Malaysia is one of the newly industrialized countries in Southeast Asia. In the past it was over centuries a part of the British empire, became independent in 1957 and excluded Singapore in 1965.
Malaysia and Indonesia have much in common. Ethnically both countries are dominated by Malay populations. Beyond that they are home to a great number of people of other ethnics. But also the nature of both countries is very close to each other. A glance on the map of Southeast Asia shows us that the big island of Sumatra is a very close neighbour of the Malay Peninsula. In former times, when the sea level was much lower, there were land bridges between the main land and many of the now Indonesian islands as Sumatra, Java and others.
Malaysia is situated at the southern part of the Malay Peninsula (west Malaysia) and on the northern part of Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak). This article here is mainly focused on west Malaysia, means peninsular Malaysia.
The geologic backbone of the Malay Peninsula is the Tenasserim Mountain Range. The inland of the peninsula is therefore mountainous, the eastern and the western parts along the coastlines are mostly plain. The natural landscapes were tropical rainforest, both low- and highland forests, while the long coastlines were either sand beaches or swampy mangrove forests, more seldom interrupted by rocky sections.
The most important cities are Kuala Lumpur, the capital, George Town on Penang Island, Johor Bahru at the southernmost tip of the peninsula, and Malacca. Malaysia's climate is equatorial; mean that the southwest monsoon brings plenty of rain over most of the year, while the short winter months are coined by the drier northeast monsoon.
The fluctuation of the days-length around the equator is minimal; the days and nights are always close to twelve hours long, roughly from six o'clock to six o'clock.
Map of Peninsula Malaysia
Naturally peninsular Malaysia is (was) covered with the oldest forests on the globe. Since there was never an ice age reaching so far to the south and the tectonic plate didn't move far away from the equator, the forest is, or mostly was, forest since some 270 million years. Being interested in this it might be worth to visit Taman Negara, the only big Malaysian National Park (since 1938) on the peninsula.
Global capitalism with it's contemporary technical potentials and hunger for resources is changing that very fast. Most of the tropical rainforest on the peninsular has been cut already and changed into a dull monoculture of palmoil and rubber plantations. Mostly palm oil. 85% of the global palm oil are produced in Malaysia and Indonesia.
When one is driving on the Malaysian motorways, the plantation monoculture is only interrupted by occationally appearing huge estates of terraced houses, monotonously repeating again and again the exactly same building style. A Lego brick construction or a Sim City computer game simulation looks much more versatile than that.
The People of Malaysia
Malaysia's demography is heterogene. 50% of the population are Malays, 24% are Chinese, 11% are indigeneous (e.g. the Orang Asli), 7% are Indians and 8% are a variety of other ethnics, including Westerners. Of the 27 million people who live in Malaysia are 22 million living in west Malaysia (although east Malaysia is much bigger in land size).
The official state doctrine claims the Malays as 'Bumiputra' (means: 'sons of the earth') and grants them certain privileges, for example getting jobs in the state administrations, police etc, particularly in the higher ranks. Their ethnicity has a high annual population growth.
Some of the Malays I met are among the most friendly and generous people I have ever met. But that's rare experiences. The most of the Malays, the little people on the streets are rather rude and unfriendly. They don't give a good impression. If one has to deal with the buerocracy in Malaysia one has to cope with them. Then it depends very much with whome one has to deal. There is anything possible between excellent service and total failure.
The Chinese dominate in the cities and play an important role in trade and economy. Their religions split up between Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism...
In all-day life the Chinese appear as the people who are the most cultivated and educated. I always prefer to deal with them and rather to avoid Malays and Indians. Many hotels and guesthouses are run by Chinese. Sometimes they need a few days to become friendly and helpful. Particularly on Penang Island, as I observed. I guess, many make many bad experiences with Westerners. Some Westerners like to appear in a colonial pose, playing the boss, being unfair, arrogant and demanding. That's doubtlessly not only an ridiculous attitude but also very annoying for the local people. When they see that a traveller behaves modest and natural, many change their attitude and become quite friendly and supporting.
There are different 'types' of Chinese in Malaysia. Besides the friendly, supporting Chinese are also the busy ones, always in a rush. They talk and talk and talk, but can not listen. They might ask one a question and, after one having uttered half a sentence, they interrupt and ask the next question. They don't care for the answer. That can be a bit unnerving. It seems to me that they anyway know everything already. They appear sometimes very instructive, what makes a bizarre impression when their talking is just blunt nonsense. I have seen Chinese in restaurants, ten, twelve people around a big table, having dinner together and everyone is talking, but no one is listening. They also have the tendency to talk very loud.
The Indians are either Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Sikhs. Most of them are originally Tamils from the south of India. They are at the bottom of the Malaysian society. While the Malays occupy the state administrations and the Chinese the profitable business sectors, they are quite out. The Indians in all-day life are either slimy or rude. "Hello sir, welcome, sir, have a look, sir, what can I do for you, sir?, I lick your ---bsssd-censored---, sir...". If not so, they are blunt and rude. The Indians are the part of the population who tries to cheat travellers and tourists most. Besides they contribute the largest part of the criminal population in Malaysia. Bus drivers are in many cases Indians. If you have a problem, you can be sure they won't help you. In many cases they just ignore travellers. When one asks them a question, they sometimes pretend not to hear it. Some of the Indians are better of, specialized in law and are lawyers, mostly self-employed.
Many travellers say they like Indian food. Of course, Indian food is delicious. But, sorry to say that, most Indians don't waste time with caring for hygiene. So, Indian food can cause problems. Visiting India in former years convinced me that it is by distance the dirtiest country I have ever seen. In fact, after numerous weired experiences I personally rather try to avoid Indians and their food.
The indigenious people in west Malaysia (a number of different tribes collectively called 'Orang Asli') are basically animists, though many converted meanwhile to Islam or Christianity. Some of them are still living a nomadic live in the last remaining rainforests of Malaysia. There is an assimilation programme running, promoted by the state. Tribes get villages built with road and electric connections, and the aborigines are encoraged to 'civilize' (buying a TV-set, driving a car, finding a job etc.), to adapt to the consumerist mainstream.
Religions in Malaysia
Islam is state religion in Malaysia. 60% of the population are Muslims. The Malays are all sunnit Muslims, there is barely an exception. That's because according to the constitution of Malaysia a new born Malay is 'automatically' a Muslim. And later, in contradiction to the constitution, it's practically impossible for a Muslim to change from Islam to whatever other religion. About 70% of the female Malays are wearing headscarfs. Here and there a burqa is to see.
As it is in Indonesia as well, there are more and more hints and news that Malaysia is changing from an open, tolerant country to a state where Muslim hardliners gain considerable influence. Sharia courts deployed with archconservative imams are judging about Malays who want to convert from Islam. It's more and more attitude by the courts that converting from Islam is, due to an interpretation of the Koran, a serious crime (high treachery) which has to be treated with the death penalty. Converting to Islam therefore is highly welcome. Though, I don't hear about such cases. Might only happen in some of the few cases of interethnical marriages.
That's no more the country I got to know from 1995 on, when I visited Malaysia the first time and then many times again and again. In the 1990s the whole atmosphere was more open, relaxed and friendly; nowadays it's rather aggressive, and I personally don't feel well here anymore.
I have even serious doubts about the general safety in Malaysia now, after I made a bad experience on Pangkor Island and had an opportunity to have a look on what they call here 'police work'. Besides it's since long in the press that e.g. in George Town are street raids (particularly snatch-and-run thefts by motorcyclists). Particularly after nightfall the calmer streets are no more safe. Mistrust lies in the air, when I only observe people behaving or listen to what some locals tell me. Kuala Lumpur isn't anyhow better, of course not; other places like Malacca or Johor Bahru aren't either. Different are therefore the remote and quiet places at the east coast of the peninsula. But they are in fact quite boring places to visit.
Malay is the official language, second language is English, due to the long colonial time. But it's not that widely spoken and mostly by the Chinese only, who are much better educated and internationally connected than the other ethnics are. But it's not always easy to understand. Their pronunciation is mostly very unclear, they use to cut parts of words and sentences. In addition they tend to speak much to fast. Why are they in such a hurry? For this strangeness the local English is sometimes called 'Manglish', pretty much the same as the slang of the Singaporeans, which is called 'Singlish'. The Chinese among themselves also speak a number of Chinese tongues. The Indians as well speak a few Indian dialects, and the indigenous people have their own languages as well.
Malayan history does not date back very long. It's a timespan of about a thousand years, when the first civilizations appeared on the southern peninsula. Much of the historical time is dominated by western colonialization.
The first Malayan kingdoms developed from the 10th century on, with ports as their trade centers. They flourished from the upcoming trade between China and India. Islam was first introduced in the 14th century in Terengganu (east coast of the Malay Peninsula). Malacca was founded in the early 15th century and attracted the Portuguese a century later when they, as the first Europeans, arrived in Southeast Asia. They conquered Malacca in 1511 and from then on it became the first center of western colonialization in the world region. Later Malacca was overtaken by the Dutch, before it came to the British empire due to an English-Dutch Treaty in 1824.
The British Colonies 'Straits Settlements' were founded in 1826. It consisted of Penang, Malacca, Singapore and Dinding (now Manjung district, well known for Pangkor Island) and led to the step by step dominance over the rest of the southern peninsula.
The four northern Malayan states Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu were under Siamese control until 1909, when they were overtaken by the British as well.
Independence from British rule was established in 1957 in what was then called the 'Malayan Federation'. In 1963 another federation was founded, named Malaysia, which still included Singapore. Singapore was excluded from Malaysia in 1965. In the early years of Malaysia's independence Indonesia claimed territories of the new state for itself and started the so called 'politics of confrontation' (konfrontasi).
In 1969 it came to the notorious race pogroms in Malaysia. The Chinese population came under severe attack of an aggressive Malay mob, leaving at least 184 death and about 6,000 Chinese homes and businesses burnt. A state of emergency was set up and the constitution was changed to illegalize any criticism, including in the parliament, of the privileged position of Malays, the monarchy and the status of Malay as the official national language. The ethnic tensions, hence, are not ceased.
Malaysia is formally a parliamentarian democratic monarchy. The monarch, a king, has to be elected out of a certain circle of high nobility (sultans). After five years another king has to be elected.
The contemporary primeminister is since December 2011 Najib Razak from the UMNO party. Since the founding of Malaysia, the UMNO party is permanently the biggest party, ruling without interruption by leading a wide coalition of several parties, altogether more than ten. This coalition is called 'barisan nasional' since 1974, what means 'national front'. Over all the decades they got more than 50% of the votes, most of the time they got more than a two/third majority, enabling them to change the constitution.
After the riots of 1969 the government invented a so called 'new economy policy' in 1971. It includes the notorious 'bumi putra system'. 'Bumi putra' means the 'sons of the earth' and describes per definition the Malayan part of the population (including the native Orang Asli) as the primary people of Malaysia and insofar as privileged over the other ethnics. The other ethnics therefore are excluded and under certain restrictions. Chinese businessmen e.g. must have Malayan partners with shares in their business, and they must employ a certain number of Malay employees. Universities are obliged to take a disproportionate percentage of Malay students (neglecting qualifications) and are taking others only when they show particularly good marks. That is not only injust and discriminating, but also no reference for an education system in terms of quality. Besides: talking with Chinese Malaysians about that topic shows frequently the severe tensions under the surface of the Malaysian society.
Human Rights Situation in Malaysia
There are also serious concerns about human rights in Malaysia. The Malaysian government and the Malaysian police are under critic of human rights groups since long. The police can arrest people without trial or charge. That's completely covered by a law from 1969. Typically for a police state.
Malaysian law applies the death penalty. The penal code criminalises homosexuality and the possession of drugs.
The brutal practice of torture by caning, as it is also the case in neighbouring Singapore, affects every year thousands of people. It's meaned to hurt people physically and mentaly, and it leaves physical traces for the rest of the life. A few years ago I saw a video in a stall in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown, showing a caning in a Malaysian prison. One could buy such videos in these obscure shops. Flagellations in prisons happens also uncontrolled, committed by warders.
There is much discontent among the Chinese and even more among the Indian Malaysians about their legal discrimination regarding the Bumiputra status of the Malays and all the implementations who come with that.
Of course, there is much more to say.
Media and Censorship
There is a strict frameset on publications of all kind set on Malaysian media. The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) is restricting printing, import, reproduction, publishing and distribution of all publications. The majority of newspapers, TV and radio stations is owned by the government or by companies with close ties to the government. There are almost no oppositional medias.
58 out of 100 Malaysians use the internet. Although the internet is more free than the classic media, the tendency of control and censorship is clear. Critical blogs, online-newspapers and discussion forums are popular, but under surveillance of the authorities.
Malaysia ranks low at 'reporters without borders' for freedom of medias.
Since the 1980s Malaysia developed in a fast speed to a newly industrialized country. It's rich in oil, tin, rubber and palmoil. There are automobile industries (Proton and Perodua) in the country. The big national oil company is Petronas. In the Asia Crisis of 1997 Malaysia came out best among all the involved countries. It records an annual economic growth of up to six percent and a solid trade surplus.
Travelling the Malay Peninsula
I think the most visited place on Malaysia is Penang Island with it's colonial George Town. Many Westerners live here for long; it's also a destination for the Thai Visa Run, for there is a Thai consulate in the suburbs of George Town.
Another touristic place is Malacca, the city with the longest history in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur is not really touristic, because there is actually not much what attracts a visitor. It's rather a place for business and a busy, unfriendly metropolis. Between Penang and Malacca lies Pangkor Island, what was always worth a visit or at least a stopover to shorten the long bus trip. Meanwhile it's spoiled and in fact no more very attracting. Other places to go are the Cameron Highlands with their moderate climate in the mountains or Langkawi Island, which is another major tourist destination.
When visiting Singapore and coming by bus or train it's necessary to cross Johor Bahru, at the very southern tip of the peninsula. Johor Bahru is a very shabby, dirty industrial place, and it smells for crime there. It's possible to check in there in a hotel as a basic camp for visiting Singapore, for the hotel prices in Singapore are much higher. Therefore the border crossing consumes a lot of time.
The east coast of Malaysia is very different from all mentioned above. It's almost exclusively populated by Malays, and all the places are pretty boring and meaningless. Not too clean also. Over the last years the small villages grew and grew big and bigger, urbanising the surrounding nature. Kuala Terengganu is an old place with some Malay history; Kota Bharu is the biggest city at the east coast. Kota Bharu changed within a few years completely, so that I barely recognised the city when I visited it last time.
The only touristic place offshore the east coast is Tioman Island.
As above already mentioned, 'Taman Negara National Park' might be worth a visit. I personally didn't go there for a certain reason: the visit is completely organized. One can not move around freely, means without a guide and without being forced into a group of visitors.