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Malaysia in the World


Malaysia, Malaya, Malacca, The Malaccan Peninsula; Malay, and Malaysian

A multitude of terms calls for a quick explanation:


– a federation of eleven States on the mainland, plus Sarawak and Sabah in Northern Borneo.


– common name for the mainland part, and an official name during British rule and in the early period of Independence (1957-63).

The Malaccan peninsula

– another name for the mainland part. In old literature you often come across this name, or even just Malacca. The name Malacca dates back to a kingdom that in the late 15th century included the peninsula with a bit of present-day Thailand plus part of Sumatra. Present-day Malacca (Melaka according to new spelling rules) is now a minor State in the southwestern part of the Peninsula.


– a Malaysian citizen regardless of ethnic background.


– a person of Malay ethnic identity.

A complex cultural history

Geographically, Malaysia forms a bridge between continent and archipelago. Due to this placement the area has been a crossroads for traffic and has been exposed to a steady stream of cultural influences for thousands of years. Strong and lasting influences have come from China and Japan, from India and the Middle East, and during the last few centuries also from Europe. To take India as an example, Hindu and Buddhist influences arrived as early as the beginning of the Christian era. When Islam started to spread in the area in the 13th century, Indian merchants also brought this faith.

Throughout the centuries local peoples have appropriated new cultural material and worked it into their pre-existing repertoire until it became deeply ingrained in local cultures. We find examples of this cultural appropriation in several areas, such as supernaturalism and ritual, social etiquette, and material culture. The Indian influence, for instance, can be seen in court culture and wedding customs. And last but not least, it is visible in textile traditions and batik designs - the focus of this exhibition.

A turbulent political history

Many ties connect Malaysia and Indonesia, and recent political history rather than cultural determinants have laid down the border. The two countries had their present outlines determined as they were liberated from their respective colonial rulers - the British in Malaysia, and the Dutch in Indonesia. But the colonial rule of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was just the last but one epoch in a long row of shifting political forms.

At the beginning of the Christian era there were several small, unstable kingdoms that were influenced by cultural impulses from India to varying degrees. Later on larger empires have followed one after the other within the region, and all of them have claimed suzerainty over parts of present Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern Thailand. The largest of these empires was Majapahit from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century; the latest was Melaka from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century. The unique position of the seaport Melaka, its size and economic power, laid the foundation for the empire. The height of Melaka's growth coincided with Islam's decisive breakthrough in the region. A manifestation of this breakthrough was a transformation of traditional small kingdoms into sultanates. Here lies also, roughly, the beginning of the present individual States, many of which are still headed by a sultan.

Several authors of history books prefer to feature Melaka as the beginning of Malaysia's 'real' history. The Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511 started a period of several hundred years during which European states showed a growing interest in the region. The British conquered Penang in 1786, which started a colonisation of present-day Malaysia that was only completed in the early twentieth century. In 1957 the Federation of Malaya, consisting of eleven States in the peninsula, gained its independence. In 1963 Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore were included, and the name was changed to Malaysia. In 1965 Singapore left the federation, and only then was the present delimitation of Malaysia finally laid down.

Image may contain: Selling, Textile, Boutique, Outlet store, Bazaar.
Ethnic Indians own these textile shops, situated near the Indian mosque. They cater mostly for the home market, but many tourists are also attracted to this area.


A multiethnic society

Malaysia is a multiethnic society where the most important groups are Malays, several indigenous peoples, Chinese, and Indians. The Malays together with the tribal peoples of Northern Borneo have obtained the special political and cultural status bumiputra. In direct translation bumiputra means ’sons of the soil’, and the status implies a number of specific privileges that are worked out in accordance with the ongoing societal change. This group makes up just above 61 % of the population in all Malaysia. The Chinese make up 24.5 %, the Indians 7 %. (These percentages have been calculated from figures in the Malaysian Statistical Yearbook 2002). The composition of the population in the Peninsula will, however, differ from that of Northern Borneo. In the Peninsula the Chinese and Indians make up larger proportions, with the Malays somewhat more than half the population.

Chinese and Indians descend from immigrants that mostly came during the British rule. A considerable proportion of ethnic Chinese are the so-called peranakan who have lived there for several hundred years and have adopted many Malay cultural features in their daily lives. All these groups are Malaysians - citizens of the federation, whereas Malay is an ethnic category.

Ethnic Malays are, practically without exceptions, Muslims. The three largest ethnic groups have played different economic and political parts. The Malays were overwhelmingly rural before Independence. We could say hat they consisted of a populous peasant class and an aristocracy, that was also quite numerous, and emanated from the royal families. During colonial rule Malays were recruited to administrative and political roles according to the British policy of indirect rule that worked through indigenous political structures from top down to village level. The Malays’ placement in the politico-administrative hierarchy usually mirrored their birth rank. After independence a strikingly large number of top politicians have an aristocratic background.

The ethnic Chinese have dominated trade and industry, while the Indians have been mostly employees. During colonial rule there were large numbers of poor Tamil plantation workers, and in the other end of the scale more well-educated civil servants and professionals of Northern Indian extraction. The ethnic Indians of today tend to reproduce this class cleavage in general terms, although the plantation sector has changed greatly. A considerable number of Indians have been merchants, and have had an especially strong position in textile trade. The Malays of today are rapidly invading urban life and a more differentiated array of occupations. This is a result of political planning and an extremely fast and strong development of educational opportunities. However, there is still a continuation of Chinese domination in business, while the Malays tend to be more attracted to the tertiary sector.


The Malay language belongs to the vast Austronesian language family and is related to the languages in the Pacific archipelagos and Madagascar. Standard Malay and standard Indonesian differ only in small details in vocabulary and spelling. Malay, called bahasa Malaysia, became official national language at Independence.

Since then, the command of the Malay language has improved dramatically among people of Chinese and Indian descent and has largely replaced English as a lingua franca. But still Chinese and Indian languages are preferred within the respective ethnic milieus, and newspaper stands and bookstores testify to a linguistic plurality with their publications in different alphabets. English is still widely spoken, particularly in the major cities on the West Coast. This is especially true in the middle classes. Some urban upper middle class families from all ethnic groups speak English at home. There are several English language newspapers in the country; the largest ones are New Straits Times and the Star. Both of these, and several others, are available on Internet.

An ambitious modern country

An official distinction is made between West Malaysia, the mainland part, and East Malaysia, which is made up of the two large States Sabah and Sarawak in Northern Borneo. West Malaysia hosts most of the important political and cultural institutions. At Independence Malaysia was well off as developing countries go, and since then development has been impressive. The country is rich in natural resources like minerals and underwater oil deposits. Industrial growth has been strong since the seventies. There is also a considerable plantation sector. It should be mentioned that this, together with logging and some waterpower projects, has been heavily criticised from an environmental standpoint.

The level of education has exploded since Independence. In the generation born in the 1940s and earlier, there is still a large proportion of people who have never received any formal education. In the generation born after Independence, nine years of compulsory education is the rule, and among the school graduates of today the ambition to receive an academic education is no less common than in Western countries.

Urbanisation has been fast, and especially the Malay segment has moved from villages to cities and entered urban occupations.

The political rule is divided between Federal level and State level. The Federal Parliament and the Government are based in Kuala Lumpur, while each State also has a Parliament and an executive council. The political parties mirror ethnic interests to a considerable degree. For many years the federal Government has been recruited from a strong multi-party coalition (Barisan Nasional) in which the dominant party is the Malay-based UMNO (United Malay National Organisation).

Malaysia is a very special monarchy. Every five years the seven sultans in West Malaysia elect one among themselves to be King of Malaysia. His title is yang dipertuan agung – in direct translation, 'The one who has been made First Ruler'.

Published Mar. 27, 2020 10:36 AM - Last modified Dec. 21, 2020 11:30 AM