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Country of the Week: Malaysia

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

From a trading post, through British colonialism, all the way to a thriving, independent country – come with us and explore the enthralling history and culture of Malaysia!

  • Capital: Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya (administrative)
  • Largest City: Kuala Lumpur
  • Population (2016): 30,905,900 (44th)
  • Total Area: 330,803 km² (66th)
  • Official Language: Bahasa Malaysia
  • Currency: Malaysian ringgit (RM) (MYR)
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The Petronas Towers are the most recognizable landmarks in the country

History of Malaysia

While human settlement was believed to begin in Malaysia many thousands of years ago, it was Indian and Chinese traders that began connecting the land to the wider world around the first century AD. These countries had a wide-ranging cultural effect on Malaysia, bringing Hinduism and Buddhism to bear. A variety of different powers and regimes ruled the peninsula during this time, including the Kingdom of Langkasuka, the Srivijaya and Majapahit Empires, and the Malacca Sultanate. The Malacca Sultanate especially would become a major regional trading centre.

European Intervention

From the 16th century onwards, Malaysia attracted the attention of European colonial powers. The Portuguese were the first to claim Malacca, followed by the Dutch over 100 years later. The British also made inroads (especially through the East India Company), and eventually claimed Malacca in 1824 thanks to a treaty with the Dutch. Over time, the British either directly or indirectly controlled much of the modern country, including nearby Singapore. 

A Changing Malaysia

During WWII, Malaysia was invaded by Japan – though Allied forces soon regained it. Following this, calls for independence grew louder and British efforts for a cohesive union of colonies was met with opposition. To add to the British’s problems, Chinese insurgents also came to the country and fought against them. Independence from British rule was celebrated in 1957, however regional political strife continued, culminating in Singapore being expelled from Malaysia in 1965.

Modern Malaysia

Despite this, Malaysia went into the latter part of the 20th century in high spirits, after enjoying widespread economic growth and modernization during the 80’s. New infrastructure and construction (including skyscrapers and cities) were symbols of this newfound prosperity. While the Asian financial crisis in the 90’s was harmful, the country has since found its footing and looks set to have a bright future among other Southeast Asian nations.

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A statue of the Hindu god Hanuman

Malaysian Culture

Like much of Southeast Asia, Malaysian culture comes from a diverse set of backgrounds and influences – including Indian, Chinese, Arabic, and British. The government has made an effort to promote classical Malaysian culture (including the language), however that does not tell the whole story of the decidedly multi-ethnic population. 

Art in Malaysia

The traditional arts have great importance in Malaysia. While there is a wide range of crafts and creations, handmade crafts, textiles, and earthenware are popular. Various ethnic influences can also be seen in the fine arts, particularly that of North Indian. 

Malaysian Cuisine

We know it sounds like a broken record at this point, but Malaysian food also comes from a wide set of ethnic backgrounds. This includes other nearby Asian countries as well as (you guessed it) India. These influences come from immigration and the historic spice trade route.

Sports in Malaysia

Some of the most popular sports in Malaysia are badminton, bowling, soccer, squash, and field hockey. There are also traditional sports and games that are played such as wau (a form of kite-flying), sepak takraw (a ball game), dragon dancing, and more. The country competes in the Olympics (where it has done well in badminton) as well as the Commonwealth Games.

Famous Malaysians

One of the most well known people from Malaysia is actress Michelle Yeoh (of Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame). Singer Guy Sebastian was born in Malaysia, though he moved to Australia later. Director James Wan was also born in Malaysia (Saw, Furious 7, and the upcoming Aquaman). The singer Yuna is from the country as well.

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A selection of Malaysian street food

Geography of Malaysia

Malaysia is divided into two distinct parts. There’s Peninsular Malaysia to the west, which is located south of Thailand. Secondly, East Malaysia is located on the northern part of the island of Borneo, and borders Brunei as well as Indonesia. Despite both parts of the country separated by the South China Sea, the landscape is pretty similar – with coastal plains giving way to mountains. Unique environments, including limestone pinnacles and karst, can also be found throughout the country.

The largest city in Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur, which numbers close to 1.8 million people (but over 7 million in the metropolitan area). The city is a symbol of the new face of the country, with the Petronas Twin Towers – the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004 – the clearest example of this. The administrative capital, Putrajaya, is a planned city (established 1995) close to Kuala Lumpur. While currently just shy of 100,000 people, the city is expected to grow in the future.

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Terraced rice fields in the countryside

Facts About Malaysia

  • Borneo is the world’s third largest island
  • The Malayan tiger is the national animal
  • The national dish is Nasi lemak, a rice dish served for breakfast
  • The fourth floor is sometimes replaced with 3A, since ‘four’ in Chinese sounds similar to ‘death’
  • Pointing with the index finger is considered rude
  • The national drink is a tea called teh tarik. It is thrown from cup to cup at distances over 1 metre
  • Drug laws are incredibly strict
  • The Petronas Towers are the tallest twin buildings in the world
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Some groups live on the water, in stilted villages

Last Word

Want more Malaysia? You’re in luck! Check back Wednesday for our Travel Guide and Friday for our Currency Spotlight.


Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).

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