The modern nation of Malaysia came to being at one minute past midnight on September 16, 1963, and within weeks was embroiled in controversy. Its formation was not looked upon kindly by its neighbor Indonesia, and soon scores of “spontaneous” demonstrations filled the streets of Jakarta as angry Indonesians shouted their displeasure outside Malaysia’s new embassy. Indonesian foreign ministry spokesmen made their feelings clear to Australia: Indonesia did not like being encircled by what it saw as the British Commonwealth.
From that shaky start Malaysia emerged as a prosperous nation keen to embrace the world of new technology. In 2006 Malaysia was a nation of around 25 million people, building its own cars, possessing a burgeoning manufacturing industry, and exploiting its waters for oil, gas, and fish.
Four areas—all British colonial possessions—were combined to make up Malaysia: the Federated Malay States, Singapore, British North Borneo, and Sarawak. Brunei, which had expressed interest, did not become a part of Malaysia. The four component parts of the new country had developed a common identity following Japanese occupation during World War II. Indonesia and the Philippines opposed the union and Indonesia supported military rebels in Malaysia after its formation.
The new country was led by Prime Minister Abdul Rahman, who had been a principal figure before independence, and his premiership lasted until September 22, 1970. Known generally as Tunku—a Malaysian title for a prince—Abdul Rahman had trained as a lawyer in Britain, and upon his return to Malaysia worked as a prosecutor. He became a leader of UNMO, the leading nationalist party, and became the natural choice to lead the campaign for independence from Britain. This was achieved for the new nation of Malaya in 1957, with Abdul Rahman as its prime minister. Regional discussions then took place about including the other British possessions in the region, the island of Singapore, and, to balance the racial mix, the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak in the new nation. As a result, Malaysia was formed in
- Abdul Rahman went on to become the prime minister, leading the Alliance Party. He died in 1990.
Several issues troubled the new nation. One was the exit of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965 to become a sovereign country. The Vietnam War of the United States and its allies against the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong was another issue.
In 1969 racial riots broke out between Malays and non-Malays, chiefly over attempts to make Bahasa Malaysia the national language and over privileges that had been conferred on people of Malay race. Hundreds of people were killed in the riots. The government acted to cement the position of Malays with the creation of the title bumiputra, or son of the soil, which was given to the indigenous peoples of Sarawak and Sabah as well as Malays. Many of Chinese descent left the country as a result.
Malaysia’s internal policies and its external relations were dominated for years by the oftenaggressive Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who came to power in 1981. Mahathir saw Malaysia prosper through his vision for the country’s future. A series of five-year plans were installed with the aim of having the country become a fully industrialized nation by 2020. This plan seemed successful until 1997, when economic crisis beset Southeast Asia, and a recession ensued.
Internal politics gained international notoreity in September 1999 when a dispute between the deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and the prime minister became public. Anwar was arrested and, after a trial for alleged sodomy held in the full glare of world publicity, was sentenced to six years in jail. He was released before serving the full prison term.
Geographically, Malaysia is split in two. Peninsular Malaysia borders Thailand at its northern end. In the south the island nation of Singapore is connected to Malaysia by a causeway. Kuala Lumpur is the capital, with several universities and major industries as well as government institutions. Eastern Malaysia, with only about 15 percent of the population, occupies about fourth of the island of Borneo—Indonesia owns the lower section, with tiny Brunei surrounded by Malaysia on the western coast.
Politically the population of nearly 24 million is divided into 13 states, four of which have a governor, with the remainder ruled by hereditary sultans. All states have unicameral state legislatures relected every five years that deal with state matters. One of the nine sultans is elected for five years to be the paramount ruler of Malaysia.
Major industries include the harvesting and export of palm oil, rubber processing, electronics, tin mining, light manufacturing, timber logging, petroleum production, and agriculture processing. Malaysia also exports electronic equipment.
Malaysia’s foreign affairs are dominated by its relationships with neighboring giant Indonesia, the tiny island of Singapore, and a sometimes testy relationship with the West. Forest burning in Indonesia is a source of irritation between Malaysia and Indonesia as well as offshore oil exploration claims. An ongoing rebellion in Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern provinces also causes border tension.
Malaysia has been a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since its founding in 1967. It now includes 10 nations and over 500 million people. ASEAN primarily exists to promote economic growth, friendship, and regional stability.
With its series of five-year economic plans, Malaysia aims to become a fully industrialized nation by 2020.