The Malaysian nation grew to prominence in Southeast Asia due to its strategic position for trade during the end of the 16th century. Subsequent independence from colonial rule and the diverse ethnic makeup years of immigration and integration changed the country into a dynamic economy and thriving commercial centre.
But even before these time, the Malaysian peninsular was dominated by Islamic and Hindu settlers from India and the Middle East and the Srivijaya civilization from Sumatran which coloured its existence from 600 – 1500AD.
Malaysian History – early influences
The tropical climate and abundance of natural resources always made Malaysia an attractive place for nomadic people for thousands of years.
Ancestors of the Orang Asli, indigenous Peninsular Malaysian tribes, settled in the region from around 3,000BC. These people probably began the overall trend from Tibet and China to the south and were followed by the skillful Malays who were adept at metalwork and farming.
Despite Muslim travellers visiting what is today Malaysia as early as the 10th century, it was not until 400 years later that Islam really took hold in the territory. By the 15th century the number of sultanates was rising with the most important located at Melaka. And from this time the Malay people began being tremendously influenced by Islamic culture.
Malaysian history – colonisation
Then the Europeans came, first with the Portuguese. They captured Melaka in 1511 but is was later seized by the Dutch in 1641. The disposed rulers of the Melaka fled south to Johor in order to establish a new Sultanate. However, they found themselves battling both the European settlers and local peoples there. The Minangkabau, Acehnese and Bugis soon formed sovereign units that became states of Peninsular Malaysia today.
But eventually the British successful claimed the land as their own after successfully securing strategic bases at Kuching, Jesselton, Singapore and Penang. This position was cemented by the 1825 Anglo-Dutch Treaty which defined the boundaries between Netherlands East Indies (later to become Indonesia) and British Malaya.
The fourth major phase of foreign influence came via the British but in the form on Indian and Chinese immigration to meet the labour needs of the newly established rubber plantations and subsidiary enterprises. These workers were brought in as the indigenous Malay people were unwilling to work away in the fields under their new colonial masters.
WWII and Japanese occupation
The British experience in Malaysia never recovered from the Japanese invasion during the Second World War. By the time the Japanese were successfully repelled and the Allies once again regained control of the territory, a fierce nationalist sentiment had spread like wildfire all over the region.
The Malayan Communist Party began an armed struggle against the British in Peninsular region and a tough military response was required to crush the insurgency.
In 1957 the independent and multi-racial Federation of Malaya was created. British territories in Singapore and North Borneo were granted independence six years later and they all joined together to form Malaysia. But Singapore was expelled from this federation merely two years afterwards and it as not long before a dispute with neighbouring Indonesia caused race riots to erupt and emergency rule in 1969.
Malaysian History – into the modern era
Ever since 1970 Malaysia has been governed by the National Front Coalition which is fronted by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The boom in economic growth that came in the 1990s was a shot in the arm for living standards and the trickle down effect saw Malaysia become one of the most developed nations in Asia. This newfound prosperity kept political discontent to a minimum but racial conflict has always bubbled under the surface.
Successive Malay governments have promoted the Malay language, introduced positive discrimination for places in higher education and tax incentives for Bhumiputra families at the expense of often second and third generation Chinese and Indian citizens. This and moderate apartheid to the benefit of Muslims have caused widespread resentment.