Malaysia is a mix of the modern world and a developing nation. With its investment in the high technology industries and moderate oil wealth, it has become a rich nation in Southeast Asia. Malaysia, for most visitors, presents a happy mix: there is high-tech infrastructure and things generally work well and more or less on schedule, but prices remain more reasonable than, say, Singapore.
Before the rise of the European colonial powers, the Malay peninsula and the Malay archipelago were home to empires such as the Srivijaya, the Majapahit (both ruled from Indonesia, but also controlling parts of Malaysia) and the Melaka Sultanate. The Srivijaya and Majapahit empires saw the spread of Hinduism to the region, and to this day, despite being nominally Muslim, many Hindu legends and traditions survive in traditional Malay culture. Mass conversion to Islam only occurred after the arrival of Arab traders during the Melaka Sultanate.
This was to change in the 16th century when the Portuguese established the first European colony in Southeast Asia by defeating the Melaka Sultanate. The Portuguese subsequently then lost Malacca to the Dutch. The British also established their first colony on the Malay peninsula in Penang in 1786, when it was ceded by the Sultan of Kedah. Finally, the area was divided into Dutch and British spheres of influence with the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824. With this treaty, the Dutch agreed to cede Malacca to the British and in return, the British ceded all their colonies on Sumatra to the Dutch. The line which divided the Malay world into Dutch and British areas roughly corresponds to what is now the border between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Before World War II, the Malay Peninsula was governed by the British as the Federated Malay States (Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang), which were governed as a single entity, the Unfederated Malay States (Johor, Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Kelantan), which were each governed as separate protectorates, and the Straits Settlements (including Malacca, Penang and Singapore), which were crown colonies. Northern Borneo consisted of the British colony of North Borneo, the Kingdom of Sarawak, which was ruled by a British family known as the “White Rajas”, and the British protectorate of Brunei.
World War II was disastrous for the British Malayan Command. The Japanese swept down both coasts of the Malay Peninsula and despite fierce fighting, much of the British military was tied down fighting the Germans in Europe and those that remained in Malaya simply could not cope with the Japanese onslaught. The British military equipment left to defend Malaya were outdated and no match for the modern ones used by the Japanese, while the only two battleships based in the region, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, were sank by Japanese bombers off the East Coast of Malaya. By 31 January 1942, the British had been pushed all the way back to Singapore, which also fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. The situation was no different on Borneo, which fell to the Japanese on 1 April 1942 after months of fierce fighting. The Japanese occupation was brutal, and many, particularly the ethnic Chinese, suffered and perished during the occupation. Among the most notorious atrocities committed by the Japanese was the Sandakan Death Marches, with only six out of several thousand prisoners surviving the war.
After World War II, the Federated Malay States, Unfederated Malay States and the Straits Settlements of Malacca and Penang were federated to form a single British colony known as the Malayan Union, with Singapore splitting off to form a separate colony. In the Malayan Union, the sultans of the various states ceded all their powers except those in religious affairs to the British crown. However, widespread opposition to the Malayan Union led the British to reconsider their position, and in 1948, the Malayan Union was replaced by the Federation of Malaya, in which the executive positions of the sultans were restored. In Borneo, the White Rajas ceded Sarawak to the British crown in 1946, making it a crown colony of the United Kingdom.
Malaya gained independence from the British in 1957. The Union Jack was lowered and the first Malayan flag was raised in the Merdeka (independence) Square on midnight 31st August 1957.
Six years later, Malaysia was formed on 16 September 1963 through a merging of Malaya and Singapore, as well as the East Malaysian states of Sabah (known then as North Borneo) and Sarawak on the northern coast of Borneo, with Brunei deciding not to join. The first several years of the country’s history were marred by the Indonesian confrontation (konfrontasi) as well as claims to Sabah from the Philippines. Singapore was expelled from the federation on 9 August 1965 after several bloody racial riots, as its majority Chinese population and the influence of the People’s Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew (later the long-ruling Prime Minister of Singapore) were seen as a threat to Malay dominance, and it became a separate country.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, nominally headed by the Paramount Ruler (Yang di-Pertuan Agong), who is “elected” by the rulers (7 sultans, the Yang Di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan and the Raja of Perlis) for a five-year term from among the rulers of the 9 royal states of Malaysia, though in practice the election usually follows a prescribed order based on the seniority of the rulers at the time of independence. This gives Malaysia a unique political system of rotational monarchy, in which each of the state rulers would take turns to be the king of Malaysia. The current king, from Kedah, was sworn in on 13 Dec 2011.
Malaysia’s government is largely based on the British Westminster system, consisting of a bicameral national parliament, with each of the states also having their own unicameral Dewan Undangan Negeri (State Legislative Assembly). The lower house, known as the Dewan Rakyat (Hall of the People) is elected directly by the people. The upper house, known as the Dewan Negara (National Hall), consists of 26 members elected by the state governments, with each state having 2 representatives, while the remaining members are appointed by the king. The head of government is the Prime Minister, who is the party leader of the winning party in the lower house. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party and its National Front (Barisan Nasional) coalition have ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since its independence, and while periodic elections are contested by feisty opposition parties, the balance has so far always been shifted in the government’s favor, partly due to press control and use of restrictive security legislation dating from the colonial era.
In practice, the king is only the nominal Head of State, while the Prime Minister is the one who wields the most authority in government.
Peninsular Malaysia (Bahasa Malaysia: Semenanjung Malaysia) occupies all of the Malay Peninsula between Thailand and Singapore, and is also known as West Malaysia (Malaysia Barat) or the slightly archaic Malaya (Tanah Melayu). It is home to the bulk of Malaysia’s population, its capital and largest city Kuala Lumpur, and is generally more economically developed. Within Peninsular Malaysia, the West Coast is more developed and urbanised, and separated from the more rural East Coast by a mountain range – the Titiwangsa.
Some 800 km to the east is East Malaysia (Malaysia Timur), which occupies the northern third of the island of Borneo, shared with Indonesia and tiny Brunei. Partly covered in impenetrable jungle where headhunters roam (on GSM networks if nothing else), East Malaysia is rich in natural resources but very much Malaysia’s hinterland for industry and tourism.
The terrain consists of coastal plains rising to hills and mountains. Peninsular Malaysia consists of plains on both the East and West coasts, separated from each other by a mountain range known as the Barisan Titiwangsa which runs from North to South.
Malaysia is a multicultural society. While Malays make up a 52% majority, there are also 27% Chinese, 9% Indian and a miscellaneous grouping of 13.5% “others”, such as the Portuguese clan in Melaka and 12% of indigenous peoples (Orang Asli). There is hence also a profusion of faiths and religions, with Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and even shamanism on the map.
* 2013 CE (1434 AH): 9 July – 7 August
* 2014 CE (1435 AH): 28 June – 27 July
* 2015 CE (1436 AH): 18 June – 16 July
The festival of Eid ul-Fitr is held after the end of Ramadan and may last several days. Exact dates depend on astronomical observations and may vary from country to country.
Chinese New Year dates
2012 is the year of the Dragon
* 2013 Snake – 10 February
* 2014 Horse – 31 January
* 2015 Goat – 19 February
One of the significant characteristics of Malaysian culture is its celebration of various festivals and events. The year is filled with colourful, exhilarating and exciting activities. Some are religious and solemn but others are vibrant, joyous events. One interesting feature of the main festivals in Malaysia is the ‘open house’ custom. This is when Malaysians celebrating the festival invite friends and family to come by their homes for some traditional delicacies and fellowship.
Multicultural Malaysia celebrates a vast range of festivals, but the ones to look out for nationwide are Islamic holidays, most notably the fasting month of Ramadan. During its 29 or 30 days, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to sunset. Not all Muslims follow the tradition, or sustain the full period or Ramadan fasting but most do make a very serious effort. Pregnant, breast feeding or menstruating women are not expected to fast, nor are the elderly, the infirm, or travellers. Unless incapable those who do not fast during Ramadan are expected to catch up the missed days at a later time. People get up early before sunrise for a meal (sahur), and take off early to get back home in time to break fast (buka puasa) at sunset. At the end of the month is the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, known locally as Hari Raya Puasa or Aidilfitri, when many locals take one to two weeks off to ‘balik kampung’ or return to their home towns to meet family and friends. Accordingly, this is the one of the many times in a year when major cities like Kuala Lumpur has virtually no traffic congestions. Travelling around Malaysia is usually avoided by the locals. Another important festival is the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Adha, known locally as Hari Raya Haji or Aidiladha. It is during this festival that Muslims perform the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. In local mosques, cows and lambs are donated by the faithful and sacrificed, after which the meat is distributed to all. Family reunions are also celebrated during other main festivals in the country. Locals usually put on traditional costumes and finery as these festivals are an integral feature of Malaysia society.
During the month of Ramadan, non-muslims are expected to be courteous of those fasting. Non-Muslims, as well as Muslims travelling (musafir), are exempt from fasting but it is polite to refrain from eating or drinking in public. Public school systems also adhere to this occasion thus assisting non-muslims to refrain from eating in front of those who are practicing. Many restaurants close during the day and those that stay open maintain a low profile. Business travellers will notice that things move rather more slowly than usual. The upside for foreign travellers are the Ramadhan bazaars in every city and town, bustling with activity and bursting at the seams with great food. Hotels and restaurants also pull out all stops to put on massive spreads of food for fast-breaking feasts. During the month of Ramadan, fast-breaking meals are usually considered as grand feasts.
Other major holidays include Chinese New Year (around January/February), Deepavali or Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights (around October/November), the Buddhist holiday of Wesak (around May/June), and Christmas (25 December).
During Chinese New Year, Penang and Ipoh become the major cities as many local Chinese working and living in KL originated from there. However this situation is changing gradually, as more and more people are making Kuala Lumpur their home town. While visiting during such festivals, travellers will be able to experience many wonderful celebrations, but the downside is many ethnic shops/eateries will be closed. The best option is to visit during the period just after the first two days of the major festival (Hari Raya/Chinese New Year), when shops will open, and the festive mood has still not died down.
Another major celebration is Deepavali, celebrated by the Malaysian Hindus. Deepavali is the festival of light orignitaing from classical India and one of the main cultural celebration amongst Hindus. In Malaysia, locals practice this tradition by wearing new clothes and receiving token gifts of money. This practice has been adapted by all Malaysians without regards of the religion. The red packets or ang pow during Chinese New Year, green packets or ‘duit raya’ for Hari Raya Aidilfitri and multi-coloured packets during Deepavali.
Some uniquely Malaysian festivals of note include the Harvest Festival at the end of May each year and the ‘Pesta Gawai’ in early June, both thanksgiving celebrations held in East Malaysia.
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival that falls in January or February and is one of the must-see events. The largest procession in the country takes place at Batu Caves, north of Kuala Lumpur. Male devotees carry decorated altars or kavadi up a flight of 272 steps towards the temple, all this while also having religious spears and hooks pierced through external surfaces of their bodies. The ability is attributed to divine intervention and religious fervor. Female devotees join the procession carrying pots of milk on their head instead.
The climate in Malaysia is tropical. The north-east monsoon (October to February) deluges Borneo and the east coast in rain and often causes flooding, while the west coast (particularly Langkawi and Penang) escape unscathed. The milder south-west monsoon (April to October) reverses the pattern. The southern parts of peninsular Malaysia, including perennially soggy Kuala Lumpur, are exposed to both but even during the rainy season, the showers tend to be intense but brief.
Malaysia is close to the equator, therefore a warm weather is guaranteed. Temperatures generally range from 32°C/89.6 ºF at noon to about 26°C/78.8 ºF at midnight. But like most Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia’s sun-shining days are interrupted by Monsoon season from November and February every year, and night temperatures can hit a low of about 23°C/73.4 ºF on rainy days.
Temperatures tend to be cooler in the highlands, with the likes of Genting Highlands,Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill having temperatures ranging from about 17°C/62.6 ºF at night to about 25°C/77 ºF in the day. Mount Kinabalu is known to have temperatures falling below 10°C/50 ºF.