|Malaysia was first
mentioned in Chinese and Sanskrit records of the 7th and 8th
centuries. The region was under the control of Thai and Indonesian empires, including the
Sumatra-based civilization of Sri Vijaya in the past centuries.
The Majapahit Empire headquartered in Java followed this
in the 14th century. Sri Vijaya and Majapahit, Buddhist and Hindu
left a mark on the peninsula. By the 14th century, Islam, already
well established in parts of India was continuously stretching east through
the growing trade between India and Malaya. The 1st Muslim
empire in Malaya, located at the trading port of Malacca, was
formed under the power of King Parameswara in the 1st part
of the 15th century.
The Portuguese moved into the region in the 16th century and, after capturing
Malacca, creating many of bases in the area. Sultan
Mahmud, the emperor of Malacca, could not recapture it from
the Portuguese. His successors, who had settled in Johore on the
southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, formed an alliance with the
Dutch in the district at the end of the century and together expelled
the Portuguese in 1641.
Over the next 150 years, the Dutch spread over the area
until the Dutch East Indies became the centre of a most thriving
colonial trading operation. The British started arriving at the end
of the 18th century, and they were to play a principal role following
the European wars of the 1790s and the defeat of the Netherlands
by France in 1795. Rather than hand control over to the French,
the Dutch passed control of some of their most valuable resources
to the British in a series of exchanges. Little by little during
the 19th century, the British took power of Malacca using economic
pressure (especially their monopoly of the tin trade) rather than
straight-out military force. The local governors were allowed substantial
internal autonomy provided that they did not pose a threat to British
The Federated Malay States were formed in 1895, and remained
under British influence until the Japanese invasion of 1942.
After the Japanese loss in 1945, the 11 Malay states were once
again incorporated as British Protectorates and in 1948 they became
the Federation of Malaya.
That same year, communist guerrillas, many of whom were ethnic Chinese,
launched an armed attack aimed at establishing an independent socialist
state. ‘The Emergency’, as the authorities called it,
lasted until 1960. However, the major fighting was ended by the mid
1950s and in 1957, Britain went ahead with its plan to grant independence
to the Federation of Malaya.
In 1963 the Federation joined with Singapore and the former British
colonies of Sarawak and Sabah (North Borneo) to form Malaysia.
Singapore withdrew from becoming an independent state 1965. Tunku
Abdul Rahman, who took over as premier of the federation in 1957,
stayed on as Prime Minister of the newly expanded republic. However, in 1970 he was replaced by Tunku Abdul Razak. The principal
political organization was the United Malay National Organization
(UMNO), which allied itself with smaller parties to create the Barisan
Nasional (NF, National Front).
In 1982, the National Front gained a victory in the general election under the new
leadership of Mahathir Mohammed.
Maverick policy-making, strident nationalism, acerbic tongue, acute
political antennae and an intolerance of opposition from any side
characterized Mahathir’s style. In his twenty years
in power, he stamped his authority on Malaysian politics. His ruthlessness
was came to light after falling out with his former deputy and heir
apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, over Malaysia’s handling to
the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Anwar was framed for corruption
and after a show trial, he was jailed for 15 years. Anwar
Ibrahim has since been released.
Although the NF had successfully won every poll in the 1980s and
1990s, many, including influential figures within UMNO, believed
that Mahathir had tried to do more than he had the power. The test came during the
general elections of November 1999. Mahathir ran a solid campaign,
which brought back the NF to office with a substantial majority.
Both the democratic opposition, organized with supporters of Anwar,
and the Islamic opposition centred on the Pan-Malaysian Islamic
Party (PAS) were dealt with. In particular, Mahathir made heavy
use of the ‘9/11’ attacks to demonize his Islamic opponents.
With his political position strengthened, Mahathir’s announcement
in June 2002 to resign the following year was an enormous surprise. The
shock was followed by disbelief, but in October 2003 Mahathir
did indeed step down. The key task for his chosen successor, Abdullah
Ahmad Badawi – a former senior civil servant – is
to prevent any further gains by the Islamic PAS.
Mahathir’s ruthlessness applied appropriately to his foreign policy.
More than once he cut relations with both Britain and Australia
owing to the unflattering media coverage. Though very anti-communist,
he did establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam and other communist
neighbours in 1989 despite strong objections from the USA. A strong
voice for Asian regional solidarity, he believed that East Asia
should develop political clout to match its economic power.
Malaysia is an active member of the Commonwealth.