Malaysia is unique in that it is the only country that has territory on both the mainland and insular regions of Southeast Asia. Peninsular Malaysia is largely mountainous (one-half of the total area is more than 500 ft [150 m] above sea level) and consists of several north-south-aligned mountain ranges dominated by the 300mi- (500km-) long Main Range, with elevations rising to more than 7000 ft (2000 m). Bordering the mountainous core are coastal lowlands that are heavily populated on the west and are narrow, swampy, and densely forested on the east. In East Malaysia the coastal plains (10 to 20 mi [16 to 32 km] wide in the east and 20 to 40 mi [32 to 64 km] wide in the west) rise to a hill and valley region and then to a mountainous core that has elevations between 4000 and 7000 ft (1200 and 2000 m) and includes Mount Kinabalu (13455 ft [4101 m]) in the extreme northeast, the highest point in the country. The 270mi- (435km-) long Pahang River is the principal river of Peninsular Malaysia, and in East Malaysia the Rajang and the Kinabatangan are the principal rivers of Sarawak and Sabah, respectively.
Malaysia's equatorial climate is strongly influenced by northeast (November or December to March) and southwest (June to September or early October) monsoons. Mean annual temperatures range between 77 - 86 F (25 - 30 C) in the lowlands and 72 - 83 F (22 - 28 C) on the interior mountains. The mean annual rainfall is very high and ranges from 100 inches (2,500 mm) in Peninsular Malaysia to 90 inches (2,300 mm) in Sarawak and to 130 inches (3,300 mm) in Sabah. Relative humidity is also high, averaging 80 to 85 percent.
The hot and humid climate favors dense tropical vegetation - up to three-fifths of the land is under forests, most of it evergreen rain forests, and vegetation includes bamboo, camphor, ebony, sandalwood, teak, palm, and mangrove forests. The country's varied animal life includes elephant, tiger, leopard, wild ox, sun (honey) bear, wild pig, orangutan, gibbon, and some rhinoceros. East Malaysia has one of the largest and most varied bird populations in the world, including hornbills, parrots, broadbills, swifts, pigeons, woodpeckers, and many other species. Tree crops, notably rubber and palm oil, are the country's most important cash crops. Malaysia's tin reserves are the third largest in the world after those of Brazil and China. Its proven reserves of petroleum and natural gas are also important.
Malaysia is one of the most racially, ethnically and religiously diverse nations in the world today, with all of the world's major religions, as well as major Asian ethnic groups, represented. In this relatively tiny area, peace thrives as the various groups co-exist in harmony and tolerance; complementing one another to enrich the shared character, cultural mosaic and vision of the nation.
Many Malaysians make it a custom to participate in the religious holidays of other faiths. Muslim mosques, Christian churches, and Hindu and Buddhist temples stand side by side in urban areas. Because it commands the Strait of Malacca (Malay = Selat Melaka), one of the major sea-lanes of the world, the Malay Peninsula has been the meeting place of peoples from other parts of Asia. This is reflected in the diversity of the country's population. Malays, Chinese, and Indians form the largest ethnic groups in Malaysia. More than 80 percent of the people live in Peninsular Malaysia. Most of the nation's urban areas are also there, including Kuala Lumpur, the capital and largest city.
Three groups of people have lived on the Malay Peninsula since prehistoric times: (1) a forest-dwelling people called the Orang Asli, who were mainly hunters and gatherers; (2) a coastal people called the Orang Laut, who earned a living by fishing and seafaring; and (3) the Malays, who primarily farmed and fished. In Peninsular Malaysia the Orang Asli peoples, including the Jakun, Semang, and Senoi groups, practice traditional religions, and some are Muslims.
The largest ethnic group in Malaysia, accounting for more than half of the total population today, is the Malays. Islam is the religion of almost all Malays, as well as some Malaysian Indians, and is also the official religion of the state. People are allowed to follow other religions but may not try to convert Muslims to their faith. The Malays, along with the indigenous people, form a group called bumiputra, a Bahasa Malaysia term which literally means "sons of the soil", which accords them special privileges as enshrined in the Constitution.
Two other large ethnic groups came to what is now Malaysia during colonial times, in the 1800's and early 1900's. These two groups were the Chinese (about 35% of the population), who migrated from southeastern China and came to work in tin mining or retail trade, and Indians/Pakistanis/Tamils (from Sri Lanka) (about 10% of the population), who came to work on rubber plantations. The Chinese are mostly Buddhists, Taoists, or Confucians, with some Christians. Most of the Indians and Sri Lankans are Hindus, and most of the Pakistanis are Muslim. The population of East Malaysia is even more diverse than that of Peninsular Malaysia. When Sabah and Sarawak became part of Malaysia in 1963, the peoples of Borneo added still other ethnic groups to this multiracial land. Sabah's largest ethnic group is the Kadazans. In Sarawak, the largest group is the Ibans, also called the Sea Dayaks who were formerly headhunters and continue to live in communal longhouses. The Kadazans of Sabah and many Ibans of Sarawak are Christian. The Bidayuh (Land Dayak) inhabit the hill country of western Sarawak. In addition, there are the Chinese (about one-third of the population) and some 25 ethnic groups as well as smaller tribal subgroups that speak Austronesian languages. Still another wave of immigration began in the 1970's because of an economic boom. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, mainly from Indonesia, poured into Malaysia to fill manufacturing jobs.
The Malays dominate Malaysia's government and armed forces, but the Chinese control much of the economy. Many Chinese Malaysians resent the political power of the Malays. The Malays, in turn, resent the other group's wealth. The tensions between the Chinese and the Malays have erupted in violence from time to time.
Malaysians use several different languages. The Malay language is an Austronesian language called Bahasa Malaysia, which means language of Malaysia. It is the country's official language. Many Malaysians also speak English. Many Malaysians of Chinese descent speak southern Chinese dialects, though a large number also know some Mandarin Chinese. Many Indian Malaysians use a southern Indian language called Tamil. Tamils speak either Dravidian or Indo-European languages. Many smaller ethnic groups, such as the Kadazans, speak their own language but can also communicate in Bahasa Malaysia.
The annual rate of growth of Malaysia's population was once one of the highest in Asia but has decreased steadily since 1960. Peninsular Malaysia has about four-fifths of the country's population. Formerly high birth rates have dropped among the Chinese and Indian ethnic groups in particular. The population is young - about 37 percent are younger than 15 years of age. Health standards are good for a developing country, and the life expectancy is 70 years for men and 75 years for women. Approximately two-fifths of the population is urban, and the trend of migration is toward the cities.
From the mid-1970's to the mid-1990's, Malaysia had one of the world's fastest growing economies. From 1970 to the mid-1990's, Malaysia's gross domestic product (GDP), the total value of all goods and services produced within the country, grew at an average annual rate of more than 7 percent. After more than two decades of robust growth, however, the Malaysian economy slowed somewhat in the late 1990's.
Malaysia's impressive economic performance has been based on rich natural resources and a diversified economy. In the 1970's, Malaysia was primarily an exporter of raw commodities, such as timber, rubber, tin, and palm oil. It still produces those basic goods, but they play a much smaller economic role. The country now derives much of its wealth from manufacturing and a successful exporter of electronic products.
Malaysia has a predominantly market economy that has been transformed from one heavily dependent on the production and export of raw materials to one that is much more diversified. The New Economic Policy and its successors, initiated after ethnic riots in 1969 against prosperous minority (usually Chinese or Indian merchant) communities, were designed to reduce poverty among Malays and other indigenous people. The gross national product (GNP) is growing more rapidly than the population; the GNP per capita is, after Singapore and Brunei, the third-highest in Southeast Asia.
Manufacturing employs about one-fourth of Malaysia's labor force and produces about one-third of the gross domestic product. Nearly all manufacturing takes place in the western half of Peninsular Malaysia, chiefly in the Kelang Valley and on the island of Penang. The Chinese and other immigrants dominate most industries; foreign investment in domestic industries is encouraged. Rubber goods, cement, iron and steel products, and radio and television sets are important manufactures.
The Malaysian electronics industry has been a major success. Malaysia is a leading producer of integrated circuits and other semiconductor devices.
Malaysia has also established its own automobile industry. With Japanese help, Malaysian automakers began in 1985 to produce a car called the Proton, the first Malaysian-built automobile.
Agriculture. Agriculture accounts for approximately one-fifth of the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs about one-fourth of the workforce. Land reform was initiated after 1955 but benefited relatively few peasants. Many Malays continue to depend on subsistence farming, and most smallholders live in poverty. Malaysia is the world's leading producer of palm oil, a vegetable oil made from palm tree nuts. Palm oil is used for cooking and in the production of margarine and soap. Malaysia is also the third-largest producer of natural rubber, exceeded only by Thailand and Indonesia. Nearly all of the country's palm oil and rubber are raised on large plantations for export.
Malaysia's production of rice, the chief staple, meets nearly all of its domestic demand. Malaysian farmers also grow many varieties of tropical fruit, including pineapples, mangoes, and bananas. Two local favorites are the spiky, strong-smelling durian and the juicy, reddish-purple mangosteen. Small farms also produce coconuts, vegetables, and cacao (seeds used in making chocolate). Some farmers raise cattle or hogs. Sarawak is one of the world's largest producers of black pepper. Rubber, the main cash crop, is grown primarily on small farms and accounts for one-fourth of the world's production of this commodity. Private estates provide about one-half of palm-oil production and the Federal Land Development Authority, an organization of smallholders, accounts for one-third. Roundwood, exported to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China, is a major source of foreign exchange. Extensive reforestation was initiated in 1981.
Forestry. Malaysia's tropical rain forests yield many valuable products, including aromatic woods, such as camphor and sandalwood, and beautiful hardwoods, such as ebony, mahogany, and teak.
Mining. Malaysia is rich in mineral resources. Malaysia's mineral industries are dominated by the production and export of petroleum, which the government controls, and tin, in whose exploitation it participates. The Malay Peninsula has the world's largest reserves of alluvial tin, easily mined tin deposits left by flowing water. Singapore, Japan, and South Korea are major markets for Malaysia's crude petroleum; its tin production is threatened by depletion of reserves and price fluctuations. Quantities of copper and bauxite (aluminum ore) are also mined and exported. The country's other minerals include gold and iron ore.
Fishing industry. Malaysian fishing crews take shrimp and such fishes as anchovies and mackerel from Malaysia's coastal waters. Shrimp is the country's most important seafood export.
Service industries, which produce services rather than goods, have become increasingly important to Malaysia's economy. They now employ about half the labor force. The country's main service industries include government, transportation, and retail sales. Most retail stores in Malaysia are small general stores run by Chinese or Indian Malaysians. Larger retail outlets, including supermarkets and department stores, operate chiefly in urban centers. Urban areas also have the bulk of the country's other service industries, such as finance and real estate. Malaysia has a rapidly growing tourist industry that draws millions of visitors a year.
Energy sources. Malaysia is well supplied with energy. Large amounts of oil and natural gas come from offshore wells near the coasts of Terengganu and Sarawak. The heavy rainfall and rugged terrain of Peninsular Malaysia and the Borneo states furnish ample amounts of the falling water needed for hydroelectric power. Plants that burn oil, gas, or coal supply about four-fifths of Malaysia's electric power, and hydroelectric plants generate about one-fifth.
International trade. The Malaysian Trade Union Congress, which was founded in 1949, encompasses most unions in the country. Malaysia's exports have changed greatly since the 1970's, when rubber and tin dominated. By the 1990's, manufactured goods accounted for more than half of the country's export earnings. Electrical and electronic products, particularly integrated circuits, make up the largest category of manufactured exports. Other major exports include palm oil; petroleum; rubber and rubber products, such as gloves; textiles; and wood products. Malaysia's main imports include chemicals, food, machinery, and transportation equipment. Malaysia has enjoyed a positive balance of trade in recent years. The country's major trading partners are Japan, the United States, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy and a federation of states governed by a constitutional monarchy. The country is divided into 13 states and 3 federal territories. The three territories are the area surrounding Kuala Lumpur (capital city), Putrajaya (new administrative center) and the island of Labuan. Hereditary rulers, most of whom are called sultans, rule 9 of Malaysia's 13 states. From among themselves, the nine rulers choose a king called the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, which means paramount ruler. The king is the head of federal government. He serves a five-year term, performing mainly ceremonial duties, before the kingship rotates to another of the nine hereditary rulers. According to the country's constitution of 1957, real political power rests with the federal legislature.
National government. A Prime Minister and a parliament run the federal government. Parliament has two houses, a House of Representatives called the Dewan Rakyat and a Senate called the Dewan Negara. The powerful Dewan Rakyat has 193 members, consisting of 144 from Peninsular Malaysia, 27 from Sarawak, 20 from Sabah, and 1 each from Labuan and Putrajaya. The people elect these representatives for five-year terms by universal adult suffrage, unless an election is called earlier. Normally, the leader of the political party with the most seats becomes Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then chooses a cabinet. The Dewan Negara has 70 members all of whom serve three-year terms. The 13 state legislatures elect two members apiece; Kuala Lumpur elects 2, Labuan and Putrajaya each elect 1. The king appoints the other 40 members on the basis of distinguished public service or to represent ethnic minorities with the advice of the prime minister.
The federal government is responsible for foreign affairs, defense, internal security, justice (except where Islamic and native law prevail), federal citizenship, finance, commerce, industry, communications, and transportation.
Local government. Nine of Malaysia's 13 states were formerly kingdoms and continue to be governed by their traditional hereditary rulers acting on the advice of State Executive Councils. The other four states have governors appointed by the federal government. Altogether, they constitute the Conference of Rulers. Each of the 13 states has its own constitution, legislature, and local officials. The state governments deal with immigration, civil service, and customs matters.
Political parties. The most powerful political organization in Malaysia is an alliance called the National Front, a coalition of parties representing the country's major ethnic groups. The largest party in the alliance is the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The two major opposition parties are the Democratic Action Party, the members of which are mainly Chinese, and the Islamic Party of Malaysia, which represents Muslim interests.
Courts. The Federal Court, formerly called the Supreme Court, is the highest judicial body in Malaysia. It has 10 members, who are appointed by the king on the advice of the prime minister. Below it is a Court of Appeal, and at the next level are two high courts, one for Peninsular Malaysia, the other for Sabah and Sarawak. Lower courts include local and juvenile courts. Special religious courts issue rulings on Islamic law, called Sharia (also spelled Shariah). Jury trials were abolished in 1995.
Armed forces of Malaysia has three branches: the Malaysian Army, the Royal Malaysian Navy, and the Royal Malaysian Air Force. Malaysia's armed forces have about 111,500 active members. All service is voluntary.
Social conditions. Malaysia's social-welfare system provides employed persons with work injury, old age, and disability benefits. The general level of the country's health compares favorably with those of other developing nations. Malaysia is now free of many tropical diseases, but some diseases borne by animal vectors, such as malaria, are still a problem in rural areas. Health services are generally adequate in the towns and cities, and medical care is free for those who live near a government hospital or clinic, but there is a shortage of doctors and hospitals in the countryside.
Education.Primary and secondary education are free, but non-compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 15. Children start school at 6 years old. They remain in primary school for six years and then go to secondary school. Bahasa Malaysia is the language of instruction in most schools, though some schools, especially at the primary level, also teach in Mandarin Chinese or Tamil. In all schools, English and Bahasa Malaysia are compulsory subjects. It is estimated that almost 90 percent of all primary school age children attend the country's six-year primary schools. Graduates of this level may attend lower, and later upper, secondary school. Upper secondary graduates, upon certification, may enter one of the country's universities. Malaysia has many universities, technical institutes, and teacher training colleges. The largest university is the University of Malaya at Kuala Lumpur.
Transportation. Malaysia has a good transportation network, but rapid economic growth has stretched it to the limit. Historically, waterways were Malaysia's primary means of transportation. Even today, water travel remains important because the country's mountainous terrain and thick forests hinder movement by land. Rivers form the main thoroughfare into the interior. River transport continues to play a major role in East Malaysia. The Strait of Malacca, on the western side of the Malay Peninsula, serves as a major shipping lane between Europe and Asia. The South China Sea links the two parts of Malaysia and is the principal thoroughfare between East Asia and Southeast Asia. Malaysia's major seaports include George Town, Port Kelang, and Johor Baharu.
Long-distance travel in Malaysia depends heavily on aviation. Kuala Lumpur International Airport at Sepang is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Kuala Lumpur. This airport opened in 1998 and helped relieve congestion at the older Subang airport. A government-owned airline called Malaysia Airlines is the major Malaysian air carrier. In 1994, a second national airline called Air Asia began operations. Kuala Lumpur is served by many international carriers, including Malaysia Airlines, a state-controlled line. There are five regional airports and numerous smaller airports located in Peninsular and East Malaysia.
Since Malaysia's economic boom began in the 1970's, the country's roads have become severely congested. More Malaysians have bought motorcycles and automobiles, adding to traffic congestion. Most middle-class families own cars, especially Malaysian-built Protons. Lower-income groups tend to ride motorcycles or use public transportation. Malaysia has an estimated 58,500 miles (94,000 kilometers) of roads, three-fourths of which are paved. Peninsular Malaysia has several highways, but Sabah and Sarawak have poor-quality roads. The rail network is well developed in Peninsular Malaysia, but Sarawak has no railway, and Sabah has only a short line for freight and passenger traffic.
Buses provide most of Malaysia's public transportation. Railroads, which are owned by the government, operate in Peninsular Malaysia and in Sabah.
Communications. A government-run corporation called Radio Television Malaysia operates radio and television stations. Malaysia also has commercial and cable television stations. Under the Broadcasting Act of 1987, the federal minister of information has the power to monitor all radio and television programming. The nation's press is privately owned but restricted by laws that forbid the publishing of any matter considered harmful to the country's security, order, or morality. The broadcast media are government owned.
Most Malaysian families have a radio or a television set, and most also have a telephone. Cellular telephones are popular among business people and the middle class, and the use of such phones has become a status symbol in modern Malaysia.
Malaysia has about 40 daily newspapers. The most important papers include Berita Harian and Utusan Malaysia in Bahasa Malaysia and the New Straits Times and The Star in English.
Rural life. Most people in the rural areas of Peninsular Malaysia are Malays who farm or fish. Rural Malays live in villages called kampongs, also spelled kampungs. Their houses are built on stilts with wooden or bamboo walls and floors, and thatched palm roofs. Such raised construction prevents flooding in the rainy reason and allows air to circulate more freely to cool the interior. Well-to-do families may have tin or tile roofs.
Most rural families grow rice as their staple food. They supplement the rice by raising fresh vegetables and by fishing in flooded rice fields or nearby streams. Most farm families also raise a few rubber trees and sell the rubber to add to the family income. The Malays along the coast earn their living primarily by fishing.
In Sabah and in Sarawak, many people live in isolated villages. Several families often live together under one roof in a large dwelling called a long house. They have vegetable gardens, and they also hunt, fish, and gather edible plants in the nearby jungles.
Most rural villages have one or more small shops run by Chinese merchants, who sell many articles that the people cannot make for themselves. In Sarawak and Sabah, Chinese peddlers travel upriver by boat to isolated settlements to exchange goods for forest products.
City life. Malaysia is rapidly becoming an urbanized society. More than half the population lives in urban areas. A lack of jobs in the countryside and an economic boom in the cities have contributed to urban growth.
Kuala Lumpur is a bustling, modern city with lofty skyscrapers, including the world's tallest building, Petronas Towers. This office building, the headquarters of the national oil company, stands 1,483 feet (452 meters) high.
Wealthy Malaysians live in large, comfortable homes with yards and servants. Most urban dwellers, however, live in modest apartments or town houses like those in American and European cities. Many rural Malays who have recently moved to the city live in shacks and other makeshift shelters in temporary squatter settlements.
Clothing. In everyday life, most Malaysians wear clothing similar to that worn in North America and Europe. Nearly all Malays are Muslims, and many of them choose modest styles favored by Islam. For example, many Malay women wear a loose, long-sleeved blouse, a long skirt extending to their ankles, and a shawl or kerchief over their heads. Many Malay men wear a black hat called a songkok. For ceremonies and other formal gatherings, both men and women may don traditional Malay dress, which includes a tunic or blouse and a length of batik cloth worn as a skirt. Batik is a traditional process of dying cloth in elaborate patterns.
Chinese, Indians, and other groups in Malaysia also wear their traditional dress for special occasions. Many Indian women wear saris, and some Chinese women wear a long, tight-fitting dress called a cheongsam.
Food and drink. Rice is the mainstay of the Malaysian diet, supplemented by vegetables, fish, and meat, mainly lamb, mutton, or chicken. Fruit or cake is often served for dessert. Tea and coffee are popular beverages. Two principal ingredients in many Malay dishes are coconut milk and hot chilies. Malaysians also eat many Chinese and Indian dishes, some combined with Malay ingredients to create tasty combinations. Malaysian cities also have fast-food restaurants that serve hamburgers, pizza, and other kinds of American and European foods. Middle-class young people are the chief patrons of such restaurants.
Recreation. Among the Malays, kite flying and top spinning are traditional sports practiced by skilled adults rather than children. Pencak silat, the martial art of the Malays, has become part of Malaysian national culture. Silat practitioners fight not only with their hands but also with sticks and knives. Congkak is a traditional Malay game of skill using a board with holes and pebbles or marbles. Sepak takraw is a popular game like volleyball using a rattan or plastic ball. Unlike volleyball players, however, sepak takraw players use mainly their feet. They cannot touch the ball with their hands.
The most popular Western sports in Malaysia are soccer and badminton. Malaysian teams have won several international badminton championships.
The arts. Malaysia has attempted to preserve its traditional art forms despite the immense popularity of American and European rock music, television, and motion pictures. A traditional form of Malay drama is mak yong (also spelled mak yung or ma'yong), in which the performers sing, dance, and act out heroic tales about sultans and princesses. An orchestra called a gamelan accompanies most performances. A gamelan consists chiefly of metal percussion instruments, including gongs, xylophones, and drums.
Malaysia has had an active motion-picture industry since the founding of Malay Film Productions in the 1940's. Among its most famous stars was an actor, director, producer, singer, and composer named P. Ramlee. Ramlee appeared in films during the 1950's and 1960's.