|Motto: "Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu"
"Unity Is Strength"
|Anthem: Negaraku (My Country)
(and largest city)
Putrajaya (administrative centre)
|68.8% Malay (Malay, Orang Asal, and indigenous groups of Sabah and Sarawak)
|Federal constitutional elective monarchy and Federal parliamentary democracy
|Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King)
|From the United Kingdom (Malaya only)
|31 August 1957
|Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore[d]
|16 September 1963
| 329,847 km2 (67th)
127,355 sq mi
|August 2019 estimate
|$1.148 trillion (25th)
|$381.523 billion  (33rd)
|Ringgit (RM) (
|Not observed (UTC+8)
|Drives on the
|^ a. Kuala Lumpur is the capital city and is home to the legislative branch of the Federal government. Putrajaya is the primary seat of the federal government where the executive and judicial branches are located.
^ b. Under the National Language Act 1967: "The script of the national language shall be the Rumi [Latin] script: provided that this shall not prohibit the use of the Malay script, more commonly known as the Jawi script, of the national language."
^ c. English may be used for some purposes under the National Language Act 1967.^ d. Singapore became an independent country on August 9, 1965.
Malaysia is a federation of 13 states in Southeast Asia. There are two distinct parts to Malaysia: peninsular Malaysia and east Malaysia.
The name "Malaysia" was adopted in 1963 when the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak formed a 14-state federation. Singapore was expelled in 1965 and subsequently became an independent state.
An off-shoot of Malay-Indonesian history, Malaysia has a rich culture that dates back to the third century B.C.E.. Although politically dominated by the Malay people, modern Malaysian society is heterogeneous, with substantial Chinese and Indian minorities.
The Malay Peninsula has thrived from its central position in the maritime trade routes between China and the Middle East. Malaysia has transformed itself since 1971 from producing raw materials into an emerging multi-sector economy driven by exports of electronics.
Peninsular Malaysia is located south of Thailand, north of Singapore and east of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. East Malaysia is located on the island of Borneo and shares borders with Brunei and Indonesia.
Peninsular Malaysia consists of nine sultanates (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor, and Terengganu), two states headed by governors (Malacca and Penang), and two federal territories (Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur).
East Malaysia (or Malaysian Borneo) occupies the northern part of the island of Borneo, bordering Indonesia and surrounding the Sultanate of Brunei. It consists of the states of Sabah and Sarawak and the federal territory of Labuan.
At a total of about 126,850 square miles (328,550 square kilometers), Malaysia is about the same size as the U.S. state of New Mexico.
East and west Malaysia share a similar landscape in that both feature coastal plains rising to densely forested hills and mountains, the highest of which is Mount Kinabalu at 13,435 feet (4,095 meters) on the island of Borneo.
The climate is equatorial and characterized by the annual southwest (April to October) and northeast (October to February) monsoons. Rainfall averages 100 inches (250 cm) annually, with the eastern coastal region receiving an annual average of more than 120 inches (300 cm). Temperatures range between 73 F and 88 F (23 C to 31 C).
The Strait of Malacca, lying between Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia, is arguably the most important shipping lane in the world, especially given the rise of oil imports to China and East Asia as a whole.
Today, an estimated 59 percent of Malaysia remains forested. The rapid expansion of the timber industry since the 1960s has caused serious erosion. Subsequently, fewer trees are being felled and degraded forest areas are being replanted with rattan and fast-growing species.
Environment issues include air pollution from industrial and vehicular emissions, water pollution from raw sewage, continued deforestation, and smoke haze from Indonesian forest fires.
Putrajaya is the newly created administrative capital for the federal government, constructed to ease growing congestion within Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lumpur, which remains the seat of parliament, as well as the commercial center of the country.
The Malay Peninsula has thrived from its central position in the maritime trade routes between China and the Middle East; its history can be seen as four successive phases of outside influence, followed by the final assertion of Malay independence.
The first phase saw the domination of Hindu culture imported from India. In the third century B.C.E., Indian traders came to the archipelago both for its abundant forest and maritime products and to trade with merchants from China, who also discovered the Malay world at an early date. Both Hinduism and Buddhism were well established in the Malay Peninsula by the beginning of the first century C.E., and from there, spread across the archipelago.
Chinese chronicles of the fifth century CE speak of a great port in the south called Guantoli, which was probably in the Strait of Malacca. In the seventh century, a new port called Shilifoshi is mentioned, and this is believed to be a Chinese rendering of Srivijaya.
For 700 years, the Maharajahs of Srivijaya ruled a loose-knit maritime empire that controlled the coasts of Sumatra, Peninsular Malaya, and Borneo. Srivijaya lived by trade, welcoming annual trading fleets from China and India, and also traders from further afield. Its greatest enemies were the Siamese, in the north. To secure a powerful ally, the maharajahs paid tribute to the Chinese Emperors.
Starting with the tenth century, the power of Srivijaya began to decline, weakened by a series of wars with the Javanese that disrupted trade. In the eleventh century, a rival power center arose at Melayu, a port further up the Sumatran coast. "Melayu" is the origin of the word “Malay.”
The second phase began with the arrival of Islam in the tenth century, and led to the conversion of most of the Malay-Indonesian world and the breakup of the Srivijayan empire into many smaller sultanates.
According to the Kedah Annals, the ninth Maharaja Derbar Raja (1136-1179 C.E.) of the Sultanate of Kedah converted to Islam and changed his name to Sultan Muzaffar Shah. Since then, Kedah has had 27 Sultans.
The port of Melaka (traditionally spelled Malacca), on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, was founded around 1400 by Parameswara, a rebel prince of the Srivijaya royal line. Expelled from Sumatera for killing the ruler of Temasek (now known as Singapore), Parameswara established himself in Melaka. Melaka rapidly supplanted Srivijaya, established independent relations with China, and dominated the straits to control the China-India maritime trade, which became increasingly important when the Mongol conquests closed the overland route between China and the West. Within a few years of its establishment, Melaka officially adopted Islam, and the Raja became a Sultan.
Melaka’s reign lasted little more than a century, but it was of great importance because it came to be seen as the golden age of Malay self-rule, and the Sultans of Melaka became the models for all subsequent Malay rulers. Melaka became a great cultural center, creating the matrix of the modern Malay culture—a blend of indigenous Malay and imported Indian and Islamic elements.
The third phase was the intrusion of the European colonial powers: first the Portuguese, who captured Melaka in 1511, then the Dutch, and finally the British who established bases at the island of Penang, leased to the British East India Company, and Singapore. European domination led to the most fateful event in Malay history—the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, which drew a frontier between British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies, which became Indonesia. At that time, the British took control of Malacca. This arbitrary division of the Malay world has proved permanent.
In 1826, Britain established the crown colony of the Straits Settlements, uniting its three possessions in Malaya: Penang, Malacca, and Singapore. The Straits Settlements were administered under the East India Company in Calcutta until 1867, when they were transferred to the Colonial Office in London. On the island of Borneo, Sabah was governed as the crown colony of British North Borneo, while Sarawak was acquired from Brunei as the personal kingdom of the Brooke family, who ruled as White Rajahs.
European domination also led to the fourth phase of foreign influence: the mass immigration of Chinese and Indian workers to meet the needs of the colonial economy created by the British in the Malay Peninsula and North Borneo. The Chinese and Indians posed a profound threat to the Malays, dominating economic life and the professions, and at one time threatening to make the Malays a minority in their own country.
Following the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II (1942 to 1945), support for independence grew. Post-war British plans to unite the administration of Malaya under a single crown colony called the Malayan Union foundered on strong opposition from the ethnic Malays. The Malayan Union, established in 1946, was dissolved in 1948 and replaced by the Federation of Malaya, restoring the autonomy of the rulers of the Malay states under British protection.
Rebels under the leadership of the Communist Party of Malaya launched guerrilla operations designed to force the British out. The Malayan Emergency, as it was known, lasted from 1948 to 1960, and involved a long anti-insurgency campaign by Commonwealth troops in Malaya. Against this backdrop, independence for the Federation within the Commonwealth was granted on August 31, 1957.
The early years of independence were marred by conflict with Indonesia over the formation of Malaysia, Singapore's eventual exit in 1965, and racial strife in the form of the May 13 race riots in 1969. The Philippines also made a claim on Sabah, which is still unresolved.
After the May 13 race riots, Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak launched the controversial New Economic Policy, intended to improve the economic position of the “Bumiputras” (indigenous people). Malaysia has since maintained a delicate ethno-political balance, attempting to combine economic development with policies that favor Bumiputras.
Between the 1980s and the mid-1990s, Malaysia experienced significant economic growth as it shifted from an agriculture-based economy to one based on manufacturing of computers and consumer electronics. The development of numerous mega-projects, including the Petronas Twin Towers, during this period changed the physical landscape.
In the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis and the political unrest caused by the sacking of the deputy prime minister Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim shook Malaysia. In the 2020s, the country was gripped health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Malaysia is a federal, constitutional, elective monarchy. The system of government is closely modeled on that of the Westminster parliamentary system, a legacy of British colonial rule. In practice, however, more power is vested in the executive branch than in the legislature, and the judiciary has been weakened by sustained government attacks during the Mahathir era.
The federal head of state is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, commonly referred to as the King of Malaysia or Paramount Ruler, who is elected to a five-year term from among the nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states. The other four states, which have titular governors, do not participate in the selection.
The leader of the party with a plurality of seats in the House of Representatives becomes Prime Minister. Executive power is vested in the cabinet appointed and led by the Prime Minister with the consent of the head of state. The cabinet is chosen from among members of both houses of Parliament and is responsible to that body.
The bicameral Parliament consists of the Senate, or Dewan Negara (70 seats—44 appointed by the Paramount Ruler, 26 appointed by the state legislatures), and the House of Representatives, or Dewan Rakyat (219 seats—members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms)
All 70 senators sit for three-year terms; 26 are elected by the 13 state assemblies, two representing the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur, one each from federal territories of Labuan and Putrajaya, and 40 are appointed by the king.
Registered voters, 21 and older, elect the members of the House of Representatives and, in most of the states, the state legislative chamber as well. Voting is not compulsory.
Each state has a unicameral state legislative chamber whose members are elected from single-member constituencies. Chief ministers selected by the state assemblies lead the state governments and advise their respective sultans or governors.
The national holiday is Malaysia Day, August 31, which marks independence attained in 1957. All Malaysians can celebrate Muslim, Chinese, Indian, and Christian religious festivals.
The Malaysian legal system is based on English common law. The Paramount Ruler, or King, appoints judges to the Federal Court on the advice of the Prime Minister. Legislative acts may be subject to judicial review in the Supreme Court at the request of the Paramount Ruler. Islamic law is applied to Muslims in matters of family law. Caning is a standard punishment for more than 40 crimes in Malaysia, ranging from sexual abuse to drug use. Administered with a thick rattan stick, it splits the skin and leaves scars.
Service in the Malaysian Armed Forces (army, navy, and air force) is voluntary from age 18. About two percent of GDP is spent on the military.
Malaysia is in a dispute over the Spratly Islands with China, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and possibly Brunei. The dispute revolves around oil prospecting. There are disputes over deliveries of fresh water to Singapore, Singapore's land reclamation, bridge construction, and maritime boundaries. There are also disputes over the maritime boundary of Ligitan and Sipadan islands, in the hydrocarbon-rich Celebes Sea.
Separatist violence in Thailand's predominantly Muslim southern provinces has prompted measures to close and monitor the border with Malaysia to stem terrorist activities. Malaysia's land boundary with Brunei around Limbang is in dispute. Piracy remains a serious problem in the vital shipping lane of the Malacca Strait.
Malaysia, a middle-income country, transformed itself since 1971 from a raw materials (mostly tin) exporter into an emerging multi-sector economy. Exports of electronics drive growth.
As an oil and gas exporter, Malaysia has profited from higher world energy prices, although the rising cost of domestic gasoline and diesel fuel forced Kuala Lumpur to reduce government subsidies, contributing to higher inflation.
Malaysian currency, the ringgit, was "unpegged" from the U.S. dollar in 2005; the ringgit appreciated 6 percent against the dollar in 2006. The economy remains dependent on continued growth in the United States, China, and Japan—top export destinations and key sources of foreign investment.
Extensive roads connect all major cities and towns on the western coast of Peninsular Malaysia, while roads in the East Malaysia and the eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia are still relatively undeveloped. Rivers are the main mode of transportation for interior residents.
An extensive rail system connects all cities and towns on the peninsula, including Singapore. There is also a short railway in Sabah operated by North Borneo Railway that carries freight.
There are seaports in Tanjong Kidurong, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, Kuantan, Pasir Gudang, Tanjung Pelepas, Penang, Port Klang, Sandakan, and Tawau, and world-class airports, such as Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Bayan Lepas International Airport in Penang, Kuching International Airport and Langkawi International Airport.
Export commodities include electronic equipment, petroleum and liquefied natural gas, wood and wood products, palm oil, rubber, textiles, and chemicals. Export partners include the United States, Singapore, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Thailand.
Import commodities include electronics, machinery, petroleum products, plastics, vehicles, iron and steel products, and chemicals. Import partners include Japan, the United States, Singapore, China, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, and Germany.
The politically dominant Malays make up over half of the population. A substantial number of Malaysians are of Chinese descent, who have played an important role in trade and business. Indian Malaysians, Tamil people from southern India, live in the larger towns on the west coast of the peninsula.
The largest non-Malay indigenous tribe is the Iban of Sarawak. Some Iban still live in longhouses in jungle villages along the Rajang and Lupar rivers. Bidayuh live in the southwestern part of Sarawak. The Kadazan of Sabah are largely Christian subsistence farmers. The Orang Asli live in a number of different ethnic communities in Peninsular Malaysia. Traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers and agriculturists, many have been partly absorbed into modern Malaysia. They remain the poorest group in the country.
There are Malaysians of European, Middle Eastern, Cambodian, and Vietnamese descent. Europeans and Eurasians include British who colonized and settled in Malaysia and some Portuguese. Most of the Middle Easterners are Arabs. A small number of Kampucheans and Vietnamese settled there as Vietnam War refugees.
Due to the rise in labor-intensive industries, Malaysia has a substantial number of foreign workers; the total number is unclear due to the large percentage of illegal workers, mostly Indonesian.
Islam is the official religion. The four main religions are Islam, Buddhism, Christianity (mostly in Sabah and Sarawak), and Hinduism. The Chinese population is mostly Buddhist (of the Mahayana sect), Taoist or Christian. Animism persists.
The Malaysian constitution guarantees religious freedom, but non-Muslims face restrictions in constructing religious buildings and celebrating religious events. Muslims are obliged to follow the decisions of sharia courts. It is not clear whether Muslims may freely leave Islam.
All Malaysians are federal citizens except for those living in East Malaysia where state citizenship is distinguishable from peninsular citizenship. Every citizen is issued with a biometric smart chip identity card, known as MyKad, at the age of 12, and must carry the card with them.
Industrialization has resulted in legions of women workers on assembly lines. At home, cooking and cleaning are still deemed to be female responsibilities. Wealthier families hire domestic servants, mainly female foreign maids.
Marriage practices reveal Malaysia's religious fault lines. Christians may marry Buddhists or Hindus, answering only to their families and beliefs. Muslims who marry non-Muslims risk government sanction unless their partner converts to Islam. Indians and Chinese turn to divination to establish compatibility and auspicious dates, while Malays have elaborate gift exchanges. Malay wedding feasts are often held in the home, and feature a large banquet with several dishes eaten over rice prepared in oil. Many Chinese weddings feature a multiple-course meal in a restaurant or public hall, and most Indian ceremonies include intricate rituals.
Industrialization has made it difficult for extended families to live together. But better telecommunications keep distant kin in contact, as does the efficient transportation network. Among the majority of Malays, siblings are more important than ancestors.
Land ownership is a controversial issue. To placate Malays after the rubber boom, the British colonial government designated areas as Malay reservations. This land could only be sold to other Malays, limiting planters and speculators. Land disputes could only be settled with a legal definition of who was considered Malay. These land tenure arrangements are still in effect. The Malay claim to political dominance is this connection to the land. They are termed “bumiputera” or "sons of the soil."
Malay, a lingua franca throughout the region, became Malaysia's sole national language in 1967. English is widely spoken because it was the administrative language of the British colonizers. Rapid industrialization has solidified it as the language of business. Chinese inhabitants speak Mandarin Chinese, Hokkien/Fujian, Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew. Most Indian Malaysians speak Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Hindi.
Numerous languages flourish among indigenous groups, especially in Sarawak and Sabah. A small number of Eurasians, of mixed Portuguese and Malay descent, speak a Portuguese-based creole, called Kristang language. Eurasians of mixed Malay and Spanish descent, mostly in Sabah, who descended from immigrants from the Philippines, speak Chavacano, the only Spanish-based creole language in Asia. Television news is broadcast in Malay, English, Mandarin, and Tamil. Malaysians are adept at learning languages, and knowing multiple languages is common.
Class position is based on political connections, specialized skills, ability in English, and family money. The Malaysian elite, trained in overseas universities, continues to grow in importance as Malaysia's middle class expands. Mobile phones, gold jewelry, and fashionable clothing all indicate high rank in the social order. One's vehicle marks class position more than home ownership. Skin color, indicating time working in the hot tropical sun, further marks class position. Knowledge of English is vital to elevated class status.
Within Malaysia there is a Malay culture, a Chinese culture, an Indian culture, and a Eurasian culture, along with the cultures of the indigenous groups of the peninsula and north Borneo.
Malaysia has one of the most exquisite cuisines in the world. Rice and noodles are common to all cuisine; spicy dishes are also favorites. Tropical fruits are abundant, and a local favorite is the durian, known by its spiked shell and fermented flesh. Increasing amounts of meat and processed foods supplement the country's diet, prompting concerns about the health risks of their high-fat content. Increased affluence allows Malaysians to eat out more often—small hawker stalls offer prepared food 24-hours-a-day in urban areas. Muslims are forbidden to eat pork, favored by the Chinese population; Hindus do not eat beef, while some Buddhists are vegetarian.
Most Malaysian children start kindergarten between the ages of three to six. Most kindergartens are privately run; there are also some government-operated kindergartens.
Children begin primary school at age seven for six years. There are two major types of state primary schools: schools that teach in Malay, and those that use either Chinese or Tamil. Students in year six sit for the primary school assessment examination.
Education in government secondary schools lasts five years, and is conducted in Malay, apart from language, mathematics, and science subjects. At the end of the third year, or Form Three, students sit for the lower secondary assessment exam. In the last year (Form Five), students sit for the Malaysian Certificate of Education, which is equivalent to the British Ordinary or 'O' Levels, now referred to as GCSE.
Mathematics and science subjects such as biology, physics, and chemistry are taught in English in government primary and secondary schools so that students are not hindered by any language barrier in college.
There are also 60 Chinese Independent High Schools, where most subjects are taught in Chinese. Studying in independent schools takes six years to complete, divided into junior middle (three years) and senior middle (three years). Students sit for a standardized test known as the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) in junior middle (equivalent to PMR) and senior middle (equivalent to AO level).
Students wishing to enter public universities must complete a further 18 months of secondary school in Form Six and sit for the Malaysia Higher Certificate of Education; equivalent to the British Advanced or "A" levels.
As for higher education, there are public universities such as the University of Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. In addition, five international reputable universities have set up branch campuses in Malaysia since 1998.
Students can also opt to go to private colleges that have educational links with overseas universities, especially in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Malaysian students abroad study mostly in the UK, United States, Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Canada, and New Zealand. There are also international schools that offer the opportunity to study the curriculum of another country, such as the Australian International School, Malaysia (Australian curriculum), and The International School of Kuala Lumpur (International Baccalaureate and American curriculum).
Malaysian traditional music is heavily influenced by Chinese and Islamic forms. The music is based largely around the gendang (drum), but includes other percussion instruments (some made of shells); the rebab, a bowed string instrument; the serunai, a double-reed oboe-like instrument; flutes, and trumpets. The country has a strong tradition of dance and dance dramas, some of Thai, Indian, and Portuguese origin. Other artistic forms include wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre), silat (a stylized martial art) and crafts such as batik, weaving, and silver and brasswork.
Malaysia's pop music scene developed from traditional asli (pure) music popularized in the 1920s and 1930s by Bangsawan troupes. In the 1960s, western-influenced Pop Yeh-yeh musicians came to the forefront, following the music and fashion of The Beatles. "Kugiran" six-piece bands (usually a vocalist, one lead-guitarist, one bassist, one rhythm-guitarist, one keyboardist and a drummer) that appeared in the 1960s, encouraged the establishment of various recording companies. Since then, the Malaysian music industry has expanded to cover all genres.
- Current Population Estimates, Malaysia, 2016–2017 Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Retrieved August 23, 2021.
- World Economic Outlook Database, October 2019 International Monetary Fund.
- GINI index (World Bank estimate) - Malaysia World Bank. Retrieved August 23, 2021.
- National Language Acts 1963/1967 (Act 32) Retrieved August 23, 2021.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Goh, Cheng Teik. Malaysia: Beyond Communal Politics. Pelanduk Publications, 1994. ISBN 9679784754
- Musa, M. Bakri. The Malay Dilemma Revisited. Merantau Publishers. 1999. ISBN 1583483675
- Noor, Farish. From Majapahit to Putrajaya. Silverfish Books, 2005. ISBN 983322105X
- Osborne, Milton. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. Allen & Unwin, 2000. ISBN 1865083909
- Ricklefs, M.C. A History of Modern Indonesia. Indiana University Press, 1981. ISBN 0804721955
- Ye, Lin-Sheng. The Chinese Dilemma. East West Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0975164619
All links retrieved November 5, 2022.
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