As the countries we know today, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei have been around since 1963, 1965 and 1984 respectively. The region’s history, of course, stretches back much further, although pinning down exactly how far back is tricky due to a lack of archaeological evidence and early written records. Events from the rise of the Melaka Sultanate in the 16th century, however, were well documented locally and by the nations which came to trade with, and later rule over, the peninsula and Borneo.
The earliest evidence of human life in the region is a 40,000-year-old skull found in Sarawak’s Niah Caves. But it was only around 10,000 years ago that the aboriginal Malays, the Orang Asli, began moving down the peninsula from a probable starting point in southwestern China.
By the 2nd century AD Europeans were familiar with Malaya, and Indian traders had made regular visits in their search for gold, tin and jungle woods. Within the next century Malaya was ruled by the Funan empire, centred in what’s now Cambodia, but more significant was the domination of the Sumatra-based Srivijayan empire between the 7th and 13th centuries.
In 1405 Chinese admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Melaka with promises to the locals of protection from the Siamese encroaching from the north. With Chinese support, the power of Melaka extended to include most of the Malay Peninsula. Islam arrived in Melaka around this time and soon spread through Malaya.
Melaka’s wealth and prosperity attracted European interest and it was taken over by the Portuguese in 1511, then the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1795. Meanwhile, in 1786 Captain Francis Light, on behalf of the East India Company, took possession of the island of Penang, which was formally signed over to the British five years later. Singapore came into British colonial sights in 1891 when Stamford Raffles gained sole rights from the Sultan of Johor to build a trading base on the island.
In 1838 James Brooke, a British adventurer, arrived to find the Brunei sultanate fending off rebellion from inland tribes. Brooke quashed the rebellion and in reward was granted power over part of Sarawak. Appointing himself Raja Brooke, he founded a dynasty that lasted 100 years. By 1881 Sabah was controlled by the British government, which eventually acquired Sarawak after WWII when the third Raja Brooke realised he couldn’t afford the area’s upkeep.
In the early 20th century the British brought in Chinese and Indian labour across Malaya, which radically changed the region's racial make-up.
Independence to Today
Malaya achieved merdeka (independence) in 1957, but it was followed by a period of instability due to an internal communist uprising and an external confrontation with neighbouring Indonesia. In 1963 the north Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, along with Singapore, joined Malaya to create Malaysia.
However, in both Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, ethnic Chinese outnumbered Malays. When Singapore's chief minister Lee Kuan Yew refused to extend constitutional privileges to the island's Malay population in 1964, riots broke out. In August 1965, Malaysia's PM Tunku Abdul Rahman was forced to boot Singapore out of the federation. Lee cried in public over the ejection but went on to smile as Singapore's economy rapidly developed under his autocratic and paternalistic rule.
The results of Malaysia's 1969 election were used as a pretext for the subsequent violent interracial riots across the country, but particularly in Kuala Lumpur, where hundreds of people were killed. In the aftermath the government moved to dissipate the tensions, which existed mainly between the Malays and the Chinese. The New Economic Policy (NEP), a socioeconomic affirmative action plan, was introduced, with the aim of placing 30% of Malaysia’s corporate wealth in the hands of indigenous Malays and Orang Asli (known as bumiputra meaning 'princes of the land'), within 20 years. This plan, which was partially successful, is still in force in various guises today.
In 1973, Barisan Nasional (BN; National Front), a coalition of right-wing and centre parties, was formed. Under outspoken, dictatorial Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s economy grew at a rate of over 8% per year until mid-1997, when a currency crisis in neighbouring Thailand plunged the whole of Southeast Asia into recession. In October 2003 Dr Mahathir Mohamad retired handing power to Abdullah Badawi, who won the general election in March 2004.
However, in the 2008 election, BN saw its parliamentary dominance slashed to less than the two-thirds majority it had previously held. The inroads were made by Pakatan Rakyat (PR), the opposition People's Alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy PM who had been jailed on corruption and sodomy charges that were widely regarded as politically motivated. Badawi resigned in favour of Najib Razak, who would go on to win the 2013 election for BN, although it was the coalition's poorest showing in the polls since 1969.
Najib's years of government were marked by increasingly prominent corruption scandals and growing public protests. The verdict on his premiership, delivered in the 2018 election, was damming when BN lost to a coalition of opposition parties led by that great survivor of Malaysian politics – Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Meanwhile in both Singapore and Brunei, the political direction continue to be steered by the same familial dynasties that have been in charge since the 1960s. Lee Kuan Yew's son Hsien Loong is secure as Singapore's prime minister, while in Brunei the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah rules unchallenged.