When I was an elementary school student, we used to have pen pals where we would write actual letters to kids from across the country or across the world. I had three, some I kept longer than others: Arlington, Virginia; Cebu Island, Philippines; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. If I remember correctly, I wrote to a girl from the Philippines for the longest, but I believe the girl from Malaysia was the last one I had. Pen pals were great – it not only helped with letter writing skills, but it also allowed you to learn language skills and other people’s culture. But with all the technology we have, I think this seems to be a lost art.
The name Malaysia came from the word “Malay” (as in Malay Peninsula or Malay people or Malay language) with the Greek ending “-(s)ia.” As the Europeans moved into the region in search for spices among other things, it took a while for people to finally agree what to call this area. It was generally some variant of Malaya, and eventually everyone landed on Malaysia.
Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia and is divided into two regions: one region consists of the Malay Peninsula and is attached to the Asian mainland via its border with Thailand, with Singapore hanging onto its southern border. The other part of the country is located on the island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world. This island contains the Malaysian regions of Sabah and Sarawat along with the countries of Brunei and Indonesia. These two regions are separated by the South China Sea that runs between them. Because Malaysia is a tropical country, it has an immense biodiversity. Nearly two-thirds of the country is forested, and they boast a megadiverse ecology comprised of hundreds of varieties of snakes, frogs, birds, plants, and other wildlife.
It’s thought that the first inhabitants of Malaysia were Negritos, a dark-complexioned people who have ties with Africa. Traders from India and China started moving into the area sometime during the 1st century. They began establishing trading centers and outposts throughout the lands, spreading both Hinduism and Buddhism at the same time. Different kingdoms began to pop up, like the Langkasuka, the Srivijaya, and the Majapahit Kingdoms. The Malacca Sultanate was an important center for commerce and was the first independent state in the area. The Portuguese took over Malacca, and then the Dutch came in afterwards and took it for themselves. During the late 1700s, the British moved into Malaya and established the East India Company, taking Malacca, Singapore, and other nearby areas. During WWII, the Japanese invaded and set up an occupation over much of the country. Ethnic tensions led to a sense of nationalism, and although the British had their suggestions as to how to establish their autonomy, the Malays didn’t like it at all. After the war, the communist party built momentum in order to kick out the British. They eventually did gain their independence in 1957. Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawat joined in 1963, but Singapore later removed itself to establish its own country. The 1980s brought Malaysia a period of quick growth and urbanization in a shift to becoming more dependent on industry, manufacturing, and eventually technology. Although they went through an economic collapse during the 1990s, Malaysia now frequently makes the list for best countries to visit and/or retire to.
With nearly 1.6 million people (and an estimated 7.2 million for the metro area), the capital city of Kuala Lumpur is the most populous city in Malaysia. It acts as Malaysia’s commerce, financial, media, and educational center. Many of the federal government duties are centered in the city of Putrajaya, about 15 miles south of the capital. Not only is the city on the Formula One circuit, but it’s also home to the futuristic Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest twin towers. They officially surpassed the Sears Tower in Chicago (No, I’m not calling it Willis Tower. Sorry, it’ll always be Sears Tower to me.) in 1998, and in 2004, the Taipei 101 building took the crown for tallest building. Located on the Peninsula, the city also acts as an arts and sports center for the country.
Malaysia has an industrialized economy and is one of the stronger economies in Asia. It ranks as the 28th strongest economy in the world, and some reports estimate that it’s well on its way to becoming part of the “developed” countries. It also depends on mining and agriculture as well: Malaysia is a leading exporter of rubber, tin, and palm oil. Tourism (especially ecotourism) also plays a factor, although recent mishaps with Malaysia Airlines led to a slight decline in flights. The country ranks high on retirement studies based on long-stay visas (up to 10 years!), warm weather, a modern infrastructure, and a large number of people who can speak some English.
Although the country says it has a freedom of religion, Islam is listed as the state religion. Of those who practice Islam (over 61% of the population), Sunni is the dominant denomination. Because of its ethnic makeup and history, Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism are also significant religions in Malaysia. There are also smaller numbers who follow other Chinese religions and philosophies, such as Taoism and Confucianism.
The official and national language here is Bahasa Malaysia (or sometimes written as Bahasa Melayu). Although the Latin script is used most of the time, the Jawi script is also used. Jawi script is an Arabic-based script used to transcribe several Southeast Asian languages. While English served its purposed once upon a time, it’s not used as much now in any official status (except perhaps in the Sarawak region). Malaysian English is based on British English but also uses elements of Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. The government doesn’t really like the use of non-standard Malay, but what can they do without looking like jerks? You’ll also find pockets of various Chinese dialects, Tamil, Thai, and other Creole languages spoken throughout the country.
Malaysia is a land of tradition mixed with modernity. It’s a land of ancient superstition mixed with a fast-growing high-tech jobs market. It’s a diverse mix of cultures that still divides itself between Malay and non-Malay (bumiputra). It’s a country that uses herbs and plants from its ancient rainforests to make modern medicine. In one state, movie theatre lights are kept on to discourage people from making out, but in another state, there’s a tribe where the men pierce their male parts with a bunch of random stuff and show it off trying to entice the women. (Does this even work??) Perhaps it’s this dichotomy that makes the country what it is. And I’m excited to venture into what they have to offer and taste what delicious food they have.
Up next: Art and Literature