Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What You Don't Know About Malaysia 1

Hello there. 'Selamat Datang ke Malaysia'. That means, 'Welcome to Malaysia' in our national language Bahasa Malaysia. It would be impossible to tell you everything about Malaysia in such a short period of time, but I will give you a general idea so that you are able to appreciate this beautiful country better.
Firstly, let's start with a bit of history. I don't know if you're a history buff, but an understanding of Malaysia is an understanding of its history.
Let's take a step back in time... and I mean back to 35,000 BC.
Starting with ancient Malaysia, we are talking about a time period between 35,000 BC to 100 BC. The oldest known evidence of human habitation is a skull from the Niah Caves in Sarawak or East Malaysia dating from 35,000 BC. On the peninsula itself, Stone Age tools and implements from about 10,000 BC have been found. Some archaeologists suggest that they were left there by the Negrito aborigines - one of the earliest groups to inhabit the peninsula. The tribe still exists in Malaysia today.
We also know that about 2,500 BC, another group migrated to the peninsula all the way from China. They are called the Proto-Malays and they were seafarers and farmers. Their eventual advancement into the peninsula forced the Negritos into the hills and jungles. With waves of migration, another group was soon created, the Deutero-Malays. This group was a combination of many peoples- Indians, Chinese, Siamese, Arabs, and Proto-Malays. They mastered the use of iron. In combination with the peoples of Indonesia, the Deutero-Malays formed the racial basis for the group many today call, the Malay.
Early writings from India describe a place called Suvarnabhumi, otherwise known as the Land of Gold. This far away, unknown land was described as a mystical, wealthy, opulent kingdom. This mysterious land was what drew the first Indians to the Peninsula. Coming from the Bay of Bengal with the reliable winds of the southwest monsoon, they landed in Kedah up north sometime around 100 BC. If it was indeed the mystical land they sought, no one will ever know, but whatever they found in Malaysia at the time certainly guaranteed a steady stream of Indian traders arriving in search of gold, aromatic wood, spices and much more.
History soon tells of the Hindu Kingdoms that lasted from 100 BC to 1400 AD. Besides trading goods, the Indians also brought a pervasive and strong culture with them. Ancient religions like Hinduism and Buddhism swept through the land. Local kings who sent emissaries to the subcontinent became impressed by the efficiency of the Hindu courts and began to refer to themselves as "rajahs." It became the integration of the best Indian ruling traditions, which historians refer to as "Indianised kingdoms." There is still remaining evidence in Lembah Bujang up north, where you can find Malaysia's most extensive archeological site- the sprawling ruins of an ancient Hindu kingdom dating back to 300 AD. Over 50 tomb temples dot the site, and hundreds of relics are on display in the nearby Bujang Valley Archaeological Museum. Much of Malay, and local culture retain aspects of Indian culture, and this can be seen in the use of Sanskrit in the national language, through similar wedding ceremonies, the use of henna, dances, performances and much more.
In the 7th century, came an important kingdom- the Srivijaya Empire, which was lauded with the title of having the best trading port in the region. We know this through the records of Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders. Other ports were quick to emulate it, hoping to achieve the same success. During the 13th century, as other ports emerged, Srivijaya's influence declined. The lack of a strong central power, coupled with the nuisance of pirates, increased the need for a secure, well-equipped port in the region. Fate would take care of this. This port would soon be none other than Malacca.

The Malay Annals say, that a fleeing Palembang prince named Parameswara founded Malacca, down south, in 1400. Palembang is in the south of the Indonesian province of Sumatra, just across the straits. One day, while the prince was scouting for a new area to build his new kingdom, he saw a tiny mouse deer wrestling with a big dog while he was resting under the Melaka tree. Guess what? The tiny mouse deer won. Taking this as a good omen, he decided to establish a kingdom called Malacca, named after the tree that he was resting on. He built and improved facilities for trade, and within 50 years; it became the most influential port in all of Southeast Asia. At any given time, ships from dozens of kingdoms great and small could be seen anchored at the harbor. Imagine, hundreds of traders all trading and seeking their fortune in this new world with their spices, jewels, silks and much more.
Along with these traders came the religion of Islam, and Malacca's rulers now referred to themselves as "Sultans." The sultans were the heads of a highly organized municipal government. A multilingual harbor captain met each incoming ship, and his staff would see to all the vessel's needs. Besides that, there were also guarded storehouses where goods could be stored until traders arrived, or for safekeeping until they left. Most importantly, Malacca was attractive to traders because it was able to control what had been the bane of trade in the Straits - the pirates. And how did they do this? Well, by building alliances with outlying tribes and ports. They managed to establish a regional "navy" that policed local waters and escorted friendly vessels.
With the success and power it enjoyed, Malacca came to control the entire west coast of the Malay Peninsula including the kingdom of Pahang, and much of Sumatra. At the height of its power or as most Malaysians would say - Zaman Kegemilangan Melaka, the Glorious Age of Malacca- it became one of the most prosperous areas in South East Asia.
But its popularity lured the Portuguese; keen on replenishing their stocks of spices and other wares. The Portuguese would soon become the first of many to colonize this once independent and blossoming kingdom. The Portuguese would also begin a colonial legacy that would stretch well into the 20th century.
It was in 1511, when a Portuguese fleet led by Alfonso de Albuquerque sailed into Malacca's harbor, opened fire with cannon, and captured the entire city. Malacca's golden age came to an end.
Without further ado, the Portuguese constructed a massive fort in Malacca, which you can still visit, called A Famosa. The Dutch eventually captured the fort in 1641. This gave the Dutch an exclusive lock on the spice trade, until 1785, when the last but longest of colonizers- the British, convinced the Sultan of Kedah to allow them to build a fort on the island of Penang up north. The British were interested in having a safe port for their ships on the way to China. Instead of handing Malacca over to the French, the Dutch government in exile at the time agreed to let England temporarily oversee the port. The British returned the city to them in 1808, but the Dutch handed Malacca back to the British again as a trade off for Bencoleen in Sumatra. The Dutch continued to control the region until 1819 when Britain sent Sir William Raffles to establish a trading port in Singapore. This would eventually see the three British colonies - Penang, Malacca, and Singapore - be known as the Straits Settlement. This effectively sealed the British as the new superpower of the Straits.
In the late 1860s, fights for the control of the throne of Perak led to a war, causing the British to intervene. That eventually led to the signing of a peace treaty known as the Pangkor Agreement in 1874. The treaty gave Britain an even greater role in the region and helped maintain its monopoly on tin mining.
Together with the White Rajas or the Brookes in Borneo, Britain ruled over Malaya. Until the Japanese invaded and ousted them in 1942. During this time, many Chinese fled to the jungle and established an armed resistance that, after the end of the war, became the basis for a communist insurgency. In 1945, when World War II ended, Britain resumed control of Malaya again. But this time, the locals were ready to ask for independence. They eventually organized themselves in an alliance under Tunku Abdul Rahman. When the Union Jack was finally lowered in Kuala Lumpur's Merdeka Square in 1957, Tunku became the first prime minister of Malaya.

After the independence, a series of difficulties laid ahead for Malaya. The biggest question was, which territories would be included in the new state? So, in 1963 Malaya became "Malaysia" after Tunku convinced Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak to join Malaya in a federal union. Singapore was later kicked out from Malaysia in 1965, after it challenged the supremacy of the Malays.
What a long journey it has been. But that's not the end.
There was also the problem of determining national identity. Malaysia was, and still is, a mix of people from many races and cultures, and uniting them under a common flag was problematic. The Malays represent the majority. Thus the constitution gives them certain privileges; it also made Islam the official religion, and made Malay the national language. However, it was the Chinese who were firmly dominating business and trade, and most Malays were going through economic hardships. On May 13th 1969, after the opposition party won a significant number of seats, riots swept through Kuala Lumpur and the country was placed in a state of emergency. The government, controlled by the United Malay National Organization, passed the New Economic Policy or the NEP. The NEP attempted to increase economic opportunities for the Malays by establishing various quotas in their favor. This continues to be a hotly debated issue in Malaysia until today. The emergency has not been lifted since, and continues to be a painful moment that most Malaysians talk about with much dread.
Of course, in the last few decades since, Malaysia has undergone growth and prosperity, and has made significant progress in race relations. Issues continue be discussed and a newly elected government after the 2008 elections saw a stronger Opposition presence. Currently, Najib Tun Razak serves as the sixth Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Well, that's the end of our short history of Malaysia. I know I took quite long but hey, this is a history spanning 37,000 B.C.
Political System
Now, what is the political system in Malaysia like? Well, the political system uses the framework of 'federal constitutional elective monarchy'. The federal head of state in Malaysia is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or the King of Malaysia. Yang di-Pertuan Agong means "He who is made Lord". His title, including the honorific is pretty long- here it goes: Ke Bawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Yang di-Pertuan Agong, which means, "The Dust Under The Feet Of His Royal Highness, Conqueror Majesty The Supreme Lord of the Federation". The current King is the Sultan of Terengganu, from the east coast and his name including his title and honorific goes like this- take a deep breath: Duli Yang Maha Mulia Al-Wathiqu Billah Tuanku Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud Al-Muktafi Billah Shah. Would you like to repeat that?
The King is elected to a five-year term among the nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states, a practice that is continued from way back in the Malay sultanate. The other four states, which have Governors, do not participate in the selection for the King. The Malaysian system of government is closely modeled after the Westminster parliamentary system. This is undoubtedly a legacy of British colonial rule. Since independence in 1957, Malaysia has been governed by a coalition known as the Barisan Nasional.
On to legislative power. The Legislative branch is divided between federal and state legislatures. The Parliament consists of two houses. The first is the lower house, which is the House of Representatives or Dewan Rakyat, which means Chamber of the People. The second is the upper house, the Senate or Dewan Negara, which means Chamber of the Nation. There are 222 members in the lower house and they are elected for a maximum term of five years. As for the members of the upper house, all 70 Senators sit for three-year terms.
Besides the Parliament at the federal level, each state has a state legislative chamber whose members are elected from single-member constituencies.
Parliamentary elections are held at least once every five years, with the last general election being in March 2008. The prime minister must be a member of the lower house of parliament who, in the opinion of the King, commands a majority in parliament. The cabinet is chosen from among members of both houses of the Parliament.
On to foreign relations. Malaysia is one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN and participates in the United Nations. Also, as a former British colony, it is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, and a member of the Developing 8 Countries. Malaysia manages good diplomatic relations with many countries, with the exception of the State of Israel, which it does not recognize. Those bearing Malaysian passports will have a stamp that does not allow for visits to Israel, although travel to Jerusalem is sometimes permitted for religious reasons.
Alright. Let me give you an idea about the geography of Malaysia. It is the 66th largest country in the world, with a land area of over 320,000 km2. That's not very big actually, roughly the size of Norway and Vietnam and the US state of New Mexico. Population: 43rd most populated country in the world, similar to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
There are two distinct parts of Malaysia as you already know, separated from each other by the South China Sea. They are the Peninsula Malaysia, where you most probably are right now, and East Malaysia in Borneo Island in the east. Mount Kinabalu is over there at East Malaysia in the state of Sabah and it stands at 4,095 metres. Mount Kinabalu is also the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. The local climate is equatorial, which simply means hot and sweaty all year round.
The Straits of Malacca is still considered the most important shipping lane in the world, much as it was in the time of the Malaccan sultanate.
Malaysia has 13 states and 3 federal territories. Let's see how many you can remember. The states- they are: from north, Perlis, Kedah, Pulau Pinang or Penang if you like, and Perak. In the central region we have Selangor, where Kuala Lumpur is, Negeri Sembilan and Melaka. On the east, and by east I mean the east of the peninsula, we have Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang. Down south, we have Johor. On the east side of Malaysia or Borneo if you like, we have two states over there, Sabah and Sarawak. As for the 3 federal territories, they are Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan.
Kuala Lumpur is the capital and the largest city in Malaysia. Putrajaya is the federal administrative capital. Many executive and judicial branches of the federal government moved to Putrajaya because the long-suffering inhabitants of Kuala Lumpur have been complaining of traffic congestion. Kuala Lumpur is still recognised as the legislative capital of Malaysia as it houses the seat of the Malaysian Parliament. Kuala Lumpur is also the main commercial and financial centre of the country. Some other major cities in Malaysia include, let's see how many you know: George Town, Ipoh, Johor Bahru, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, Miri, Alor Star, Malacca Town, Kuala Terengganu, Kota Bharu, Kuantan and Petaling Jaya. You will encounter some of them in other audio guides, so watch out for them!
Part of the reason Malaysia or Malaya was of such interest to the British was due to its rich natural resources. Malaysia is one of the top exporters of natural rubber and palm oil, together with sawn logs and sawn timber, cocoa, pepper, pineapple and tobacco. Palm oil has also become a major generator of foreign exchange.
Logging in Malaysia only began to make a substantial contribution to the economy during the 19th century. Today, an estimated 59% of Malaysia remains forested, though logging has brought about a serious erosion problem in the country's forest resources.
Malaysia was once the world's largest producer of tin until the collapse of the tin market in the early 1980s. Petroleum and natural gas took over from tin as the main mineral. Petroleum and natural gas discoveries in oil fields off Sabah, Sarawak and Terengganu have contributed much to the Malaysian economy. Other minerals include copper, bauxite, iron-ore and coal as well as clay, kaolin, silica, limestone, barite, phosphates and stones such as granite. Also, small quantities of gold are produced.
This is the end of part one of About Malaysia. I hope you've enjoyed learning about the history, politics and natural resources of Malaysia. Hopefully, this will give you a better understanding of Malaysia, and a deeper appreciation of this beautiful country.
In part two of About Malaysia, we will get to know its people, economy, healthcare and education system, a short language course and some general tourist tips.
Until next time, Selamat Tinggal and goodbye.
For the best and only audio guides to Malaysia, visit Audio Guide Malaysia.
Teng Ky-Gan is the Founder of Audio Guide Malaysia. Visit Audio Guide Malaysia for the best and only audio guides to major places in Malaysia.