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Atlas Malaysia

Country (long form)
Kuala Lumpur
Total Area
127,317.19 sq mi
329,750.00 sq km
21,793,293 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
Bahasa Melayu (official), English, Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan, Foochow), Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Panjabi, Thai; note - in addition, in East Malaysia several indigenous languages are spoken, the largest of which are Iban and Kadazan
83.5% total, 89.1% male, 78.1% female (1995 est.)
Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism; note - in addition, Shamanism is practiced in East Malaysia
Life Expectancy
68.22 male, 73.63 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
constitutional monarchy
1 ringgit (M$) = 100 sen
GDP (per capita)
$10,700 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
manufacturing 27%, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries 16%, local trade and tourism 17%, services 15%, government 10%, construction 9% (1999 est.)
Peninsular Malaysia - rubber and oil palm processing and manufacturing, light manufacturing industry, electronics, tin mining and smelting, logging and processing timber; Sabah - logging, petroleum production; Sarawak - agriculture processing, petroleum production and refining, logging
Peninsular Malaysia - rubber, palm oil, rice; Sabah - subsistence crops, rubber, timber, coconuts, rice; Sarawak - rubber, pepper; timber
Arable Land
electronic equipment, petroleum and liquefied natural gas, chemicals, palm oil, wood and wood products, rubber, textiles
machinery and equipment, chemicals, food, fuel and lubricants
Natural Resources
tin, petroleum, timber, copper, iron ore, natural gas, bauxite
Current Environmental Issues
air pollution from industrial and vehicular emissions; water pollution from raw sewage; deforestation; smoke/haze from Indonesian forest fires
Telephones (main lines in use)
4.4 million (1998)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
2.17 million (1998)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
8 (1999)

Aboriginal Malays (Orang Asli) began moving down the Malay peninsula from southwestern China about 10,000 years ago. The peninsula came under the rule of the Cambodian-based Funan, the Sumatran-based Srivijaya and the Java-based Majapahit empires, before the Chinese arrived in Melaka in 1405. Islam arrived in Melaka at about the same time and spread rapidly. Melaka's wealth soon attracted European powers, and the Portuguese took control in 1511, followed by the Dutch in 1641. The British established a thriving port in Penang in 1786 and took over Melaka in 1795.

The British traded for spices and colonised the interior of the peninsula when tin was discovered. East Malaysia came into British hands via the adventurer Sir James Brooke (who was made Rajah of Sarawak in 1841 after suppressing a revolt against the Sultan of Brunei) and the North Borneo Company (which administered Sabah from 1882). Gradually, the Federated Malay States were created in piecemeal fashion over the course of the 19th century.

The final pieces of the Malaysian mosaic fell into place when Britain took formal control of both Sabah and Sarawak after WWII. The indigenous labour supply was insufficient for the needs of the developing rubber and tin industries, so the British brought large numbers of Indians into the country, altering the peninsula's racial mix.

The Japanese overran Malaya in WWII. Communist guerrillas who fought the Japanese throughout the occupation began an armed struggle against British rule in 1948 and Malaya achieved independence in 1957. Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore combined with Malaya to establish Malaysia in 1963, but two years later Singapore withdrew from the confederation. The formation of Malaysia was opposed by both the Philippines and Indonesia, as each had territorial claims on East Malaysia.

Tension rose in 1963 during the 'Confrontation' with Indonesia. Indonesian troops crossed Malaysia's borders but were repelled by Malaysian and Commonwealth forces. In 1969, violent riots broke out between Malays and Chinese, though the country's racial groups have since lived in relative peace together. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has been in power since 1974. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is keen to exert his influence on the world stage as a pan-Asian leader, presided over a booming economy until 1997, when tumbling Asian currencies dragged the ringgit down with them.

In September 1998 the country hosted the Commonwealth Games, but the public relations aspect of the competition came apart when students and citizens protested against the unfair sacking and later imprisonment of deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Continuing street protests calling for the resignation of Dr Mahatir Mohamad have unsettled Malayasia's reputation as one of the most politically stable of southeast Asian countries. By the time the 21st century rolled around, social upheavals had faded to a distant rumble and the Malaysian economy had clawed its way back into the black. Dr Mahathir Mohamad remained a controversial figure until the end. Just before his resignation in October 2003, after 20 years at the helm, the PM addressed a meeting of Islamic countries hosted by Malaysia, and exhorted them to collectivise against an alleged world Jewish conspiracy. His replacement, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, won a March 2004 election in a landslide. In August 2004 the country's highest court upheld Anwar Ibrahim's appeal against his sentence and he was released from jail.