Malaysia, like other Southeast Asian countries, came to prominence as a large British colony. However, with ancient kingdoms and Dutch settlers also playing an influential role in shaping Malaysia’s history, the nation is chock full of exciting surprises. The various cultural groups have also paved the way for a modern society that certainly hasn’t forgotten its rich, traditional roots.


Long before European colonial powers dreamed of occupying Southeast Asia, modern day Malaysia was ruled by several empires, the Srivijaya and Majapahit kingdoms, followed by the Melaka Sultanate. The earlier reigns saw the spread of Hindu influences across the peninsula and archipelago. Islam, the primary religion today, was introduced by Arab traders during the height of the Melaka Sultanate.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese were the first country to establish settlements throughout the Malay Peninsula, primarily around Malacca. However, the Dutch took control soon after, which spread their stronghold of Southeast Asia even further. In 1786, British forces set up a colony on the island of Penang, and eventually obtained many other parts of the Malay region, including Singapore by 1819. The Dutch eventually ceded much of the area the British. In response, British forces ceded all colonies in Sumatra (Indonesia) to the Dutch, which was the agreement forged in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. As a result, a line was drawn between British Malay colonies and the Dutch East Indies. Malaysia saw a huge influx of Chinese and Indian laborers when Britain took charge.

Before WWII, the regions of Malaysia were mostly governed by Britain, including the Federated and Unfederated Malay States, Northern Borneo, Kingdom of Sarawak and Brunei. However, some of these were actually protectorates instead of crown colonies, like Brunei. During WWII, British forces quickly fell to the technologically advanced Japanese armies, and lost the region until the Japanese surrendered in 1945, when Britain took back control of the Malay states. The Malayan Union was formed in 1946, which limited the states sultans’ powers, creating local upheaval. Eventually, some control was returned to the former state leaders in 1948, and the Malayan Union once again changed its title to the Federation of Malaya.

Malaysia first gained independence from Britain in 1957, just 12 years after WWII. For the first six years, the country was known as Malaya. However, this changed in 1963, as the nation of Malaysia as born, adopting states like Sabah, Singapore, and Sarawak. Just two years following though, Singapore was expelled as a result of large ethic riots due to the growing threat of Chinese influences on the land and Singapore became an independent nation.

Travelers can learn more about the ancient and modern history of Malaysia at the National Museum (Jalan Damansara, City Center, Kuala Lumpur). Penang’s War Museum (Mukin 12, Batu Maung, Penang) is a great place to explore British colonial war tactics and influences. Information about the British settlement in Penang is also available at the Penang State Museum (Lebuh Farquhar, Pulau Pinang, Penang).


Modern Malaysia is characterized as a melting pot. Aspects from ancient Malay, British, Dutch, Portuguese, and Hindu culture still prevail throughout many parts of the country, which has led to vast diversity in local architecture, religion, language, and cuisine. Britain’s labor-migration policies of the 19th century created a large wave of Chinese and Indian migrant workers. Today, descendants of these laborers make up over 30 percent of the population, which is only surpassed by the 52 percent Malay population.

Despite the diversity that exists, the Malaysian government released a controversial policy known as the ‘National Cultural Policy’ with the goal of developing a united national cultural identity, in which the government has accepted Malay as the official culture. This has caused upheaval at times, especially in the non-Malayan communities like the Indian and Chinese citizens.