The oldest known traces of human beings in present day mainland Malaysian territories date back to 40,000 BC. The proto-Malayan people are thought to have arrived in the Malay Peninsula and beyond, from Yunnan (China) at around 2,500 BC, and were skilled makers of stone tools.

 

A second wave of Malays arrived during the Bronze Age at round 300 BC. By 200 BC, the peninsula was already a major trading post for cultures as far-flung as Egypt, Greece, Java, India and China.

 

EARLY KINGDOMS 

 

As with the histories of neighbouring countries, the area known now as Malaysia was in a continual state of flux, a series of small kingdoms, including Langkasuka (around 100-1300 AD) and Pan Pan (around 200-400 AD) and the Kedah kingdom (630-1136 AD), founded on the Hindu and later Buddhist traditions of India, which were absorbed by, or in tribute to, the mighty empires based in the surrounding lands, all keen to control the lucrative oceanic waterways around the peninsula.

 

The Funan Empire, centred around the Mekong river in Indochina, extended over most of Southeast Asia between (68 AD-550 AD), as did its successors, Chenla (550 AD-802 AD) and the mighty Khmer empire of Angkor (802 AD-1431 AD). 

 

During the changing of fortunes of these empires, rule of the peninsula and Borneo also passed through the hands of southern empires such as Srivijaya (600 AD-1200 AD), based in Sumatra, and the Javanese empire of Majapahit (1293-1527), which also controlled the future Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo.

 

THE SULTANATES 

 

The future identity of Malaysia would be shaped by the conversion to Islam in 1136 AD of the Hindu Rajah of Kedah, Phra Ong Mahawangsa, who changed his name to Sultan Mudzafar Shah (1160-117 AD). Malaysia today is a united federation of Sultanates, of which Kedah was the first, and still endures to this day. Islam had initially been brought to the peninsula via the Sumatran province of Aceh through Arab Traders.

 

In 1402, Parameswara, a Buddhist prince of Srivijayan descent, forced to flee his homeland by Majapahit forces founded Malacca in 1400 AD, and in 1409 married a Muslim princess from the north Sumatran state of Pasai, and assumed the title of Sultan Iskandar Shah.

  

Benefiting from its favourable trade winds and with Chinese protection keeping the Thai kingdom of Ayuthaya’s ambitions at bay, the port of Malacca would become the premier trading port in Southeast Asia and the Sultanate of Malacca would rise in power to govern most of the peninsula and much of Sumatra, even sending Islamic missionaries to Java, Borneo and the Philippines. 

As the influence of Islam began to spread throughout Malay and Indonesian lands, other Sultanates began to emerge, such as the Sultanate of Brunei (1365-present) and the Sultanate of Sulu (1450-1899) occupying northern Borneo.

 

EUROPEAN INFLUENCE

 

It was not long before the fabulous wealth of Malacca came to attention of European states, eager to share in the vast profits.

                  

In 1509, Portugal sent an emissary to Malacca to set up a trading post, but the long established historical antipathy between Christians and Muslims, dating back to the crusades, ensured that relations quickly soured, and eventuated in the Portuguese attacking the city, which fell to them on the 24th of August 1511. In the vacuum of power left by the fall of Malacca, the Sultanate of Johor (1528- present) emerged in the southern tip of the peninsula.

 

The resultant Portuguese monopoly of the lucrative spice trade drove Dutch and English maritime forces to swarm around the waters of Southeast Asia, carving up the region over battle. The Dutch laid siege to Malacca, finally capturing the city in 1641, following a seven-month effort. Unable to compete with the Dutch over Malay and Indonesian territories, the English, for the time being, focused their attentions on India.

 

The path into Southeast Asia for the now British Empire, following the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1707, was offered by the Sultan of Kedah in 1785, anxious for assistance in keeping his Siamese (Thai) neighbours at bay, when he allowed the British East India Company trading rights and a base on the Malay island of Penang, a deal on which the British reneged by taking the island for its own, militarily brushing aside the Sultan’s objections, and offering cash instead. 

 

Now the most powerful of the European nations, Britain bought the island of Singapore in 1824 from the Sultan of Johor and, in an agreement with the Dutch, secured Malacca in the same year in return for a free hand in Indonesia. Sabah was also bought from Brunei in 1865.

 

Eventually, the entirety of Malay territories would come under British control, with Siam relinquishing its claim to the northern Sultanates in return for British guarantees to prevent the southward spread of French occupation in Indochina. 

 

JAPANESE OCCUPATION 

 

British rule of Malaya continued into the following century without any major discontent or uprisings, but following the first world war, the emerging influence of communism and the Great Depression would stir Nationalist sentiments, giving rise to a growing political momentum, which would be brutally interrupted by the advent of World War II. 

 

The Japanese began their attack on British Malaya on December 8, 1941 and within nine weeks had taken possession of the entire territory. Although the Japanese occupation was certainly economically impoverished and oftentimes brutal, particularly for Chinese immigrants and the captured British, the day to day business of the country continued in the able hands of Malay administrators who had previously worked for the British.

 

TOWARDS SELF RULE 

 

As the dust from the mushroom clouds that rose over Japan settled upon a completely changed world, the British, now keen to diminish its empire, were, on the whole, welcomed back to Malaya, and from the outset took over administration with the clear long term intention of persuading the various ethnic groups, principally Malay, Indian and Chinese, to come together in agreement over the creation of a single federation, initially under a British Governor, with the eventual aim of evolving into an independent state. 

 

Despite much disagreement and reluctance between the parties, the Federation of Malaya was set up on February 1st, 1948, and included all of the peninsula Sultanates, but excluded Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, which became British crown colonies. 

 

During the Japanese occupation, a resistance movement arose, comprised of mostly ethnic Chinese, and, in common with similar movements in Indochina, was rooted in communist principles and had, by 1948, dedicated itself to armed insurrection against British rule.

 

The tenacity of the fighting would keep British forces busy for the next ten years, during which the colonial forces even experimented with chemical weapons such as Agent Orange, later used in vast quantities by the US in its war with Vietnam, but the uprising failed in other respects to emulate the full-scale wars of Indochina owing to the ethnic make-up of the movement, which few Indians or Malays joined.

 

INDEPENDENCE  

 

Talks aimed at bringing together the ethnically diverse groups and forming a constitution began in earnest in 1956, proposing a constitutional monarchy model, with an appointed king, fully elected lower house and a nominated senate. Additionally, each state would have its own fully elected assembly.

 

Acceptance of the proposals by the various Malay leaders, the Malay Government, and the British led to Malaya achieving its independence on August 30th, 1957, under the Prime Ministership of Abdul Raman, but still at that time excluded the Malay peoples of Singapore and the Borneo states of Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak. 

 

In 1961, proposals were made to include these states within the Federation, to be re-named Malaysia, and was followed by consultations and surveys to assess the preferences of these populations, an exercise opposed by neighbouring countries Indonesia and the Philippines, both of whom laid claim to Northern Borneo. Indications from Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak were positive, but Brunei preferred not to participate.

 

The Federation of Malaysia became a reality on September 16th, 1963, which resulted in Indonesian attacks both in Borneo and on the Mainland, which were successfully resisted, leading ultimately to a relinquishing of both Indonesian and Philippine claims.

 

On August 9th 1965, Singapore, as a result of political differences over difficult racial issues, left the Federation and became an independent state. 

 

MODERN MALAYSIA

  

The aftermath of Malaysia’s independence was characterised by difficulties rooted in the very complex racial mix of its inhabitants, and the distribution of both wealth and power within these groups, leading to much unrest, most notably the rioting that broke out following the elections of 1969.

 

Commendably, the determination to evolve a successful country out of the post-colonial era assured that these issues did not degenerate into further factionalism, but were addressed by future planning to rebalance the economy and resolve the disputes.

 

During the 1970’s strenuous efforts were made to diversify Malaysia’s economy away from its inherited colonial industries and, accompanied by the fortuitous discovery of Natural gas and oil offshore, these economic realignments assured the country of an increasingly prosperous future.

 

In 1981, the appointment of Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad would begin to further transform Malaysia into an economic and cultural powerhouse, which would herald an era of stunning architecture and world-leading industry, and perhaps more importantly, finally shrug off the negative hangover of ‘inferiority’, still lingeringly perceived from the days of arrogant colonialism, towards true self-confidence. 

 

The financial stability of Malaysia suffered a serious shock during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which would, over an eighteen-month period, see the Malaysian stock market lose 80% of its value. The Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was arrested and imprisoned on corruption charges, engendering much protest from the Malays, who considered the verdict unfair.

 

Matathir Mohamad retired in 2003, leaving a profound legacy of Malaysian success, but the price to the constitution during his stewardship was reflected in the erosion of civil liberties and press freedom.

 

In recent times, Malaysia has continued to build on its success, but in the post 9/11 world, the increasing emergence of radical Islamic political parties now has the potential to destabilise the enviable racial harmony that Malaysia, in contrast to many other nations, has thus far admirably achieved.

 

Fortunately, most Malays, like Asian Muslims generally, are completely unattracted by violent Jihadism, and enjoy their beautiful country and society as it is. 

 

BORNEO

 

Early human presence in Northern Borneo is still the subject of scientific debate, with stone tools discovered in sites which have been accorded an age of at least 200,000 years.

 

Other early settlements such as those found at the Niah Caves in Sarawak are dated to 40,000 years ago, and the various ethnic Orang Asli groups found in the region today are descended from these inhabitants.

 

Several waves of migration from around 3,000 BC to 1,000 BC brought new influences to the prehistoric landscape, during which the ancestors of the present day Malays also arrived.

 

Small Malay kingdoms are known to have thrived in the region in the early centuries AD, before the ancient Hindu-Buddhist culture emanating from India, so much a feature in many of these nation’s histories, swept across Southeast Asia.

 

The first great empire of this tradition was that of Srivijaya, later in turn subsumed by the Majapahit who brought their culture to Borneo. With the collapse of Majapahit, the wave of Islamic conversion which established itself in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula also took root in northern Borneo, which largely came under the rule of the Sultanate of Brunei.

 

The arrival of European powers, which would widely shape the future course of the entire region began in 1521, with the Portuguese, followed by the Spanish and Dutch seeking trade.

 

The battle for dominance in the region fell in favour of the British in Malaya, following the fall of Malacca, and northern Borneo too came under their influence.

 

In Sarawak, British adventurer Sir James Brooke arrived in 1839 and, in 1841, assisted in the suppression of a local rebellion, for which the Sultan of Brunei, Omar Ali Saifuddin II, bestowed territory upon him, and appointed him Raja, a post he held until his death in 1868. The title then passed to his family in a period of private rule known as the ‘White Rajas’, which remained in place up until the Second World War.

 

In Sabah, Labuan Island was ceded to the British in 1846, becoming a crown colony under direct British rule, while the rest of the territory was leased in 1865 by the then Sultan, Abdul Momin, to the American Consul General Charles Lee Moses, which in turn was then passed over to American commercial interests.

 

In 1888, North Borneo became nominally a British protectorate, but administration remained largely in the hands of private enterprise.  

 

The Japanese occupation of Borneo from 1941 – 1945 would overturn this cosy world of private trade monopoly and expose the local populace to the brutality of their rule, during which many Malay intellectuals were executed.

 

At the End of the Second World War, northern Borneo, came under direct British Rule for the first time, and remained so even after the peninsula gained its independence in 1957. However, having been granted self-determination in 1963, Sabah and Sarawak chose to join the Malaysian Federation, while oil rich Brunei would chose a wholly independent path.

 

The Initial period under the Malaysian Federation was for the Borneo states characterised by strife with Indonesia, which persisted until 1966.

 

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