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The Commonwealth



Did you know:

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 Fellowship Plan.

Key facts

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
Coastline: 4,680km
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.

Main towns:

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, 157,700).


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).

International relations:

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 Trade Organization.


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 wettest.


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).


Peninsular Malaysia

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 present-day Malaysia.

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 1946.

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 1989).

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 in Penang.

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 State.

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.

History of Malaysia

Malaysia Documentary

Learn more about Malaysia on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

The Peoples Of Malaysia
by Cole Fay-cooper (1945) (pdf)

Country Profile: Malaysia (1970) (pdf)

The Settlement of Penang
By James Scott

A Scotsman’s journey from Longformacus to Penang
By Thrifty Traveller

Rev. James Aberigh Mackay
Vicar of St. George's Church, Penang, Malaysia between 1859-1868

Tourism Malaysia, Essence of Asia

Malaysia Vacation Travel Video Guide

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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