Malaysia's History


Strategically situated in the southern tip of South East Asia with the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Melaka on the west and the South China Sea in the east, Malaya(Malaysia) was at the centre of trade routes between India, the Middle East, Europe, China and Japan. This not only invited trading activities but also opened up the country to a sizable immigrant population and consequently to religious, linguistic and cultural influences.

Early History

Until the 19th century, Malaya consisted of various fragmented states owning to their geographical locations, with each individual area developing independently under its own leader. They were loosely linked to various power centres, submitting to the loss of a degree of sovereignty in exchange for the benefits of trade and assurance of protection against enemies. Trade shaped the history of the region. Indian merchants who arrived more than 1,700years ago brought Buddhism and Hinduism as well as concepts of political power. Numerous small settlements were established in the west coast areas of Kedah, Prai and Perak. From the 5th century onwards, trade with China took fruit and many preferred the east coast trading centres such as Pulau Tioman and possibly Kuala Berang in Terengganu and a land called Langkasuka, some believe to be situated in Kelantan but evidence of such a place has yet to be found.


Srivijaya, centred around Palembang and South East Sumatra, exercised suzerainty over the Melaka Straits from the 7th Century to about the 13th Century. Srivijaya's rise was due to China's patronage and its willingness to acknowledge China's suzerainty over a period of time. Its dominance in the Melaka Straits grew with Melaka's acceptance of Srivijaya's overlordship. This was a consequence of Melaka's recognition that it was to their advantage to do so in order to obtain a share of Srivijaya's prosperity and thriving trade. The 12th century saw a weakening of Srivijaya and an emergence of independence in the Malay society, especially in Kedah.

Melaka's Growth

Melaka's early history indicates that its rise was a result of its link with Sri Vijaya. It is believed that a fleeing Palembang prince, Parameswara set up a settlement in Melaka around 1400. Situated at the convergence of sea-routes between India and China, with a sufficiently deep, sheltered harbour, Melaka soon became a trading settlement. Its growth was further enhanced by an efficient legal and administrative system, ensuring stability for foreign traders. Very soon Melaka replaced Srivijaya in capturing the international trade. Furthermore, the allegiance of the 'orang laut' or sea pirates assured the safety of traders within the Straits and was a deterrent to its rivals.

By the reign of its last ruler, Sultan Mahmud Shah(1488-1530) Melaka had grown to include Pahang, Perak to Johor, Singapore, the Riau archipelagos and much of east coast Sumatra but continued to acknowledge the suzerainty of China. There was a sizeable number of Muslim Indian and Arab traders. The 10th to 13th century saw the spread of Islam and its culture as well as an infusion of their lives, values and attitudes into the Malay inhabitants. This Muslim influence spread throughout the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. With the expansion of Melaka there was an Islam-isation of its vassals in the Straits and throughout the 15th century there was an emulation of the Melaka Malay culture and the widespread use of Malay. The arrival of Portuguese in Asia in the early 16th century saw the sunset of Melaka's period of greatness.

The Portuguese Conquest of Melaka

The growing interest of Portugal in obtaining the Asian spices and the desire to make contact with Christian kingdoms directly resulted in Alfonso de Albuquerque setting out to the east. During his tenure from 1509-1511, he seized key points through which spices reached Europe, among which was Melaka, the collecting centre of the valuable spices from Moluccas. Melaka was captured by the Portuguese on August 10th, 1511. The Portuguese constructed an imposing quadrilateral fort(A Fomosa) which still stands today. Several churches were built of which the most famous is St. Paul's Hill, where the remains of St. Francis Xavier was buried until removed to Goa in India.

There were strong anti-Portuguese feelings among the Muslims. However, the greatest link between the Portuguese and other races lay in the inter-marriage between Portuguese men and Asian women. To this day, there exist a thriving community of Eurasians (Portuguese-Asians) who preserve the Portuguese language(a quaint 16th century version of it) and many colourful, religious(Catholic) and cultural practices. There were sporadic wars between Johor and Melaka and attacks from Acheh. The entry of the Dutch on the scene spelled the end of the Portuguese influence in the Malay Peninsular.

The Dutch

The Dutch, with their headquarters in Batavia made exclusive trading arrangements with South-East Asian rulers and formed alliances with the enemies of Portuguese Melaka, including Acheh and Johor. With the aid of the Dutch, the Portuguese threat was removed and Johor managed to become a busy entrepot and pre-eminent power in the Straits. They concentrated on obtaining control of the Straits and cutting off trade from Melaka in the sea-routes. In 1640, with aid from Johor, the Dutch captured Melaka and subsequently built the massive town hall, the Stadhuys which still remains today.
The Dutch were invited to the tin rich state of Perak as a deterrent to the ambitious Ayudha ruler and Thai invasion. They remained in Pangkor Island until the threat from the Thais diminished whereupon Perak once more asserted its independence. The Dutch monopolised the tin industry until the arrival of the British.

The British Influence

The greater demands made by the Thai rulers on Kedah, Patani, Kelantan and Terengganu paved the way for the entry of the East India Company (EIC) and the British whose country traders had portrayed themselves as friends. In August 1786, Francis Light - a country trader took formal possession of Penang although the EIC was unwilling to commit itself militarily. The British occupied Penang in 1791 and British supremacy in the area was established by 1795 when it assumed direct control of Dutch possessions in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. In 1800, Kedah leased the district of Prai to the EIC. In 1819 Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with territorial chief of Singapore giving the British a right to establish a factory on the island. Singapore, a natural entrepot port became a dominant trading centre while Penang with its policy of free trade became an important entrepot port in the north.

British Policy in the peninsular was to dominate imperial policy while avoiding direct commitment or political control. In 1832 Singapore, Melaka, Penang and Province Wellesley were formed into a single administrative unit called the Straits Settlement. This saw a period of expanding trade and growing population in all three ports.

There was strong resistance from the Malays against British involvement in territorial acquisition, particularly in Naning.

Johor and Pahang established themselves as independent states.

Sarawak became an independent state in the mid 19th century with the aid of the English adventurer, James Brook who established a dynasty of "white rajahs" who ruled Sarawak until World War II.

Labuan was ceded to Britain in 1847 by Brunei and Brooke was its first governor.

The mid 19th century saw the beginning of the incorporation of Sabah into Malaysia.

Immigration Population

There were small Chinese groups in most states before the 19th century but after 1820 a large Chinese immigration occurred in Sungai Ujong, Selangor and Perak associated with tin-mining. By 1850 the tin industry was largely Chinese. There were elements of lawlessness and the growth of the secret societies-the off-shoot of the Triad Society. The fighting between rival groups in Perak and Selangor often disrupted the tin trade.

A smaller Indian population existed, mainly linked with the trade at west coasts ports, with the development of the plantationagriculture mainly rubber and with service, towards the end of the 19th century. There was a large scale immigration from India and Ceylon(Sri Lanka).

British Intervention in the Malay States

With a resurgence of Thai overlordship in the northern states and the establishment of Chinese settlements and their competing interest of dialect, clan (kongsi) and the potential threat of the secret societies as well as the internecine wars in various Malay states, British policy of non interference in the peninsular had to give way to the necessity to establish government.

By 1895, the Resident system was firmly established in Perak, Negri Sembilan and Pahang where British indirect authority was accepted. The beginnings of political revolution that eventually created modern Malaya was set in motion. There were fundamental changes in government and function of the state and also in the economic life of the Malay States, revenues and social services. Tin mining and tin smelting industries grew tremendously and agricultural changes were also taking place, especially in plantation agriculture.

The Federated Malay States came into being on July 1st 1896, with Kuala Lumpur as the Federal Capital and the headquarters of the Resident General.

In 1909 Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis came under British protection and formed the Unfederated Malay States, Johor accepted a British general advisor.

By 1941, at the time of the Japanese invasion there were the Federated Malay States, Unfederated Malay States and the Straits Settlement.

The Japanese War

The Japanese army landed in Kota Bharu in Kelantan and Singora and Patani in Thailand. A well led battle-hardened Japanese army soon overran the main towns, breaking the ill prepared Unified Malayan defence. On Feb 15th, 1942 Britain surrendered the Allied forces.

Within ten weeks the Japanese won control of Malaya and Singapore. The dreaded Japanese secret police, the Kempetai subjected sympathisers to humiliation and torture especially the Malayan Chinese sympathisers who were treated ruthlessly and executed. Oppression of the Chinese community led to a resistance movement which moved to the jungle fringes. There was widespread unemployment and marked social and economic problems, destruction of mining equipment and decline in rubber and tin industries. An armed resistance movement against the Japanese was organised in the Malayan jungle consisting mainly of Chinese men from The Malayan Communist Party. The Japanese war ended abruptly in 1945.

In late 1945 the loss of confidence in British protection began to manifest itself among Malaysians through signs of a greater political consciousness, especially in the Malayan Communist Party. New political parties were formed.

In April 1946, the nine Malay states, together with Melaka and Penang were required to form the Malayan Union, which would be a colony like the Straits Settlement. The Sultans signed the agreement without much time for reflection and consultations among themselves. This aroused widespread political consciousness among the Malays and out of this was born the United Malays National Organisation(UMNO) founded by Dato Onn bin Jaafar of Johor in March 1946 whose purpose was to resist the introduction of the Malayan Union and eventually prepare the Malays for self-government. No open support was given to the Union by any group in Malaya, resulting in the Malayan Union never being fully established.

The Federation of Malaya Agreement came into being in 1948, with it covering the identical territories of the abandoned Malayan Union. Singapore remained a separate Crown Colony.

There were signs of some resentment from the Chinese and Indian population regarding the constitution but majority of Malayans were prepared to give the Federation a fair trial. However, within a few months there was an armed revolt against the Federation government organised under the Malayan Communist Party leadership and there was a period of violence with needless and merciless torture and killings by the communist terrorists, the main victims being the pro Kuomintang party, the Chinese and Europeans.

A state of emergency was declared on June 18th 1948. The terrorists tried to break down the new Federated government and created economic chaos. Their hit and hide tactics and jungle hideout gave them a fair amount of advantage and resulted in bringing about repressive measures, like the imposing of Emergency Regulations and 'detention camps' holding mainly innocent and guilty Chinese. This aroused bitterness among Chinese who were the victims of the Communist murders and intimidation and government searches, reprisals and detention. Under General Biggs, the majority of the Chinese squatter population were resettled in guarded 'New Villages' in a move to cut off the Communist fighters from their major supply bases.

The Federation of 1948 was intended to pave the way forward for eventual democratic self-government in Malaya. Despite the early upheavals, some political parties continued to function and new ones appeared. Among them being the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) under the leadership of Tan Cheng Lock which became the political mouth-piece for the Chinese.

In 1946 the Malayan Indian Congress(MIC) was formed.

By 1953 an 'UMNO-MCA Alliance' ('The Alliance') came into being to resolve their differences, make compromises and provide an effective political partnership for the gaining of electoral seats for the Federal Legislative Council.

The Malayan Indian Congress(MIC) joined the Alliance in 1953. The first Federal Elections was held in July 1955 and the Alliance won 51 out of the elected 52 seats in the Legislative Council. Armed with a massive mandate, the Alliance demanded early independence. A commission headed by Lord Reid submitted a draft 'Merdeka' constitution. After various amendments and ratification by the Federal Legislative Council and Various other bodies, on August 31st 1957, Malaya's independence was proclaimed at the stroke of mid-might. Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the Ruler of Negri Sembilan was installed the first Paramount Ruler and Tunku Abdul Rahman, leader of the Alliance continued as the first Prime Minister. Malaya became a democratic system of government under constitutional monarchy with a constitutional Head of State (the Yang di Pertuan Agong) elected from a number of Sultans of the States for a five year period. The Prime Minister who would normally be the leader of the majority in the House of Representatives(lower House) would be appointed by the Yang di Pertuan Agong.

Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore combined with Peninsular Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963 but two years later, in August 1965 Singapore withdrew from the Federation and became a sovereign state. During 1963 there was a brief confrontation with Indonesia. In 1969 violent racial riots broke out for a short period, however the country got back to even keel and relative peace prevails.

The country developed at a fast pace economically and socially under the various Prime Ministers.

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