Malaysia has some of the oldest traces of hominid habitation in Asia, going back 1.83 million years. Humans can certainly be traced back 40,000 years and there is evidence that traders passed through the straits around Malaysia into the Indian Ocean and beyond bringing waves of immigrants to the region.
Immigrants from China and Cambodia include the ancestors of modern Malays from between 20,000 and 5,000 years ago. Not all immigration came from the east; Indian traders are also known to have brought aspects of their culture to the Malaysian peninsula including Buddhism and Hinduism. By the fourth century B.C. Sanskrit was being used as a form of communication.
By the second century A.D. large numbers of small kingdoms were developing across the peninsula and this continued for the next four hundred years or so. But consolidation was always bound to happen and by 671 much of the region had been incorporated into the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire.
The Srivijaya Empire was largely a maritime affair and it controlled all the major routes from the Indian Ocean as far east as the Philippines by the 1100s.
By the 12th Century the Srivijaya Empire was growing weaker after attacks from Ceylon pirates and the Chola Kingdom of India. Eventually it fell to the East Javanese based Singhasari invaders in 1288.
It was in the 13th Century that Islam came to Malaysia through Arab and Indian traders and quite quickly it replaced Buddhism and Hinduism as the main religion.
By 1402, a descendant of the Srivijayan royal family named Parameswara founded a new city-state at Malacca; the first real state to be centred on the geographical area we know today as Malaysia. Parameswara eventually became a Muslim and changed his name to Sultan Iskandar Shah.
Malacca became an important trading port (it is to the south of the modern day capital Kuala Lumpur) and when the Chinese Admiral Zheng visited Iskandar Shah went back with him to China to pay tribute to the Yongle Emperor and to get recognition as the legitimate ruler. The move paid off, he was recognised as was his son Megat Iskandar Shah of Malacca (although this is the subject of some heated academic debate).
By 1511 the Portuguese, in the form of Afonso de Albuquerque, had arrived and seized Malacca. The local rulers fled south and built a new capital in the southern tip of the peninsula at Johor Lama, creating the Johor Sultanate. Over the next few years the Johor Sultanate, the northern Sultanate of Aceh and the Portuguese vied for control of the peninsula.
By 1641 the Dutch arriving in the form of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) formed a partnership with the Sultanate of Johor and drove the Portuguese out of Malacca. The Dutch were only interested in trade and left the Johor to take control of much of the Malaysian peninsula.
The Johor were eventually taken over by the Bugis who originated from the south-western province of Sulawesi, the third largest island of modern day Indonesia. The Bugis took over when the last Sultan of the Melaka royal line was assassinated in 1699. The next hundred or more years were dominated by trade in tin, gold and other materials such as pepper with the British becoming increasingly interested in the region and the Chinese become an important trading group.
By 1824 the Anglo-Dutch Treaty gave the British East India Company exclusive economic control over Malaysia and in 1867 the British crown took direct control. The Pangkor Treaty of 1874 gave the British effective control over the entire region and the British installed ‘residents’ who advised and liaised with Sultans in each of the respective states. The first four states to accept British residents were called the Federated Malay States whilst the remainder were known as the Unfederated Malay States and had a little more autonomy; these included Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu.
As trade grew more and more Chinese immigrants came to the peninsula seeking work and gradually they became the trading community, bankers and investors. Indians also came in large numbers but they never had the same degree of impact as the Chinese.
By the Second World War the British had exploited the region but put back very little. They were completely taken by surprise when the Japanese attacked from the north, quickly took the Malaysian peninsula and were humiliated at the ease with which the Japanese took the naval stronghold of Singapore.
Unlike the British the Japanese had little time for the Chinese and started to ethnically cleanse the peninsula of them whilst giving the Malays more freedom. At the end of the war the British returned but local leaders wanted independence and in 1948 a pro-independence guerrilla movement led by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) led an insurgency campaign against the British.
Although the British eventually won the battle of the ‘Malayan Emergency’ through counter-insurgency measures, the government in Britain was keen to grant independence and it was given on 31st August 1957.
Tunku Abdul Rahman became the first prime minister of Malaysia after having served as Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya from 1955. He remained the Prime Minister after Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore joined the federation in 1963 to form Malaysia; Singapore subsequently left in 1965.
Tensions had grown between the Malays and Chinese communities as both sides saw interventions which discriminated against them. Eventually these tensions burst into the open on 13th May 1969 when sectarian violence in Kuala Lumpur led to the deaths of at least 169 people and some reports suggest it could have been as many as 2,000. The riots were blamed on the Chinese based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and they resulted in the resignation of Abdul Rahman.
Whoever started the riots, ultimately it led to the government applying affirmative action policies which favoured the Malays such as the New Economic Policy (NEP).
It also brought to power, in 1971, a new ‘Alliance Party’ coalition government comprising the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) in what subsequently became known, in (1973, as the National Front (Barisan Nasional – BN).
Abdul Razak bin Hussein was to become the second prime minister of Malaysia (1970 – 1976) in the new order, followed by Hussein Onn (1976 – 1981) before the architect of the modern state, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad took over in 1981. Prime Minister Mahathir was to rule the country for the next 22 years and won five consecutive general elections.
Mahathir’s reign was dominated by rapid modernisation, economic growth and large scale infrastructure projects. His government also saw a re-balancing of the ethnic problem with many more Malays succeeding in senior positions and in business. Mahathir was also an autocrat who did not take kindly to criticism and who sacked his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, over a disagreement whilst also curbing civil liberties.
Mahathir stood down in 2003 and announced that his successor would be Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Abdullah won the 2004 general election with the Barisan Nasional taking 198 of 219 seats in the Dewan Rakyat or House of Representatives. Mahathir, however, found it difficult to hand over the reins and was a constant critic of his successor.
This carping was to play its part in the March 2008 general election result where the Barisan Nasional lost its two thirds majority and fell to 140 seats as well as losing four of the richest states. In May 2008 Mahathir announced that he was resigning from UMNO and would not re-join until after Abdullah had left. In April 2009 Abdullah bowed to pressure and resigned. He was replaced by Najib Razak, the current prime minister.
The Head of State is Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King) Abdul Halim of Kedah. Kings are elected by and from the hereditary rulers of nine of the states for five-year terms with selection based on the principle of rotation among rulers of states.
The bicameral parliament consists of the Senate or Dewan Negara which has 70 seats of which 44 members are appointed by the King and 26 are elected by 13 state legislatures to serve three year terms with a two term limit. The House of Representatives or Dewan Rakyat has 222 members elected by popular vote to serve up to five year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Malaysia at joint 55th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 49 (where 100 is least corrupt).