Historical Background


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.


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.


A new phase in the historical development of the inhab- itants of Malaysia began around the first century BC with the establishment of regular trading contacts with the world beyond Southeast Asia, specifically China and the sub-continent of India. Although Chinese contacts started as early as, if not predating those of India, it was the Hindu and Buddhist elements of Indian culture which made a major impact on the region. Over a period of a thousand years these influences gradually made themselves- selves be felt, and have left their marks in the native language, literature and social custom. During this Hindu- Buddhist period which was marked by a tremendous growth in the East-West trade, the shadowy outlines of the first political units emerged in the Peninsula and in Kalimantan. However, for the greater part of this time the inhabitants of the area were subjected to the sway of either Javanese or Sumatran power The most tangible evidence of the Hindu-Buddhist period in Malaysian history is now to be found in the temple sites of Lembah Bujang and Kuala Merbok in Kedah.


The Hindu-Buddhist period of Malaysian history ended with the penetration of Islam into the area. Brought primarily by Indian and Arab traders, there is evidence of the presence of the new religion in the region as early as the thirteentl1 century. After 1400, Islam became a major influence with the conversion of the Malay-Hindu rulers of Melaka. From Melaka, Islam spread to other parts of the Malay Peninsula and to the Malay states in Sumatra and along the trade routes throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Once established as the religion of the Malays, Islam profoundly affected Malay society and the Malay way of life.After the collapse of Melaka, the sultanate of Brunei in Kalimantan rose to become the principal agent for the propagation of Islam in that area.

The Malay kingdom of Melaka which dominated both sides of the Straits of Melaka for a hundred years marked the classical age of Malay culture . Most of the Malay States of the Peninsula today can trace their genesis back to the Melaka sultanate. In Kalimantan the inhabitants of modern Sabah and Sarawak lived an autonomous existence although the ancient kingdom of Brunei exercised a general sway over them until the end of the nineteenth century.


Both the Melaka and Brunei empires were shattered by the coming of the Europeans into the region. Melaka fell to a sudden Portugese assault in 1511. The power of Brunei was crippled in its infancy by the establishment of the Spaniards in the Philippines and by the rise of Dutch power in Java. Johor tried to take the place of Melaka but was restricted not only by the Europeans, but also by the activities of local rivals such as the Achinese, Minangkabau and the Bugis. As a result, the present-day States of the Peninsula gradually emerged as sovereign units in their own right.

Despite their technological superiority, European power in the region remained restricted until the British intrusion at the end of the eighteenth century which brought the resources and organisation of the Industrial Revolution. From their new bases of Pulau Pinang (1786), Singapore (1819) and Melaka (1824), which became known collectively as the Straits Settlements, their influence and power spread into the Malay Peninsula, and the process of political integration of the Malay States of the Peninsula into a modern nation-state began. In 1824 the Malay world was arbitrarily divided into British and Dutch spheres of influence (i.e. by the Anglo-Dutch treaty of that year). In 1874 the British took the first steps towards bringing the peninsula States under their direct supervision when they imposed the Pangkor Treaty on the rulers of Perak and made similar arrangements in Selangor. Meanwhile in Kalimantan, the States of Sarawak and Sabah were beginning to take shape as British adventurers acquired the territories at the expense of the Brunei sultanate. By 1914 the political organisation of the present-day states of Malaysia was as follows:
The Straits Settlements : British crown colony headed by a British governor, consisting of Singapore, Melaka, Pulau Pinang, Labuan, the Cocos Isles and Christmas Isle. Capital: Singapore.
The Federated Malay States : British protectorate headed by a British High Commissioner (Governor of the Straits Settlements); consisting of the States of Negeri Sembflan, Pahang, Perak and Selangor.
The Unfederated Malay States : British protectorate under the tutelage of a British Adviser in each State responsible to the British Commissioner, consisting of Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu.
Sarawak : British protectorate ruled by the Brooke family. Capital: Kuching.
Sabah : British protectorate, ruled by the Chartered Company of the British North Borneo. Capital: Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu).


The Japanese invasion of Malaya and British Borneo in late 1941, which culminated in the humiliating British surrender in Singapore two and a half months later, shattered Western colonial supremacy and unleashed the forces of incipient nationalism. Although the British were able to resume their authority in the region after the collapse of Japan in 1945, they faced an entirely new political situation and those circumstances forced them to adopt new policies. As a result the Straits Settlements were dissolved. Pulau Pinang and Melaka were joined with the Malay States of the Peninsula to form a new Malayan Union. Singapore became a separate crown colony and so did both Sarawak and British North Borneo in place of the former Brooke and Chartered Company regimes. Labuan was joined to British North Borneo.

These new arrangements met with considerable Malaysian opposition. In Sarawak a strong campaign developed opposing the crown colony status and culminated in the assassination of the second British governor (1949). But the most serious opposition was in the Malay Peninsula against the Malayan Union which reduced the status of the Malay States virtually to that of a British colony. Consequently, the British were obliged to abandon the Malayan Union scheme, and in 1948 in its place established the Federation of Malaya, after protracted negotiations with the Malay Rulers, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and other parties concerned. The new Federation consisted of all the nine Malay states of the Peninsula, along with Melaka and Pulau Pinang, united under a federal government in Kuala Lumpur headed by a British High Commissioner.


By the Agreement of 1948 the British had committed themselves to preparing the way for the Federation’s independence. Under the twin pressures of a communist rebellion (the Emergency) and the development of a strong Malay nationalist movement (represented by UMNO), the British introduced elections, starting at local level in 1951. The problem of obtaining political cooperation among the main ethnic groups in the country to fight for independence was resolved by the successful establishment of an alliance between UMNO and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), the two principal communal parties, in the same year, which was subsequently joined by the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).

When the first federal elections were held in 1955, the UMNO-MCA-MIC Alliance, headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, won an overwhelming victory (51 out of the 52 seats contested), and the Tunku was appointed the Federation’s first Chief Minister. The Alliance was successful in pressuring the British to relinquish their sovereignty in August 1957.

In the meantime slower constitutional progress had been taking place under British colonial rule in Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah. In 1955 Singapore was granted internal autonomy (the Rendel Constitution) and had its first Chief Minister (David Marshall). By 1959 Singapore had achieved full internal self-government and was led by the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) under Lee Kuan Yew. In Sarawak local elections were introduced in 1959.


The first move towards the formation of Malaysia came in 1961 when the idea for the formation of a wider federation comprising the Federation of Malaya, Singapore and the Kalimantan States (including Brunei) was mooted by Tunku Abdul Rahman in a speech in Singapore. The Tunku’s proposal received mixed reception. It was generally popular in Malaya and Singapore but raised doubts in Sabah and Sarawak. It also quickly aroused opposition from the Philippines which asserted a claim over British North Borneo (Sabah) and from Indonesia where it was viewed as a “neo-colonialist” plot by Sukarno and the powerful Indonesian Communist Party. However, the proposal had the immediate effect of accelerating constitutional development in Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. Elections were held for the first time in Brunei and in Sabah in 1962. A joint Anglo-Malayan commission headed by a former governor of the Bank of England, Lord Cobbold, visited Sabah and Sarawak in 1962 and reported that the majority in both states favoured the formation of Malaysia. However, continued Philippine and Indonesian opposition led to the sending of a United Nations mission to Borneo in 1963, which also reported that public opinion was in favour of joining Malaysia. Consequently, on 16 September 1963, Malaysia was formally promulgated, although without Brunei which by this time had declined to join.

MALAYSIA, 1963 –

The first few years of Malaysia were taken up by a serious challenge to its survival, mainly from Indonesia whose policy of confrontation took the form of armed attacks on the Peninsula and across the land frontiers of Sabah and Sarawak. Confrontation was finally brought to an end by an agreement signed in Bangkok in 1966, while the Philippines gave its formal recognition to Malaysia the same year. In the meantime, however, (i.e. in 1965) Singapore ceased to be a member of the Malaysian federation and became an independent state.

In the seven general elections which have been held since the formation of Malaysia (the most recent being in 1990), the ruling coalition of political parties- formerly the Alliance, but expanded in 1971 to become the Barisan Nasional-has easily retained its majority in parliament. However, in 1969 for the first and up till now the only time, the coalition lost its overall two- thirds majority. Communal tensions resulted in the 13 May 1969 incident in Kuala Lumpur, leading to the establishment of an emergency government-the National Operations Council. Parliamentary rule was resumed in 1971. Since then the broad aim of the administration has been the fulfilment of the New Economic Policy which is designed to eradicate poverty regardless of race, and to eliminate the identification of occupation with race.

The economic prosperity achieved in the 1970s enabled the administration of Tun Abdul Razak, who succeeded Tunku Abdul Rahman as premier in 1970, and Tun Hussein Onn who took over on the death of Tun Razak in 1976 to make considerable progress towards these ends. At the same time, Malaysia established a more independent foreign policy, helping found ASEAN in 1967, recognising Communist China in t974, and identifying the nation with the non-aligned countries of the Third World. The 1980s have brought new political directions and economic challenges. The administration of Dato’ Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (1981) has seen the search for new sources of support and development (the Look East Policy), the initiation of a bold policy of heavy industrialisation (the national car, a steel industry and oil refineries) and an aggressive foreign policy asserting the interests of the undeveloped South versus those of the developed nations of the North. The ruling coalition of parties in the Barisan Nasional continues to dominate the political arena but a number of developments, including the coming of age of a new generation of voters, suggest that there may be changes in the traditional pattern of Malaysian politics.

Source from Information Malaysia 1997 Yearbook

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