The country of Malaysia is two separate areas of land known as Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. The two regions are separated by the South China Sea by about 400 miles. Combined, they’d be roughly the size of the state of New Mexico.
Peninsular Malaysia is on the tip of the Malay Peninsula, a long, thin landmass that snakes south from the country of Thailand toward the South China Sea. East Malaysia stretches across northern Borneo, an island Malaysia shares with the country of Indonesia.
Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, is located on the west side of Peninsular Malaysia, closer to the Indonesian island of Sumatra than to East Malaysia. East Malaysia is home to Mount Kinabalu, the country's highest point, which has an elevation of 13,455 feet (4,101 meters).
Malaysia shares borders with the Thailand to the north and Indonesia and the island of Singapore to the south. Singapore is separated from Malaysia by a bridge.
Kuala Lumpur photograph by Patrick Foto, Shutterstock
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Because Malaysia sits in the middle of one of the world’s major trade routes, its culture is very diverse.
Most of the country’s population lives in Peninsular Malaysia. The four main ethnic groups in Peninsular Malaysia are the Malays, who make up about half the population; the Chinese; the Orang Asli, an indigenous, or native, group in Southeast Asia; and South Asians with roots in the countries of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Many of these groups live in East Malaysia in smaller numbers as well. East Malaysia is also home to other indigenous groups, including the Iban, the Bajau, and the Kadazan.
Islam is Malaysia's official religion—more than 60 percent of the country is Muslim, or followers of Islam. A small percentage of the population are Buddhist, Christian, or Hindu.
Malaysia is noted for its many holidays and celebrations. A holiday shared by all Malays is Hari Kebangsaan (National Day), a celebration of the country’s independence on August 31. Beyond official holidays and religious celebrations, Malays mark important life events such as birthdays and marriages with a feast, known in Malay as kenduri.
White rice and noodles are found in many traditional Malay dishes. Nasi lemak, a breakfast favorite, contains rice cooked in coconut milk and topped with chili-pepper sauce. Cucumbers, anchovies, eggs, and peanuts come on the side. Sate, small skewers of chicken or beef dipped in a spicy peanut sauce, is another Malay favorite.
Nasi lemak photograph by Wong Yu Liang, Dreamstime
Malaysia is blanketed by tropical rainforests. Large rivers, fed by nearly 10 feet of rain (about three meters) a year, flow from the country’s highlands and empty into warm tropical seas. Combined, these three ecosystems—forest, river, and marine—make Malaysia one of the world’s 17 mega-diverse countries. (A mega-diverse country is one that’s home to a majority of Earth’s species and has a high number of endemic species, or species found only in one location on the planet.)
Malaysia’s tropical rainforests are also home to several endangered species, including Sumatran rhinoceroses, pygmy elephants, and Bornean orangutans in East Malaysia. Malayan tigers and Indochinese leopards prowl the Malay Peninsula. In the South China Sea, several sea turtle species—including the olive ridley, hawksbill, green, and leatherback sea turtles—swim in the warm waters.
Malaysia has several vast nature reserves and national parks throughout the country. Taman Negara National Park, established in 1939, is the country’s oldest national park. Located on the Malay Peninsula, Taman Negara protects one of the world’s oldest rainforests, estimated to be more than 130 million years old—and was once home to dinosaurs.
Malayan tiger photograph by Mark Newman, FLPA / Minden Pictures
GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMY
Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy that consists of 13 states and three federal territories, which include the capital city region of Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital of Putrajaya, and the island of Labuan off the coast of East Malaysia.
Malaysia’s monarch is a ceremonial head of state referred to as Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or “paramount ruler.” The federal government, which governs all of Malaysia, includes a Senate (the Dewan Negara), a House of Representatives (the Dewan Rakyat), and a prime minister appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
Before the late 20th century, rubber and tin exports drove Malaysia’s economy. Natural resources still remain an important part of the economy—especially rubber and palm oil— but the country also has a strong manufacturing industry, as well as growing financial and banking services.
Little is known about Malaysia’s prehistory, or the period of time before the invention of writing. The first known Malay kingdoms appeared around the year A.D. 200, when Indian traders introduced the South Asian concepts of religion, government, and art to Malay natives. These kingdoms remained relatively small, however, because the Malaysian terrain couldn’t support widespread agriculture. Instead, Malays were known for their ocean navigation and shipping skills.
The modern Malay culture began to develop during the 15th century, when Islam arrived to the country. During this time, the port of Melaka grew to become one of the world’s great port cities. When the Portuguese sailed into Melaka in the 16th century, they became the first Europeans to arrive in Malaysia.
In 1786, Great Britain bought Malaysia’s Penang island in an attempt to increase trade with China. Over the next century, British influence in Malaysia grew, and by 1915, Great Britain had acquired several additional Malaysian states.
During World War II, Malaysia was occupied by the Japanese from 1941 to 1945. The end of the war brought a desire for independence throughout the country, with Malays wanting to create a Bangsa Melayu, or Malay nation. British officials promised independence to the nation and began working with Malay leaders to create an independent Malaysia. On August 31, 1957, the independent Federation of Malaya was formed, with Tunku Abdul Rahman as its first prime minister.
Malaysia was recognized as a country in 1963; at the time, it included Singapore. Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965.