Capital Kuala Lumpur
Government Constitutional Monarchy
Area total: 329,750 km2 – land: 328,550 km2, water: 1,200 km2
Population 28,334,135 (January 2010)
Language Malay (official), English (official for some purposes), Chinese dialects. Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, and Thai; in addition, several indigenous languages are spoken in East Malaysia, especially Iban and Kadazan
Religion Islam (official), Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism;
Country code +60
Internet TLD .my
Time Zone UTC+8
Malaysia is a country in Southeast Asia, located partly on a peninsula of the Asian mainland and partly on the northern third of the island of Borneo.
West (peninsular) Malaysia shares a border with Thailand, is connected by a causeway and a bridge (the ‘second link’) to the island state of Singapore, and has coastlines on the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca.
East Malaysia (Borneo) shares borders with Brunei and Indonesia.
Malaysia is a mix of the modern world and a developing nation. With its investment in the high technology industries and moderate oil wealth, it has become one of the richer nations in Southeast Asia. Malaysia, for most visitors, presents a happy mix: there is high-tech infrastructure and things generally work well and more or less on schedule, but prices remain more reasonable than, say, Singapore.
Before the rise of the European colonial powers, the Malay peninsula and the Malay archipelago were home to empires such as the Srivijaya, the Majapahit (both ruled from Indonesia, but also controlling parts of Malaysia) and the Melaka Sultanate. The Srivijaya and Majapahit empires saw the spread of Hinduism to the region, and to this day, despite being nominally Muslim, many Hindu legends and traditions survive in traditional Malay culture.
This was to change in the 16th century when the Portuguese established the first European colony in Southeast Asia by defeating the Melaka Sultanate. The Portuguese subsequently then lost Malacca to the Dutch. The British also established their first colony on the Malay peninsula in Penang in 1786, when it was ceded by the Sultan of Kedah. Finally, the area was divided into Dutch and British spheres of influence with the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824. With this treaty, the Dutch agreed to cede Malacca to the British and in return, the British ceded all their colonies on Sumatra to the Dutch. The line which divided the Malay world into Dutch and British areas roughly corresponds to what is now the border between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Before World War II, the Malay Peninsula was governed by the British as the Federated Malay States (Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang), which were governed as a single entity, the Unfederated Malay States (Johor, Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Kelantan), which were each governed as separate protectorates, and the Straits Settlements (including Malacca, Penang, Labuan and Singapore), which were crown colonies. Northern Borneo consisted of the British colony of North Borneo, the Kingdom of Sarawak, which was ruled by a British family known as the “White Rajas”, and the British protectorate of Brunei.
World War II was disastrous for the British Malayan Command. The Japanese swept down both coasts of the Malay Peninsula and despite fierce fighting, much of the British military was tied down fighting the Germans in Europe and those that remained in Malaya simply could not cope with the Japanese onslaught. The British military equipment left to defend Malaya were outdated and no match for the modern ones used by the Japanese, while the only two battleships based in the region, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, were sank by Japanese bombers off the East Coast of Malaya. By 31 January 1942, the British had been pushed all the way back to Singapore, which also fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. The situation was no different on Borneo, which fell to the Japanese on 1 April 1942 after months of fierce fighting. The Japanese occupation was brutal, and many, particularly the ethnic Chinese, suffered and perished during the occupation. Among the most notorious atrocities committed by the Japanese was the Sandakan Death Marches, with only six out of several thousand prisoners surviving the war.
After World War II, the Federated Malay States, Unfederated Malay States and the Straits Settlements of Malacca and Penang were federated to form a single British colony known as the Malayan Union, with Singapore splitting off to form a separate colony. In the Malayan Union, the sultans of the various states ceded all their powers except those in religious affairs to the British crown. However, widespread opposition to the Malayan Union led the British to reconsider their position, and in 1948, the Malayan Union was replaced by the Federation of Malaya, in which the executive positions of the sultans were restored. In Borneo, the White Rajas ceded Sarawak to the British crown in 1946, making it a crown colony of the United Kingdom.
Malaya gained independence from the British in 1957. Six years later, Malaysia was formed on 16 September 1963 through a merging of Malaya and Singapore, as well as the East Malaysian states of Sabah (known then as North Borneo) and Sarawak on the northern coast of Borneo, with Brunei deciding not to join. The first several years of the country’s history were marred by the Indonesian confrontation (konfrontasi) as well as claims to Sabah from the Philippines. Singapore was expelled from the federation on 9 August 1965 after several bloody racial riots, as its majority Chinese population and the influence of the People’s Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew (later the long-ruling Prime Minister of Singapore) were seen as a threat to Malay dominance, and it became a separate country.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, nominally headed by the Paramount Ruler (Yang di-Pertuan Agong) or commonly known as the king , who is “elected” by the rulers giving Malaysia a unique political system of rotational monarchy, in which each of the state rulers take turns to be the king of Malaysia. Malaysia’s government is largely based on the British Westminster system, consisting of a bicameral national parliament, with each of the states also having their own unicameral Dewan Undangan Negeri.
Peninsular Malaysia (Bahasa Malaysia: Semenanjung Malaysia) occupies all of the Malay Peninsula between Thailand and Singapore, and is also known as West Malaysia (Malaysia Barat) or the slightly archaic Malaya (Tanah Melayu). It is home to the bulk of Malaysia’s population, its capital and largest city Kuala Lumpur, and is generally more economically developed. Within Peninsular Malaysia, the West Coast is more developed and urbanised, and separated from the more rural East Coast by a mountain range – the Titiwangsa.
East Malaysia. Some 800 km to the east is East Malaysia (Malaysia Timur), which occupies the northern third of the island of Borneo, shared with Indonesia and tiny Brunei. Partly covered in impenetrable jungle where headhunters roam (on GSM networks if nothing else), East Malaysia is rich in natural resources but very much Malaysia’s hinterland for industry and tourism.
Sabah. Superb scuba diving in Sipadan island plus muck diving at Mabul, nature reserves, the federal enclave of Labuan, and mighty Mount Kinabalu.
Sarawak. Jungles, national parks, and traditional longhouses.
Malaysia is a multicultural society. While Malays make up a 52% majority, there are also 27% Chinese, 9% Indian and a miscellaneous grouping of 13.5% “others”, such as the Portuguese clan in Melaka and 12% of indigenous peoples (Orang Asli). There is hence also a profusion of faiths and religions, with Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and even shamanism on the map.
Climate. The climate in Malaysia is tropical. The north-east monsoon (October to February) deluges Borneo and the east coast in rain and often causes flooding, while the west coast (particularly Langkawi and Penang) escape unscathed. The milder south-west monsoon (April to October) reverses the pattern. The southern parts of peninsular Malaysia, including perennially soggy Kuala Lumpur, are exposed to both but even during the rainy season, the showers tend to be intense but brief.
Malaysia is close to the equator, therefore warm weather is guaranteed. Temperatures generally range from 32°C/89.6 ºF at noon to about 26°C/78.8 ºF at midnight. But like most Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia’s sun-shining days are interrupted by Monsoon season from November to February every year, and night temperatures can hit a low of about 23°C/73.4 ºF on rainy days.
Temperatures tend to be cooler in the highlands, with the likes of Genting Highlands, Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill having temperatures ranging from about 17°C/62.6 ºF at night to about 25°C/77 ºF in the day. Mount Kinabalu is known to have temperatures falling below 10°C/50 ºF.
Cities in Malaysian Borneo
Kota Kinabalu — close to tropical islands, lush rain forest and Mount Kinabalu
Kuching — capital of Sarawak
Miri — resort city of Sarawak and gateway to UNESCO World Heritage Site Gunung Mulu National Park
Kinabalu National Park — home of Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in South East Asia
Visas. Most nationalities can enter Malaysia without a visa, and they would be issued a 14, 30 or 90 day entry permit stamp on their passport. Note that Sarawak has separate immigration laws and you will get a new visa on arrival there. For those who require a visa to visit Malaysia, you’ll need a separate one for Sarawak
By plane. National carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has extensive worldwide network coverage and regularly ranks high in airline quality assessments, while no-frills low-cost carrier AirAsia and her sister company, AirAsia, now cover an ever-expanding set of destinations including Australia, China, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Laos, Macau, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam.
AirAsia. Most international flights land at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). Other airports which have significant numbers of flights to regional destinations are Kota Kinabalu (Sabah), Kuching (Sarawak), Penang, Langkawi and Johor Bahru. Many major Malaysian cities have service to Singapore via AirAsia or Firefly.
By boat. Ferries connect various points in Peninsular Malaysia with Sumatra in Indonesia and southern Thailand, Sarawak with Brunei, and Sabah with East Kalimantan in Indonesia and Mindanao in the Philippines. Luxury cruises also run from Singapore and sometimes Phuket (Thailand) to Malaysia.
Brunei – ferries daily between the Muara Ferry Terminal in Brunei and Labuan island and Lawas in Sarawak.
Philippines – ferries run between the Zamboanga Peninsula and Sandakan, Sabah.
By plane. Largely thanks to budget carrier AirAsia, Malaysia is crisscrossed by a web of affordable flights with advertised “promotional” prices starting at RM9 for flights booked well in advance. Flying is the only practical option for traveling between peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, as well as reaching some of the more remote outposts of Borneo. State carrier Malaysia Airlines also has competitive fares which now offers equal or even lower priced tickets if booked in advance through the internet. In Sabah and Sarawak, MASWings, operates turboprop services linking interior communities, including those in the Kelabit Highlands, with coastal cities.
Traffic in Malaysia drives on the left, a legacy left by the British. It should be advised, beware of reckless motorcyclists, especially during the night, and especially if you are a pedestrian: locals typically disregard a red light for left turns, putting pedastrians at risk. As a motorist, at traffic lights, they will accumulate in front of you – let them drive away first to avoid accidents.
Talk. The sole official language of Malaysia is Malay (officially Bahasa Malaysia, sometimes also known as Bahasa Melayu). The Indonesian language, spoken accross the border in Indonesia, is similar to Malay, and both languages are largely mutually intelligible. English is compulsory in all schools and widely spoken in the larger cities, as well as around the main tourist attractions, although in rural areas a little Malay will come in handy.
See. Climb Mount Kinabalu in Sabah. Malaysia is also well-known for some pristine beaches with great diving opportunities. However, the most famous dive site — often ranked among the best in the world — is Sipadan, off the easternmost tip of Malaysian Borneo.
Buy. The Malaysian currency is the ringgit, informally known as the dollar (the “$” symbol can be seen on older notes) and abbreviated RM or MYR, is divided into 100 sen. Licensed money changers in major shopping malls often have the best rates – be sure to say the amount you wish to exchange and ask for the ‘best quote’ as rates displayed on the board are often negotiable, especially for larger amounts.
ATMs are widely available in cities, but do stock up on cash if heading out into the smaller islands or the jungle. Credit cards can be used in most shops, restaurants and hotels, although skimming can be a problem in dodgier outlets.
US Debit cards: Due high levels of fraud, many Malaysia ATMs do not allow you to withdraw using a US debit card. Numerous travellers have noted this on travel forums. This is unique to Malaysia and is not applicable to Thailand, Singapore, or Indonesia. If you call your bank or even Visa/Mastercard, they are often not aware because the transaction is declined by the Malaysia bank. Make sure to bring cash or other form of money in case your debit card is rejected.
Costs. Most visitors will find Malaysia quite cheap, although it is noticeably more expensive than neighbouring Thailand and Indonesia. You can live in hostel dorms and feast on hawker food for less than RM50 per day, but you’ll wish to double this for comfort, particularly if travelling in more expensive East Malaysia.Tipping is not customary in Malaysia.
Eat. The crossroads of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, Malaysia is an excellent place to makan (eat in Malay). Generally, you can eat pretty much anywhere in Malaysia. Food outlets are comparatively clean – the only thing you should avoid is ice for your drinks, when you frequent the street or hawker stalls since the blocks of ice used there might not be up to your hygienic standards. In actual restaurants this is not a problem.
Sleep. Budget hotels and youth hostels are available in most cities and around most tourist destinations. As with most budget accommodations, some are more reliable than others.
Crime towards tourists are usually restricted to bag-snatching, pickpocketing and petty theft. At the meantime, please rely on the policemen in Malaysia, because most of them take up their job seriously. It is not a problem when you want to communicate with the policemen, the English proficiency of the policemen in Malaysia is average, most of them can speak Bahasa Malaysia (Official Language) and English. In conclusion, you can hardly feel any harm traveling through the country.
WARNING: Malaysia treats drug offenses extremely severely. The death penalty is mandatory for those convicted of trafficking, manufacturing, importing or exporting more than 15 g of heroin, 30 g of morphine, 30 g of cocaine, 500 g of cannabis, 200 g of cannabis resin and 1.2 kg of opium, and possession of these quantities is all that is needed for you to be convicted. For unauthorised consumption, there is a maximum of 10 years’ jail or a heavy fine, or both. Do note that in Malaysia, certain crimes are punished with caning. Being convicted of rape, vandalism, illegal entry, bribery, overstaying your visa, and other certain crimes could get you caned. This is no slap on the wrist! Strokes from the thick rattan cane are very painful and can take weeks to heal, and even scar for life. This technique also applies to Singapore.
Credit card fraud is a growing problem. Use cards only in reputable shops.
Tap water is drinkable straight off the tap as it is treated, but even locals boil or filter it first just to be on the safe side. When travelling it is best to stick to bottled water, which is very inexpensive. Ice in drinks might be made from tap water but nowadays, most restaurants and even roadside stalls use the cylindrical variety with a hollow tube down the middle that are mass-produced at ice factories and are safer to consume.
Peninsular Malaysia is largely malaria-free, but there is a significant risk in Borneo especially in inland and rural areas. Dengue fever occurs throughout Malaysia in both urban and rural areas, and can be avoided only by preventing mosquito bites. The mosquito that transmits dengue feeds throughout the daytime, and is most active at dawn and dusk. If you experience a sudden fever with aches and lethargy, seek medical attention immediately. Aspirin and ibuprofen should not be used until dengue fever has been ruled out. Mosquito repellents (ubat nyamuk) are widely available. Malaysia is largely free from earthquakes as there are no nearby faultlines, though tremors can occasionally be felt when a major quake occurs in neighbouring Indonesia. Typhoons also generally do not occur.
It is advisable to dress respectfully, particularly in rural areas (wearing trousers or a long skirt, not shorts, and covering your shoulders is recommended but not essential). In more metropolitan areas such as Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Penang, and Ipoh, as well as East Malaysian states (Sabah and Sarawak), attitudes are more liberal.
When entering a home or a place of worship, always take off your shoes. Also, never eat with your left hand, or give a gift with your left hand; and never point with your forefinger (you may use a closed fist with the thumb instead), point with your feet or touch a person’s head.
Gay and lesbian travelers should avoid any outward signs of affection, including holding hands in public. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia PUNISHMENT CAN BE EXECUTION.
Swastikas are an ancient symbol commonly seen in Hindu and Buddhist temples. They are typically a reverse image of those used by Nazis and do not express similar sentiments or anti-Semitism, so Western visitors should not feel offended when seeing it in the homes of their hosts.
Internet. Malaysia is one of the first countries in the world to offer 4G connectivity. Wi-Fi is usually available in hot spots in almost all restaurants and almost all fast-food outlets, shopping malls and City-wide wireless connections. Prepaid Internet cards are also available to access wireless broadband, in some cafes.