Scientists have found archaeological evidence of human inhabitants in the Niah Caves
in Sarawak from about 40,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of inhabitants on
the Malay Peninsula that has been found is from about 10,000 years ago.
Neolithic culture was well established by 2500-1500 BC. Most scholars believe
the earliest settlers on the Malay Peninsula came overland from southern China
in small groups over a period of thousands of years. These early inhabitants became
the ancestors of the Orang Asli.During the 1000’s B.C., new groups of migrants
who spoke a language related to Malay came to Malaysia.
The ancestors of these
people had traveled by sea from south China to Taiwan, and later from Taiwan to
Borneo and the Philippines. These people became the ancestors of the Malays and
the Orang Laut. The newcomers settled mainly in the coastal areas of the peninsula.
Small Malayan kingdoms existed in the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, when adventurers from
India arrived and initiated more than 1,000 years of Indian influence.
About A.D. 1400, a group of Malay-speaking migrants came to the Malay Peninsula from Srivijaya,
a trading kingdom on the island of Sumatra (now part of Indonesia). Led by
a Sumatran prince called Paramesvara, these newly arrived immigrants established
a commercial kingdom called Malacca and secured Chinese protection for the city-state.
Europeans arrived in what is now Malaysia during the 1500’s. Malacca entered a golden
age as a commercial and Islamic religious centre but in 1511 it was captured by the Portuguese.
When the Dutch captured Malacca in 1641, the port was no longer an important trading center.
Ancient Malaysia: 35,000 BC – 100 BC
Historians often speak of Malaysia’s ancient past as something “shrouded in mystery,”
a kind of black hole in Asian history. The truth is that there is not much archeological
evidence or written records from ancient Malaysia; but it is likely that this situation
will change. Many suspect that there are more prehistoric archeological sites along the
coasts and in the jungles and hills, but given Malaysia’s riotous vegetation it will take time
to find them. We do know that homo sapiens have been in Malaysia for a long time. The oldest
known evidence of human habitation is a skull from the Niah Caves in Sarawak dating
from 35,000 years before Christ.
On the peninsula, stone age tools and implements
from about 10,000 BC have been found, and some archeologists suggest that they were
left there by the predecessors of the Negrito aborigines – one of the earliest groups to
inhabit the peninsula. We also know that about 2,500 years before Christ a much more
technologically advanced group migrated to the peninsula from China. Called the Proto-Malays,
they were seafarers and farmers, and their advances into the peninsula forced the Negritos into
the hills and jungles. History’s periodic waves of cultural evolution, however,
soon created another group, the Deutero-Malays. They were a combination of many peoples – Indians,
Chinese, Siamese, Arabs, and Proto-Malays – and they had risen by mastering the use of iron.
Combined with the peoples of Indonesia, the Deutero-Malays formed the racial basis for the group
which today we simply call the Malay.
100 BC – 1400 AD
Early writings from India speak of a place called Savarnadvipa — the Land of Gold.
This mystical, fantastically wealthly kingdom was said to lie in a far away and unknown land,
and legend holds that it was on an odyessy in search of Savarnadvipa that the first Indians
were lured to the Malay Peninsula. Blown across the Bay of Bengal by the reliable winds of
the southwest monsoon, they arrived in Kedah sometime around 100 BC. Whether or not the
civilization they encountered there was the one from the ancient chronicles will probably
never be known, but it is certain that the sailors considered the trip lucrative.
From that point on, and ever-growing stream of Indian traders arrived in search of gold,
aromatic wood, and spices. Goods were not the only items exchanged in the peninsula’s
ports: the Indians also brought a pervasive culture.
Hinduism and Buddhism swept through
the land, bringing temples and Indian cultural traditions. Local kings, who sent emissaries
to the subcontinent, were impressed by the efficiency of the Hindu courts, and soon began
to refer to themselves as “rajahs.” They integrated what they considered the best Indian
governmental traditions with the existing structure, and historians typically refer to these
kingdoms as “Indianised kingdoms.” Today, the most visible example of the early Indian
influence is in the Malay wedding ceremony, which is very similar that of the subcontinent.
Islam and the Golden Age of Malacca
1400 AD – 1511 AD
Until the 15th century, the Hindu kingdoms of peninsular Malaysia were largely overshadowed
by neighboring kingdoms in Cambodia and Indonesia. The strongest of these kingdoms was called
Srivijaya, and the records of Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders laud it as the best trading
port in the region. It was the first great maritime kingdom in the Malay archipelago,
and other ports quickly emulated its success.
At some time around the 13th century, as other
entrepots emerged, Srivijaya’s influence declined. The lack of a strong central power, coupled
with the ever-present nuisance of pirates, amplified the need for secure, well-equipped port in
the region. Fate would make this port the city of Malacca. According to the Malay Annals,
Malacca was founded in 1400 by a fleeing Palembang prince named Parameswara. Its rise from
a village of royal refugees to a wealthy kingdom was swift. Perfectly located for trade,
within 50 years it was the most influential port in Southeast Asia. At any one time, ships
from a dozen kingdoms great and small could be seen in the harbor. With these traders came
Islam, and Malacca’s rulers now referred to themselves as “sultans.”
The sultans were the heads
of a highly organized municipal government, whose main purpose was to facilitate trade. Every
incoming ship was met by a multilingual harbor capitan, whose staff would see to all
the vessel’s needs. There were also gaurded storehouses where goods from the interior and
abroad could be stored until traders arrived. Most importantly, Malacca was able to control
what had always been the bane of trade in the Straits area – pirates. By building alliances
with outlying tribes and ports, Malacca established a kind of regional “navy” that policed the
local waters and escorted friendly vessels.With the success and power it enjoyed, Malacca came to
control the entire west coast of the Malay peninsula, the kingdom of Pahang, and much of Sumatra.
At the height of its power, however, fate would ruin the city as quickly as it built it up.
In 1511, the Portugeuse arrived, beginning a colonial legacy that would last well into the 20th
GOLDEN AGE OF MELAKA
(1400-1511) We bring you back to the golden age of Melaka (also spelled Malacca).
Melaka – a city steeped in history – was founded in 1400 by a fleeing Palembang prince
named Parameswara. Its rise from a village of royal refugees to a wealthy kingdom and
international center for the spice trade was swift. During the middle and late 1400’s,
Melaka gained control over much of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and the key shipping
route through the Strait of Malacca. It attracted traders from throughout the world.
Perfectly located for trade, within 50 years it was the most influential port in Southeast Asia.
At any one time, ships from a dozen kingdoms great and small could be seen in the harbor.
In the mid-1400’s, Melaka became a Muslim kingdom.
The traders brought with them the Islamic
religion, and Malacca’s rulers now referred to themselves as “sultans.” Islam spread throughout
the Malay Peninsula and to other parts of Southeast Asia. Melaka’s prosperity drew the
attention of the Europeans, who wished to gain control of the valuable spice trade. At the
height of its power, however, fate would ruin the city as quickly as it built it up. In 1511,
the Portuguese seized the commercial kingdom of Melaka from the Malays but were unsuccessful in
conquering other areas on the Malay Peninsula. Thus began a colonial legacy that would last well
into the 20th century.
Colonial Malaysia 1511 AD – 1957 AD
At the beginning of the 16th century, the eastern spice trade was routed through Egypt,
and no non-Muslim vessel was permitted to dock in Arabian ports. The competing European powers,
painfully aware of the need for an open trade route to India and the Far East, sought to
establish their own trading ports at the source.
In 1511, a Portuguese fleet led by Alfonso de
Albuquerque sailed into Malacca’s harbor, opened fire with cannon, and captured the city.
Malacca’s golden age had come to an end. The Portuguese constructed a massive fort in
Malacca – A Famosa – which the Dutch captured in turn in 1641. This would give the Dutch
an almost exclusive lock on the spice trade until 1785, when the British East India Company
convinced the Sultan of Kedah to allow them to build a fort on the island of Penang. The British
were mainly interested in having a safe port for ships on their way to China, but when France
captured the Netherlands in 1795, England’s role in the region would amplify. Rather than hand
Malacca over to the French, the Dutch government in exile agreed to let England temporarily oversee
the port. The British returned the city to the Dutch in 1808, but it was soon handed back to
the British once again in a trade for Bencoleen, Sumatra.
The Dutch still largely controlled
the region, however, and in 1819 Britain sent Sir William Raffles to establish a trading post
in Singapore. These three British colonies – Penang, Malacca, and Singapore – came to be known
as the Straits Settlements. While the European powers played their regional chess game, the
local Malay sultanates continued on their own affairs. After Malacca was captured, the new
Muslim trading center became Johor, then later on Perak. Both the Minangkabau Immigrants from
Sumatra and the Bugi people from Celebes immigrated to the peninsula in large numbers, leavingn
lasting cultural contributions.
In the late 1860’s, a number of Malay kingdoms began fighting
each other for control of the throne of Perak, causing enough of a disturbance in the region to
inspire Britain to intervene and essentially force the Malay rulers to sign a peace treaty
known as the Pangkor Agreement in 1874. The treaty, unsurprisingly, gave Britain a much greater
role in the region – a role it would need in order to maintain its monopoly on the vast amount
of tin being mined in the peninsula.Coupled with the power of the White Rajas in Borneo,
Britain ruled over what was then called Malaya until the Japanese invaded and ousted them
in 1942. During this time, large numbers of Chinese fled to the jungle and established an armed
resistance which, after war’s end, would become the basis for an infamous communist insurgency.
In 1945, when W.W.II ended, Britain resumed control again, but Malaya’s independence movement
had matured and organized itself in an alliance under Tunku Abdul Rahman. When the British flag
was finally lowered in Kuala Lumpur’s Merdeka Square in 1957, Tunku became the first prime minister
(1511-1957) In 1511, a Portuguese fleet led by Alfonso de Albuquerque – and lured
by the spice trade – sailed into Malacca’s harbor, opened fire with cannons, and
captured the city from the Malays. Malacca’s golden age had come to an end. The
Malays soon moved their center to Johor at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula.
Descendants of the ruling family of Melaka also founded other kingdoms on the peninsula.
The Portuguese constructed a massive fort in Malacca – A Famosa (picture to the left) – which
the Dutch captured in turn in 1641 and ruled there for the next 150 years. This would give
the Dutch an almost exclusive lock on the spice trade. Minangkabau peoples from Sumatra
migrated to Malaya during the late 17th century, bringing with them a matrilineal culture.
In the 18th century the Buginese from the island of Celebes invaded Malaya and established
the sultanates of Selangor and Johore.
THE BRITISH RULE
In 1786, the British acquired Penang Island and established a settlement called George
Town there. Gradually, Britain acquired control over more of the area to protect its shipping
lanes between China and India. The Dutch traded Malacca with the British for Bencoolen, Sumatra.
In 1824, the Dutch signed a treaty which surrendered to the British their possessions on
the Malay Peninsula. Nevertheless, total British control was not established until the
early 1900’s. In 1819, Britain sent Sir William Raffles to establish a trading post on
Singapore Island. In 1826, the British formed a colony called the Straits Settlements that
included Melaka and the islands of Penang and Singapore.
In 1840, James Brooke, a wealthy
English adventurer, helped the sultan of Brunei quiet a local rebellion. In return, the sultan
ceded the southern part of his territory, present-day Sarawak, to Brooke in 1841 and bestowed
on Brooke the title rajah. Brooke and his descendants, called “white rajahs,” ruled Sarawak
as a self-governing state until the 1940’s. In 1881, North Borneo (as Sabah was then called)
came under the control of a private trading company called the British North Borneo Company.
The British declared North Borneo and Sarawak to be British protectorates in 1888. During the
late 19th century Chinese began to migrate to Malaya.
In 1896 the Malay states accepted British
advisors, and Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang formed a federation. By 1914, Britain
had either direct or indirect colonial control over all the lands that now make up Malaysia,
which it called British Malaya.British rule took several forms. For example, Britain had direct
colonial rule in the Straits Settlements, family control by the Brookes in Sarawak, and
corporate control in North Borneo. In the kingdoms on the Malay Peninsula, the British governed
indirectly, through local rulers.
Britain placed a representative called a resident in each
kingdom. The local sultan agreed to accept the resident’s advice on political and economic
matters.To increase its revenues from British Malaya, the British expanded tin mining in the
late 1800’s. They also introduced rubber trees from Brazil and established rubber plantations
in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
To provide labor for these enterprises, the British
imported Chinese workers for the tin mines and Indian laborers for the rubber plantations.
To help feed the rapidly expanding work force, the British encouraged the Malays to farm for
a living.The British also encouraged ethnic divisions. For example, the British administered
the two main ethnic communities in Kuala Lumpur separately through their Malay and Chinese
leaders. By hardening the lines that divided the Malays, Chinese, and Indians, these policies
helped keep the groups from uniting against the British.
INDEPENDENCE FROM THE BRITISH
From the 1890s the British invested heavily in what was then called Malaya,
developing transportation and rubber plantations. Coupled with the power of
the White Rajahs in Borneo, Britain ruled over Malaya until 1941 when the Japanese
invaded Malaya and captured Singapore in early 1942. Japan occupied British Malaya
and much of Asia until losing the war in 1945. World War II and its aftermath brought
the end of British rule.
After World War II ended in 1945, the British tried unsuccessfully
to organize Malaya into one state due to a mature independence movement organized as an
alliance under YTM Tunku Abdul Rahman. This led to the birth of Malayan nationalism, which
opposed a colonial status. In 1946 the United Malaya National Organization (UMNO) was
established. Britain dissolved the Straits Settlements in 1946. In 1948, the kingdoms on
the Malay Peninsula, plus Melaka and the island of Penang, united to form the Federation
of Malaya, a partially independent territory under British protection. Singapore, North Borneo,
and Sarawak became separate crown colonies.
In the same year the Malayan Communist Party
was formed and began a guerrilla uprising against the British that became known as
the Emergency. With Malay help, the British finally subdued the Emergency in 1960,
three years after independence. In 1955 the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) joined UMNO
in an anticommunist, anticolonial coalition that won 51 of 52 parliamentary seats.
The British relinquished their powers, and in 1957 the Federation of Malaya had gained
complete independence from Britain. Singapore, which had a mostly Chinese population,
remained outside the federation as a British crown colony. Peninsular Malaysia became an
independent nation called Malaya in 1957. When the British flag was finally lowered in
Kuala Lumpur’s Dataran Merdeka in 1957, Tunku became the first prime minister of Malaya
MALAYSIA IS BORN
The first prime minister of the new nation was Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Earlier in the 1950’s, he and other leaders had formed a political
alliance of the three main ethnic parties: the United Malays National
Organization, the Malayan Chinese Association, and the Malayan Indian
Congress. This three-party partnership, known as the Alliance, was the
forerunner of the National Front that is Malaysia’s most powerful
political organization today.
In 1961, the term “Malaysia” came into
being after Tunku convinced Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak to join Malaya
in a federal union. In the 1960s membership in the federation shifted several times,
finally settling into the present pattern in 1963, when Malaysia was established.
The Malay majority hoped that including Sabah and Sarawak, which had ethnically
diverse populations, would balance the large numbers of Chinese from Singapore.
Economic and political disputes soon developed between the mostly Chinese state
leaders of Singapore and the mostly Malay federal government of Malaysia. In 1965,
Singapore withdrew from the federation peacefully and became independent.
In Malaysia, as in the former British Malaya, the ethnic groups followed
different traditional occupations.
Malaysia was a multi-racial country with a
mix of people from many different races and cultures. The Malays controlled
government and agriculture, while the Chinese dominated commerce and industry.
The Chinese resented the political power of the Malays, and the Malays envied
the economic success of the Chinese. The tensions eventually triggered racial
violence. In 1969, bloody riots broke out after an election on Peninsular Malaysia.
The government declared a state of emergency, suspending the Constitution and
Parliament until 1971. It was a painful moment in the young nation’s history
that most Malaysians prefer to forget.
Turbulence in the government went on
into the early 1970s, when stability returned and the Malaysian economy began to prosper.
After the riots, Malaysia’s political leaders tried to build national unity.
They amended the Constitution to forbid discussion, even in Parliament, of certain
“sensitive issues,” including the special position of the Malays and of Borneo’s ethnic
groups, and the powers of the Malay sultans. The amendment also required all
government bodies to use Bahasa Malaysia as their principal official language.
Many non-Malays, however, resented the government’s attempts to build national unity
through increased emphasis on Malay culture.
Also after the riots, Malaysia’s
leaders determined to improve the economic conditions of the Malays. In 1971,
they launched a 20-year plan called the New Economic Policy to achieve a better
balance of wealth among racial groups. To minimize racial politics, the government
created in 1974 a multiparty alliance called the National Front, uniting Malay, Chinese,
and Islamic groups.Despite considerable regional and ethnic divisions, Malaysia
has made significant gains in creating national unity. In the last two decades,
Malaysia has undergone tremendous growth and prosperity, and has arguably made significant
progress in race relations. Many attribute the country’s success to the dynamic
leadership of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Doktor Mahathir bin Mohamad, who has led
the country since 1981.
1990s & THE NEW MILLENNIUM
By the end of the 1990’s, the New Economic Policy and its successor, the New Development
Policy begun in 1991, had done much to eliminate racial tensions. Malaysia’s economy had
grown at a robust rate for two decades, and rapid economic growth had brought prosperity
to all racial groups in the country.
Government leaders announced a new goal called
“Vision 2020,” which aimed to make Malaysia a fully developed nation with a high standard
of living by 2020. The goal suffered a setback, however, when an economic crisis spread
throughout Southeast Asia. By 1998, the growth of Malaysia’s economy had slowed somewhat,
but Malaysia took measures to put its economy back on track.In 1999, some administrative
offices began moving to a new city named Putrajaya, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south
of Kuala Lumpur. When completed, Putrajaya will serve as Malaysia’s administrative capital.
Parliament will remain in Kuala Lumpur.