Why is Malaysia Split in Two?
Which is the strangest looking country in the world? Contenders include the United States (think of Alaska and Hawaii), Papua New Guinea (shouldn’t it have the whole island?), Gambia (what’s it like to be entirely surrounded by another country?), and the United Kingdom (what’s with Northern Ireland?). The winner, however, might be Malaysia. It looks like a piece of fruit sliced in two, its two halves separated by 650 kilometers of water. Neither part covers all the relevant geography—the western half shares the peninsula with Thailand and Singapore, while the eastern half covers only a quarter of the island of Borneo. Nor does this unusual arrangement have the weight of history behind it—Malaysia in its current form dates back only to the 1960’s.
This isn’t to say there’s no logic to Malaysia. It unifies many of the Malay people, a distinct ethnic group that has lived on the Malayan peninsula and the neighbouring islands of Borneo and Sumatra for centuries. But millions of Malays live in Indonesia, and hundreds of thousands in Thailand. So how did Malaysia get the borders it has today? The answer lies in how its people interacted with European traders and states.
Before the Europeans came, a series of empires dominated this part of Southeast Asia. The two most important were the Majaphit Empire and the Melaka Sultanate. The area was prosperous for two main reasons. First, its forests and shorelines produced goods that people wanted in places like China and the Middle East, including aromatic woods and resins, tin and gold, oysters and cowrie shells.
Second, the western coast of the Malayan peninsula had the perfect weather for trade. It was the place where the region’s monsoon winds shifted, making its ports ideal for merchants plying the seas between China and India.
None of this was lost on the Europeans who began to arrive in the 1500’s. In 1511, the Portuguese captured Melaka, the most important port in the region, and used it as a base for their trade in Asia.
It would be the British, however, who would leave the deepest mark on the region. They had gained the upper hand by the mid-1700’s and were the dominant power on the Malayan peninsula for the next two centuries.
British influence took a variety of forms. They established colonies in some Malayan kingdoms and signed treaties with others. They did the same on the western shores of the neighbouring island of Borneo. By 1900, Britain controlled all the territory that makes up Malaysia.
There was one more vital ingredient in the pre-history of modern Malaysia: immigrants. The economic dynamism of the region had attracted people for centuries, the majority coming from India and China. Most worked as labourers. Some became successful entrepreneurs. Their communities would play a key role in the formation of today’s Malaysia of two halves, as we will see.
During the Second World War, Japan overpowered British forces on the Malayan peninsula, the island of Singapore (which sits at the end of the peninsula), and western Borneo. When the defeated Japanese left in 1945, the locals were upset that the British felt entitled to return. But return they did, because Malayan rubber and tin exports were valuable for Britain’s economy.
Opposition to the British was split between Malayan nationalists, who opposed rights for Chinese and Indian communities, and the Communist party, which was popular among the Chinese. A Communist guerilla movement fought the British for more than a decade after the war. But the lack of a united opposition made it easier for Britain to hold on to Malaya. (In Vietnam, by contrast Communism and nationalism fused and the French colonizers were soon overwhelmed and pushed out.)
Peninsular Malaya won its independence from Britain in 1957; Singapore, which was predominantly Chinese, in 1959. Western Borneo remained under British control. But the birth of modern, united Malaysia was just around the corner.
In the early 1960’s, the Malayan state on the peninsula and Singapore were discussing a possible merger. Singapore was eager, but the Malayans worried that incorporating Singapore would increase the number of Chinese in their state and threaten the political dominance of the Malays.
The ruler of Malaya had a solution: invite the Malayan states of Sarawak and North Borneo to join, too. That would ensure the continued dominance of the Malay people in the new state. Britain agreed and so did Singapore. And so, in 1963 Malaysia was born.
Two years later, the leader of the Malays forced Singapore out. Singapore’s prime minister cried when he announced the news on television. In retrospect, the ejection was a key moment in the creation of Sinagpore’s thriving economy. And it gave Malaysia the borders it still has today.
Malaysia is one of dozens of countries whose borders were shaped decisively by European imperialism. Unlike many of them, it is comprised of one major ethnic group. But that often leads to racism and discrimination against minorities. Fear of ethnic Chinese and Indians is still strong. Politicians pander to the Malay majority, handing out benefits to Malays in education, housing, and employment. Many talented Chinese and Indians have left.
Malay identity was essential for the formation of Malaysia. Now, however, it acts as a brake on the country’s prosperity. There’s little prospect that this will change.