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History and Geography

by The Expatriate Lifestyle Editorial Team 1 Jun 2013
History and Geography

Malaysia, your new home is a wonderful land with amazing geographical and historical treasures, a place filled with tolerant and friendly local citizens, a solid infrastructure and an interesting diversity of cultures that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Your first impressions of Malaysia will differ according to where you have arrived from, whether you have been to other parts of Asia and whereabouts you are staying.

Whatever your first impressions, they are unlikely to adequately reflect all the different layers of life here. So don’t panic if you’ve been scared by the driving, struggle to find friends at first or if everything feels alien initially. This happens to every new expatriate arrival. You are not alone. Malaysia is one of the fastest developing countries in the region, and you can literally see improvements happening all the time.

Determined to become fully developed by 2020, it is well on course with a dedicated government providing good services and infrastructure to make the country one of the region’s hubs of excellence in various fields (such as oil and gas, communications, and Islamic banking). By and large Malaysia is one of the most liveable countries in the region. Just ask other expatriates that have been stationed elsewhere in Asia!

The dominant religion is Islam, which affects much of everyday life. Listen out for the “call to prayers” and marvel at the incredible architecture of the plentiful mosques. Islam in Malaysia is arguably the most tolerant of any country in the world. There are also many other religions in evidence as a result of the large indigenous, Chinese and Indian populations - which translates to plenty of new, colourful, and interesting festivals to enjoy throughout the year, making it a genuine melting pot of people, races and religions.

As well as a diverse group of people, Malaysia has a fascinating history. Having been ruled by the Dutch, Portuguese and British, there were huge celebrations throughout 2007 to mark 50 years since the country gained independence. From pirates on the Straits of Malacca to ghosts in Langkawi and from prisoner of war tales from WWII to the disappearance of Jim Thompson, there is no shortage of incredible stories to be told.

And that’s not to mention the travel opportunities here. Malaysia boasts many of the region’s tallest mountains, tallest waterfalls, largest rainforests and jungles, best dive sites and most stunning hills and valleys. Five-star hotels here are also kept deliberately affordable (they are amongst the cheapest in the world) by the government to bring in visitors to enjoy the country’s natural splendour.

Wherever you have been and whatever you have seen before, travelling Malaysia will amaze and inspire. This section introduces Malaysia in much more detail, focusing on the people, their culture and the country you have just decided to make home.


Malaysia is primarily known to expatriates (prior to moving here) as a former British colony. In fact, however, the truth of Malaysia—as is the case in many of its aspects—is a complex one (for instance it was never a colony, always an independent protectorate). In that vein, the story of Malaysia’s initial stages of development details a rich cultural history, particularly due to its geographical position, which led to it becoming a natural meeting place of trade routes. This brought a great deal of prosperity to Malaysia, but is also seen as the beginning of the multicultural influences that are still present in the country to this day.

Malaysia, since the seventh century, has undergone radical religious changes. Originally dominated by Hindus and Buddhists from India during the time of the Srivijaya civilisation, it underwent a major change around the tenth century with the introduction of Islam. This had an impact not only on Malaysia, but also on Indonesia, and led to the breaking up of the Srivijayan empire into a number of smaller sultanates, of which Melaka (often spelt Malacca by the British) was the most prominent.

Following this conversion was the arrival of the various colonial powers. Initially the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, only to later yield it to the Dutch, and subsequently the British, who also established bases on the Northern island of Pulau Pinang (now commonly spelt Penang), and Singapore.

The Malay world (now known as Malaysia and Indonesia) was divided in what has proven to be a lasting separation by the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824, which British Malaysia and the Netherlands East Indies respectively. Thereafter, foreign influence in the area increased substantially yet again, due to the influx of Chinese and Indian workers entering the Malay Peninsula and North Borneo.

From 1942-45, the Japanese occupied the region, severely reducing British power, although they did, albeit temporarily, resume control once the short-lived occupation ceased. In 1957, Malaysia was finally declared an independent state, under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister. This is celebrated annually, and is known as Merdeka. This was the result of not only the British response to the then-rising Malayan Communist Party, but also concessions by both the Malay and Chinese political leaderships. The Federation of Malaya (as Malaysia was then known) acquired British territories in 1963 in North Borneo (now the Eastern Malaysia states of Sabah and Sarawak) as well as the Chinese-majority Singapore, and thus became Malaysia. However, this union was short-lived, as Singapore parted ways with the Federation in 1965, after only two years.

Since Tunku Abdul Rahman’s time, Malaysia has, under the leadership of succeeding Prime Ministers and other forward-thinking leaders, become not only an often-cited example of multiculturalism, but a successful independent state. Malaysia has had remarkable success in the areas of agriculture, manufacturing and, more recently, the knowledge and service industries—success achieved in only 50 years of independence, a remarkable achievement by any standard.

Living in Malaysia, particularly if you take the time to travel to other parts of the country, you will notice its rich tapestry of cultures reflected in the architecture, the customs, the traditions, the clothing, and especially the food. There are several popular destinations if you want to see remnants of Malaysia’s heritage.


Malaysia's perennial historical site, where you can visit buildings built by the Portuguese and the Dutch. Particular ones of interest are the A’Famosa Fort’s gateway, Porta Santiago and the pink Stadthuys government building, now home to a museum. Atop St. Paul’s Hill, there are the ruins of a church building, and well-preserved townhouses can be found nearby that once belonged to the Straits Chinese. Once housing the Chinese Princess Hang Li Poh who, back in the 15th century, was married to Sultan Mansor Shah, Bukit Cina is now a place of interest for many who visit the historical city.


Once named 'Prince of Wales Island', Penang was formerly a British trading post set up by Captain Francis Light which was given to the British by the Kedah sultanate in exchange for economic and military aid when threatened by Siam. Much of Penang's rich heritage still remains with Georgetown, the capital, now a designated UNES CO World Heritage Site, and full of old Chinese shophouses. A favourite place to visit is the blue Chong Fatt Tze Mansion, now been converted into a boutique hotel. Also of note are the beautiful mosques built by the Arab and Indian-Muslim traders. The neighbouring state of Kedah is home to the sprawling remains of a Hindu civilization, located in the Bujang Valley (Lembah Bujang), which is a fascinating place for any history buff.

But there is more to living in Malaysia than visiting historic places. Learning about the different religions, cultures, places to live and getting around takes a bit of a commitment, but one you’ll be happy you made.

The Flag

The national flag of Malaysia (also known as Jalur Gemilang or “Stripes of Glory”) comprises 14 alternating red and white stripes and a blue canton bearing a crescent moon and a 14-point star known as the Bintang Persekutuan or Federal Star. The 14 stripes represent the equal status in the federation of the 13 member states and the federal government, while the 14 points of the star represent the unity between these entities. The crescent represents Islam, the country’s official religion; the yellow of the star and crescent is the royal colour of the Malay rulers; the red of the stripes stands for the bloodshed to earn independence. The white stands for the people and economy of Malaysia.


The climate of Peninsular Malaysia is equatorial, characterised by fairly high but uniform temperatures (ranging 23°–31°C/73°–88°F throughout the year), high humidity, and copious rainfall (averaging about 250cm/100in annually). There are seasonal variations in rainfall, with the heaviest rains from October to December or January. Except for a few mountain areas, the most abundant rainfall is in the eastern coastal region, where it averages over 300cm (120in) per year. Elsewhere the annual average is 200–300cm (80–120in), the northwestern and southwestern regions having the least rainfall. The nights are usually cool because of the nearby seas.

The climate of East Malaysia is relatively cool for an area so near the equator. The monsoon season is typically October–November on the east coast (meaning heavy rainfall for a few hours a day) with the west coast spared of this weather pattern. However, one of the worst climate problems is man-made: the “haze” season, brought on by forest burning in Sumatra and Indonesia, can start from June and last up until September. It is at times a health threat, be warned that asthma and sufferers of respiratory problems could be affected.


Four-fifths of Peninsular Malaysia is covered by rainforest and swamp. The northern regions are divided by a series of mountain ranges that rise abruptly from the wide, flat coastal plains. The highest peaks, Gunong Tahan (2,190m/7,185ft) and Gunong Korbu (2,183m/7,162ft), are in the north central region. The main watershed follows a mountain range about 80km (50mi) inland, roughly parallel to the west coast.

The rivers flowing to the east, south, and west of this range are swift and have cut some deep gorges, but on reaching the coastal plains they become sluggish. The western coastal plain contains most of the country’s population and the main seaports, George Town (on the offshore Pulau Pinang) and Port Klang (formerly Port Swettenham). The eastern coastal plain is mostly jungle and lightly settled. It is subject to heavy storms from the South China Sea and lacks natural harbours.

Sarawak consists of an alluvial and swampy coastal plain, an area of rolling country interspersed with mountain ranges, and a mountainous interior. Rain forests cover the greater part of Sarawak. Many of the rivers are navigable. Sabah is split in two by the Crocker Mountains, which extend north and south some 48km (30mi) inland from the west coast, rising to over 4,100m (13,450ft) at Kinabalu, the highest point in Malaysia. Most of the interior is covered with tropical forest, while the western coastal area consists of alluvial flats making up the main rubber and rice land.


Malaysia has a booming population of 29.2 million which is ever growing. Of this total, around 22 million live in Peninsular Malaysia while the other part of the population lives in East Malaysia. The most densely populated states are Kuala Lumpur (6,891 persons per km2), Penang (1,490 persons per km2) and Putraaya (1,478 persons per km2). Ethnically, Malaysian citizens consist of 67.44 percent Bumiputera (which includes Malays, indigenous tribes of Borneo and Orang Asli), 24.6 percent Chinese, 7.3 percent Indian and 0.7 percent classified as Others.

Time Zone

Standard time zone: UTC/GMT +8 hours. There are no daylight savings.

Flora and Fauna

As you’d expect, the tropical vegetation and geography of Malaysia is host to a number of animals and unique species. There are the ones you know of—sea turtles and orangutans—but there are also tigers, Sumatran rhinos, Sun Bears and more. About 70 per cent of Malaysia consists of tropical rain forest. In Peninsular Malaysia, camphor, ebony, sandalwood, teak, and many varieties of palm trees abound.

Rain forest fauna includes seladang (Malayan bison), deer, wild pigs, tree shrews, honey bears, forest cats, civets, monkeys, crocodiles, lizards, and snakes. The seladang weighs about a ton and is the largest wild ox in the world. An immense variety of insects, particularly butterflies, and some 508 breeding species of birds are found.

In Sabah and Sarawak, lowland forests contain some 400 species of tall dipterocarps (hardwoods) and semihardwoods; fig trees abound, attracting small mammals and birds; and groves are formed by the extensive aerial roots of warangen (a sacred tree to indigenous peoples). As altitude increases, herbaceous plants—buttercups, violets, and valerian—become more numerous, until moss-covered evergreen forests are reached from 1,520 to 1,830m (5,000–6,000ft). Butterflies, brilliantly coloured birds of paradise, and a great wealth of other insect and bird species inhabit the two states.


While Malaysia has deep environmental beauty (the Taman Negara rainforest is the oldest in the world at 130 million years) it also is plagued by challenges, mostly from the forestation and mining sectors. Malaysia’s deforestation rate is accelerating faster than that of any other tropical country in the world, according to data from the United Nations.

Analysis of figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows that Malaysia’s annual deforestation rate jumped almost 86 per cent between the 1990-2000 period and 2000-2005. In total, Malaysia lost an average of 140,200 hectares—0.65 per cent of its forest area—per year since 2000. For comparison, the country lost an average of 78,500 hectares, or 0.35 per cent of its forests, annually during the 1990s.

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