Malaysia is to host the tenth biennial conference of the Commonwealth
Association for Public Administration and Management and the fifth Forum
of Commonwealth Public Service Ministers in Kuala Lumpur in October
2014; and at the 2013 CHOGM in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Malaysia offered to
host CHOGM 2019.
Tash Aw was a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize regional winner with The
Harmony Silk Factory in 2006; and Sri Lankan Rani Manicka, who was born
in Malaysia, with her novel, The Rice Mother, in 2003.
Scholarships for postgraduate study are awarded by Malaysia to citizens
of other Commonwealth countries under the Commonwealth Scholarship and
Joined Commonwealth: 1957
Population: 29,717,000 (2013)
GDP: 3.5% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: world ranking 62
Official language: Malay
Timezone: GMT plus 8hr
Currency: ringgit or Malaysian dollar (M$)
Area: 329,758 sq km
Capital city: Kuala Lumpur
Population density (per sq. km): 90
Lying north of the equator in central South-East Asia, above Singapore
and south of Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia is separated by about 540 km
of the South China Sea from the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak,
which share the island of Borneo with Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam.
Malaysian islands include Labuan, Penang and the Langkawi Islands.
The Federation of Malaysia comprises three federal territories (Kuala
Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan) and 13 states (Sabah, Sarawak and the 11
states of Peninsular Malaysia). The peninsular states are the nine
sultanates of Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak,
Perlis, Selangor and Terengganu, plus Melaka and Penang.
Kuala Lumpur (capital, pop. 1.48m in 2010), Subang Jaya (Selangor,
contiguous with Kuala Lumpur, 1.55m), Kelang (Selangor, 1.11m), Johor
Baharu (Johor, 916,400), Ampang Jaya (Selangor, 804,900), Ipoh (Perak,
704,600), Shah Alam (Selangor, 671,300), Kuching (Sarawak, 658,500),
Petaling Jaya (Selangor, 638,500), Kota Kinabalu (Sabah, 604,100), Batu
Sembilan Cheras (Selangor, 601,500), Sandakan (Sabah, 501,200), Kajang
Sungai Chua (Selangor, 448,200), Seremban (Negeri Sembilan, 439,300),
Kuantan (Pahang, 422,000), Tawau (Sabah, 381,700), Kuala Terengganu
(Terengganu, 286,300), Miri (280,500), Kota Baharu (Kelantan, 272,600),
Bukit Mertajam (Penang, 228,000), Alor Setar (Kedah, 212,600), Taiping
(Perak, 212,600), Melaka (Melaka, 201,400) and George Town (Penang,
There are 144,400 km of roads, 80 per cent paved. A good network in
Peninsular Malaysia including a motorway from north to south. Toll
motorways (such as parts of the North–South Expressway) have been built
by private groups.
There is a railway network of 2,250 km operated by Malaysian Railway, in
Peninsular Malaysia, linking with Singapore in the south and Thailand to
the north. Express trains are modern. Sabah has a coastal line; Sarawak
has no railway.
Kuala Lumpur’s light railway system commenced operations in the late
1990s. It combines underground and raised track and covers the entire
city, connecting city centre with airports and suburbs.
Ferry services run between ports on the peninsula and link the peninsula
with Sabah and Sarawak. River transport is well developed in the east
and the only form of transport in remote areas.
The new Kuala Lumpur International Airport at Sepang, 55 km to the south
of Kuala Lumpur, was completed in 1998, in time for the Commonwealth
Games. Other international airports are at Penang (16 km south of George
Town), Kota Kinabalu (Sabah), and Kuching (Sarawak).
Malaysia is a member of Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation, Association
of Southeast Asian Nations, Indian Ocean Rim Association, Non-Aligned
Movement, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, United Nations and World
Peninsular Malaysia has a mountainous spine (highest peak Gunong Tahan,
2,156 metres) with low plains on either side. In the west, mangrove
swamps and mudflats at the coast give way to cultivated plains. Sandy
beaches lie along the east coast. The main rivers are the Perak and the
Pahang. Sabah’s mountains include Mount Kinabalu (4,094 metres), the
highest peak in South-East Asia. Sarawak’s highest mountain is Murud
(2,385 metres), its main river the Rejang.
Tropical, with heavy annual rainfall and high humidity. The daily
temperature throughout Malaysia varies from 21–32°C. In Kuala Lumpur,
April and May are the hottest months, December the coldest and April the
The most significant environmental issues are deforestation; air
pollution by industrial and motor emissions; water pollution by raw
sewage; and smoke or haze from Indonesian forest fires.
Intensive logging and replanting operations are gradually changing the
forest’s form. Most cleared areas are in the north-east and west of
Peninsular Malaysia. Huge tracts of Sabah’s forests were felled in the
1970s and 1980s; the government is trying to curb logging. Forest covers
62 per cent of the land area, having declined at 0.4 per cent p.a.
1990–2010. Arable land comprises five per cent and permanent cropland 18
per cent of the total land area.
East Malaysia has one of the largest and most varied bird populations in
the world, including many species of parrots, hornbills and broadbills.
The endangered orangutan, the proboscis monkey and massive wild ox, the
seladang or Malayan gaur, also occur. In the country as a whole 70
mammal species and 42 bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).
In prehistoric times, the region was inhabited by aboriginal people. In
the 2nd century BCE settlers arrived from south China. Around the
beginning of the 1st century CE, Indian traders began settling in Kedah
and along the west coast of the peninsula. Hinduism and Buddhism were
introduced during this early period; the Indian kingdom of Kunan was
founded in the 1st century CE and Buddhist states developed to the east.
The Javanese controlled the peninsula around 1330–50. The port of
Malacca was founded in the 15th century; its rulers converted to Islam
and traded with Muslim merchants, and Islam replaced Buddhism across
The Sultanate of Malacca was seized by the Portuguese in 1511 but, a
century later, they were driven out by the Dutch in alliance with the
Sultan of Johor. The peninsula then became a Malay kingdom ruled by
Johor. In 1786 the Sultan of Kedah granted the island of Penang to the
British East India Company for use as a trading post; less than a decade
later, the British took Malacca from the Dutch. In 1819 the British also
acquired Singapore. Penang, Malacca and Singapore were ruled directly by
Britain as the Straits Settlements.
By a series of treaties between 1873 and 1930, the British colonial
Administrators took control of the foreign affairs of the nine Malay
sultanates on the peninsula. In 1896 the Federated Malay Sates
(Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Perak and Pahang) came into existence, with
Kuala Lumpur as the capital. The sultanates of northern Borneo – Brunei,
Sabah and Sarawak – also became British protectorates.
Immigrants from southern China and southern India came to work in tin
mines and on the plantations, facilitating the peninsula’s transition
from a trading outpost to a commodity producer. The British introduced
rubber farming towards the end of the 19th century.
Reaction to colonial rule began in the early 20th century. In 1915,
Indian sepoys rebelled and came close to taking control of Singapore. In
1931, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was established. It had links
with developing communism in China and drew most of its support from the
Chinese community. By 1937–38, anti-colonial nationalism began among the
Malay community, with the formation of the Union of Young Malays.
The Japanese occupied the country from 1941 to 1945. Resistance, mainly
from the Chinese, was led by MCP guerrillas. British rule was
reintroduced after the war, but met active resistance from the MCP.
Malay nationalists also campaigned for independence. The United Malays’
National Organisation (UMNO, the principal Malay party) was formed in
The Federation of Malaya, comprising 11 peninsular states, was
established in 1948. A communist-led insurrection in that year was
suppressed by the UK (although guerrilla warfare continued in the north
of the peninsula and Borneo and the last insurgents only surrendered in
A delayed general election took place in 1955. This was won by the
Alliance Party, formed out of UMNO, the Malayan Chinese Association and
the Malayan Indian Congress.
Formerly North Borneo, Sabah may have been inhabited since 7000 BCE.
From the seventh century, the region traded in pottery with China. In
the early 15th century the state was ruled mainly by the Sultan of
Brunei. In 1847, Britain persuaded the Sultan of Brunei to cede Labuan
Island. In 1882 the British North Borneo Chartered Company was
established and began administering territory ceded by the Sultan of
Brunei and the Sultan of Sulu. In 1888 the territory was made a British
Protectorate, still administered by the Company, which also administered
Labuan until 1905, when it was joined to the Straits Settlements. From
1942 until 1945 the territory was occupied by the Japanese army. In July
1946 it became the Crown colony of North Borneo.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Sarawak was inhabited from about
5000 BCE. From the 15th century, it was ruled by the Sultan of Brunei
who, in 1839, ennobled James Brooke, a British adventurer, as Rajah of
Sarawak, a reward for his help in calming a rebellion in Brunei. Brooke
waged a vigorous campaign against piracy. Sarawak was gradually enlarged
with additional grants of land from the Sultan, and the River Lawas area
bought from the North Borneo Chartered Company in 1905. Sarawak
prospered under Rajah Sir Charles Vyner Brooke (reigned 1917–46), who
attempted to set up an elected government in 1941, but the territory was
occupied by the Japanese army in the following year. During the Japanese
occupation, sickness and malnutrition spread throughout Sarawak. The
Rajah, resuming control in 1946, decided that in the interests of
Sarawak, he should make a gift of it to the UK Crown. Sarawak became a
UK colony in July 1946.
The Federation of Malaysia
Early in 1956, the governments of the Federation of Malaya and the UK
and the Heads of the Malay States agreed that the Federation should
achieve independence by the end of August 1957 if possible. On 31 August
1957 the Federation of Malaya became an independent nation and joined
the Commonwealth. Penang and Malacca became states of the Federation.
Tengku (prince) Abdul Rahman, leader of the independence movement,
became Prime Minister.
The Malaysia Agreement, under which North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore
(but not Brunei) would become states in the new Federation of Malaysia,
was signed in 1963 by the UK, Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and
Singapore. The Federation of Malaysia came into being on 16 September
1963. In 1965, by mutual agreement, Singapore left the Federation and
became an independent state.
In the 1969 elections, the Alliance Party lost many seats to the
Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia and the
Chinese-based Democratic Action Party. Amid violent ethnic clashes, the
government suspended parliament and the national operations council
ruled by decree for two years. On the resignation of Tengku Abdul Rahman
in 1970, Tun Abdul Razak became Prime Minister.
Although Malays formed over half the population, in 1970 they accounted
for about one per cent of national income. A ‘new economic policy’
introduced positive discrimination – in education, civil service, armed
services and business – designed to increase the share of the Malay and
other bumiputera (sons of the soil) groups to 30 per cent of national
income within twenty years. After the parliamentary system was restored,
the National Front (Barisan Nasional) – a multiethnic alliance led by
UMNO – won over two-thirds of seats at all elections of the 1970s, 1980s
and 1990s (and this continued into the 2000s). In 1981 Dr Mahathir
Mohamad became Prime Minister.
Malays have dominated the political system since independence, and
support in the Malay-dominated rural areas is crucial for political
success at the national level. However, to command a parliamentary
majority and in the interests of national stability, UMNO has formed
coalitions with parties representing other racial groups. Intercommunal
relations, particularly between the Malays and the Chinese, have
preoccupied governments since independence.
At elections in April 1995, the National Front was returned with a
substantially increased majority, winning 162 seats, comprising UMNO (89
seats), Malaysian Chinese Association (30), Sarawak National Front (27),
Malaysian Indian Congress (seven) and Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (seven).
The opposition included the Democratic Action Party (DAP, nine), Parti
Bersatu Sabah (PBS, eight), the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS, seven)
and Semangat ‘46 (six).
In August 1998 Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked his Deputy Prime
Minister and Finance Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who was subsequently
arrested under the detention-without-trial Internal Security Act for
holding a political protest gathering without a police permit. He was
also charged on several counts of sexual misconduct and abuse of power,
charges he denied and said stemmed from a conspiracy to remove him.
Anwar was found guilty of corruption in April 1999 and sentenced to six
years in prison. In August 2000, he was found guilty of sodomy and
sentenced to a further nine years’ imprisonment.
In June 1999, opposition parties led by Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Ismail
and her new National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional) formed the
Alternative Front (including the PAS, the DAP and Malaysian People’s
Party), calling for political liberalisation and an end to repressive
laws. However, when the elections were held in November 1999, the ruling
National Front coalition won 148 seats; the combined opposition parties
took 42 seats, with the PBS securing three seats. PAS won control of the
oil-rich state of Terengganu and easily retained its hold on Kelantan
and, for the first time, assumed leadership of the opposition in
parliament. Wan Azizah won the seat of her husband’s former constituency
The Alternative Front was, however, divided over the PAS’s plan to
establish an Islamic state should the Alternative Front win the next
elections due by January 2005. Divisions deepened when the party
announced it would introduce Islamic law in Terengganu, and
subsequently, in July 2002, lost ground to UMNO in by-elections in Kedah
In September 2004 Anwar’s conviction for sodomy was quashed by the
Federal Court and he was released from prison. Then his appeal against
his conviction for corruption was rejected, confirming his exclusion
from parliament until 2008.
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