Country Profile: Malaysia Facts and History

Economic Success for Young Asian Tiger Nation

Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Dawn in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

John Harper / Getty Images


For centuries, port cities on the Malay Archipelago served as important stops for spice and silk traders plying the Indian Ocean. Although the region has an ancient culture and a rich history, the nation of Malaysia is only about 50 years old.

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital: Kuala Lumpur, pop. 1,810,000

Major Cities:

  • Subang Jaya, 1,553,000
  • Johor Baru, 1,370,700
  • Klang, 1,055,000
  • Ipoh, 711,000
  • Kota Kinabalu, 618,000
  • Shah Alam, 584,340
  • Kota Baru, 577,000


Malaysia's government is a constitutional monarchy. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong (Supreme King of Malaysia) title rotates as a five-year term among rulers of the nine states. The king is the head of state and serves in a ceremonial role.

The head of government is the prime minister, presently Najib Tun Razak.

Malaysia has a bicameral parliament, with a 70-member Senate and a 222-member House of Representatives. Senators are elected by state legislatures or appointed by the king; members of the House are directly elected by the people.

General courts, including the Federal Court, Court of Appeals, high courts, session courts, etc., hear all types of cases. A separate division of sharia courts hears cases pertaining only to Muslims.

People of Malaysia:

Malaysia has more than 30 million citizens. Ethnic Malays make up a bare majority of the population of Malaysia at 50.1 percent. Another 11 percent are defined as "indigenous" peoples of Malaysia or bumiputra, literally "sons of the earth."

Ethnic Chinese make up 22.6 percent of Malaysia's population, while 6.7 percent are ethnically Indian.


Malaysia's official language is Bahasa Malaysia, a form of Malay. English is the former colonial language, and is still in common use, although it is not an official language.

The citizens of Malaysia speak about 140 additional languages as mother tongues. Malaysians of Chinese descent come from many different regions of China so that they may speak not just Mandarin or Cantonese, but also Hokkien, Hakka, Foochou and other dialects. Most Malaysians of Indian descent are Tamil speakers.

Particularly in East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo), people speak over 100 local languages including Iban and Kadazan.


Officially, Malaysia is a Muslim country. Although the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it also defines all ethnic Malays as Muslims. Approximately 61 percent of the population adheres to Islam.

According to the 2010 census, Buddhists make up 19.8 percent of the Malaysian population, Christians about 9 percent, Hindus over 6 percent, followers of Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism or Taoism 1.3%. The remaining percentage listed no religion or an indigenous faith.

Malaysian Geography:

Malaysia covers almost 330,000 square kilometers (127,000 square miles). Malaysia covers the tip of the peninsula it shares with Thailand as well as two large states on a portion of the island of Borneo. In addition, it controls a number of small islands between peninsular Malaysia and Borneo.

Malaysia has land borders with Thailand (on the peninsula), as well as Indonesia and Brunei (on Borneo). It has maritime borders with Vietnam and the Philippines and is separated from Singapore by a saltwater causeway.

The highest point in Malaysia is Mt. Kinabalu at 4,095 meters (13,436 feet). The lowest point is sea level.


Equatorial Malaysia has a tropical, monsoonal climate. The average temperature throughout the year is 27°C (80.5°F).

Malaysia has two monsoon rain seasons, with the stronger rains coming between November and March. Lighter rains fall between May and September.

Although the highlands and coasts have lower humidity than the inland lowlands, humidity is quite high throughout the country. According to the Malaysian government, the highest temperature ever recorded was 40.1°C (104.2°F) at Chuping, Perlis on April 9, 1998, while the lowest was 7.8°C (46°F) at the Cameron Highlands on Feb. 1, 1978.


The Malaysian economy has shifted over the past 40 years from dependence on raw materials export to a healthy mixed economy, although it still relies to some degree on income from oil sales. Today, the labor force is 9 percent agricultural, 35 percent industrial, and 56 percent in the services sector.

Malaysia was one of Asia's "tiger economies" before the 1997 crash and has recovered nicely. It ranks 28th in the world in per capita GDP. The unemployment rate as of 2015 was an enviable 2.7 percent, and only 3.8 percent of Malaysians live below the poverty line.

Malaysia exports electronics, petroleum products, rubber, textiles, and chemicals. It imports electronics, machinery, vehicles, etc.

The currency of Malaysia is the ringgit; as of Oct. 2016, 1 ringgit = $0.24 US.

History of Malaysia:

Humans have lived in what is now Malaysia for at least 40-50,000 years. Certain modern indigenous peoples named "Negritos" by Europeans may be descended from the first inhabitants, and are distinguished by their extreme genetic divergence from both other Malaysians and from modern African peoples. This implies that their ancestors were isolated on the Malay Peninsula for a very long time.

Later immigration waves from southern China and Cambodia included the ancestors of modern Malays, who brought technologies such as farming and metallurgy to the archipelago between 20,000 and 5,000 years ago.

By the third century BCE, Indian traders had begun to bring aspects of their culture to the early kingdoms of the Malaysian peninsula. Chinese traders likewise appeared some two hundred years later. By the fourth century CE, Malay words were being written in the Sanskrit alphabet, and many Malays practiced Hinduism or Buddhism.

Before 600 CE, Malaysia was controlled by dozens of small local kingdoms. By 671, much of the area was incorporated into the Srivijaya Empire, which was based on what is now Indonesian Sumatra.

Srivijaya was a maritime empire, which controlled two key narrows on the Indian Ocean trade routes - the Malacca and the Sunda Straits. As a result, all goods passing between China, India, Arabia and other parts of the world along these routes had to go through Srivijaya. By the 1100s, it controlled points as far east as parts of the Philippines. Srivijaya fell to Singhasari invaders in 1288.

In 1402, a descendant of the Srivijayan royal family called Parameswara founded a new city-state at Malacca. The Malacca Sultanate became the first powerful state centered in modern-day Malaysia. Parameswara soon converted from Hinduism to Islam and changed his name to Sultan Iskandar Shah; his subjects followed suit.

Malacca was an important port of call for traders and sailors including China's Admiral Zheng He and early Portuguese explorers like Diogo Lopes de Sequeira. In fact, Iskander Shah went to Beijing with Zheng He to pay tribute to the Yongle Emperor and get recognition as the legitimate ruler of the area.

The Portuguese seized Malacca in 1511, but the local rulers fled south and established a new capital at Johor Lama. The northern Sultanate of Aceh and the Sultanate of Johor vied with the Portuguese for control of the Malay Peninsula.

In 1641, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) allied itself with the Sultanate of Johor, and together they drove the Portuguese out of Malacca. Although they had no direct interest in Malacca, the VOC wanted to funnel trade away from that city to its own ports on Java. The Dutch left their Johor allies in control of the Malay states.

Other European powers, particularly the UK, recognized the potential value of Malaya, which produced gold, pepper, and also the tin that the British need to make tea tins for their Chinese tea exports. Malayan sultans welcomed British interest, hoping to stave off Siamese expansion down the peninsula. In 1824, the Anglo-Dutch Treaty gave the British East India Company exclusive economic control over Malaya; the British crown took direct control in 1857 after the Indian Uprising ("Sepoy Mutiny").

Through the early 20th century, Britain exploited Malaya as an economic asset while allowing the sultans of individual areas some political autonomy. The British were caught completely off-guard by the Japanese invasion in February 1942; Japan tried to ethnically cleanse Malaya of Chinese while fostering Malayan nationalism. At the end of the war, Britain returned to Malaya, but local leaders wanted independence. In 1948, they formed the Federation of Malaya under British protection, but a pro-independence guerrilla movement began that would last until Malayan independence in 1957.

On August 31, 1963, Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore federated as Malaysia, over the protests of Indonesia and the Philippines (which both had territorial claims against the new nation.) Local insurgencies continued through 1990, but Malaysia survived and has now begun to thrive.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Country Profile: Malaysia Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 28). Country Profile: Malaysia Facts and History. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Country Profile: Malaysia Facts and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).