The original in inhabitants of Malaya, the “Orang Asli” were actually refugees from the south-western provinces of Yunan in China, fleeing conflicts in that area some 10,000 years ago. It then came under the rule of several different regional empires including the Hindu Sri Vijaya and Majapahit from the Indonesian Archipelago.
By the middle of the 14th century Islam arrived in Malaya via traders and merchants from India and began to spread rapidly as the local nobles embraced it, the influence of the Hindu Javanese Majapahit Empire was also waning at the time.
Early in the 15th century the island of Temasik (Singapore), was being attacked by the Majapahit Empire, a Temasik prince called Parameswara fled his country and founded a small fishing village that would one day be the nucleus of the Melaka empire. Embracing Islam and taking the title Iskandar Shah, the Melaka Sultanate was thereby formed and proceeded to experience exponential growth under the leadership of a dynasty of Malay Muslim rulers.
By the middle of the 15th century Melaka’s wealth and power had grown to a point where it was considered the center for trade in the south-east Asian region, this was mainly due to its strategic positioning on the Straits of Melaka, right in the middle of the spice trade route and the successful persecution and subjugation of the numerous pirate clans in the region, merchant ships from all over Asia including India, the Middle East and China regularly crowded its harbor. It was also during this time that Malay culture and folklore reached its azimuth. These were the heyday of such historical figures as Tun Perak, Tun Teja, Hang Jebat and of course Hang Tuah.
Ironically its wealth and power, the source of its fame and fortune would also be the reason for its downfall. The first European visitors to Melaka, a small flotilla of Portuguese ships under the command of Diego Lopez de Sequira landed at Melaka in the year 1509. These ships were driven away but in 1511 a much greater fleet arrived and under the command of Alfonso de Albuquerque opened fire on the city and conquered Melaka. Drawn by the lure of the lucrative spice trade and the opportunity to strike a blow to the Islamic presence in the area, the Portuguese came with the aim of achieving three objectives, “For God, Glory and Gold”, they would control a heavily fortified Melaka for the next thirty years.
The deposed Melaka Sultanate now based at its holdings in Johor launched constant attacks on the Portuguese fort throughout the years with little success, but with the coming of the Dutch in the late 1520’s the Portuguese rule of Melaka was coming to an end. The allied forces of the Dutch East India Company and the deposed Malays defeated the Portuguese in 1531, but again the Malay rulers found themselves at the mercy of a foreign power, as the Dutch, their erstwhile allies turned on them and took Melaka for their own.
The less autocratic and generally more tolerant Dutch were considerably more successful than the Portuguese, mainly due to the fact that many of the regional powers were embroiled in conflicts of their own, the former Melaka Sultanate, for example, was embroiled in a bitter war with the state of Jambi a war from which it would never fully recover, and a major regional power, the northern Sumatran kingdom of Aceh was weakening quickly due to the unsuccessful wars they had waged against the Dutch power base at Batavia.
The Dutch succeeded not only in controlling Melaka, they also acquired holdings and fortifications in various other states on the peninsula. Relations with local Malay powers though never really cordial were at least mostly non-violent. This however took a turn for the worse in the beginning of the 1700’s with the emergence of another Malay power in the form of the Bugis islanders, a group of fierce warrior seafarers from Sulawesi who had migrated to the peninsula.
Bugis holdings sprang up all across the west coast of the peninsula and the seat of power of the Bugis in the Riau and Lingga Islands off the Johor coast became a major competitor to the Dutch influence in the region. After some fifty years of tension, sporadic conflict and a failed military expedition in the 1750’s, the Dutch finally waged a full scale campaign against the Bugis in the year 1782, after three years of brutal and bloody conflict, the Bugis were finally defeated and driven from their strongholds.
The Dutch East India Company’s days were numbered for after the establishment of Penang by Sir Francis Light in 1786 and Singapore by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819 the influence of England began to overshadow the Dutch. The Anglo Dutch Treaty of 1824 finally formalized the succession of English rule.
The British Straits Settlements born in 1826, consisted of the three states of Penang, Singapore and Melaka with the capital moving from Penang to Singapore in 1832, all matters of policy though initially referred to the British administration in India were later centralized at the Colonial Office in London. At about this time an English adventurer by the name of James Brooke arrived in Singapore in 1839 from India on his way to North Borneo. He was to deliver a message from the Governor on Singapore to Raja Muda Hashim, a ruler of Borneo.
When he arrived he found the Raja Muda fighting a war against rebel tribesmen in the Sarawak region of Borneo, for his aid in the suppression of this rebellion Brooke was granted the title of “Raja” and declared the ruler of a portion of Sarawak by the grateful Raja Muda. From this power base, Brooke prospered and using a combination of diplomacy, coercion and military action was able to found a dynasty of “White Rajahs” in Sarawak that would last a hundred years until the Japanese invasion in 1941.
The Brunei Sultanate was to lose more of its holdings to western interests at around the time of the Brooke’s expansion in Sarawak. Sabah, a state under the nominal control of the Brunei Sultanate and the Sulu Sultan would be leased to an American businessman and would eventually come into the possession of an Englishman by the name of Alfred Dent in 1881, Dent negotiated a treaty which formalized the secession of Sabah from its rulers and established the British North Borneo Company to oversee his holdings.
The British government meanwhile had acquired Labuan, an island off the coast of Sabah from the Brunei Sultanate with the intention of turning it into a trade center for the region but plans fell through and the Colonial Office in London turned over the administration of the island to the British North Borneo Company. Fourteen years later in 1905 Labuan was returned to the Colonial Office and two years later was added to the British Straits Settlements until the Japanese occupation in 1941.
Meanwhile on the peninsula, Britain’s policy of non-intervention came to an end in 1874 when a bloody feud between two Chinese secret societies in Perak threatened to interrupt the lucrative tin mining operations in the state, factional conflicts within the Kedah ruling class further aggravated the situation and Sir Andrew Clarke, the British Governor of Singapore was called in to arbitrate. The Treaty of Pangkor was the end result and peace was restored in Perak. The Kedah Sultan agreed among other concessions to have a British “Resident”, an officer appointed by the Governor to oversee and advice on the administration of the state on matters other than Malay culture, religion and the ruling class.
Other acts of intervention were enacted along similar lines when state conflicts flared up and British interests were threatened. A succession war in Selangor, piracy in Melaka, the murder of a British resident in Perak and open revolt in Negeri Sembilan and Pahang were all quashed by British security forces who then effectively wrested control from local rulers.
By 1896 local rulers wielded only token influence and The Federated Malay States consisting of Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan was formed under direct control of the Resident General’s office in Kuala Lumpur. Their influence further waned when despite protestations; a council was formed in 1909 which comprised of the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang and Melaka, the Federated Malay States of Selangor, Perak, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan, all under the control of the British High Commissioner. In the same year the Treaty of Bangkok was signed and the kingdom of Siam relinquished the states of Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu and Perlis to British rule, thus the Unfederated Malay States were formed.
Malaya underwent a period of rapid growth and development with the construction of transport and communication infrastructure such as the building of roads, a railway and a telegraph system, natural resources were heavily exploited with the construction of tin, gold and coal mines, reforms were also made in the agricultural sector with the introduction of modern agricultural methods and the extensive farming of cash crops such as rubber and sugar cane.
The population of Malaya would see a massive influx of laborers from China and India at this time, an event which caused a racial mix which has persisted to the present day. Though the more rural Malays were somewhat marginalized, employment opportunities were good, all the more so in the regions where British interests lay, the growing economy of Malaya had much to offer any who were willing to work for it. It was also during this period that nationalism among the Malay intelligentsia began to grow. Prominent Malay leaders at the time included men such as Za’aba, Ibrahim Yaacob and Burhanuddin Helmi these men would play a prominent part in the shaping of Malay politics in the post war years. Peace under colonial rule reigned from then till the coming of the Japanese in 1941 and the outbreak of World War 2.
On December 8th, 1941 the town of Kota Baru on the north-east coast of Peninsula Malaya was attacked by a Japanese invasion force composed of elements of the Japanese Imperial Army fresh from their conquest of French Indo-China. Moving quickly down the Peninsula and eliminating small pockets of resistance from the retreating British and Malay forces along the way, they took Kuala Lumpur on January 11th the following year. British forces had planned on a gradual retreat while mustering a counter-offensive in Singapore but the speed of the Japanese advance took them by surprise, this was mainly due to the co-operation of the populace who at the time believed in the Japanese propaganda of “Asia for Asians” and saw the invaders as liberators. Lessons from the three previous conquerors were apparently lost.
By the beginning of February the British presence in Malaya was reduced to their final “impregnable” stronghold of Singapore. Two weeks after the Japanese laid siege to the island the British forces under the command of General Percival surrendered to a numerically inferior Japanese force on February 15th 1942.
Meanwhile the Japanese also launched attacks in Sabah and Sarawak, due to a much smaller military presence in these states and the fact that all the major towns were coastal ones they fell in just over three weeks. By January 1942 the Japanese had firmly occupied both states. The conquest of Malaya had taken just over two months.
Japanese occupation could best be described as hellish in comparison to British rule; those who had supported the Japanese Army in its campaign found that the Japanese were indeed poor guests. The harsh militancy of Japanese policy enforced by its officers was a reflection of the rigid, highly regimented, and often draconian customs that all Japanese observed in their home country. It did not however sit well with the local populace.
A dazzling array of torture and execution methods was brought to bear to instill loyalty in the populace, a policy which caused widespread fear and eventually hatred in the locals. The insistence of the Japanese to forcefully turn Malaya into another Japan while the economy was turned upside down to fuel its war efforts further alienated them. The national infrastructure already ruined in the war was left unattended and industry as a whole suffered accordingly. Poverty, famine and disease resulted; it was also at this time that thousands were sent to build the infamous Death Railway in Thailand.
Inevitably rebellion followed. The Malayan People’s Anti Japanese Army or the MPAJA was formed by the Malayan Communist Party, a political group composed primarily of Malayan Chinese communists who waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese. Support was also very strong from all the other races in Malaya, in response the Japanese planted spies and secret police among the populace, the Kampeitai and Tekikan agents were largely local Japanese sympathizers. The horrors inflicted upon those found guilty of sedition or rebellion by these two agencies made these times the worst of the three and a half years of Japanese rule.
Following the defeat of the Japanese and their surrender on August 12th 1945, Malaya reverted to English rule. The long road to rebuilding the economy began again. The Malay population marginalized and neglected for so long, was now coming into political prominence.
In early January 1946, the English Government unveiled plans for a “Malayan Union” which involved the joining of the pre-war Federated Malay States, Unfederated Malay States as well as Penang and Melaka under a single administrative body and under the direct control of a duly selected Governor. Singapore was exempt from this plan due to its strategic importance in the region and was to remain a British Colony. Unfortunately the plan would also completely undermine what little authority remained with the Malay royalty. Though an envoy had been sent to gain the approval of the Malay Sultans, the assignment was carried out in a heavy handed and abrupt manner, the Sultans may have agreed but their subjects certainly did not.
After witnessing first hand an Asian country soundly defeating a supposedly invincible western nation, nationalistic fervor was running high and the masses believed that they no longer needed the dubious “protection” of the west which invariably led to the removal of their sovereign rights. The most vocal proponent of self-rule was Dato’ Onn bin Jaafar the founder of a political party called the United Malay Nationalists Organisationor or UMNO, he ignited nationalistic pride and fervor to such a degree that the Malayan union plan was scrapped altogether. In its place a new arrangement called the Federation of Malaya Agreement was introduced in 1948, the new agreement involved the election of a British High Commissioner by the Malay Sultans, three councils would be formed, an Executive Council, a Legislative Council and a Conference of Rulers, with more rights accorded to the Malay rulers and the Malay people as a whole. The new agreement sat well with all parties and was instituted in February. The still powerful Malayan Communist Party however had other ideas.
Beginning March 1948, Malayan communists began a campaign of unrest and dismay throughout the country. Armed revolt and escalating violence forced the government into action and a “State of Emergency” was declared on June 18th 1948. Death and destruction at the hands of the communist guerrillas escalated further with the massacre at the Bukit Kepong police station in Johor in 1950 and the assassination of the British High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney in 1951. Devised by General Harold Briggs, a “Briggs Plan” was implemented. The plan involved the relocation of isolated villages and communities into designated areas called “New Villages” where their residents could be more easily protected and also where communist sympathizers would be isolated and be unable to provide provisions, weapons or information to the rebels in the countryside. Areas formerly populated by these civilians became free-fire zones where government troops would be able to engage the enemy more effectively.
The Emergency would last some ten years and while trade and industry were disrupted, it did serve to focus the attention and efforts of all the various races in Malaya on a common enemy. If nothing else nationalism would be further escalated with the enhancement of racial unity. The introduction of a federal election in 1955 further weakened the position of the Communist Party whose main slogan had been the liberation of Malaya and the formation of a country of the people for the people. The near-total victory of UMNO and its allied parties the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putera Al-Haj, now the Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya, was a clear indication that the people had chosen its leaders.
After a failed ceasefire conference in the small town of Baling in 1955, Tunku Abdul Rahman then lead a gathering of Malayan rulers and political leaders to London and successfully negotiated the independence of Malaya at the London Conference. He was accorded a hero’s welcome on his return and he himself proclaimed the independence of Malaya on August 31st 1957 in the nation’s new capital Kuala Lumpur.
The formation of the present day Federation of Malaysia began in 1961 when Tunku Abdul Rahman announced his plan for the formation of closer economic and political ties between the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. While generally well accepted by the majority some opposition was voiced by opposition parties within the Federation as well as those from Singapore who had their own agendas to pursue. Problems also arose when Sabah send Sarawak requested for special concessions for joining Malaysia. Nevertheless in November 1961 Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singaporean premier signed an agreement on the merging of The Federation of Malaya and Singapore. Sabah and Sarawak would require further effort and the assistance of the British Government and the setting up of an Enquiries Commission to gather the opinions of the peoples of these two states.
Further difficulties were not far away and they came in the form of vigorous protests from Indonesia and the Philippines both countries were opposed to the changes proposed by Malaysia. Indonesia who had plans to unite all three countries into a state called Maphilindo, under its control of course, was particularly vehement in its arguments, calling the formation of Malaysia a plot by Britain to install a puppet regime to re-exert colonial rule in the region. Consequently its President, Achmed Sukarno decided to “Ganyang Malaysia”, or “Crush Malaysia”, and began waging a limited cross border war with Malaysia.
Covert and overt military action escalated in the jungles of Borneo between Indonesia and Malaysia-Commonwealth forces until a meeting was held in Manila in 1963 where it was decided that a United Nations mission would be sent to gather the opinion of the Sabah and Sarawakian people, the findings were in favor of Malaysia but was ignored by Indonesia and the Philippines. Malaysia however was officially recognized by the UN on the 16th of September 1963.
Cross border tension and conflicts continued to plague the young nation and in 1965 Singapore seceded from Malaysia to form the Republic of Singapore. Finally in 1966 a ceasefire was negotiated in Bangkok and hostilities ceased between the three countries. However, to this day the conflict with Indonesia has never been officially declared over.
Tunku Abdul Rahman the father of Malaysia’s independence stepped down in 1970 and succeeded by Tun Abdul Razak bin Dato’ Hussein. Tun Abdul Razak implemented many new development policies to stabilize the economy and to better the lot of the still largely poor and undeveloped rural Malay population by providing better infrastructure, education and healthcare.
The NEP or New Economic Policy was introduced in 1971 to reduce the economic divide between the Malays and the other races in the country by according them special rights, privileges and preferences in order to aid them in bettering themselves. A main contributing factor was the infamous “May 13” incident in 1969 when a riot flared between the Malays and the Chinese. The NEP remains in effect till the present day.
Tun Abdul Razak also consolidated more political parties into the Alliance Party, renaming it the National Front or “Barisan Nasional” the party has remained firmly the people’s choice and the driving force of progress in Malaysia to the present day. For his contributions to the country Tun Abdul Razak will is remembered as the Father of Development.
With the untimely passing away of Tun Abdul Razak in 1976, the third Malaysian prime minister, Tun Hussein Onn, later to be known as The Father of Unity took over the task of guiding Malaysia’s fortunes. From his background as a soldier, a police commandant in Johor and later a district officer in Selangor, Tun Hussein Onn was instilled with a deep concern for the welfare of the people. Thusly his policies were directed along similar lines as Tun Abdul Razak’s with a deep emphasis on public order and unity of the races, public security and safety was also greatly emphasized and Malaysia’s harsh anti drug laws were vigorously enforced.
Tun Hussein Onn’s was also responsible for the implementation of the National Unit Trust Scheme, implemented in 1981 and before that the Rukun Tetangga, a neighborhood watch / militia plan to curb rising crime. Poor health and a heart surgery in 1981 caused Tun Hussein to step down as Prime Minister in the same year. The next Prime Minister would be a visionary who would put Malaysia firmly in the spotlight of the international community.
Dato’ Sri Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, the fourth Malaysian Prime Minister began an aggressive campaign to turn Malaysia’s economy from being primarily agricultural based to one concentrated towards manufacturing and electronics. To attract foreign investors and to rally the support of the people to his plans, he began the construction, not of monuments (though that is the generally perceived notion) but a sense of identity and strength.
By building the first national car, the third longest suspension bridge in the world, the tallest building in the world, the Multimedia Super Corridor, the most modern and high tech airport, and a host of other high profile projects, Dr. Mahathir planned to unite the people behind these achievements from such a small and young country, to forge a sense of pride and nationalism that Malaysians need not be timid, submissive and insignificant in the eyes of the international community. Vision 2020, Dr. Mahathir’s plans to transform Malaysia into a fully developed and industrialized nation in 25 years is perhaps the most ambitious of all.
Through his visionary leadership Malaysia experienced an economic boom with double digit GDP growth rates throughout the early and mid nineties. However the Malaysian economy was badly affected during the 1997 Asian currency crisis in which many regional economies were ruined as rampant speculation caused currency values into an uncontrolled downward spiral. A year later further problems occurred when Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the Deputy Prime Minister was sacked by the Dr. Mahathir, this brought on several street protests from Anwar’s supporters which in turn further aggravated the already weak economic situation.
Throughout his term Dr. Mahathir has been a strident voice for the rights of smaller, less developed nations as well as for the limiting of the sweeping political clout of the world’s superpowers. Although at times drawing criticism for his very vocal championing of certain sensitive issues in a plain forthright style, Dr. Mahathir has however maintained the approval and support of the vast majority of Malaysians as evident in Barisan Nasional’s decisive victories in every national election during his term.
Malaysia is now well on the road to economic recovery and facing new challenges in globalization and an increasingly smaller and more competitive world.