Malaysia is comprised of most of the peninsula south of Thailand and most of the island of Borneo. On the peninsula, Malaysia does not include Singapore at the southern tip of the peninsula. On the island of Borneo, Malaysia does not include the southern state of Kalimantan which belongs to Indonesia, nor does it include the small independent nation of Brunei on the northwest part of the island. Although we visited Kalimantan while cruising through Indonesia, our time in Malaysia is limited to the west coast of the peninsula. Therefore, we have tried to develop an overview of the entire country while focusing on the west coast of the peninsula.
The area that now comprises the Malaysian peninsula, including Singapore, has been inhabited since around 2500 BC. The first settlers were probably the Senoi people from Thailand followed a millennium later by the Proto-Malays from the Indonesian islands. However, the oldest remains found in peninsular Malaysia – Perak Man – are approximately 13,000 years old, and they are generally similar to the Negrito people of the mountainous rainforests in the north. Soon thereafter the population and early history of peninsular Malaysia would be shaped by sea trade from China and India.
Indian traders were sailing to Malaysia as early as the 2nd century AD. They introduced Hinduism, Buddhism, and many Sanskrit terms that have become part of the Malaysian language.
By the 7th century AD, the southern peninsula had developed in to a trading center of Sumatra’s Srivijaya Empire. This Buddhist empire controlled the Malacca Straits, Java, and southern Borneo from the 7th through the 13th centuries.
In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the Melaka Empire was formed by Parameswara – a Hindu prince from southern Sumatra who later converted to Islam. Parameswara fled Sumatra to Temasek (today’s Singapore) which was a vassal state of the Thai Empire. He was welcomed by the ruler, then eight days later Parameswara killed his host and proclaimed himself as the new ruler. His rule was chaotic. He disrupted shipping and trade for five years before a Thai expedition chased him out.
He fled north to Melaka in 1400. He saw the potential of Melaka as a deep water port. He also needed protection from the Thais. He sent tribute to the Chinese emperor, and he got promises of protection. Melaka became a port of call for Chinese ships, and the Indian ships followed.
Although shipping along the peninsula continued to increase, it was at a heavy cost. The Malaysian peninsula would be colonized by three different powers over more than the next 400 years.
Islam had spread widely on the peninsula by the mid-15th century. However, the Christian Portuguese sought to control trade – particularly spices – between Lisbon and Melaka, and they invaded and defeated Melaka in the early 16th century. They held Melaka for 130 turbulent years as they tried to enforce monopolistic trade and forced Christianity.
The Dutch, also wanting control of the spice trade, allied themselves with exiles to the south in Johor. The combined forces captured Melaka in 1641, and as recompense, Johor was not subject to tariffs and trade restrictions imposed on other states. Although the Dutch controlled Melaka for 150 years, their focus was on Batavia (today’s Jakarta), and they did not realize the potential of Melaka.
The British wanted a trading base between India and China, and the East India Company was formed. In the late 18th century, a free-trade policy was established on the northern island of Penang, and the island thrived. Almost simultaneously, Napoleon overran the Netherlands, and the British feared French control of the area, so they took over control of Dutch Java and Melaka. However, when Napoleon was defeated in 1818, the colonies were returned to the Dutch.
Stamford Raffles was the British lieutenant governor of Java, and he resented the return of Java to the Dutch. He convinced the East Indian Company that they needed a trade settlement on the southern peninsula. That settlement, started when Raffles arrived on the peninsula in 1819, would become today’s Singapore.
The development of Malaysia would progress along a somewhat convoluted path for almost another 150 years. First the Straits Settlements emerged from the combination of Singapore, Malaya, Penang, and Melaka. Then British Malaya, comprised of the Straits Settlements and Borneo (except Brunei) was formed, and British rule was accepted by the early 20th century. The Japanese overran the country in 1942; however, they subsequently surrendered to the British in 1945. Then in 1946, all peninsular states coalesced in to the Malayan Union, and in 1948, the Federation of Malaysia was declared.
In 1948, the peninsular population was majority Chinese, and Malays were a minority. The government instituted affirmative action policies giving special privileges to Malays, and the Chinese felt betrayed. The Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) wooed the Chinese with promises of equity, and the MCP started a guerilla war against the British that would last 12 years.
This civil war – called ‘The Emergency’ rather than a war for insurance purposes – was particularly violent in the early 1950s, and it continued until 1960. During this war, Malaya declared its independence from Britain on August 31, 1957.
Malaysia was formed in July, 1963, from the combination of Malaya, Singapore, and British Borneo. Chinese still outnumbered Malays, and the affirmative action policies remained. Singapore refused to abide by them. Ethnic riots erupted, and Singapore was removed from Malaysia in 1965. The conflict continued in Malaysia, and rioting resumed in 1969. Hundreds were killed – mostly Chinese.
In 1970, economic policies were implemented to have 30% of Malaysian corporate wealth owned by Malays in 20 years. This was implemented through government contracts, loans, and education scholarships. Further, public listed companies were forced to relinquish 30% of their shares to Malay buyers. By 1990, Malays owned only 19% of Malaysia’s corporate wealth – 11% short of their goal. However, poverty had fallen from 49% to 15% among Malays, and a new middle class had emerged.
Meanwhile, Mohamad Mahathir had become prime minister in 1981. Mahathir, who was outspoken and unfriendly toward the western world, coined phrases such as “Buy British Last” and “Look East”. During his tenure, the economy grew markedly. It changed from a commodity base (rubber) to industry and manufacturing. Government monopolies were privatized, and multinationals were courted. However, it was also a period of restrictive social controls. The media were censored, sultans lost their legislative powers, and the judiciary became subservient to the government.
Then came the currency crisis of 1997. Mahathir blamed the west, and he ignored the recovery suggestions from the International Monetary Fund. He chose to follow his own course of recovery. He and his deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, had a severe falling out over how to handle the crisis, and Ibrahim was fired. Subsequently, Ibrahim was charged with corruption and sodomy, and he was beaten up by the police between his arrest and court appearance. He appeared in court with a black eye, and he immediately became somewhat of a cult hero. He received a 15 year sentence, but his convictions were overturned in 2004 – the year after Mahathir stepped down.
Partly as a response to the Ibrahim incident, Mahathir’s party suffered big losses at the polls in 1999. The Islamic party, PAS, which seeks to install an Islamic government in Malaysia, gained strength. However, a new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, was elected, and he has provided moderate leadership. Badawi has sound Islamic credentials, and he is considered a thoughtful Islamic scholar – valuable characteristics at this time in Malaysia’s history.
Malaysia is comprised of thirteen states – eleven on the peninsula stretching between Thailand to the north and Singapore to the south and two on Borneo. Of the eleven peninsular states, eight are on the west coast along which we are sailing. From south to north (our direction of travel), those eight states are Johor, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Selangor, Perak, Penang, Kedah, and Perlis.
Malaysia also has three federal territories which are Kuala Lumpur, Putra Jaya, and Pulau Labuan. Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, and it is separate from its surrounding state of Selangor. Putra Jaya, in Selangor, is a planned development designed to function as the government’s administrative center – somewhat analogous to Washington DC in the United States or Canberra in Australia. Pulau Labuan is a small island off the coast of Borneo.
Malaysia occupies 127,316 square miles of land. That is slightly larger than the US state of New Mexico. A mountain range runs north-south the length of the peninsula, and much of the land is forest – ebony, sandalwood, and teak.
Malaysia’s natural resources include timber, tin, petroleum, iron ore, natural gas, and bauxite. They export much timber as well as rubber, tin, palm oil, and pepper. Fishing and agriculture are also important to their economy.
The Malaysian monetary unit is the ringgit which is comprised of 100 sen. At present, the ringgit is roughly equivalent to 33 cents in US currency.
Malaysia’s government is a constitutional monarchy. Nine of the thirteen states have hereditary rulers – sultans – while the remaining four states and the federal territories have appointed governors. An interesting characteristic of the national monarchy is that it is rotated between the states every five years. The power of the monarchy is restricted to the military and religious matters.
The population of Malaysia is approximately 25 million. It increased substantially in the 19th century via mass immigration of labor for industrial expansion, and it continues to increase rapidly. The ethnicity of the population is 58% Malay or indigenous Borneo, 24% Chinese, 8% Indian, and 10% other. Islam is the most widely practiced religion, but there are also many followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Taoism.
The official language of Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysian which is highly similar to Indonesian. Chinese, Tamil, and Arabic are also widely spoken, and some English is spoken by many Malaysians.
We traveled south-to-north up the western coast of peninsular Malaysia. We visited seven of the eight states along the western peninsula as well as two of Malaysia’s three federal territories. We passed quickly through Johor – stopping only at Pulau Pisang. We stopped in Melaka at the Water Islands – Pulau Besar – and we visited the historic town of Melaka by land. We spent two weeks in Negeri Sembilan at Port Dickson. We visited two islands in Selangor – Pulau Ketam and Pulau Angsa – as well as seeing some of it by land. We visited Perak at Pulau Pangkor, and we spent a few days at Pulau Penang. We ended our travels in Malaysia in Kedah at Langkawi. We also visited two of three federal territories – Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya. We did not visit the state of Perlis or the territory of Pulau Labuan.
That was a lot to see and do in one month. By necessity, most of our stops were shorter in duration than we would have liked, but we had to keep moving north to reach Thailand by early December. We have covered many of our brief stops on our page titled Sailing in Malaysia, and we have covered our longer stays on individual pages. Although we passed through parts of Malaysia too quickly, we have returned to Penang a few times, and we have spent extended periods in Langkawi. We have grown to know and enjoy this part of Malaysia.
Follow us as we sail north in Malaysia or visit Port Dickson, Penang, or Langkawi.
Or jump ahead and sail with us in Thailand or visit Thailand destinations with us
Or return to Langkawi with us as we make multiple visits there.