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.

(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.

(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. 

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.

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 (picture).

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.

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.


  1. Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, 1957-1970

  2. Tun Abdul Razak bin Dato' Hussein, 1970-1976

  3. Tun Hussein Onn, 1976-1981

  4. Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, 1981-2003

  5. Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, 2003-


  1. 1999 (10th)
  2. 2004 (11th)
  3. 2008 (12th)
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