Malaysia is a multicultural country of 32 million people. The ethnic population consists of three main groups: Malay (55%; about 17 million), Chinese (24%; about 7 million) and Indian (7%; about 2 million). There is not much intermarrying between these races. Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism are religions practised in Malaysia. Based on the Malaysian Constitution, a Malay in Malaysia must be a Muslim (of the Islam faith only), and Malays cannot convert to another religion. Other than Malay schools, Chinese and Indian schools are also available. English is widely spoken although Malay is the official language. In general, the ethnic Chinese controls a lot of the commercial power; whilst the ethnic Malays hold much of the political power. Tin, rubber and other natural resources brought richness to the British colonists in 1800s and early 1900s, and after the British left in 1957, the country maintained this richness. Under prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed (who was prime minster for 22 years in his first stint, from 1981-2003), Malaysia industrialised and achieved GDP growth as high as nine percent per year for many years. Prominent economic sectors now are manufacturing, science, tourism, electronic equipment and medical tourism. In the last decade, its economy growth slowed to about five percent per year, and corruption raised its ugly head in the 1MDB scandal involving the prime minister Najib Razak. Due to this scandal, in 2018, the opposition came into power (under Dr Mahathir Mohamed in his second stint as prime minister), but in 2020 a new coalition (with Najib Razak’s political party UMNO) under new prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin took power. Malaysia remains largely peaceful and has an industrialised market economy. Many people (over three million) from Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nepal move temporarily to Malaysia to work in jobs that Malaysians do not want to do.

  1. In about 2,000 words, I will describe major events that affected Malaysia from 1900 to the present.
  2. 1900 – The states of Malacca, Penang and Singapore are British Colony of the Straits Settlements; whilst the states of Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan are the Federated Malay States (FMS) under the British protectorate.
  3. 1900 – Profits pour into British companies due to huge demand for tin and rubber. Britain builds strong naval presence to counter the Japanese.
  4. 1909 – Treaty of Bangkok transfers four northern Malay states of Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu from Thai sovereignty to British.
  5. 1914 – The state of Johor is brought under British control. The entire peninsula is now under British rule.
  6. 1920 – (to 1941) Early signs of Malay nationalism surface.
  7. 1941 – (to 1945) World War Two: The British battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were sunk in the South China Sea (east of Kuantan, Pahang) by Japanese bombers. 840 sailors were lost: 327 in Prince of Wales and 513 in Repulse.
  8. 1941 – Japan bombs Singapore and Kota Bharu in Kelantan. Unprepared and outmanned for a land assault, British forces are routed and Singapore falls to Japan in February 1942.
  9. 1942 – (to 1945) Japanese occupation. During the Japanese occupation, exports are stripped, nationalism grows, and ethnic tensions between Malays, Chinese and Indians are exacerbated. Japan’s purge so-called sook ching (purification through suffering) leads to the death of 70,000 ethnic Chinese in Malaya and Singapore. The purge took place from 18 February 1942 to 4 March 1942 at various places in the region.
  10. 1945 – Cruel Sandakan Death Marches were forced by Japan. The Sandakan Death Marches were a series of forced marches in Borneo from Sandakan to Ranau which resulted in the deaths of 2,434 Allied prisoners of war held captive by the Empire of Japan during the Pacific campaign of World War Two in the Sandakan Prisoner of War Camp.
  11. 1945 – World War Two ends after USA dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered leaving a power vacuum. The British returned and established a military administration in the Straits Settlements. Anti-colonial movements gain momentum.
  12. 1946 – The Straits Settlements were dissolved and replaced by the Malayan Union, conceived to unify the Malay Peninsula under a single government.
  13. 1946 – United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is founded by Onn bin Jaafar, chief minister of Johore. The nationalist group seeks independence from Britain, but will only tolerate a state dominated by ethnic Malays.
  14. 1947 – First multi-ethnic political movement organises nationwide strikes.
  15. 1948 – (to 1960) Rubber plantations and tin mines in Malaya are destroyed by Communists, leading to the British declaring a state of emergency (the Malayan Emergency) to counter the local insurgency. Influenced by Cold War politics, ethnic Chinese communist guerrillas maintain insurgency in jungle areas. This 12 year uprising is eventually suppressed by British and Commonwealth forces (in 1960).
  16. 1948 – Opposition from Malay nationalists forced the Malayan Union to disband in favour of the Federation of Malaya, which restored the symbolic positions of the rulers of the Malay states.
  17. 1949 – The University of Malaya is established following the merger of Raffles College and King Edward Medical College.
  18. 1950 – Malaya has six million people.
  19. 1951 – British High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney was killed by members of the Malayan Communist Party in Fraser’s Hill.
  20. 1953 – Alliance coalition comprising UMNO, Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) formed.
  21. 1955 – First general elections in the peninsula; landslide win for the Alliance.
  22. 1956 – A constitutional conference proposed the appointment of the Reid Commission to devise a constitution for a fully self-governing and independent Federation of Malaya.
  23. 1957 – The new Federal Constitution was passed by the Federal Legislative Council. Federation of Malaya becomes independent from Britain with Tunku Abdul Rahman serving as prime minister.
  24. 1961 – Malayan prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proposes a merger between Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak.
  25. 1963 – British colonies of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak join Federation of Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia.
  26. 1963 – (to 1965) Indonesia say they would pursue a policy of Konfrontasi with Malaysia. Konfrontasi was an ‘undeclared war’ between Indonesia and Malaysia – Indonesia under President Sukarno was vehemently against the formation of Malaysia.
  27. 1965 – Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore began campaigning for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’. Malaysia and Singapore signed a separation agreement. The Malaysian Parliament later voted to expel Singapore from the Federation over political and racial concerns. Malaysia is reduced to 13 states.
  28. 1969 – Racial violence between the Chinese and the Malay erupted in Kuala Lumpur (the 13 May 1969 incident). A state of emergency and a curfew of a few days was declared throughout the country. This riot / civil unrest occurred in the aftermath of the 1969 Malaysian general elections, when opposition parties gained at the expense of the ruling coalition. Official reports put the number of deaths due to the riots at 196, although Western diplomatic sources at the time suggested a toll of close to 600, with most of the victims Chinese. Opposition politician Lim Kit Siang was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act for 18 months.
  29. 1971 – An affirmative action program, to redistribute wealth among ethnic groups, known as the New Economic Policy, is launched by the Malaysian government. Minimum quotas are implemented for Malays (or bumiputras) in business, education and the civil service.
  30. 1973 – The Alliance coalition is reorganised as a 10-party National Front (Barisan Nasional).
  31. 1975 – Japanese Red Army (now defunct) took more than 50 hostages at the AIA building in Kuala Lumpur, which housed several embassies.
  32. 1977 – A state of emergency for a few days was declared in the state of Kelantan following a political impasse and street violence in Kelantan.
  33. 1981 – Dr Mahathir Mohamad begins tenure as prime minister during which the economy is diversified and grows at a rate of up to nine percent each year.
  34. 1983 – Government strips power from the sultans and silences the media. Government-linked companies created to marry government and big business.
  35. 1985 – A team of 200 policemen laid siege to kampung (village) houses in Memali, near Baling in Kedah. The houses were occupied by an Islamic sect of about 400 people led by Ibrahim Mahmud aka Ibrahim Libya. The siege resulted in the deaths of 14 villagers and 4 policemen.
  36. 1987 – Operation Lalang was carried out by the Malaysian police to crack down on opposition leaders and social activists. The operation saw the detention of 119 people – NGO activists, opposition politicians, intellectuals, trade unionists, educators, students, artists, scientists and community leaders – who were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act. Opposition politician Lim Kit Siang was jailed for 17 months.
  37. 1988 – The 1988 Malaysian Constitutional Crisis. A series of events began with UMNO party elections which ended with the eventual removal of the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Tun Salleh Abas.
  38. 1988 – The economy diversifies, and GDP grows at nine percent per annum, heralding the start of the tiger economy years.
  39. 1990s – Large-scale industrialisation and mega-projects implemented such as the national car project, Proton, and the building of Putrajaya.
  40. 1993 – The Parliament passed amendments to the Constitution with the aim of stripping the royalty of legal immunity.
  41. 1996 – Petronas Twin Towers completed, the world’s tallest building at the time.
  42. 1997 – The Asian economic crisis hits; currency control laws are imposed to protect the ringgit (the Malaysian currency).
  43. 1998 – Kuala Lumpur is first Asian city to host the Commonwealth Games.
  44. 1998 – Dr Mahathir Mohamad sacks his deputy and presumed successor, Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of corruption and sexual misconduct, against the background of differences between the two men over economic policy. Before he is arrested on charges of sodomy and corruption, Anwar mobilises thousands of people to rally against the government – Reformasi (reformation) political movement.
  45. 1999 – Abdullah Badawi replaces Anwar Ibrahim as Deputy Prime Minister.
  46. 2000 – Anwar Ibrahim is found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to nine years in prison. This is added to the six-year jail sentence he was given in 1999 after being found guilty of corruption following a controversial trial.
  47. 2000 – Malaysia has 23 million people.
  48. 2001 – Breakout of racial riot between Malay and Indian in Petaling Jaya. The riot between the two groups in Kampung Medan resulted from a wedding (held by a Malay family) and a funeral (held by Indian neighbours). 400 people were detained. The tension of three weeks resulted in the deaths of six people, and left over 100 people with severe wounds, ranging from head injuries, broken bones, to slashes and hacked off limbs.
  49. 2003 – Abdullah Badawi takes over as prime minister as Dr Mahathir Mohamad steps down after 22 years in office.
  50. 2004 – Anwar Ibrahim freed after the court overturns his conviction.
  51. 2008 – Abdullah Badawi’s National Front (Barisan Nasional) coalition suffers its worst election result in decades after Anwar Ibrahim leads the opposition to unprecedented gains. Shortly after the vote, Anwar Ibrahim is hit with new sodomy charges.
  52. 2009 – Anwar Ibrahim’s second sodomy trial begins.
  53. 2009 – Abdullah Badawi steps down as prime minister and is replaced by his deputy, Najib Razak.
  54. 2009 – New Economy Policy quotas begin to be dismantled.
  55. 2010 – Religious tensions increase following court decision that rules non-Muslims cannot use the word Allah to refer to God. Several Christian churches are attacked.
  56. 2012 – The High Court acquits Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy charges.
  57. 2013 – Malaysia launches air strikes on underground Filipino fighters who occupy a Sabah village (in Borneo) claiming ancestral ownership rights.
  58. 2014 – Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 goes missing en route to China in unexplained circumstances. 249 people were on board.
  59. 2014 – Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashes in eastern Ukraine after being shot down by Russian-backed separatists, with the loss of all 298 people on board.
  60. 2015 – Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is jailed for five years after failing to win an appeal against a sodomy conviction. It was later overturned.
  61. 2015 – The Wall Street Journal alleges that close to US$700 million from the state investment fund 1MDB was deposited in prime minister Najib Razak’s personal bank account.
  62. 2016 – Thousands of anti-government protesters take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to demand the resignation of prime minister Najib Razak over his alleged links to the IMDB state investment fund corruption scandal.
  63. 2017 – Kim Jong-nam, the estranged brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is killed with a nerve agent at a Malaysian airport.
  64. 2018 – Barisan Nasional defeated by opposition Pakatan Harapan, first change of governing coalition since independence in 1957. Dr Mahathir Mohamad becomes prime minister again as head of a four-party coalition, defeating his former protege Najib Razak.
  65. 2020 – Najib Razak is sentenced to 12 years in prison over corruption in the first 1MDB state investment fund trial (he is on bail at this time).
  66. 2020 – Muhyiddin Yassin forms government with UMNO, the party of Najib Razak, after the surprise collapse of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s coalition. Muhyiddin Yassin becomes prime minister.
  67. 2020 – (to 2021) COVID-19 pandemic caused more than 600 deaths in Malaysia.
  68. 2021 – Malaysia has 32 million people

 © Comasters January 2021.

  • Yew Kam Keong
    Posted at 14:06h, 20 January

    Hi Jeff, it’s fantastic!
    I suggest you make the change in
    No.68. 2021- Malaysia declared a state of emergency from 12 Jan to 1 Aug 2021 to fight Covid 19

    • comasters1
      Posted at 14:54h, 21 January

      Kam Keong, I could add the 2021 ‘state of emergency’ declaration. But this blog post already past 2,000 words, so I would desist. I also read that former PM Dr M Mohamad says Malaysia does not need the ‘state of emergency’ to curb the pandemic. I welcome your thought on this – is the declaration to shore up the present M Yassin government who has lost majority support in the Parliament? Jeff

  • Albert Lee
    Posted at 18:11h, 26 January

    Interesting post Jeff. Good revision of the history of Malaya especially during the period 1900 – 1941 where I have forgotten about Straits Settlement and Treaty of Bangkok transferring the sovereignty of northern states of Malaya from Thailand to Britain. It appears Britain gained control of Malaya by stealth, a bit at a time and without much resistance from the local people, apart from the communists.
    On the issue of declaration of emergency rule by Muhyiddin government the general belief is that it is to avoid convening the parliament where it is likely to lose its majority status and hence its legitimacy to govern. Many experts claimed this emergency rule is illegal and the government is using Covid 19 as excuse to justify its declaration. I feel sorry for all Malaysians having to endure this blatant abuse of power by Muhyiddin and his backdoor government and in the meantime corruption is running riot and more blatant than ever.

    • comasters1
      Posted at 10:38h, 27 January

      Albert, Thanks. When writing such history, I imagined what it was like in the days before our generation was born. I remember as a small boy, the White People’s house is always a big bungalow – the Whites were rich in other words. Nationalism began in early 1900s and took shape immediately after WW2. Advent of self-governance is often not a smooth process – economies developed but corruption becomes rife. There is a balancing act as governments adopt ‘authoritarian stance vs democratic values’. L Kuan Yew (a benevolent dictator) did well for Singapore – there is little or no blatant corruption today. Malaysia has to catch up. (In Singapore today, I understand that there exists an elite class that many of the population are not happy about. That is another ‘talking point’ for the future.) Jeff