The Kingdom of Malaysia is today a diverse mix of immigrant Chinese, Indian and indigenous Malays. With a population of 20 million, the region is vibrant and alive with mixed ideas and religions, and thriving as a participant in world trade.
Malaysia is born of ancient kingdoms and a complex cultural history. The Malays as a race have a long history. Through their migration they have settled many of the islands surrounding the Malay Peninsula including Borneo and Sumatra. Their culture over the years has been strongly influenced by people they came in contact with including the Thais to the north, the Javanese, the Sumatrans, and most significantly the Indians. It could be said that the Malays adopted the Hindu culture as their own and many of the endemic rituals have survived the Islamic conversion along with many of the animistic beliefs. Being situated along the trade routes between India and China has resulted in an exchange of ideas, art, religion and models of government. It is the synthesis of Indian and indigenous ideas that attributed to their cultural and political patterns over the years.
Initially many small kingdoms and city-states contested ownership ofthe Malay Peninsula. All would later come under the control of the Sumatran empire Sri Vijaya and at various other times fall under the sovereignty of the kingdoms of Angkor, Majapahit and the Thai Ayutthaya. Eventually the Indian-modified beliefs of Islam began to exert its influence over the peninsula.. Muslim merchants from Bengali and the Malabar Coast drew large numbers of converts in the ports that they traded in. This is probably due to the social contact resulting from trade through marriages. Politically and economically motivated aristocracy converted to the Muslim faith and were followed by the common people in gradual stages down the social scale. It was this spread of Islam along with the prosperous Indian trade that became the nucleus of the most powerful of the Malay kingdoms. Fuelled by commerce, it was the port of Malaka that became the spearhead that advanced the spread of Islam to the ports of Borneo, Java and as far east as the Moluccas and the Philippines.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to take advantage of Malaka's strategic location in the Straits of Melacca by capturing the city. Their interest did not extend much past the port and they constantly had to repel attacks from the neighboring kingdoms. When the Dutch came to the region, it was an alliance with the Johore kingdom to the south that enabled them to drive the Portuguese from the area.
It was the British, who next became interested in the peninsula and their strategic Melacca straits. They acquired the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786 and by the end of the 19th century they controlled what would be considered all of modern Malay states. After the Japanese occupation during World War II the course was set for independence on the Malay Peninsula. This was accomplished in 1957. Six years later the former British colonies of Singapore and those on Borneo united to become the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore became an independent state in 1965.
The development of modern day Malaysia has resulted in multiracial society and an independent nation of substantial wealth. With a population of 20 million that includes indigenous Malays and immigrant Chinese and Indians, each community is very guarded of its cultural identity. Like the former Melaka kingdom, it is much more cosmopolitan than some of its neighbors. Malaysia is part of the global economy, with international interest high.