Malaysia is a country made up of various British colonies that came together as a federation and then became an independent country. Britain started establishing colonies in the region in the late 1700s. The two main areas include the western colonies on the Malay Peninsula and the eastern colonies on the island of Borneo. The western settlements were part of the Malay Peninsula, which included the colonies of Pinang and Singapore. Eventually, the British took control of the eastern colonies of Brunei, Sarawak, and Sabah on the island of Borneo. In 1957, the western colonies on the mainland peninsula broke from their British colonizers and became an independent country called the Federation of Malaya. In 1963, the British Borneo colonies of Sarawak and Sabah joined the Federation of Malaya to form the current country, which is called Malaysia. In 1965, Singapore broke off from Malaysia and became an independent country. Brunei, which was still a British protectorate, became independent in 1984.
Malaysia has two main land areas separated by the South China Sea. The regions of Sarawak and Sabah, on the island of Borneo, are called East Malaysia; the mainland on the Malay Peninsula is called West Malaysia. These regions have similar physical landscapes, which include coastal plains with nearby densely forested foothills and mountains. The highest mountains, rising 13,436 feet, are in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Located near the equator, Malaysia has a tropical climate with monsoons regularly occurring from October to February.
About two thirds of Malaysia is covered in forest with a variety of animals and plants – many of which live in the forests of Borneo’s mountains.
Malaysia has issues with deforestation. Over 80% of Sarawak’s (a state in Borneo) rainforest has been cleared.
Diversity of Culture and Ethnicity in Malaysia
Malaysia’s culture is diverse in that several major religions are practiced within its borders. Islam is considered the official religion and is supported by at least 60 percent of the population. About 20 percent of the people are Buddhists, 10 percent Christians, and 6 percent Hindu. The remaining percentages of the population include traditional Chinese religions and local tribal beliefs. In this Islamic country, there are concerns that Muslims get preferential treatment by government programs and policies. There are even special judicial legal courts for Muslims only to work out issues regarding marriage, custody, inheritance, or other conflicting Islamic issues regarding faith and obligation. This court only hears Islamic issues and no other legal matters. There have been movements by minority extremist groups that would like to see Malaysia shift toward a true Islamic state, complete with the Sharia Criminal Code as the law of the land.
People of Malay ethnic background make up more than 50 percent of the population. People of Chinese descent are the second-largest group at about 24 percent.
An additional 11 percent of the population is made up of indigenous groups. During British colonialism, a number of people from South Asia were brought to Malaysia. For example, Tamils were brought from India to work the plantations. Their Hindu beliefs were infused into the culture and some Tamils also converted to Christianity.
Sikhs were brought from South Asia to help Britain run the country as police, soldiers, or security officers. The Sikhs who came brought their religion with them, which added to the multireligious dynamics of the country.
Malaysia’s diverse ethnic and cultural mix often results in strong centrifugal forces that push and pull on the societal dynamics of the country. China has been active in the business community and has established strong economic ties with regional countries that have Chinese populations. The single largest minority group in the province of Sarawak on Borneo is Chinese. As a minority group, Chinese citizens of Malaysia have felt discrimination. Since the official language is Malay and the official religion is Islam, there have been concerns about discrimination against all minority groups. Working through the cultural and ethnic diversity has been a major challenge for the country. Each minority religious or ethnic group desires to celebrate its own special holidays. For example, there is the usual New Year’s celebration on January 1, and then there is the traditional fifteen-day Chinese New Year celebration celebrated at a different time of the year. Sikhs celebrate the Sikh New Year. Buddhists celebrate a holiday in honor of the life and enlightenment of Buddha. Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter. Many other holidays of significance are respected or honored by various minority groups.
Economic Development in Malaysia
Malaysia has rapidly advanced its economy in recent decades and is modernizing its infrastructure—roads, bridges, highways, and urban facilities. In the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia built a modern central business district with a twin high-rise office building claimed to be the world’s tallest at the time of construction.
The country has been a leader in the export of natural resources such as tin, rubber, and palm oil and has developed its agricultural and extractive sectors to gain income.
The country of Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago state, consisting of more than 17,500 islands, about one-third of which are inhabited. Indonesia is the sixteenth-largest country in the world by area. The combined area of all the islands and regions of Indonesia would equal about the size of the country of Mexico. The country shares land borders with the Borneo side of Malaysia, the western half of the island of Timor, and the western portion of the island of New Guinea, which is shared with the country of Papua New Guinea.
The country’s location on both sides of the equator provides a tropical climate, complete with a monsoon season. Average rainfall can vary from seventy to two hundred forty inches per year. The highest mountain is in West Papua and rises to about 16,024 feet.
Indonesia is located on the Pacific Rim, where tectonic plate activity produces earthquakes and volcanic activity. The country is home to over one hundred fifty active volcanoes, including two of the most famous ones, Krakatoa and Tambora. Indonesia’s seismic and volcanic activity is among the world’s highest.
Both had devastating eruptions in the past two centuries. One of the most violent volcanic explosions ever recorded in human history came from Krakatoa, which is located between the islands of Java and Sumatra.
A series of eruptions in 1883 were heard as far away as the coast of Africa. Shockwaves reverberated around the globe seven times. Ash erupted into the atmosphere to a height of about fifty miles. The official death toll was 36,417, but estimates from local sources place it as high as 120,000. Global temperatures fell by about 2 °F, and weather patterns were disrupted for the next five years. Krakatoa remains active. Over the past few decades, the volcanic peak has been growing at an average rate of about five inches per week.
The tropical climate and the archipelago nature of the country provide for enormous biodiversity within the environment. Second only to Brazil in its biodiversity, Indonesia is host to an enormous number of unique plants and animals. The habitats of many of these creatures are being encroached upon by human activity. The remote islands have more of a chance of escaping habitat devastation and remaining intact, but agricultural and extractive economic activities have converted much of the natural environment into a cultural landscape that is not conducive to environmental sustainability.
Animals such as orangutans are losing their natural forests and may become extinct if current trends continue. The timber industry has brought about deforestation. Slash and burn agriculture has destroyed forest habitat, and human development patterns such as roads and urbanization have altered the ecosystems of the region. According to recent reports, Indonesia is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world because of the high number of forest fires set each year. In 2009, the United States brokered a deal with Indonesia to forgive thirty million dollars of its debt if the country would work to protect forests on the island of Sumatra, which is home to endangered indigenous animals such as tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans.
In 2010, the estimated population of Indonesia was about 245 million. Indonesia has the fourth-largest population of any country in the world, after the United States, India, and China. Indonesia also has more Muslims than any other country in the world. More than half the population of Indonesia lives on Java, the island where Jakarta, the capital city, is located.
Java is the most populous island in the world, and has a population density of more than 2,400 people per square mile. Java is the size in area of the US state of Louisiana. Java has 135 million people, whereas Louisiana has 4.5 million people. Jakarta is a world-class city that is larger than New York City and encompasses a large metropolitan area, complete with many manufacturing centers, business complexes, and housing districts.
The many islands of Indonesia are home to a large number of diverse ethnic and religious groups that vary as widely as any Southeast Asian nation. There may be as many as three hundred different and distinct ethnic groups in Indonesia. Many of the ethnic groups are further divided by islands or distance. More than two hundred fifty separate languages and hundreds of additional dialects are spoken. There are an estimated seven hundred fifty languages spoken on the island of New Guinea itself, with hundreds of them spoken on the Indonesian side of the island, in a population of less than three million. The most prevalent language group in the country as a whole is Javanese, which is spoken by about 42 percent of the population. Javanese includes the official language of Indonesian, which is taught in schools and used in business and politics as the lingua franca of the country. Many people speak more than one language or even a number of languages to communicate throughout the country.
Here are a few examples of the hundreds of ethnic groups in Indonesia:
Indonesian cuisine is one of the most diverse, vibrant, and colorful in the world, full of intense flavor. Many regional cuisines exist, often based upon indigenous culture and foreign influences. Rice is the leading staple food. Spices like chilli, coconut milk, fish, and chicken are important ingredients.
Some exotic meats consumed in Indonesia are frog legs, horse meat, turtle, monitor lizard, fruit bats, dog, and field rats. A few cultures in Indonesia eat insects like grasshoppers, termites, bees, and the larvae of sago palm weevils. However, insects are not a popular food ingredient nor widely available as street food, unlike Thailand.
Islam was diffused to Indonesia in the thirteenth century and by the sixteenth century had become the dominant religion. The Indonesian constitution allows for religious freedom, although more than 85 percent of the population follows Islam. There are at least four other religions that are officially recognized: Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Since Islam is followed by such a large percentage of the population, the other religions do not carry the same influence. Regional and ethnic differences play a role in the varied religious dynamics. The island of Bali, for example, is home to a majority Hindu population. Most of the Buddhists are ethnically Chinese, and they only make up a small percentage of the population. Christians and Muslims have had conflicts on the island of Sulawesi. It is common to find the practice of these religions less than orthodox in the more rural communities of the country.
In spite of the diversity within the population, the country of Indonesia has established a substantial degree of nationalism as a centripetal force that holds the country together. There is a relatively high degree of stability in spite of the surface tensions or ethnic and religious conflicts that may erupt. An example of the social tensions is demonstrated in the case of Chinese citizens of Indonesia, who only make up about 1 percent of the population but impart a substantial influence over the privately-owned business sector of the economy. This seemingly inequitable relationship has resulted in considerable resentment by other portions of the population, often with violent results. The many islands have become natural divisions between cultural groups.
Some of the islands—or portions of them—have attempted to break away in a devolutionary manner and become independent countries. Just as East Timor became independent, the most western province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra had a similar movement toward independence. West Papua on the island of New Guinea has also had an independence movement. The Aceh situation was negotiated out while the West Papua movement has been suppressed by military and political force. Many of the islands possess large amounts of natural resources, so the country of Indonesia does not want to lose these national assets that could prove valuable in gaining wealth for the future. It is not easy to create national unity with such a diverse population scattered throughout such a large archipelago.
Agriculture has been the historic base of the Indonesian economy. In 2010, it accounted for about 13 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Agriculture is the largest employment sector—approximately 42 percent of the workforce. This equates to more than half of the population being rural. Many of the agricultural methods in rural areas are traditional; for example, farmers use water buffalo or oxen for tilling the land.
The tropical climate and adequate rainfall provide for multiple crops of rice per year in many areas. Spices, coffee, tea, palm oil, rice, and rubber are also produced in substantial quantities.
The political background of Indonesia is similar in dynamics to many of its neighbors. Colonized by Europeans, Indonesia was previously called the Dutch East Indies, which explains why the islands of the Caribbean were called the West Indies. The Dutch colonized Indonesia in the early seventeenth century but had to relinquish possession of the archipelago to the Japanese in World War II. In 1945, after the Japanese surrendered, Indonesia declared its independence, which was finally granted in 1949 after much negotiation. The country’s government quickly moved toward authoritarian rule.
During a fifty-year time period, there were only two authoritarian leaders: Sukarno (1949–68) and Suharto (1968–99). Near the end of Sukarno’s rule, there were violent conflicts between Sukarno’s military and the Communist Party of Indonesia, which resulted in more than five hundred thousand deaths. Suharto’s regime was credited for substantial economic growth but was also accused of serious corruption and the repression of opposition political voices. Since 1999, Indonesia has conducted free parliamentary elections and is now considered the third-largest democracy, after India and the United States.
There are noticeable similarities between the oil-rich sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf region in the Middle East and the small sultanate of Brunei on the northern coast of Borneo. Bordered by Sarawak, the sultanate is actually two small separate regions along the coast of the South China Sea. The former British protectorate of Brunei is today a major oil and natural gas exporter. It provides a high standard of living for its small population. The compact country is about the size of the US state of Delaware. The country’s population for 2020 was listed at about 436,000. Brunei is attracting immigrants seeking opportunities and advantages. It is called a sultanate because the kingdom has been ruled by sultans (rulers) from the same family for the past six centuries.
The main ethnic groups in Brunei are Malay, at 66 percent, and Chinese, at 11 percent. Brunei is an Islamic State with Islam as its state religion. About two-thirds of the population is Muslim. Buddhism is the second-most popular religion. The ruling sultan is not only head of state but also prime minister of the government and leader of the Islamic faith.
Similar to states in the Middle East where Islam is the official religion, alcohol is banned and the public consumption or sale of it is illegal. Prohibition against alcohol has eliminated the establishments of pubs and nightclubs. Non-Muslims and visitors to the country can legally hold small quantities of alcohol for personal consumption.
The people of Brunei have a high standard of living, with the availability of modern amenities. The government has been concerned about integrating the country into the global economy. Natural gas and crude oil bring in about 90 percent of exports and just over half of the GDP. Education and medical care is free. Food, housing, and rice farming are subsidized by the state. The state has been working to expand the economy beyond natural gas and oil. Agricultural production has been increased and unemployment has been a major focus. The wealthy emirate has also been developing its tourism sector and the financial and banking industry.
Brunei may have to take a lesson from the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—that is, to work to develop a free trade zone to attract international trade—if the country wants to continue to gain wealth once the oil and natural gas run out. It has an excellent location on the South China Sea but would have to compete with the established economic tigers of Singapore and Hong Kong as well as the other rising urban centers in the region, such as Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.
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Additional information and image credits:
Malaysia map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32649391
Kota Kinabalu By Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas or alternatively © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25223925
Malayan tiger By Greg Hume – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28543798
Wildlife of Malaysia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wildlife_of_Malaysia
Dugong By Gejuni – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45575554
Rafflesia flower By Steve Cornish, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1449126
Rhinoceros hornbill By AbZahri AbAzizis from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – 2010-01-16—Outing—KL-Bird-Park_0018.jpgUploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10820981
Malaysian Indians By andre oortgijs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55158101
Malaysian Chinese By Tony Ng, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54799543
K Lumpur By Photo: Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52919116
Petronas twin towers By Salmiah La Suma – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84697386
Indonesia map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32295821
West Papua By TUBS – Own workThis W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Adobe Illustrator.This file was uploaded with Commonist.This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this file: Indonesia location map.svg (by Uwe Dedering)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16764317
Krakatoa eruption By Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society, G. J. Symons (editor) – Houghton Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37216425
Sumatran orangutan By Michaël CATANZARITI – Personal picture, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2230679
Babirusa By Masteraah at German Wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4243310
Loris By Aprisonsan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59940032
Greater bird of paradise By Andrea Lawardi – originally posted to Flickr as paradiso, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4558086
Jakarta By Gunawan Kartapranata – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Palm oil field By Achmad Rabin Taim from Jakarta, Indonesia – P3260481, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5616589
Traditional farming CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=497730
Ethnic groups of Indonesia By Gunawan Kartapranata – Own work based on the map in Ethnography Room, National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11485259
Tengger boys Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8252498
Sundanese woman By Gunawan Kartapranata – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3970476
Batak By Angeline Claudia – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74010278
Acehnese girls By spicytropic, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54615243
Balinese By Julien Boulin – Wedding, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35376397
Tumpeng By Gunawan Kartapranata – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70869288
Sate By English Wikipedia user Gunkarta, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4240598
Es Teler By Gunawan Kartapranata – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15055730
Brunei map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31591459
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque By Kurun, level, color and constrast adjustments by Entheta – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Omar_Ali_Saifuddin_Mosque.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9036415