’s top 20 trading nations, for which today the country even boasts of being an important trading partner for the United States. With a manufacturing sector that now accounts for 30.4% of Malaysia’s GDP, Malaysia today is considered one of the world’s leading exporters of semiconductor devices, computer hard disk drives, audio and video products, and room air-conditioners.
Rapid industrialization became a boon for the country, after the government opened itself to foreign direct investments (FDI) in the 1960s. Currently, with its market-oriented economy, combined with an educated workforce and a well-developed infrastructure, Malaysia has been regarded as one of the largest recipients of FDI among developing countries. Though the Asian Financial crisis in 1997 saw Foreign direct investment in Malaysia falling
at an alarming rate and Ringgit depreciating substantially from MYR 2.50 per USD to much levels lower (up to MYR 4.80 per USD at its bottom), the economy rejuvinated shortly afterwards as the country had a strong growth in exports, particularly that of electronics and electrical products to the Unites States. Today, the country enjoys faster economic recovery compared to the neighbouring South-East Asian countries, though it is true that the level of affluence that was before 1997 financial crisis has yet to be achieved.
Malaysia Anthropology: Culture & Religion
A multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multilingual society, housing 65% Malays, 25% Chinese and 7% Indians, Malaysia is also home to the largest indigenous tribe in terms of numbers, the Iban of Sarawak (over 600,000). As an interesting matter-of-fact, the largest community in Malaysia, the malays, are all Muslims since one has to be Muslim to be legally Malay under Malaysian law. However, there are also Christians and Hindus amongst them. Playing a dominant political role, the Muslims amongst the Malays are included in a group identified as “bumiputera”, speaking the native language “Bahasa Melayu”. However, despite “Bahasa Melayu” being the official language, when members of these different communities talk to each other, they generally speak English, recently reinstated as the language of instruction in higher education.
The Iban of Sarawak, interestingly, still live in traditional jungle villages in longhouses along the Rajang and Lupar rivers and their tributaries in Malaysia. Along with them, Malaysia also houses quite a large number of Orang Asli or aboriginal people, who comprise a number of different ethnic communities living in Peninsular Malaysia. Traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers and agriculturists, many have been sedentarised and partially absorbed into modern Malaysia, though still remaining the poorest group in the country.
Apart from the original nomadic tribes, there are the Chinese comprising of about a quarter of the population and also Indians who account for about 7% of the population. While the Chinese are mostly Buddhists, Taoists or Christian, and speak a variety of Chinese dialects, the Indians are mainly south-indian Hindus, speaking Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam and Hindi. However, english as a first language is used by umpteen middle to upper-middle class Chinese as well as Indians in Malaysia.
The remaining population of Malaysia comprises of a sizeable Sikh community, of Eurasians (of mixed Portuguese and Malay descent as well as mixed Malay and Spanish descent), Cambodians, and Vietnamese. In most cases, the Cambodians and Vietnamese are Buddhists of the Theravada sect and Mahayana sect.
The Chinese forming a sizeable part of the population, Malaysian traditional music is heavily influenced by Chinese forms. Saying that, the Islamic forms also influence the music to a great extent. The music, based largely around the gendang (drum), also includes a number of interesting percussion instruments, and even flutes and trumpets. Infested with a strong tradition of dance and dance dramas, some of Thai, Indian and Portuguese origin, the malaysian culture also incorporates artistic forms like wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre), silat (a stylised martial art) and crafts like batik, weaving, silver and brasswork.
In terms of religion, Malaysians usually tend to personally respect one another’s religious beliefs. However, inter-religious problems arise mainly from the political sphere. Often n
on-muslims are said to experience restrictions in activities like construction of religious buildings. All Muslims here are obliged to follow the decisions of sharia courts, although when it comes to leaving/renouncing the Islam faith, the court of malaysia is said to have denied one the right (such as the Yeshua Jalilludin versus the Minister of Home Affairs case in the 1980’s).
Malaysia Anthropology: Travel & Tourism
A glorious haven comprising of island life, adventures, city excitement and oriental culture & heritage, Malaysia has been attracting tourists from all nook and corner of the world as an ideal travel destination for over a decade now. With energetic, entertaining dance forms, with a mythical culture that represents fertility, vigilance and dignity, with elaborate traditional festivals like the bamboo dance and the warrior dance, and with a strong sense of community, Malaysia is truly a land of many cultures, wonders and attractions in the heart of Asia.
A land of fascinating extremes, where towering skyscrapers look down upon primitive longhouses, it truly accounts for a memorable eco-holiday. Above all, with some of the best beaches and diving spots in the world, it is ideal for island getaways. It is no wonder then, that with promoting Malaysia as a destination of excellence, the travel/tourism development department of Malaysia has been able to increase the number of foreign tourists and also extend their average length of stay, thereby increasing Malaysia’s tourism revenue considerably over the years.
Island Life highlights in Malaysia consist mainly of the Langwaki Island, Kedah, and the Pangkor Laut, Perak. While the local legends, beautiful beaches and natural marvels make the Langwaki Island especially enchanting and unforgettable as a fascinating Island getaway, the Pangkor Laut, Perak, is basically a private island whose market value has increased dramatically after it was voted as the ‘Best Island in the World’ by the UK-based Conde Naste Traveller Magazine. Aficionados of adventure would just love to explore Mt. Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site and one of Southeast Asia’s highest mountains (4,093 metres). Towering amidst a veil of clouds, while the largest cave chamber in the world at Mulu Caves beckons the tourists with its inexplicable mystery, on the other hand, lush tropical jungles teeming with wildlife for millions of years, like the Taman Negara, Pahang, would be tempting one to experience the exhilaration of endless escapades.
Those looking for city attractions in Malaysia like glamour, shopping, fine dining and more will definitely be able to satisfy their fine tastes and sensibilities. With the ultra-modern Petronas Twin Towers (in the Kuala Lumpur City Centre), the classic Moorish-style old Railway station, the luxurious and extravagant shopping malls and restaurants with succulent Chinese and oriental food fests, one cannot fail to revel in the umpteen alluring attractions of Malaysia.
With all these and much more in store, its no wonder that global tourists continue to return to Malaysia time and again to study Malaysia Anthropology in mixture of cultures and environments for a fantastic, inspiring holiday.
Lopa Bhattacharya (Banerjee) now based in Buffalo, New York, United States, is a content writer/developer working for various overseas corporate website projects, CD-Rom presentations, brochures, flyers and other communication mater
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