Evidence of modern human settlement in Malaysia dates back 40,000 years. It is believed that the first inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula were Negritos. Traders and settlers from India and China arrived as early as the first century AD and established trading ports and coastal towns in the second and third centuries. Their presence led to strong Indian and Chinese influences on local cultures, and the people of the Malay Peninsula adopted the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Sanskrit inscriptions appear as early as the fourth or fifth century. The Langkasuka Kingdom emerged around the second century in the northern area of the Malay Peninsula and existed until about the 15th century. Between the 7th and 13th centuries, much of the southern Malay Peninsula was part of the maritime Srivijaya Empire. After the fall of Srivijaya, the Majapahit Empire had influence over most of the Malay Peninsula and the Malay Archipelago. In the 14th century, Islam began to spread among the Malays. In the early 15th century, Sultan Iskandar Shah, a runaway king of the former kingdom of Singapura, founded the Sultanate of Malacca, which is commonly regarded as the first independent state in the peninsular area. Malacca was an important trading centre at that time, attracting trade from all over the region.
Malacca was conquered by Portugal in 1511 and taken by the Dutch in 1641. In 1786, the British Empire established a presence in Malaya when the Sultan of Kedah leased the island of Penang to the British East India Company. The British obtained the city of Singapore in 1819 and took control of Malacca in 1824 through the Anglo-Dutch Treaty. By 1826, the British directly controlled Penang, Malacca, Singapore and Labuan Island, which they established as the Straits Settlements Crown Colony. In the nineteenth century, the states of Pahang, Selangor, Perak and Negeri Sembilan, collectively known as the Federated Malay States, had British residents who were appointed as advisers to the Malay rulers and to whom the rulers felt bound by treaty. The remaining five peninsular states, known as the Unfederated Malay States, were not directly under British rule but also accepted British advisers at the turn of the 20th century. Development in the peninsula and Borneo was largely separate until the 19th century. Under British rule, immigration of Chinese and Indians was encouraged, who served as labour. The area that is now Sabah came under British control as North Borneo when both the Sultan of Brunei and the Sultan of Sulu ceded their respective territorial possessions between 1877 and 1878. In 1842, Sarawak was ceded by the Sultan of Brunei to James Brooke, whose successors ruled over an independent kingdom as White Rajahs until it became a Crown Colony in 1946.
During World War II, the Japanese army invaded and occupied Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore for over three years. During this time, ethnic tensions arose and nationalism grew. After Malaya was recaptured by the Allies, popular support for independence grew. Post-war British plans to unite the administration of Malaya under a single Crown Colony, the “Malayan Union”, met with strong resistance from the Malays, who objected to the weakening of the Malayan rulers and the granting of citizenship to the ethnic Chinese. The Malay Union, formed in 1946 and comprising all British possessions on the Malay Peninsula except Singapore, was quickly dissolved and replaced on 1 February 1948 by the Federation of Malaya, which restored autonomy to the rulers of the Malay states under British protection. During this period, mostly Chinese rebels led by the Malayan Communist Party launched guerrilla operations to drive the British out of Malaya. The Malayan Emergency lasted from 1948 to 1960 and involved a long counter-insurgency campaign by Commonwealth forces in Malaya. On 31 August 1957, Malaya became an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations. A plan was then made to federate Malaya with the Crown Colonies of North Borneo (which joined as Sabah), Sarawak and Singapore. The date of federation was scheduled for 31 August 1963 to coincide with the anniversary of Malayan independence; however, federation was delayed until 16 September 1963 to allow for the completion of a United Nations poll on support for federation in Sabah and Sarawak, which was called for by parties opposed to federation, including Indonesia’s Sukarno and the Sarawak United Peoples’ Party.
Federation brought increasing tensions, including a conflict with Indonesia, the exclusion of Singapore from the Federation in 1965, and racial unrest. These riots culminated in the race riots of 13 May 1969. Following the riots, Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak’s controversial New Economic Policy was launched to increase the Bumiputera share in the economy. Under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, there was a period of rapid economic growth and urbanisation from the 1980s. The economy shifted from agriculture to industry and commerce. Numerous mega projects were completed, such as the Petronas Towers, the North-South Expressway, the Multimedia Super Corridor and the new federal capital Putrajaya. In the late 1990s, however, the Asian financial crisis almost led to the collapse of the currency and the stock and property markets.
Government and politics
Malaysia is a federal constitutional elective monarchy and the only federation in Southeast Asia. The system of government is closely modelled on the Westminster parliamentary system, a legacy of British colonial rule. The head of state is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, commonly referred to as the King. The king is elected for a five-year term by the nine hereditary rulers of the Malay states; the other four states, which have titular governors, do not participate in the election. By informal agreement, the position is systematically rotated among the nine and has been held by Abdul Halim of Kedah since December 2011. The king’s role has been largely ceremonial since the 1994 constitutional amendment: he selects ministers and members of the upper house.
Legislative power is divided between federal and state legislatures. The bicameral federal parliament consists of the lower house, the House of Representatives, and the upper house, the Senate. The 222-member House of Representatives is elected for a maximum term of five years from single-member constituencies. All 70 senators are elected for a three-year term; 26 are elected by the 13 state assemblies and the remaining 44 are appointed by the King on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Parliament follows a multi-party system and the government is elected by majority rule. Since independence, Malaysia has been governed by a 13-party coalition known as the Barisan Nasional.
Each state has a unicameral State Legislative Assembly whose members are elected in single-member constituencies. State governments are led by Chief Ministers who are members of the State Assembly belonging to the majority party in the Assembly. In each of the states with a hereditary ruler, the Chief Minister must normally be a Malayan, appointed by the ruler on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Parliamentary elections are held at least every five years, the last one being held in May 2013. Registered voters who are at least 21 years old can vote for members of the House of Representatives and, in most states, for members of the Legislative Chamber. Voting is not compulsory. With the exception of the state elections in Sarawak, state elections are usually held at the same time as federal elections.
Executive power is vested in the Cabinet, which is headed by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister must be a member of the House of Representatives, which, in the opinion of the King, has a majority in Parliament. The Cabinet is elected from members of both Houses of Parliament. The Prime Minister is both the head of the cabinet and the head of the government. The incumbent, Najib Razak, who was appointed in 2009, is the sixth Prime Minister.
Malaysia’s legal system is based on English common law. Although the judiciary is theoretically independent, its independence has been questioned and there is a lack of accountability and transparency in the appointment of judges. The highest court in the judicial system is the Federal Court, followed by the Court of Appeal and two High Courts, one for Peninsular Malaysia and one for East Malaysia. Malaysia also has a special court to hear cases brought by or against royalty. The death penalty is applied for serious crimes such as murder, terrorism, drug trafficking and kidnapping. Separate from and parallel to the civil courts are the Syariah courts, which apply Shariah law to Muslims in the areas of family law and religious observances.
Race is a significant force in politics and many political parties are ethnically based. Affirmative action policies such as the New Economic Policy and the National Development Policy, which superseded it, were introduced to improve the position of the Bumiputera, made up of Malays and the indigenous tribes considered to be the original inhabitants of Malaysia, over non-Bumiputera such as Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indians. This policy provides preferential treatment to the Bumiputera in the areas of employment, education, scholarships, economy and access to cheaper housing and subsidised savings. However, this has led to greater inter-ethnic resentment. There is an ongoing debate about whether Malaysia’s laws and society should reflect secular or Islamic principles. Islamic criminal laws passed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party with the support of UMNO MPs in the Kelantan State Legislative Assembly have been blocked by the federal government on the grounds that criminal laws are the responsibility of the federal government.