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By Alex Brown





Political Malaysia is made up of the peninsula north of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. The population is divided under two categories - bumiputeras or non-bumiputeras.


The bumiputeras are basically `sons of the soil , i.e. they are indigenous to Peninsula and Bornean Malaysia, and the region. Malays constitute the principal bumiputera group accounting for 55% of Malaysia's population. Non-Malays include Chinese (about 32%), and Indians (about 8 %).


Islamic Malay history goes back to the 15th century with the arrival of Islam from the Middle East. Later, these proud people were to be culturally divided by the British. Then, they were relegated to minor social roles without participation in the economic development of the country. After World War II, the Malays reasserted their rights to participation.


Malaysia today is a stable nation which has allowed its economy to grow at an unprecedented rate particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.




The early history of Malaysia is unclear and records from Chinese references remain obscure. Limited evidence suggests that in the past, there was extensive maritime trade between Peninsula Malaysia and the Northern Borneo coast.


Malay history begins in southern Sumatra between the 7th and 14th century in a place called Melayu which was around Palembang, the centre of the Sri Vijayan empire. This place was believed to be the cradle of Malay culture.


At one point during the 14th century, Sri Vijaya was suppressed by the rival Majapahit empire in Java for control of the Archipelago trade. Sri Vijayan refugees moved away to the Riau islands before finally settling in Malacca.


Malacca which was founded around 1400 thrived for about one century. Its wealth was based on its excellent location at the Straits of Malacca. While its power encompassed Perak, Riau and East Sumatra, it took care to become tributaries of greater powers like Majapahit (Java), China and Ayudhaya(Thailand). This was not only strategically sound but economically good.


A big Chinese community eventually settled in Malacca. When Malacca's rulers became Islam in the 15th century, it opened trade links with the Arabs and Indian-Muslim traders. This accelerated the Islamisation of the Peninsula and the Archipelago. Malay became an important language then. Today it is spoken all over South East Asia with regional variations.


Malacca fell to the Portuguese in August 1511and used it as a control centre of their spice trade in the Moluccas (Indonesia). They declared their animosity towards Islam. This only helped to re-enforce the establishments of other centres, e.g. Brunei which accepted Islam in 1514.




After the fall of Malacca, the Johore sultanate was established commanding Riau as well. Other states flourished too. When the Dutch arrived in Java in the 17th century, they helped to overthrow the Portuguese in Malacca in order to gain a foothold for trade.


In 1824, the Anglo-Dutch Treaty gave Malacca to the British while the Dutch took everything south of Singapore. Borneo also came under the British. Effectively, the British were only interested in 3 areas because of their strategic locations - Singapore, Malacca & Penang. These were known as the Straits Settlements.


The Dutch then attempted to monopolise the regions' lucrative spice trade with their military power. No Malay states could withstand this onslaught. This created destructive competition between the Malay states e.g. between Johore & Aceh, Brunei & Sulu.


They also created destructive competition between the Malay sultanates (who were the ruling class) for diminishing material wealth within their states. This brought about much civil strife rendering the sultans ineffective.


Other complications resulted from group migrations of people from the region to the Malay states causing animosity and instability. More powerful groups formed the basis for the new states e.g. Minangkabaus in Negri Sembilan, Buginese in Selangor. Brunei had to come to terms with the Dayaks.


The growing power of the British in India also re-oriented the trading patterns of South East Asia. The Chinese traders in S.E.A. began to assume the pattern of middlemen with western powers, discomforting the Malay States. Thailand under the Chakri dynasty (1782) asserted authority in Kelantan, Kedah, Perak & Trengganu in the 18th century. Patani (now south Thailand) was finally absorbed under Thai administration.


In 1786, Kedah ceded Penang to the British to win an ally against the Thais. This was the first step of British occupation of the peninsula.




In 1918, the East India Company (British) acquired Singapore from Johore. In 1824, the Anglo-Dutch Treaty delivered Malacca into British as part of a settlement by the 2 superpowers of their respective spheres of influence. Basically, the British took the peninsula while the Dutch took everything south of Singapore. The British also possessed north Borneo eventually.


Penang, Malacca and Singapore boomed  and the peninsula was developed into plantations and mines. Certain states experienced civil war because of vast tin deposits. Secret societies which controlled the Chinese labourers had Malay chiefs aligned with them creating rival groups. In 1860, there was anarchy and the British had to intervene.


In 1874, the Pangkor Treaty was signed between the Sultan of Perak and the governor of the Straits Settlements. The Sultan's office was recognised in return for the acceptance of a British Resident in his state whose advice must be sought on all administrative matters. By 1896, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang were under this `protectorate' system. They were known as the Federated Malay States. Johore and the northern states were known as the Unfederated Malay States. The term `Malaya' included all these states around the 1920s.


North Borneo and Brunei came under British rule with James Brooke, a British adventurer was asked to quell a revolt in the Sarawak River region in 1840. The British also saw Brooke as an ally to quell privacy in S.E. Asian waters. British support however was withdrawn from Brooke in 1850  because his adventures were `private'. But Brooke had the support of the Dayaks. Brunei became a British protectorate around 1906.




Rubber and tin made Malaya one of Britain's most prized possessions. It expanded the economy tremendously by 1910. Infrastructure such as roads and railways facilitated commerce. The Chinese were involved in finance, transportation, construction, small-scale industry and retail trading.


Chinese immigration (mainly labourers) swelled uncontrolled until the 1930s when the great depression came. Indian labourers were also recruited. While the new migrants were regarded as `transients', many decided to stay after 1930.


Divisions between the races deepened by British perceptions and policies. Racial stereotyping aggravated the situation. The Malays were divided into upper-class and ordinary Malays. The Chinese populated the cities and managed their own social systems thus alienating the Malays. Indians who were considered `subjects' of the rubber estates received Indian language education.


Separation of the communities prevented Nationalism. There was strife between the communities but the British were unworried so long as they could divide and rule. But education in various forms created political awareness amongst the population who wanted more say in the running of Malaya.


The Malays in the 1930s believed in being part of Indonesia.


The Chinese who were affiliated with the communists were more interested in events in China and saw the potential for revolt in Malaya.


The Indians became more assertive in line with anti-British feelings in India. Sarawak and north Borneo remained quiet backwaters.




Japanese forces attacked British Malaya on 8 December 1941. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. Sarawak & North Borneo fell without struggle. The 3 years of Japanese occupation saw economic chaos and divided the population even deeper.


The Japanese championed the Malay cause. But the Malays became sceptical when 4 Malay states were given to Thailand. These were later returned to the British after the war.


The Chinese became the enemies of the Japanese and were treated brutally. The Indians were encouraged to focus on India as they were considered minorities.




Liberation from the Japanese came with their surrender in 1945. The British set about to administratively unite the Malay states, Penang and Malacca but not Singapore by giving equal rights of citizenship to all residents.


But the Malays wanted pre-eminence over the immigrants and formed the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) in protest. But they eventually agreed to citizenship for non-Malays and the Federation of Malaya was launched in 1948.


The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) which attempted terrorism in the same year was reduced to a minor problem in the early 50s but emergency regulations were only lifted after 1960.




The British promised independence for Malaya during the emergency. This was difficult because of ethnic rivalry. However, in 1952, an alliance was forged between the 3 communal-based parties i.e. UMNO, MCA(Malayan Chinese Association) and MIC(Malayan Indian Congress).


This alliance was successful and the Federation of Malaya achieved independence from the British in 1957 using the British legal and administrative systems. Tungku Abdul Rahman was then the Prime Minister until 1970.


Malay pre-eminence was acknowledged by recognition of Islam as a National religion, Malay as the national language, and the election of the Yang Di-pertuan Agung (King) from the nine hereditary states every 5 years.


The Federation of Malaysia was dominated by ethnic issues. It was formed on 16 September 1963 and included merger with Singapore, Sarawak and  Sabah. Brunei remained apart.


Singapore's alliance fell apart in August 1965 because of differences in many constitutional, political and administrative issues.


9.0    CRISIS


In 1960, Malaysian democracy was at its most open. But several extremist Islamic parties saw it as a compromise. The Chinese-supported Democratic Action Party (DAP) was unhappy with Malay-dominated politics.


During the general election campaign in May 1969, passions ran high. The results diminished absolute control by the Alliance. Racial riots erupted between the perturbed Malays and the celebratory Chinese. It lasted 4 days and hundreds were killed. This led to substantial political changes under the new prime minister,

Tun Abdul Razak (until 1976).


UMNO had to assert its power in order to maintain peace. Malaysia had to be a Malay-dominated country. A broader form of  political coalition alliance was established with the setting up of the Barisan Nasional.  The DAP has always remained outside this coalition.




After the establishment of the New Economic Plan (NEP) in 1971, Tun Abdul Razak set out 2 goals for Malaysia :


1.      To eradicate poverty


2.   To eradicate identification of economic function with race. These were successfully achieved within 2 years.


This was achieved by major public enterprises to take up `share capital in trust' for Bumiputeras until they are in a position to purchase shares privately. Other forms of help were extended to Bumiputeras and by 1987, poverty dropped to 17.3% in rural areas, and 9% in urban areas.


The 1980s and early 1990s saw dramatic economic growth with manufacturing dominating Malaysia's exports. This growth helped to mollify non-Bumiputeras who had feared the NEP.


The NEP was not perfect and when Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamed became the prime minister in 198, he replaced it the New Development Policy (NDP) to balance inequities.




11.1  Regalia


It is legendary that Malay rulers have never been crowned but installed by the beating of drums. The ceremonial orchestra which was given the name `Nobat' thus became the most treasured part of a Malay ruler's regalia.


The principal instruments were three drums and two wind instruments. One of the drums was called nengkara and stood upright with a single face. The other two were called  gendang nobat.  These and the wind instruments  - a long silver trumpet called nafiri and a short oboe, called  serunai - represent the basic minimum, but the numbers were at one time larger.


The nobat is played infrequently, usually only during installations, weddings and funerals of the aristocracy, and during the fasting month of Ramadan.


The nobat was considered almost sacred and can only be played by selected musicians and the members of the royal family. Undoubtedly, and because of its rich cultural history, the nobats of Kedah and Perak have played and important part in the installation of their respective rulers.


11.2  Colour


Yellow is the Royal colour of the Malay aristocracy. First grade shoulder cloth called tetampan are usually made of velvet and embroidered with the royal emblem or cypher in gold thread.


Second grade shoulder cloth is called wali which is shorter and made of silk with silk fringes at both ends. It is always worn over the right shoulder.


A third variety of shoulder cloth is worn like a stole in reverse with both ends hanging over both shoulders. It is called selampai in Trengganu and made of fine cotton.


The fourth type is made of cotton, a little longer than the selampai and is called kain dukong. This variety is worn by both men and women. Silk umbrellas which are not articles of regalia, are carried during royal installations and are usually covered with yellow silk with gold fringes.


The Regalia in West Malaysia has been assembled over a period of time and when the title of Yang Di-Pertuan Agung was created in 1957. Regalia from the Kedah Nobat was commissioned. The best Malay craftsmen in the country were commissioned to make the articles. The regalia now consist of 15 articles, the most important of these being a handwritten copy of the Koran, laid on a golden rest and two kris.




The Malay house is characterised by a unique feature quite different from the houses of China, India or Java. Whether it belongs to a prince or a peasant, Malay houses are all built raised from the ground. It was thought that since Malay communities once existed mainly near rivers, the elevation was to protect the inhabitants from floods. But this conclusion was incorrect since Malay communities that established themselves away from the water had also homes that were raised from the ground. Since such houses are found in the Malay peninsula right up to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, it can be ascertained that they probably owed its origins to the Chams or Khmers.


While `houses on stilts' provided security from natural predators, it did not protect its inhabitants from stabbing from below as was the case in many Malay legends including the duel between Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat. In the 18th century, it was not unusual to find 8-foot pillars being built but in the first quarter of the 20th century, a revolution took place when such pillars were reduced to 3 feet high.


Another feature which was characteristic of the Malay house which shared similarities with Indo-China was the tiered roof. This is still a common attraction in Trengganu, Kelantan and Perak although many of them are now being replaced by concrete architecture.


Because timber is a material that can be destroyed by weather and fire, the study of Malay timber buildings cab only be limited to only 500 years. In the Malay Annals, there are extensive records of fabulous timber palaces of sultans, one of the most famous belonging to Sultan Mansur Shah in Malacca built in 1465 but destroyed by fire.


Most Malay palaces also had `forked scissors' endings at the end of their gables similar to the `chofas' (finials) of Thai houses. This feature also presents itself in many Malay domestic architecture which can be seen along the highways of peninsula Malaya.


The beauty of wood carvings which adorns much of Malayan architecture must surely owe its existence to the wood carver who until today is still practising this age-old craft. This practice is as traditional as the people who indulge in it. Right from the start, rules must be observed - rules of nature which gives great respect to living things. Thus, only mature trees of the right specie can be fell.


The search for trees will take the woodcarver into the forest for 2 - 3 days during which he has to propitiate the spirits of the forest, friendly or hostile who are referred to as Jenggi Kayu. Prayers are necessary to also protect him from wild animals. Knowledge of self-protection or Ilmu Pagar is therefore necessary when sleeping in the forest. Most timbers that are felled for architecture are Chengai timber, a specie that becomes durable with age because of its high resin content.


It can be ascertained that the acme of a Malay woodcarver's art was for centuries, the decorative wall panel, inserted six feet or more above the floor, over doors and windows, and providing a frieze around the internal wall. They are usually cut to admit air and a measure of light. The patterns must surely be considered as a great challenge to any craftsman because Islam forbids the representation of any human or animal form in any application.


Fabulous palaces have been decorated under such constraints. The Malay palace called Istanas inevitably consist of an audience hall called balai which leads visitors to other parts of the palace because the Sultan often has many visitors that have to be accommodated and entertained in different rooms. There are rooms for meals, the family and a host of other activities.


The carved panels that surround a Sultan's palace show rare examples of the woodcarver's skill one such being the silat empat lapis or four-layered technique which creates three dimensional effects on the carved panel. Arabic scripts with leaf design panels are called Ayat Nasrun.


The wood-carver's art is not without hazards. For in the past it was said that there was always a large bottle canphor oil or minyak kapur which was used as an antiseptic for cuts sustained during carving. The designs for panels, doors, friezes are normally prepared for two types of styles. One is cut, the other is carved.


The cut-out panel is usually more interesting as it admits light. These are occasionally enriched by carving branches or leaves coiling into one another. This is called ukiran silap. Occasionally, other objects are also made by the wood-carver. Chongkak boards, which are boat shaped boards for seed games remains a popular Malay pastime.


In relatively modern times, East Coast Malays have concentrated their nautical inclinations on trading and fishing. Because of design influences from the Indo- Chinese region, East Coast boats are said to be more beautiful than their West Coast counterparts. The largest and most attractive was the payang which was about 45 feet long and popular in Trengganu. In Kelantan, a lighter and shorter model was preferred. This was about 30 feet long with long curved ends. Other variations of the kolek are: kolek kue, a smaller version of the kolek, the bedar, which had low ends projecting like a mammoth duck's bill, the sekochi, which was shorter and lighter with plain low ends, and the Jalora which was similar to the sekochi but built in Pahang.


Until recently, most East Coast fishing boats fitted a wooden guard to hold the mast and spars in place when not in use. However, some boat builders decorate this guard with abstract shapes like the bangau, the Malay egret. The Payang on the other hand usually had  the oko  carved on them. The oko was a grotesque creature from the Javanese shadow play. The elaborate way in which these carvings were done suggests that they were for more than just aesthetic reasons. It was believed that every object, animate or inanimate possesses a spirit, rice being the best known example. Thus, for three times a year, the bomoh would perform rituals to protect the boats and their owners.


13.0    THE ARTS - MALAY DANCE DRAMA - Ma'yong


The Malay Dance Drama called Ma'yong is a combination of romantic drama, operatic singing and broad comedy always performed by a caste of young and attractive women playing the pats of male and female. This drama is said to have originated  in Patani (South Thailand) about 400 years ago and spread to Kelantan at a later date. The origin of the word Ma'yong is not known but it was thought to be a form of ceremonial propitiation of the spirits. Because of this, a bomoh was always present during the performance of the ma'yong takong the role of a medium.


Even today,  the actress who plays the part of the prince invariably falls ill after the performance if he is fatally wounded during the play. It is also quite common for actresses also to weep hysterically during the performance.


The orchestra that accompanies the Ma'yong consist of Rebab (a spike fiddle), Gendang (two double-headed barrel-drums) and Tawak-Tawak (a pair of deep-rimmed hanging gongs). Water is poured into the bottom rim of the drums to improve the tone and to prevent cracking. Raw cotton thread, small pennants and flowers are hung inside the gong as part of a superstition.


The spike-fiddle dominates the Ma'yong performance because it is the key instrument in rising spirits and healing. The Rebab player normally sits at the centre of the stage and leads the orchestra, the singers and the dancers. Most performances if held in front of Royal or aristocratic audiences were held in open hall without a stage. This was termed `in the round' because guests sat around the performers on three sides of a rectangle.


The performance usually continued until the Raja indicated retirement for the night. The pace was usually unhurried and it was not unusual for a performance to last 4 or 5 nights continuously. The sequence of the story was usually interspersed with singing from the lead actresses. The only males in the cast were comedians who provided relief from the main sequence. There was no written text and the dialogue varied slightly from one performance to another.




The crafts of Malaysia must be seen as the expressions of a vast cultural hinterland particularly from the tribes and societies of the Malay Archipelago. It is diverse and complex and these form the basic character of Malaysian culture.


Most tribal crafts are tied to nature and animism, expressed aesthetically, sensibly and creatively by symbols. Malays crafts on the other hand are very much based on the belief that beauty itself is related to divine power.  The expressions are therefore allied to a strong religious framework. Apart from this, the cultures of the Chinese, Indians and Europeans have been a source of constant nourishment for the arts.


History has played an important part in the aesthetic expressions of the people. The Straits of Melaka which received many traders who not only perceived crafts as objects of function and beauty but as articles of trade. Royal patronage helped determine the value of these goods.


The crafts produced during the first half of the 20th century were determined very much by the demands of a clientele whose tastes have been influenced by years of exposure to foreign imports. At one stage, it even threatened the growth of  local handicraft because of competition from these foreign imports.


In the 50s, there was a resurgence in the development of these handicrafts due mainly to the improvements in the socio-economic conditions of Malaysia. Of significance are the handicrafts of the orang asli, the indigenous people of Malaysia who are able to draw inspiration from their environment to create beautiful works of art. Their strong religious beliefs and traditional culture also exert a powerful influence on their artistic expressions.


The multi-cultural character of Malaysian society also has had its fair share of artistic contributions. The immigrant societies of China and India brought with them many objects used for rites, rituals, customs and religion.


Very distinctive craft forms of the Chinese are best represented by Peranakan art. The Peranakans, whose lineage dates back more than 600 years evolved a unique blend of handicrafts reflecting a fine synthesis of Chinese and Malay culture.


Islam plays an important role in Malay expressions. While they embrace the rituals and ceremonies of ancient Islam, they have also infused significant local flavour in their works. The bersanding ceremony for example gives rise to a plethora of paraphernalia.







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