History

Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia, a country divided into 13 states and three federal territories. It is separated by the South China Sea, with 11 states and two federal territories (Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya) in Peninsular Malaysia and two states and one federal territory (Labuan) in East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.

Many historic areas in Malaysia, such as Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Kuching, bear testament to the rich diversity of the country’s past. From the rule of ancient kingdoms to conquests from other empires, Malaysian history is as colourful as its landmarks, festivities and unique cultures.

Melaka was one of the earliest Malay sultanates in the country, to be colonised by the Portuguese in 1511 and the Dutch in 1641. After having established bases in Penang, Singapore, Melaka, Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu), and Kuching, the British managed to dominate the region from the 19th century onwards.

The British rule crumbled when the Japanese invaded Malaysia during the Second World War. The period from 1942 to 1945 saw nationalism rise up in the country. This carried on through after the World War and Japanese Occupation ended. The nation, then called the Federation of Malaya, gained independence from the British in 1957.

British territories in North Borneo gained independence in 1963, and aligned with the Peninsular states and Singapore to form Malaysia on 16 September 1963. However, disputes between the ruling parties in Malaysia and Singapore resulted in the latter’s separation from Malaysia in 1965.

Key Tips

  • The architecture of old buildings often offers subtle clues as to local history. For example, the narrow townhouses along Jalan Tan Cheng Lock (formerly Heeren Street) in Melaka shrewdly conceal a deep building plan, some going back 20-30 metres. This is because Malaccan houses built during the Dutch era were taxed based on the width of a building’s street-frontage, resulting in buildings that were narrow but extremely long. For a tour of these houses, visit No. 8 Heeren Street Heritage Centre, Melaka.

  • Keep a lookout for war memorials scattered around the country, such as the Tumpat Lighthouse.