History of Malaya…How It All Began

by Doreen Cheong, Dec 1, 2006 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kuala Lumpur

Due to its strategic position between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, Malaysia (then Malaya) has long been the meeting place for traders and travelers from West and East. Malaya, somewhat romantically referred to as the meeting point between the East and the West, lies between the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea. Traders from the West have no other choice but to travel along the narrow straits to avoid the torrential monsoons in Indian Ocean. Another reason is the natural richness of South East Asia, supplying everything from the tin required for the industrial revolution in Britain to spices desperately needed to preserve meat during the winter months. Hence its history is one of continual interaction with foreign powers and influences.

Even in pre-historical times, its warm tropical climate and abundant natural blessings made it a congenial destination for immigrants as early as 10000 years ago when the ancestors of the indigenous peoples of Malaysia (the Orang Asli), settled here. Most historians agree that this group of people is probably the pioneers of migrants from China and Tibet who moved here in search of a better place to live. During the 1000 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. The newcomers settled mainly in the coastal areas of the peninsula.

Later, Cambodian-based Funan Empire, the powerful Srivijaya government of Sumatra and subsequently the Majapahit empires fought for this fertile land.

Around the first century, strong trading links were established with China and India, and these had a major impact on the culture, language and social customs of the country. Evidence of Hindu influences over a short period in the history of Malaysia can today be found in the temple sites of the Bujang Valley and Merbok Estuary in Kedah in the north west of Peninsular Malaysia, near the Thai border.

Later on, around the 1400s that a Javanese prince known as Parameswara settled down in Malacca and established the historical city as a major trading port. This era later became known as the Golden Age of Malacca. During the middle and late 1400s, Malacca gained control over much of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and the key shipping route through the Strait of Malacca. Chinese traders arrive in droves and Islamic traders from the Middle East ventured here for the spices. By this time Malacca had grown to become one of the most powerful and wealthiest kingdoms in the region, and ripe for the picking. This thriving city soon captured the attention of the Portuguese, which were among the first European explorers. Consequently, Portuguese troops under the command of Alfonso de Albuquerque colonized Malacca in 1511 and the Dutch in 1641. Thus began a colonial legacy that was to last well into the 20th century. Till today, there is a Portuguese Village in Malacca and many "Eurasians" in Malaysia have emerged from mixed marriages between the locals and the Portuguese. As for the Dutch, the numerous Dutch-styled buildings and a windmill in the heart of Malacca remains a testimony of the Dutch rule in Malacca.

The British came much later. Only in the mid 18th century, they became active in the area, partly in search of trade, but also to check French power in the Indian Ocean. Despite trade ties, however, the British were rather reluctant to colonize Malaya, having their hands tied with numerous problems which cropped up after they colonized India.

It was not until 1786, when the sultan of Kedah, seek the British's help to protect against the invading Siamese soldiers that the British East India Company leased Penang. In 1819 Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company founded Singapore, and in 1824 Britain acquired Malacca from the Dutch. Singapore, Penang, and Malacca (collectively known as the Straits Settlements) were then British-run. Till this point, the British government has not officially stepped in.

From about 1850, tin-mining activity greatly expanded in the Malay Peninsula, and this caused Malay rulers and the immigrant Chinese they employed became involved in territorial disputes. Fearful that these might disrupt trade, and due to a change in the government policy in England, the British gradually took control of the peninsular states, working indirectly through the Malay rulers.

Trying to maintain peace and taking advantage of dynastic quarrels, they persuaded the Malay rulers to accept British "Residents" as advisors. Before World War II, the native states under the British influenced were classified as federated or non-federated. The main difference between the two groups was that British control was somewhat looser in the non-federated states. The federated states were Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang. The non-federated states were Johor and the four northern states, which were acquired by the British from Siam in 1909. At the top of the British system of rule was a high commissioner, who was also governor of the Straits Settlements.

During the British rule, a well-ordered system of administration from United Kingdom was introduced. Under this scheme, Malaya flourished. The citizens begin to enjoy proper education at English-medium schools, initially run by mission workers. Proper roads and railway tracks were built by the British so that natural products such as tin, rubber and palm oil can be transported with ease.

Although there were confrontation against the British by Malay rulers who are losing their control over tax issues and dissatisfaction over certain British rulers who impose laws without taking into account the local cultures, such confrontations were not well organized. The British also practiced a divide and rule policy - Chinese immigrants were largely confined to tin mines and the cities, the Indians in rubber estates and the Malays at their local villages. Because of this, the British never really lost control over any of the Malaya states.

Then came the World War II, and Japanese troops invaded Malaya. After looking up to the British as their "protectors", the locals (Malays, Chinese, and Indians) realized the British were powerless against the patriotic Japanese soldiers. Patriotism sentiment swelled after the war. English-educated Malaysians, the relatively more affluent "middle and upper class" citizens got together and started discussing about independence for Malaya. Accustomed to the British ways, since most of them were educated in the United Kingdom, this new breed of freedom-seekers realized the best method was a proper discussion with the colonial rulers. On the 31 of August 1957, independence was proclaimed for the Federation of Malaysia. Its citizens are particularly proud of the fact that independence was gained without any bloodshed, unlike pro-independence insurgences in other British colonies: India and Burma. This smooth transition of power ensured that the young country had the opportunity to grow in a peaceful environment.

As a Malaysian who have lived through the British days, saw my country achieve independence and eventually progressing to the major industrial hub of Asia it is today, I am actually quite pleased at how things turned out in the end. The introduction of English as a main language by the British is perhaps what helped Malaysia grow at a faster rate compared to other countries in the region. Most citizens (especially those educated in the colonial era) speak impeccable English, and this helped raise education standards in the country. Because of this, Malaysians are also more likely to complete their tertiary educations in western countries, compared to students in Thailand and Indonesia, for instance.

The British Parliamentary system, adopted by Malaysia since independence, has also ensured a relatively stable political system in the country. Modern Malaysia is a multi-cultural and multi-racial society of approximately 22 million people where ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians live together in relative harmony. While Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, freedom of worship is guaranteed and widely practiced. Ethnic Malays are, for the most part, Muslim; Chinese mainly Buddhist or Christian; and Indians follow Hinduism as their main religion. The national language is Bahasa Malaysia (similar to Indonesian); however, as a result of the British colonial period, English is widely spoken and is a compulsory subject in schools. Other main languages found in Malaysia include various Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Hokkien, or Hakka), and Tamil or Hindi amongst the Indian population.

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