Malaysia can be described as a federal constitutional monarchy located in Southeast Asia. It consists of 13 states and 3 federal territories and has a total area of 330,803 square kilometers, which is divided by the South China Sea into two similarly sized regions, the Malaysian Peninsula and East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo). The Malaysian Peninsula is sharing a land and sea border with Thailand and also has sea borders with Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Eastern Malaysia has land and sea borders with Brunei and Indonesia as well as a sea border with the Philippines and Vietnam. The capital of Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur, while the seat of the Federal Government is Putrajaya. Malaysia is the 44th most populous country in the world with over 30 million inhabitants. The southernmost point of continental Eurasia, Tanjung Piai, lies in Malaysia. Being located in the tropics, Malaysia is one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world with a high number of endemic species.
Malaysia has its origins in the Malay kingdoms in the region, which were under the British Empire from the 18th century onwards. The first British territories were known as Straits Settlements, upon whose foundation the Malay kingdoms became British protectorates. The territories on the Malaysian peninsula were first united in 1946 as the Malay Union. Malaya was restructured as the Federation of Malaysia in 1948 and gained independence on August 31, 1957. Malaya unified with North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore on September 16, 1963, and two years later in 1965, Singapore was expelled from the federation.
The country is multi-ethnic and multicultural, which plays a major role in politics. About half the population is ethnic Malay, with large minorities of Malaysian Chinese, Malaysian Indians and indigenous peoples. The constitution declares Islam the state religion and allows non-Muslims freedom of religion. The system of government is closely aligned with the parliamentary system of Westminster, and the legal system is based on common law. Their head of state is the King, commonly known as Yang di-Pertuan Agong. He is an elected monarch, chosen every five years from among the hereditary rulers of the nine Malay states. The head of government is the prime minister.
Malaysia has one of the best economic records in Asia since independence. The GDP has been growing at an average of 6.5% per year for almost 50 years. The economy is traditionally driven by its natural resources, but is expanding in the areas of science, tourism, trade and medical tourism. Nowadays Malaysia possesses a new industrialized market economy, which is ranked 3rd in Southeast Asia and 29th in the world. It is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the East Asia Summit and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, as well as a member of Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation, as well as the Commonwealth of Nations and Non-Aligned Movement.
Malaysia comprises two geographical regions, the Peninsula Malaysia and East Malaysia, separated by the South China Sea.
The Malay Peninsula (Semenanjung Malaysia) encompasses the entire Malay Peninsula located between Thailand and Singapore and are also known as West Malaysia (Malaysia Barat) or slightly archaic Malaya (Tanah Melayu). It is home to the majority of Malaysia’s population, the capital and largest city of Kuala Lumpur and is generally more economically developed. The Malaysian peninsula consists of flat areas on the east and west coast, separated by a mountain range called Banjaran Titiwangsa.
About 800 km east of the Malaysian Peninsula lies East Malaysia (Malaysia Timur). East Malaysia occupies the northern part of the island of Borneo, which is shared with Indonesia and tiny Brunei. Much of the development in East Malaysia is concentrated in the cities of Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu. Outside the big cities and small towns there is an impenetrable jungle where once headhunters roamed and coastal plains rose to mountains. East Malaysia is rich in natural resources and the hinterland of Malaysia is rich in industry and tourism.
Malaysia is a cosmopolitan and multicultural society. While Malaysians form a 52% majority, 27% of Malaysians are Chinese (who are particularly visible in the cities), 9% are Indian, 12% are members of the indigenous people (often called Orang Asli, Malay for “original people”) and there is a diverse grouping of 1.5% “others”, including Thai communities in northern border states and the Portuguese clan in Malacca. The majority of the population (including virtually all Malaysians and a significant minority of Indians) adheres to Islam, the official religion, and there are significant minorities practicing Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and animism.
Malaysia shares many cultural similarities with its neighbors Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei due to its common history. Since the first great kingdoms in the region were Hindu kingdoms with much influence from India, Malay culture has significant Indian influences. This is most evident in Malay cuisine with its relatively heavy use of curries, although local rather than Indian spices are used, meaning that Malay curries often have a unique local flavor that is different from their Indian counterparts. Malaysia’s minorities continue to cultivate their own culture, with Chinese and Indian communities continuing to preserve the traditions that originated in their ancestral homelands.
In the 2010 census, Malaysia counted 28,334,135 people, making it the 42nd most populous country. 91.8 percent of the population are Malaysian citizens. Malaysian citizens are divided according to ethnicity, with 67.4 percent being considered bumiputera. The largest group of bumiputera are Malaysians, who are defined in the constitution as Muslims who practice Malay customs and culture. They play a dominant political role. Bumiputera status is also granted to certain non-Malayan indigenous peoples, including ethnic Thais, Khmer, Khams and the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. Non-Malayan bumiputera represent approximately half of the Sarawak population and approximately two-thirds of the Sabah population. Indigenous groups also exist in significantly smaller numbers on the peninsula, from where they are collectively recognized as Orang Asli. The laws on who gets bumiputera status vary between states.
Other minorities lack bumiputera status. 24.6 percent of the population is of Chinese descent, while those of Indian descent make up 7.3 percent of the population. The Chinese have historically been dominant in the business and trade community and make up a large part of the population of Penang. Immigrants from India, most of them Tamils, came to Malaysia in the early 19th century. Citizenship of Malaysia is not granted automatically for those who were born in Malaysia, but is given to a child who is born outside Malaysia from two Malaysian parents. Dual national citizenship is not permitted. Citizenship in the states of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo is different from citizenship on the Malaysian peninsula for immigration purposes. Every citizen receives a biometric smart chip ID card called MyKad at the age of 12 and must carry it with them at all times.
The education system provides non-compulsory kindergarten education, followed by six years of compulsory primary education and five years of optional secondary education. The schools in the primary school system are divided into two categories: national elementary school that teach in Malay and elementary school that teach in Chinese or Tamil. Secondary education lasts five years. In the last year of secondary education, students take the Malaysian Education Certificate exam. Since the introduction of the enrollment program in 1999, students who have completed the 12-month program at enrollment colleges can enroll in local universities. However, only 10 percent of places in the enrollment system are open to non-Bumiputera students.
Infant mortality in 2009 was 6 deaths per 1000 births, and life expectancy at birth in 2009 was 75 years. With the goal of making Malaysia a medical tourism destination, 5 percent of the development budget of the state social sector is spent on health care. Population is mostly concentrated on the Malaysian peninsula, which is home to 20 million out of roughly 28 million Malaysians. About 70 % of the population is urban residents. Kuala Lumpur is the capital and largest city of Malaysia and the most important trade and financial center. Putrajaya, a specially built city built in 1999, is the seat of government, as many executive and judicial departments of the federal government have been relocated there to reduce the growing congestion in Kuala Lumpur. Due to the growth of labor-intensive industries, the country is estimated to employ over 3 million migrant workers. About 10 percent of the population. NGOs based in Sabah have estimated that out of the 3 million people that comprise the population of Sabah, approximately 2 million can be considered illegal immigrants. There are approximately 171,500 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia. Approximately 79,000 of this population were born in Burma, while 72,400 of them came from the Philippines and approximately 17,700 from Indonesia.
The Malaysian constitution clearly indicates that they guarantee freedom of religion and at the same time make Islam the state religion. According to the 2010 population and housing census, ethnicity and religious beliefs correlate strongly. About 61.3% of the country’s population practice Islam, 19.8% of the population practice Buddhism, 9.2% are Christians, 6.3% are Hindu and 1.3% are practicing Confucianism, Taoism and other Chinese traditional religions. 0.7% declared no religion and the remaining 1.4% practiced other religions or gave no information. Sunni Islam of the Shafi’ischool of Jurisprudence is the predominant sector of Islam in Malaysia, compared to 18% non-denominational Muslims.
The Malay Constitution clearly defines the meaning of “Malay”, considering the fact that Malaysians are Muslims, regularly speaking Malay, practices Malay customs and lives or has ancestors in Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. Statistics from the 2010 census show that 83.6% of the Chinese population identify themselves as Buddhists, with a significant number of followers belonging to Taoism (3.4%) and Christianity (11.1%), as well as small Hui Muslim communities in areas such as Penang. The majority of the Indian population follows Hinduism (86.2 %), with a significant minority identifying themselves as Christians (6.0 %) or Muslims (4.1 %). The predominant religion of the non-Malayan Bumiputera population is Christianity (46.5 %), and the remaining 40.4 % identify themselves as Muslims.
Muslims are obliged to follow the decisions of the courts of Syariah in matters affecting their religion. Islamic judges are expected to follow the Shafi’i School of Law of Islam, which is Malaysia’s main Madh’hab. The jurisdiction of the courts in Syariah is limited to Muslims, including in matters such as marriage, inheritance, divorce, apostasy, religious conversion and custody. No other crimes or civil offences fall under the jurisdiction of the Sharia courts, which have a similar hierarchy to the civil courts. Although the civil courts are the highest courts in the country, they do not hear matters related to Islamic practices.