A Brief History of Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia is a Southeast Asian country. It is divided into two regions: Peninsular, or West Malaysia, and East Malaysia, which are separated by 640 kilometres of the South China Sea. Malaysia is renowned for its magnificent beaches, quiet islands, towering hills, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Its capital city of Kuala Lumpur is also known for being a major financial and business centre in South East Asia. The Malay Peninsula has traditionally served as a vital link between the mainland and other Southeast Asian islands. The Malacca Strait has served as a crossroad for people, cultures, and trades, that is constantly moving through. The maritime commerce brought influences from China, India, the Middle East, and, subsequently, Europe. They hold the vast Malaysia chronicles and extensive histories, from ancient kingdoms to British colonialism, that made them the country that they are today. The history of the country can only then be understood within a large geographic context.

Batu Caves, Malaysia
Batu Caves

Although the term “Malaysia” is just recently coined in the second half of the twentieth century, the entire history of Malaya and Borneo dates back thousands of years to prehistoric times. The Orang Asli (similar to Malay Aboriginals) migrated from southwest China to the peninsula that is today known as West Malaysia approximately 10.000 years ago. Malay became the peninsula’s major ethnicity in the first millennium CE. The Malay region is believed to be referenced in many early texts. Ptolemy’s book Geographia contains an early western account of the region, which references a “Golden Khersonese,” which today is known as the Malay Peninsula. The phrase Suvarnadvipa, or “Golden Peninsula,” appears in ancient Indian literature, and some have speculated that it refers to the Malay Peninsula. The ancient Indian scripture Vayu Purana also referenced a place called Malayadvipa, which has been suggested to refer to Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Indian influence in the area can be traced back to the third century BCE. Most of Southeast Asia and the early states that were created were hugely influenced by Indian culture. It is also believed that trade links between China and India were established, which is where the Chinese influence starting to develop. Chinese pottery shards dating from the 1st century, following the Han Dynasty’s southerly expansion, have been discovered in Borneo. According to Ptolemy’s account of Golden Khersonese, trade with India and China has been going on since the 1st century AD.

From the 7th through the 13th century, Hinduism and Buddhism from India and China dominated early regional history, reaching a height under the reign of the Sumatra-based Buddhist Srivijaya empire. Their influence spanned Sumatra, Java, the Malay Peninsula, and much of Borneo. The Maharajahs of Srivijaya ruled a maritime empire that grew to be the archipelago’s dominant force for almost six centuries and was built on trade with local rulers. During the era of Raja Raja Chola I, the relationship between Srivijaya and the Chola Empire of South India was amicable. But during the reign of Rajendra Chola I, the Chola Empire conquered Srivijaya cities. This led to the decline of Srivijaya’s influence in the 12th century as the relationship between the capital and its vassals deteriorated. The growth of Islam then weakened the Buddhist Maharajas’ influence even further. Areas that converts to Islam early, such as Aceh, were able to break free from Srivijaya’s authority.

In the 13th century, Islam arrived in the Malay Archipelago through Arab and Indian traders, putting an end to the Hindu and Buddhist eras. But it was not until the 14th century that Islam became solidly established. Malay people and Islam influenced each other in many ways. Following the embrace of Islam in the 14th century, various sultanates arose, the most important of which were the Sultanates of Malacca and Brunei. Parameswara, a Srivijayan prince escaping Temasek, present-day Singapore, founded the port of Malacca on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula in 1400. The kingdom quickly ascended to the position previously held by Srivijaya, forging exclusive connections with China and utilizing its strait-fronting position to control the China-India marine commerce. Malacca officially adopted Islam within a few years of its founding. Because Malacca was under the rule of a Muslim prince, the conversion of Malays to Islam intensified in the 15th century. Although Malacca’s reign lasted just over a century, it established itself as the centre of Malay civilization throughout that time. This period eventually led to the establishment of future Malay states. Malacca evolved as a cultural centre, becoming the foundation of contemporary Malay culture which is a fusion of indigenous Malay and imported Chinese, Indian, and many Islamic elements. Malacca’s styles in art, literature, music, dancing, and attire became the standard for all ethnic Malays.

Petaling Street Market
Petaling Street Market

With the capture of Malacca in 1511, the Portuguese were the first European colonial powers to establish themselves on the Malay Peninsula and Southeast Asia, followed by the Dutch in 1641. At first, the British did not put much effort into Malacca and they settle on the island of Penang in 1786. It was not until 1795 that the British take charge of the Dutch in Malacca, as the Dutch began to focus more on trading across Indonesia. The boundaries between British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies (which became Indonesia) were determined by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. In 1826, the British Crown Colony was founded, and the British gradually but steadily strengthened their control over the whole of the peninsula. Initially, it was mostly spices, but when tin supplies were discovered in the early 1800s, trade switched significantly. The British colonized the peninsula initially, and then East Malaysia was included in the British Crown Colony between 1840 and 1882.

Malaysia Flag
Malaysia Flag

The British lost power over Malaysia in 1957, and the peninsula gained independence that year under the name ‘Federation of Malaysia.’ On September 16, 1963, Malaysia, Singapore, and the east-Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak formed a new federation known as ‘Malaysia.’ However, Singapore seceded from the federation and became an independent state in 1965.

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