Pre colonial area
Malaysia history starts in the first century AD. Two events helped stimulate Malaysia's emergence in international trade in the ancient world. At that time, India had two principal sources of gold and other metals: the Roman Empire and China. The overland route from China was cut by marauding Huns. At about the same time, the Roman Emperor Vespasian cut off shipments of gold to India.
Malacca in colonial times
As a result, India sent large and seaworthy ships, with crews reported to have numbered in the hundreds, to Southeast Asia, including the Malay Peninsula, to seek alternative sources. The Malay Peninsula must have been of some significance. Ptolemy recorded its presence in his map as the 'Chersonesus Aureus'.
In the century that followed the Malays discovered rich tin deposits. This became of great significance in Indian Ocean trade, and the region prospered. The Malays benefited from the maritime trade and the ports flourished. Malay ports served as centers for trade between these trading centers in India, South East Asia and China. The traders brought with them the Hindu-Buddhist culture which became of great influence on the local people.
Malacca historical city center with Stadthuys and Christchurch
The early Buddhist Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, based at what is now Palembang, Sumatra, dominated much of the Malay Peninsula from the 9th to the 13th centuries AD. The powerful Hindu kingdom of Majapahit, based on Java, ruled the Malay Peninsula in the 14th century. Arrival of Muslim traders resulted in the conversion of many Malays to Islam. That process started in the beginning of the early 14th century and accelerated further with the establishment of the Sultanate of Malacca in the 15th century.
Pangkor in ancient times
Many early Malay city states paid tribute to various kingdoms such as the kingdoms of China and Siam. In return for such tribute, a princess of China was gifted to the Sultan of Malacca at the time. Eventually such inter-marriages between local Malays and ethnic Chinese led to a class of straits-born Chinese known as the peranakan. They have a unique culture and distinct foods which is unique to itself. Male peranakan as referred to as Baba and female peranakan are referred to as Nyonya.
Pangkor Island 1897
Malacca was a major regional entrepot, where Chinese, Arab, Malay, and Indian merchants traded precious goods. By sometime in the 1400s Malacca was already a "colony" of China as tribute was paid to the Chinese emperor. However, there was very little interference in habits of the people or policies of the local rulers.
The dawn of European colonialism in Southeast Asia began largely at the start of the 16th Century. Drawn by the vibrant trade, the abundant spice and the large markets, the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, marking the beginning of European expansion in Southeast Asia.
The Dutch ousted the Portuguese from Malacca in 1641. They build a Fort at Pangkor. Click here for more on the Dutch Fort. A century later, in 1795, they themselves were replaced by the British, who had occupied Penang in 1786. During their occupation, the British signed an important Treaty at Pangkor. It was therefore called the "Pangkor Treaty 1874".
It was a treaty signed between the Sir Andrew Clarke on behalf of the British and Raja Abdullah of Perak. The treaty is significant in the Malay states history because it signaled the British official involvement in the Malay states' policies.
Read more about the Pangkor Treaty 1874 which was such an important part of the Malaysian history
In 1826, the British settlements of Malacca, Penang, and Singapore were combined to form the Crown Colony of the Straits Settlements. From these strong points, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the British established protectorates over the Malay sultanates on the peninsula. Four of these states, Penang, Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan, were consolidated in 1895 as the Federated Malay States.
States under direct British control ceded their rights of Foreign policy and Military affairs to the British Crown. All other affairs were still controlled by the pre-existing local ruler. However, all rulers were required to host a British advisor and were expected to listen to this advisor even on issues of local administration. Advisors did not interfere in issues regarding local religious practices.
During the British colonial period, a system of public administration was established which included a civil service, public education, transportation, various infrastructure and healthcare.
Resource development was also a mark of the British era. Primary resources including plantations and tin were developed aggressively to fund the empire.
Migrant workers were imported en-masse from India to work in plantations as lowly paid indentured laborers. They were, little better off than slaves or serfs in other parts of the world.
Pasir Salak Museum
Workers from China paid sums to "agents" who would get them well paying jobs in the local tin-mines of the time. The lot of the Chinese worker in Malaya was stark. Often arriving with only his clothes, he would set to work and dream of returning to China with wealth.
Chinese workers had no agency to look after them unlike the plantation structures looking after the Indian workers. As such, many fell back to their traditional clan associations for various social services. Social services included protection, ceremonial needs and the saving of money for repatriation of their corpse and burial in their home village.
Not all of the clan associations were benign and some were local branches of the "Heaven and Earth Society" in China. Sometimes "protection" of their members resulted in rioting and large scale melees. As a result some of these groups were subsequently branded "Secret societies" by the British government and declared illegal. A Chinese Protectorate was also set up to look after the interest of the Chinese people and perform many of the functions previously undertaken by these associations. This resulted in a lessening of the influence these societies had over the Chinese.
Subsequently, the British Government allowed immigration of Chinese woman as well, which was previously disallowed. Once they were allowed to bring their wives (many had more than one) from their home village, it was only a matter of time before some decided to call Malaysia their home.
The British saw an opportunity to plant rubber in the compatible soil so a few trimmings of Hevea brasiliensis were smuggled back to Malaya where a booming trade in rubber soon resulted. Malaysia has since become the world's largest producer of natural latex in the world.
Tea was similarly imported to the hill stations of Malaysia by the British and is still grown today on plantations bearing the colonial names of the large British conglomerates who once helped finance an empire.
British rule was interrupted by the Japanese invasion and occupation from December 1941 to August 1945 during World War II.
Declaration of independence: Merdaka for Malaya
The British rule was not fully accepted by the Malay people. The First Resident, J.W.W. Birch was killed during his mission to enforce British administration in Perak. It was the beginning of the fight for independence which eventually would be reached in 1963. Read more on J.W.W. Birch role in Malaysia history. at Pasir Salak
In 1946, the whole of Malaya (except Singapore, which became a separate crown colony) was consolidated into a crown colony called the Malayan Union. Because of opposition from the Malays the Union was a political failure, and was replaced just two years later by a looser Federation of Malaya in 1948.
In 1948, local communists of the Communist Party of Malaya, nearly all Chinese, launched an insurgency, prompting the imposition of Malayan Emergency (the state of emergency was lifted in 1960). Small bands of guerrillas remained in bases along the rugged border with southern Thailand, occasionally entering northern Malaysia. These guerrillas finally signed a peace accord with the Malaysian government in December 1989.
Popular sentiment for independence swelled during and after the war and the Federation of Malaya negotiated independence from the United Kingdom under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman, who became the first prime minister. As part of their "Hearts and Minds" anti-communist strategy the British government agreed to give Malaya independence on August 31, 1957. Malaya remained part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and hosted a large British and Commonwealth military presence until the withdrawal of British forces East of Suez in the late 1960s.
The independent Federation of Malaya combined with the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo (renamed Sabah) to form Malaysia on September 16, 1963.
The state's formation was highly controversial, and both the Philippines and Indonesia made claims to parts of East Malaysia. Internal rebellions supporting these claims or regional independence were suppressed by Commonwealth forces and three years of semi-war called Indonesian Confrontation on the borders to Indonesia ensued.
Postwar Penang (postcard, more postcards here)
As a concession to the widespread opposition, Brunei was kept outside the Malaysian federation, but remained under British military protection. The United States decisively agreed to support the formation of Malaysia after a 1964 secret diplomatic deal with the United Kingdom, in return for British support in Vietnam.
As a result of differences between the two governments, and tensions between Chinese and Malays, Singapore left the federation and became an independent republic on August 9, 1965. Continued ethnic tensions led to bloody racial riots in Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969, which resulted in a two-year state of Emergency, and the subsequent imposition of a New Economic Policy aimed at redistributing wealth to the Malays, who at the time owned 2% of the economy.