A Brief History of Malaysia

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Malaysia

The first people to live in Malaysia were Stone Age hunter-gatherers. They arrived as early as 8,000 BC. Later Stone Age farmers came to Malaya and displaced them. (The hunter-gatherers continued to exist but they retreated into remote areas). The farmers practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. They cleared an area of the rainforest by burning it and then grew crops. After a few years, the land would be exhausted and the farmers would clear a new area. However, within a few years, the old area would become covered in vegetation and would become fertile again.

After 1,000 BC metal-using farmers came to Malaysia. They made tools from bronze and iron and they settled along the coast and rivers. They lived partly by fishing, and partly by growing crops. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, centralized states arose in Malaysia. The greatest was Kedah in the North. The Malayans became highly civilized.

Malayan civilization was heavily influenced by India. (Malays traded with India from the 3rd century AD. After that contact with India was common). Malayan laws and writing show Indian influence. The religions of Buddhism and Hinduism were also introduced into Malaya at that time.


In the 7th and 8th centuries, the state of Srivijaya of Sumatra rose to dominate much of Malaysia. It was a kingdom in Sumatra with its capital at Palembang. Srivijaya controlled the coasts of Java, the Malay Peninsula, and part of Borneo. However Srivijayan only really controlled the coast. Their influence did not extend far inland.

The prosperity of Srivijaya was based on trade with both India and China. Srivijaya controlled the Malacca Straits, which were the main passage between the Indian Ocean and China Sea. As a result, it grew rich and powerful. Srivijaya was able to dominate the region until the 11th century. Then its power declined and by the 13th century, Srivijaya had lost control completely.


Later Melaka rose to dominate Malaysia. A man named Parameswara founded it at the end of the 14th century. He became the ruler of Temasek, Singapore Island. However, the Thais overthrew him. Parameswara fled with some followers and settled by a river called Bertram.

According to legend when he was hunting a mouse deer turned and kicked one of his dogs. Parameswara took this as an omen and decided to found a settlement there. Since he was standing under a Melaka tree at the time he named it Melaka. Parameswara converted to Islam. (Islam first reached the region during the 8th century. It made many converts between the 14th and 16th centuries).

During the 15th century, the new settlement prospered and grew. The wealth and power of Melaka were based on trade with Arab, Chinese, and Indian ships sailing there.

The great wealth of the city-state of Melaka came to the notice of the Portuguese In 1511 they sent an expedition led by Alfonso de Albuquerque to capture it. Melaka soon fell to the Portuguese artillery. However, the son of the Sultan of Melaka founded Johor.

Johor and the Dutch

Johor grew to be one of several powerful trading states in what is now Malaysia. In the early 16th century, Johor made several unsuccessful attempts to recapture Melaka. However, Johor remained hostile to Portuguese Melaka. Then in the early 17th century, they made an alliance with the Dutch against their mutual enemy the Portuguese. The Dutch made two unsuccessful attempts to capture Melaka in 1606 and 1608. They then turned their attention to Java. Finally, in 1641 the Dutch laid siege to Melaka again. Johor assisted them. After a terrible siege, in which many people died, Melaka finally fell to the Dutch.

Another rich and powerful state was Aceh, in Sumatra. However, the Sultanate of Aceh reached its peak in the early 17th century and then began to decline.

Brunei was another powerful state. Already strong in the 15th century, it grew stronger in the 16th after the Portuguese captured Melaka. The power of Brunei was at its peak in the early 16th century but it declined at the end of the century.

In the early 17th century the Dutch drove out all other Europeans from the area. For the rest of the 17th century, they were friends with Johor and the two powers dominated the region.

In 1673 the forces of the kingdom of Jambi sacked the capital of Johor, Batu Sawar. However, Johor eventually managed to inflict defeat on Jambi. At the end of the 17th century, Johor was still the most powerful state in Malaysia. However, in 1699 Sultan Mahmud was assassinated. That event marked the beginning of the end of Johor’s power.

The Bugis

A new power arose in the 18th century. A people called the Bugis originally came from Sulawesi. At the end of the 17th century, they began to settle, peacefully, in the territory of Johor. They were allowed to settle but they soon became very powerful.

In 1717 a man named Raja Kecil claimed he was the son of the assassinated Sultan Mahmud. He and his followers seized the capital of Johor. The reigning Sultan, a man named Abdul Jalil, was overthrown. However, he fled to the east coast of the Malay Peninsula with his followers and set up a rival court there. From then on both men claimed to be the ruler of Johor.

Abdul Jalil was murdered on the orders of his rival, Raja Kecil. The Bugis then turned on Raja Kecil. They captured the capital and made Abdul Jalil’s son Sulaiman a ruler. However, Sulaiman was only a puppet ruler. From then on the Bugis held the real power.

The British in Malaysia

In the late 18th century the British East India Company traded with, and partly controlled India. At that time they began looking for a base in Malaysia. In 1786 the British under Francis Light occupied Penang and founded Georgetown. In 1800 they took Province Wellesley. In 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles founded a British trading post at Singapore.

By the treaty of London, in 1824, the British and Dutch divided the region between them. The Dutch surrendered Melaka to the British. The Dutch were given control of Sumatra and all the area below the Malay Peninsula.

The Straits Settlements, as they were called, (Penang, Province Wellesley, Melaka, and Singapore) grew rapidly partly due to an influx of Chinese and Indian workers. By 1860 the population of Singapore was over 80,000. However, although the British East India Company controlled islands and parts of the coast they did not control the interior of the Malay Peninsula. Furthermore, until 1867 the East India Company controlled the Straits Settlements, not the British Government. However, in 1867 they were made a crown colony.

British control of Sarawak began in 1841. In 1840 a man named James Brooke helped the Sultan of Brunei to crush a rebellion. As a reward, he was given territory to rule, and in 1841 he was granted the title of Raja of Sarawak. Brooke’s territory was enlarged in 1853.

Meanwhile, Siam (modern-day Thailand) invaded Kedah in 1821. They deposed the Sultan. There were rebellions against Siamese rule in 1830-31 and in 1838-39. The Sultan was restored in 1841 but Kedah remained a vassal state of Siam.

The Treaty of Pangkor 1874

In 1853 the British government stopped charging duty on imports of tin. As a result, the export of tin from Malaysia to Britain boomed. Steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further boosted exports of tin. Chinese workers flocked to work in the tin mines of Malaysia and on plantations.

However, in 1871 the Sultan of Perak died and there was a quarrel over who should succeed him.

Furthermore, Chinese secret societies fought over who would control the tin mines. The turmoil disrupted supplies of tin to Britain. So one man who claimed he was the rightful heir to the Sultan, Raja Abdullah, made an agreement with the British. It was known as the Pangkor Agreement. The British recognized Abdulla as the Sultan of Perak. In return, he agreed to accept a British ‘adviser’ at his court who would ‘advise’ him on all matters except those concerning Malayan religion and customs.

Until 1874 the British restricted themselves to trade and avoided becoming involved in Malayan politics. The treaty of Pangkor marked the beginning of British political control of Malaysia.

British Malaysia

The British gradually increased their influence over Malaysia. More states Selangor, Pahang, Sungei, Ujong, Rembau, Negri Sembilan, Jelebu) were forced to accept British ‘protection’. In 1895 the ‘protected’ states were persuaded to form a federation.

Meanwhile, in 1888 Brunei, Sarawak, and North Borneo became British protectorates. In the first years of the 20th century, the British extended their influence over the Northern Malay States (Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu) were formally absorbed into British Malaya. In 1914 Johor also came under British rule.

In the early 20th century a new industry grew up in Malaya – rubber. The Malayan rubber industry boomed. The Malayan tin industry also prospered and an oil industry began in Singapore.

During the 1920s the Malayan economy was prosperous but in the 1930s, during the depression, exports fell. In the early 20th century while the economy was booming many Chinese people came to live and work in Malaysia. However, after 1930 immigration was restricted to try and help unemployment.

The Japanese Occupation of Malaysia

On December 8 1941 the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula and they quickly overran it. The last British troops withdrew across the straits into Singapore Island on 31 January 1942. The Japanese invaded Singapore on 8 February 1942. The last British troops surrendered on 15 February 1942. This was a military disaster for the British.

Independent Malaysia

In 1944, when the Japanese faced defeat, the British government decided to join all the Malayan states (except Singapore) into a single unified state called the Malayan Union. (Singapore would be a separate crown colony). However, there was so much opposition to this plan it was scrapped. Instead on 1 February 1948, the Federation of Malaya was formed.

Meanwhile, Malayan nationalism was growing. The first Malay organization was the Kesatuan Melayu Singapura, or Singapore Malay Union, which was formed in 1926. Others quickly followed it. In 1946 Malay organizations joined together to form the Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu, the United Malays National Organisation.

The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was founded in 1930. In 1948 they began to attack European estate managers. As a result, the government introduced a state of emergency.

However communist activity declined after 1949 when the British parliament promised independence. The insurgency continued for some years but it was less of a threat. Communist activity flared up again in the mid-1970s then died down.

In 1955 the Reid Commission was formed to prepare a constitution for Malaya. Malaya became independent on 31 August 1957. The first prime minister of Malaya was Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903-1976). He held office from 1957 to 1970. In 1963 Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah joined Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia. However, in 1965 Singapore became a separate state.

The Malaysian flag

The State of Emergency

During the 1960s there was tension between Malays and non-Malays. It culminated in violence after an election in May 1969. The opposition parties gained seats while the governing party lost seats (although they held onto power). On 13 May 1969, the supporters of the opposition parties held celebrations in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Supporters of the governing party held a counter-demonstration. The two sides came to blows. After two days of violence, the government declared a state of emergency, and parliament was suspended.

Modern Malaysia

Slowly calm returned and parliament was reconvened in 1971. The Malaysian government then adopted a new economic policy. It was remarkably successful. During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s Malaysia changed from being a poor, agricultural country to a rich, industrial one. The standard of living of the Malaysian people rose dramatically. In 1991 the new economic policy was replaced by a new development policy. Today Malaysia is a prosperous country. In 2024 the population of Malaysia was 33 million.

Kuala Lumpur

Last revised 2024