The Federation of Malaysia has built itself into a potential economic powerhouse on the back of a turbulent past, involving colonisation and occupation. What makes Malaysia so unique is the fact that its states have trudged through different journeys of colonial rule, which have amalgamated to give Malaysia a variegated historical backdrop.
Prior to independence, present-day Malaysia was divided into three regions, namely, Malaya, North Borneo (now Sabah), and Sarawak. Each of these regions was highly sought after for its natural resources, and more importantly, its trade-amicable location. Of the colonial powers that loomed over these states, the British proved most enterprising, and thus, came to control the South East Asian territories.
The region of Malaya was the first to be occupied. Rising enmity between the various Malay states paved the way for British leaders to tighten their grasp on peninsular Malaysia, and the decades of control that ensued turned Malaya into a flourishing commercial landscape to be exploited. North Borneo and Sabah followed similar paths, but unlike Malaya, they remained British protectorates – rather than colonies – for most of the journey. The fervent economic activity attracted large migrant populations that went on to define the country’s diverse demographic profile. But nationalist sentiment against the British rule was building up, and just when a sense of hope might have presented itself on the horizon, Malaya and Borneo fell to the military might of Japan in the 2nd World War.
In 1945 the Allies prevailed, and with their victory came the end of Japanese occupation. By now the Malaysian people knew that British rule wasn’t necessarily invincible. The next 12 years saw the various ethnic communities engage in political organisation and ramp up demands for freedom, and finally, on August 31st 1957, the Federation of Malaya achieved independence.
New currents were also emerging in Borneo and political activity continued to accelerate till 1961 when the proposal was made for a federated state that would include Malaya, Sarawak, North Borneo, Brunei, and Singapore. Brunei’s rejection of the proposal and Singapore’s later secession configurated the modern-day geographic structure of Malaysia.
The hardships of Malaysia’s past have also moulded its future for they have instilled in its people a stubborn sense of resilience and an overarching feeling of unity. These will be the characteristics that define the rest of Malaysia’s growth story.