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.
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 Indians, which radically changed the country’s racial make-up.
Independence to 2015
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.
The results of the 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 – it has ruled Malaysia ever since. 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 next election in 2008, 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. Abdullah 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.
In 2014 Malaysian Airlines lost two of its passenger airplanes in tragic circumstances, with a combined death toll of 537. An earthquake struck Sabah on 5 June 2015 and claimed the lives of 18 people on Mt Kinabalu, shutting down the mountain to tourists for months.