by Mark Heng
History: Malaysia's first inhabitants are believed to be the Negritos, followed by the Senoi from Thailand and the Proto-Malay from Indonesia – these groups are today considered Orang Asli (original people). Trade routes and ports had been established in Malaya by the 2nd century, and it was believed to be rich in gold, known to the Indians as Savarnadvipa (Land of Gold) and on Ptolemy's map as the Golden Chersonese. Empires rose and fell here – the Sumatran Srivijaya from the 7th to 13th century and the Java-based Majapahit in the 14th century. The glorious Melaka Empire, considered the first independent state on the peninsula, brought Islam to Malaya in the 15th century. European colonialism arrived in the 15th century, bringing the rule of the Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British. The British held sway over the archipelago, including Singapore, forming the Straits Settlements, until Malaysia was granted independence in 1963. Economic growth and industrialisation has transformed Malaysia into a newly industrialised country.
Culture: Like Singapore, Malaysia is a multicultural and multi-ethnic society. There is a majority of bumiputra (“sons of the land”, Malays and indigenous Malaysians), and Malaysian culture is centred around Islam, based on the culture of the indigenous peoples. It also incorporates elements from immigrant cultures. Chinese and Indian cultures have had the heaviest influence, dating back to when foreign trade began here, with substantial influence from Persian, Arabic, and British cultures. Friendliness and the warmth of hospitality are at the heart of Malaysian culture.
Arts: Traditional art forms such as wayang kulit (shadow puppetry), mak yong, joget melayu, zapin dances continue to thrive in Malaysia. Traditional Malay music is centred around percussion instruments such as the gendang (drum), and used for storytelling, celebrating life events and occasions. Traditional Malaysian handicraft is centred around the crafts of carving, weaving, and silverwork, such as handwoven baskets, kris (ornamental daggers) and luxurious batik fabrics.
Architecture: Traditional architecture in Malaysia is similar to Singapore's, a blend of styles that include Islamic and Chinese architecture. Architecture is also regionally influenced, with Thai features in the north and Javanese ones in the South. Traditional Malay houses adapt to the tropical climate with stilts and high, peaked roofs. Majestic mosques, impressive colonial structures, quaint shophouses and Borneo long houses can be seen throughout the land. Modern architecture is epitomised in the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world.
Environment: Malaysia is well-known as a prime destination for eco-tourism, with vast forests, rich biodiversity, and idyllic tropical landscapes. However, a focus on development, urbanisation, industrialisation and tourism has affected the state of the environment. Nonetheless, environmental awareness and conservation efforts are increasing throughout the land.
Government: Malaysia is a federal constitutional elective monarchy, where the head of state (Yang di-Pertuan Agong) is elected every five years from amongst the nine hereditary rulers of the Malay states, and the Prime Minister is the head of government. A multi-party system has seen the Alliance Party coalition and its successor, the Barisan Nasional, in power since the first election.
Media: Just as in Singapore, freedom of the press is regulated. Much of the Malaysian media is tied to the ruling coalition, where the main newspaper is owned by the government.
Sports: Badminton, bowling, football, squash, and hockey are popular sports in Malaysia, as are watersports. Traditional sports include wau (kite-flying), sepak takraw and throwing gasing (tops).