The region now known as Malaysia was first mentioned in Chinese and Sanskrit
records of the 7th and 8th centuries. In subsequent centuries the area was
under the influence of Thai and Indonesian empires until, in the 15th
century, it became a centre of Islamic influence centred on Malacca.
Colonised by the British in the 19th century, the 11 separate states of
Peninsular Malaysia fell to the Japanese during the Second World War. In
1946, as British Protectorates, they were united in the Malayan Union, which
became the Federation of Malaya in 1948. In the same year, communist
guerrillas launched an armed independence struggle which continued until
1960, although Malaya became independent (within the Commonwealth) in 1957.
In 1963 the Federation of Malaya merged with Singapore and the former
British colonies of Sarawak and Sabah (North Borneo) to form Malaysia.
The Prime Minister since
independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, remained in charge of the new republic. In
1965 Singapore seceded. Five years later, Tunku Abdul Rahman resigned and was succeeded
by Tunku Abdul Razak who created the Barisan Nasional (NF, National Front),
now a multi-party coalition whose main component the United Malay National
Organisation (UMNO). The Front won the 1982 general election convincingly
under the leadership of Tun Mahathir Mohammed.
Over the rest of the decade,
Tun Mahathir orchestrated a shift in Malaysian foreign policy. Previously a
stalwart of the pro-Western ASEAN bloc (Association of South-East Asian
Nations), Malaysia established diplomatic relations with its communist-run
neighbours, including Vietnam. Also in 1989, Malaysia hosted the biennial
Malaysia has a stake, along
with five other countries (China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and
Brunei), in one of the region's main outstanding territorial disputes, the
possibly mineral-rich Spratly Islands. Tun Mahathir has also been a keen
proponent of increasing East Asia's political influence to match its
economic clout and has acquired a reputation for extreme sensitivity to
perceived slights against himself or his country.
Relations with both Britain and
Australia have been temporarily broken on that account. His fierce
independence was apparent in his proposal for the creation of an East Asian
Economic Caucus - deliberately designed to exclude the United States which
holds membership of all the major regional organisations, including APEC and
ASEAN. Although strong opposition from Washington baulked the plan, it
attracted much support from elsewhere.
Following the 1997 Asian
currency crisis, Tun Mahathir adopted an entirely different course of action
from his neighbours, refusing IMF support and advice, and slapping on
stringent currency controls as part of a strategy to reverse the economic
decline. The strategy was, against many expectations, reasonably successful
but came at a heavy political price. On the domestic front, Tun Mahathir's
position had been all but unassailable throughout the 1980s and this
continued into the next decade.
A snap election in October 1990
was notable for the first serious challenge to Tun Mahathir in the form of
Semangat '46 (Spirit of '46), a new party led by Tun Mahathir's former
Cabinet colleague Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah. In the event, Razaleigh's support
simply evaporated, as Barisan Nasional won a crushing victory. By the next
election in April 1995, Semangat '46 was just one more opposition party,
joining the Chinese-led Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Pan-Malaysian
Islamic Party (PAS) and several smaller parties in sharing out 30 seats in
the House of Representatives. Barisan Nasional holds all the rest.
Malaysia's continuing economic success meant there was precious little
political threat to UMNO.
Within the party, however,
there were stirrings of a movement to oust Tun Mahathir in favour of Finance
Minister Anwar Ibrahim who was generally accepted to be his heir apparent.
But it was not until the 1997 Asian financial crisis that relations between
the two men reached crisis point as they disagreed on measures to take to
mollify its effects. Anwar was subject to Tun Mahathir's full wrath. First
he was arrested in August 1998 for alleged homosexual practices. To these,
charges of corruption were later added.
Despite the clearly fabricated
nature of the charges, Anwar was sentenced to six years imprisonment. The
immediate political consequence was that Anwar and his wife became the focus
of opposition to Tun Mahathir. Many people, including influential figures
within UMNO, believed that Tun Mahathir had finally overreached himself. But
his legendary wiliness served him well as he ran a well-judged campaign
which ensured that, despite defeats in some key areas, Barisan Nasional
retained a substantial majority at the November 1999 poll, taking over 140
seats in the Dewan Rakyat. Anwar's wife, ophthalmologist Wan Azizah, won her
husband's old parliamentary seat, but otherwise her political vehicle,
Keadilan, performed below expectations. In year 2003 Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
elected as new prime minister of Malaysia.