Hindu and Buddhist cultures brought in from India dominated the early history of Malaysia. From the first millennium the people of the Malay Peninsula adopted Hinduism and Buddhism and the use of Sanskrit in their literature and cultures. The Indian influence dates back to as early as the 3rd century BCE. For more than 700 years the Maharajas of the famous Srivijaya Empire ruled and controlled a maritime empire along the coasts of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo. The powers of the Maharajas gradually declined in the 10th Century AD.
Although Muslims came to Malaysia as early as the 10th Century, it was not until the 14th and the 15th Centuries that Islam entered the Malaysian mainland, making Melaka (Malacca) its entry point. Melaka on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula was founded around 1400 by Parameswara, a rebel prince of the Srivijaya Empire. It became a thriving trade centre developing a relationship with China and controlling the China-India trade route through its port. It was during Parameswara’s reign that the kingdom officially recognised Islam and the Raja became the Sultan. This eventually gave rise to the Malay Sultanates. For over a century Melaka developed as a focal point for everything Malay. Its culture was a blend of indigenous Malay, Indian, Chinese, Islamic, Hinduism and elements of Buddhism.
Today all these factors are increasingly evident in the literature, music, art, dance, dress, royal traditions, language and beliefs of the Malays in the country.
The Portuguese were the first European power to colonise the country in 1511. Thereafter the Dutch came in for a period of time before moving closer to the Indonesian Islands. A battle of sorts developed in this area when Spain entered the region. This struggle to gain control of the region between the Portugese, Dutch and Spain went on for more then two centuries. Finally, as the Portuguese influence faded away and Dutch became more involve with trade in the Indonesian Island and Spain entered Manila to develop its trade relations with the Philippines, it was the British who began to play a vital role in the colonialisation and development of the Malay Peninsula (then), Singapore and Kuching.
The fast-growing trade between Britain and China added to the demand for Malaysian tin. This with the discovery of gold and the demand for pepper and later for rubber gave rise to the influx of foreigners into the country. It was during this period that the migration of the Chinese and Indians took place – the Chinese went into the tin mines and developed commercial enterprises in towns while the Indians were indentured into the rubber plantations. The Malay population continued to be rural, being happily confined to the Kampongs and villages leading a serene and peaceful life.
Meanwhile the British became increasing popular with the Sultans in the various Malay states. They penned treaties, set up “Residents” and gradually took control over the states. Meanwhile the northern states of Borneo also came under British control and by 1910 Britain was in total control of the Malay lands in the Peninsula and North Borneo.
The growth of multiracial Malaysia
As Malaysia developed into a robust economy, building up a healthy trade selling tin, gold, pepper, tapioca, and rubber, the emergence of multiracialism became evident.
The Chinese were initially the poor from South China. But their hard-working habits, their industrious character, sense of mutual respect and help plus the opportunity for commercial ventures enabled the growth of a rich society among their lot and gave them a strong control over the economy of the country. In states like Penang, Selangor and even Singapore, their population grew, their wealth increased and their lot became a race to be reckoned with.
The Indians, on the other hand, were less successful. They were brought in as indentured laborers from South Indian and taken to the estates. Most of them and their off-springs lived and worked in the estates for a long time. They were not as united as the Chinese as there was a great deal of caste and religious differences. Only a few ventured out and tried their hands on business in the urban areas. But this was few and far between. When in later years the rubber plantations were fragmented the Indians became homeless. They drifted into the towns. Without skills and positive help from the government, they continued to be poor, living in ghettos and squatters in the cities.
The Malays remained in a dilemma. They had lost their political sovereignty to the British and the country’s economy to the Chinese. The British however did help the Malays in that they introduced the Malay Administrative Service and gave those posts in the Government Services and also employed many of them in the police and the army. They fostered education for them and built Malay primary and secondary schools.
This policy of the British, giving considerable help to the Malays and practically ignoring the other races in the country, became known as the ‘divide and rule’ policy. The Chinese and the Indians continued to be regarded as immigrants whose stay in the country was considered as temporary. Initially a lot of them reaped the harvest of wealth in Malaysia and returned home. But as time went on some intermarried into the Malay families and set up homes in this country. Others found it more lucrative to stay on. While others just did not have the means to return. This situation was the cause of the many interracial troubles that set in the later years of the 20th Century in Malaysia.
The Japanese invasion of the country in 1942 ended the British hegemony and gradually the seeds of nationalism developed in Malaysia. After the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the British faced communist insurgency in Malaysia. They declared an emergency rule which continued for more than 20 years. With the nationalism fever growing among the citizens, especially the Malays, the Malay Peninsula was given its Independence in 1957 (31st August). This was done after a series of talks between the Malays, Chinese, and the Indians with the British Government. A sort of a unity Government, the” Alliance” was formed. Subsequently the British territories of North Borneo (Sarawak and Saba) along with Singapore were given Independence. They joined the peninsula to form Malaysia in 1963 (Sept. 13th). Two years later Singapore was expelled.
Problems of Independence
The man who initiated the Independence of the country in 1957 was Tunku Abdul Rahman a member of the Kedah Royal family. He formed the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). Together with” MCA (Malayan Chinese Association) and, later, MIC (Malayan Indian Congress), he formed the ‘Alliance’ party which negotiated the Independence from Britain. In 1959 the Alliance won all but one seat in Parliament, and, thereafter, through subsequent elections, began their marathon journey towards ruling the country without much opposition, to this date. In 1963 when Malaysia was formed, several other political parties especially from Sabah and Sarawak joined the Alliance to form the Barison National.
Independence brought in some vexing problems for the coalition government. The main was the relationship among the various races in the ruling party. At the time of Independence the composition of the main races in the country was 55% Malays, 35% Chinese and 10% Indians. There was also education and economic differences among the ethnic communities.
The Education Act of 1961 seriously changed education landscape in the country. Henceforth Malay and English was to be the sole medium of instruction in Secondary schools and given full Government assistance. Chinese and Tamil primary schools were allowed to exist and were only partially assisted by the Government. The Malay language was to be taught in all schools and the medium of instruction in Malaysian Universities was to be in Malay. This did not go well with the other two races but for them sake of unity and development dissent was deflated.
Another issue that troubled the Malays was the economic power of the Chinese, which was growing in tandem with the prosperity of the country. UMNO (United Malays National Organizations) spearheaded many plans, sometimes aggressively, to uplift the Malay races; always stating that their attempts will not disrupt the status-co of the other races. Several agencies solely for the Malays were activated with heavy outlay of funds from the government.
The Chinese and the Indians became very uncomfortable through the years of this changing face of the country. And so in the 1969 elections the MCA lost a lot of their candidate to the opposition. Riots in May 13 1969, caused fighting between the Malays and the Chinese in Kuala Lumpur. This moved the Government to impose the Emergency law. The constitution was scrapped and a National Consultative Council was set up. Tunku Abdul Rahman resigned. In1970 the Internal Security Act (ISA) was introduced, political activities was suspended, press censorship was imposed and the constitution was changed to make illegal any criticism of the Malaysian Monarchy, the special position of the Malays in the country and the official status of the Malay Language.
Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister
In 1971, Parliament was reconvened. The country continued to see progress in its economic well-being. Its rubber and tin were the initial contributors to the national coffers. The discovery of oil, the demand for palm oil, spices and timber from Sabah and Sarawak further enriched the country. The growing wealth and prosperity eclipsed the racial differences to some extend, although not totally.
Malaysians were wary of the ISA and also the 20 years or so of tight rule (sometimes considered authoritarian) of the 4th Prime Minister of the Country, Dato Dr. Mahathir Mohammed. Dissentions were frowned upon. The National Economic Policy, constructed to uplift the Malay economic status was continued into the 80s, 90s and 20s. So was the national education policy. Huge funds were diverted to the Malays, most times at the expense of the Chinese and the Indians. All this also saw the growth of corruption.
In 2003, the Prime Ministership changed hands. UMNO had Dato Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at the helm and as tradition goes he took over as Prime Minister. In the 2004 he made a landslide victory gaining up to 90% of the votes. The victory was seen as the result mainly of Abdullah’s personal popularity and the strong recovery of the Malaysian economy after the financial turmoil that beset the country in 1998.
But confidence and success was short-lived. The seemingly weak leadership, the growing and perceived corruption among politicians and government bodies, the rising price of goods, the growing (and perhaps, arrogant) power of UMNO (United Malays National Organization), were obvious detrimental factors. The dissatisfaction of the Chinese over MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association), as their economy was eroded, became more and more exposed. The Indians were also disillusioned by their MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) leadership. Their economic pie remained as low as always, their schools were hardly helped. Their children were unable to find places in Universities or suitable jobs in the Government or private sector.
Two major showdown occurred in the streets of Kuala Lumpur just prior to the recent election. The BERSIH Rally wanted a corrupt-free, efficient and unbiased Election commission to handle the elections. The Government called it an illegal rally and clamped down on them with water jets and riot squads. Similarly the Indians formed the HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Force) group demanding consideration for their lot and also held a rally in the city, this was also thwarted by the police and riot squads and a number of their leaders were arrested under the dreaded ISA laws. The lawyers in the country were also dissatisfied with the Government and voiced the desire for an untainted judiciary, after some unpleasant revelations were exposed in the media.
The HINDRAF rally
In the just concluded National Elections, (March 10th 2008) the government (Barisan National) faced a disastrous fall in popularity. For only the second time in its history as Barisan National it lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. The control of 5 of the states also fell into opposition hands, namely, Penang, Perak, Kedah, Selangor and Kelantan.
Today there is uncertainty in the country. The opposition wants to remove the Barisan Nasional which favoured the Malays and replace it with a policy that is fair to all citizens in the country. The battle has begun on this and various other issues. Where it is heading is still hazy. We’ll have to wait and see.
Malaysian National Song
My country, my native land. The people living united and progressive, May God bestow blessing and happiness. May our Ruler have a successful reign. May God bestow blessing and happiness. May our Ruler have a successful reign.