(For early history of West Malaysia, see Malay Peninsula; for history of East Malaysia, see Sabah and Sarawak.) When the Portuguese captured Malacca (1511), its sultan fled first to Pahang and then to Johor and the Riau Archipelago. One of his sons became the first sultan of Perak. From both Johor and Aceh in Sumatra unsuccessful attacks were made on Malacca. Aceh and Johor also fought each other. The main issue in these struggles was control of trade through the Strait of Malacca. Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu, north of Malacca, became nominal subjects of Siam.
In the early 17th cent. the Dutch established trading bases in Southeast Asia. By 1619 they had established themselves in Batavia (Jakarta), and in 1641, allied with Johor, they captured Malacca after a six-month siege. Another power entered the complicated Malayan picture in the late 17th cent. when the Bugis from Sulawesi, a Malay people economically pressured by the Dutch, began settling in the area of Selangor on the west coast of the peninsula, where they traded in tin. The Bugis captured Johor and Riau in 1721 and, with a few interruptions, maintained control there for about a century, although the Johor sultanate was permitted to remain. The Bugis were also active in Perak and Kedah. Earlier, in the 15th and 16th cent., another Malay people, the Minangkabaus from Sumatra, had peacefully settled inland from Malacca. Their settlements eventually became the state of Negeri Sembilan.
The British role on the peninsula began in 1786, when Francis Light of the British East India Company, searching for a site for trade and a naval base, obtained the cession of the island of Pinang from the sultan of Kedah. In 1791 the British agreed to make annual payments to the sultan, and in 1800 the latter ceded Province Wellesley on the mainland. In 1819 the British founded Singapore, and in 1824 they formally (actual control had been exercised since 1795) acquired Malacca from the Dutch. A joint administration was formed for Pinang, Malacca, and Singapore, which became known as the Straits Settlements.
During this period Siam was asserting its influence southward on the peninsula. In 1816, Siam forced Kedah to invade Perak and made Perak acknowledge Siamese suzerainty. In 1821, Siam invaded Kedah and exiled the sultan. The Anglo-Siamese treaty of 1821 recognized Siamese control of Kedah but left the status of Perak, Kelantan, and Terengganu ambiguous. In 1841 the sultan of Kedah was restored, but Perlis was carved out of the territory of Kedah and put under Siamese protection.
Later in the 19th cent. a number of events led Great Britain to play a more direct part in the affairs of the peninsula. There was conflict between Chinese settlers, who worked in the tin mines, and Malays; there were civil wars among the Malays; and there was an increase in piracy in the western part of the peninsula. Merchants asked the British to restore order. The British were also concerned that Dutch, French, and German interest in the area was increasing. As a result, treaties were made with Perak, Selangor, Pahang, and the components of what became (1895) Negeri Sembilan. In each state a British
resident was installed to advise the sultan (who received a stipend) and to supervise administration. The Pangkor Treaty of 1874 with Perak served as a model for subsequent treaties.
In 1896 the four states were grouped together as the Federated Malay States with a British resident general. Johor, which had signed a treaty of alliance with Britain in 1885, accepted a British adviser in 1914. British control of the four remaining Malayan states was acquired in 1909, when, by treaty, Siam relinquished its claims to sovereignty over Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis, and Terengganu. These four, along with Johor, became known as the Unfederated Malay States.
In the latter half of the 19th cent. Malaya's economy assumed many of the major aspects of its present character. The output of tin, which had been mined for centuries, increased greatly with the utilization of modern methods. Rubber trees were introduced (Indian laborers were imported to work the rubber plantations), and Malaya became a leading rubber producer. Malaya's economic character, as well as its geographic position, gave it great strategic importance, and the peninsula was quickly overrun by the Japanese at the start of World War II and held by them for the duration of the war. The British, assuming that the attack would come from sea, had built their fortifications accordingly, but a land attack quickly drove them from the island. Malaya's Chinese population received particularly harsh treatment during the Japanese occupation.
When the British returned after World War II they arranged (1946) a centralized colony, called the Malayan Union, comprising all their peninsula possessions. Influential Malays vehemently opposed the new organization; they feared that the admission of the large Chinese and Indian populations of Pinang and Malacca to Malayan citizenship would end the special position Malays had always enjoyed, and they were unwilling to surrender the political power they enjoyed within the individual sultanates. The British backed down and established in place of the Union the Federation of Malaya (1948) headed by a British high commissioner. The Federation was an expansion of the former Federated Malay States. Pinang and Malacca became members in addition to the nine Malay states, but there was no common citizenship.
In that same year a Communist insurrection began that was to last more than a decade. The Communist guerrillas, largely recruited from among the Chinese population, employed terrorist tactics. In combating the uprising the British resettled nearly 500,000 Chinese.
The Emergency, as it was called, was declared ended in 1960, although outbreaks of terrorism have continued sporadically.
The Communist insurrection had the positive effect of spurring the movement for Malayan independence, and in 1957 the federation became an independent state within the Commonwealth of Nations and was admitted to the United Nations. The first prime minister was Tunku (Prince) Abdul Rahman, the leader of the Alliance Party, a loose coalition of Malay, Chinese, and Indian parties. The constitution guaranteed special privileges for Malays. In 1963 Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak were added to the federation, creating the Federation of Malaysia. Since Singapore has a large Chinese population, the latter two states were included to maintain a non-Chinese majority. Brunei was also included in the plan but declined to join. Malaysia retained Malaya's place in the United Nations and the Commonwealth, and in 1967 it became one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The new state was immediately confronted with the hostility of Indonesia, which described the federation as a British imperialist subterfuge and waged an undeclared war against it. In the struggle Malaysia received military aid from Great Britain and other Commonwealth nations. Hostilities continued until President Sukarno's fall from power in Indonesia (1965). Nonviolent opposition came from the Philippines, which claimed ownership of Sabah until early in 1978.
The merger with Singapore did not work out satisfactorily. Friction developed between Malay leaders and Singapore's prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who had worked to improve the position of the Chinese minority within the Malaysian Federation. In 1965, Singapore peacefully seceded from Malaysia.
Intercommunal tension continued, however, between Chinese and Malays, and led in 1969 to serious violence and a 22-month suspension of parliament. Since then, political balance has been maintained by a multiethnic National Front coalition. Tun Abdul Razak succeeded Abdul Rahman as prime minster in 1970, and the following year Abdul Razak adopted the New Economic Policy, intended to improve the economic status of Malays through a system of preferences. When Abdul Razak died in 1976, Hussein Onn succeeded him as prime minister.
In 1981, Mahathir bin Mohamad, of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), became prime minister. Mahathir led the National Front parties to reelection victories in 1982, 1986, and 1990. Mahathir's government was criticized for repression of Chinese and Indian minorities. A formal peace treaty between the Malay Communist party (MCP) and the Kuala Lumpur government was signed in 1989.
In 1995 the National Front again triumphed at the polls, winning in a landslide. Like several of its neighbors, Malaysia suffered a recession in 1997–98; however, unlike those that accepted financial aid from the International Monetary Fund, Malaysia took matters into its own hands. In Sept., 1998, it discontinued trading in its currency and imposed sweeping controls on its capital markets, particularly on investment from overseas; by mid-1999, the economy had begun to recover, though economic growth was slower compared to previous years.
Also in Sept., 1998, Mahathir dismissed his heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, who held the posts of deputy prime minister and finance minister. Anwar was found guilty of corruption charges in Apr., 1999, and sentenced to six years in prison, setting off unusual public protests; in Aug., 2000, he was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to nine years. Both convictions were condemned by international rights groups. In the Nov., 1999, elections the National Front again won a resounding victory, but big gains were made by the Islamic party of Malaysia (PAS), which increased its seats in parliament to 27 from 8, largely as a result of support from Malays who had previously voted for the UMNO. A party formed by Anwar's supporters and led by his wife did poorly.
A tough new law against illegal foreign workers, which took effect in 2002, forced many Indonesians and Filipinos to leave Malaysia. This strained relations particularly with Indonesia, where as many as 400,000 returned home. In Oct., 2003, Prime Minister Mahathir stepped down and was succeeded by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, deputy prime minister since 1999. At the time of his resignation, Mahathir was the longest serving government leader in Asia. Five months later Badawi won a mandate of his own in parliamentary and state elections when the National Front coalition increased its sizable parliamentary majority by a third, winning 90% of the seats and 64% of the vote. PAS suffered significant losses at the national and state levels. In Sept., 2004, Anwar Ibrahim's conviction on sodomy charges was overturned, and he was released, his corruption sentence having been already reduced.
A second wave of some half million illegal immigrants left Malaysia in late 2004 and early 2005 under a government amnesty before the government began arresting and expelling illegal immigrants in Mar., 2005. By May, however, when the slow influx of Indonesians with work permits resulted in a worker shortage, Malaysia agreed to allow Indonesians seeking work to enter on tourists visas. In 2006 there was sharp public verbal jousting between Prime Minister Abdullah and his predecessor, and Mahathir found his influence in UMNO greatly diminished.
In late 2007 and early 2008 there was increased public unhappiness on the part of Malaysians of South Asian descent with their lagging standard of living (relative to Malays and Chinese). These concerns carried over into the parliamentary elections in Mar., 2008, and the National Front, though retaining a majority, failed to win two thirds of the seats for the first time since 1969, and lost control of five states as well (one state returned to National Front control in 2009). PAS, Anwar Ibrahim's People's Justice party (PKR), and the largely Chinese Democratic Action party all gained seats. The election results led to calls for Abdullah to resign, and he eventually announced that he would step down in Mar., 2009.
Anwar, meanwhile, sought to organize the opposition to defeat the government through parliamentary defections and a no-confidence vote. In June, 2008, however, he was again accused of sodomy, this time by a former aide. He denied the charges and accused the government of conspiring against him to remain in power. Anwar nonetheless was elected to parliament by a landslide in a by-election in August, but he was not successful in securing the parliamentary defections necessary to bringing down the government. Anwar later was acquitted (Jan., 2012) for questionable evidence, but a government appeal resulted in his conviction in Mar., 2014. (His 2014 conviction occurred shortly before he was to run for the Selangor state assembly, which was expected to lead to his become Selangor's chief minister; he was imprisoned in Feb., 2015, after his conviction was upheld.)
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak succeeded Abdullah as UMNO leader in Mar., 2009, as planned, and the following month Najib became prime minister. A court ruling in Dec., 2009, that Christians could use the word Allah to refer to God (a usage that is not unusual in other Muslim countries) sparked an outbreak of anti-Christian violence and resulted in increased religious tensions; an appeals court overturned that decision in 2013 and was upheld by the supreme court in 2014.
In July, 2011, frustration with the slow pace of economic and political reforms led thousands to protest Kuala Lumpur against the government despite the rally having been banned by the government and police efforts to prevent it and to disperse and arrest demonstrators. Filipino supporters of one of the claimants to the title of sultan of Sulu, a former territory that included parts of N Borneo and the S Philippines, occupied locations in E Sabah beginning in Feb., 2013; the invasion led to fighting with Malaysian security forces.
In the May, 2013, general elections, the National Front retained a majority in parliament but lost the popular vote to the three-party opposition coalition led by Ibrahim. The win was the result of gerrymandering and unequal electoral districts; the opposition also accused the National Front of fraud. The elections marked a clear shift in the country's politics, with the opposition in general supported by richer, urban, and Chinese voters and the National Front by poorer, rural, and Malay voters. Subsequently, Najib's government reemphasized policies that favored Malays and suppressed dissent, abandoning earlier tentative moves toward liberal reform and adopting more openly pro-Islamic positions.
A corruption scandal involving 1MDB, a Malaysian development fund founded by Najib's government, threatened the prime minister in 2015 when media reports said an investigation had found that nearly $700 million appeared to have been transferred from 1MDB to Najib's accounts. Najib denied the reports and dismissed his deputy prime minister, who had criticized him, the attorney general, and other government members; Najib's efforts to shore up UMNO support led to resignations and dismissals from party leadership positions in 2016. In Jan., 2016, the new attorney general cleared Najib, saying that the money was a donation from the Saudis and was not made corruptly, and that $620 million had been returned; he also said that there was no evidence that Najib was aware of other deposits made to his accounts from a 1MDB subsidiary.
Subsequently, former prime minister Mahathir and other political leaders not aligned with Najib called for him to resign, and a parliamentary investigation was critical of 1MDB's leadership and board. 1MDB also was the subject of several foreign investigations involving money-laundering rule violations. A U.S. investigation led to a civil case that sought to recover more than $1 billion in assets that had been purchased with money stolen from 1MDB; some of the assets were held by persons close to Najib. U.S. officials alleged that in all more than $3 billion had been stolen, and implied that large sums had been transferred from 1MDB to Najib's accounts. Despite electoral changes designed to further solidify the National Front's control of parliament, Najib and his coalition lost control of parliament in the May, 2018, elections to the Coalition of Hope, which was led by Mahathir, and Mahathir again became prime minister. The new government soon launched an investigation into the 1MDB scandal, and beginning in July Najib was indicted on corruption and other charges relating to 1MDB. Tensions in the governing coalition led to its collapse in Feb., 2020, and Muhyiddin Yassin, a Malay nationalist who had been a member of the governing coalition, became prime minister with the support of UMNO and PAS.
Sections in this article:
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Malaysia and Singapore Political Geography