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06 SEA NewEra.indd 111 4/27/10 1:47:11 PM 06 SEA NewEra.indd 112 4/27/10 1:47:12 PM 113 Johan Saravanamuttu and Ooi Kee Beng INTRODUCTION Like most countries in Southeast Asia, the Federation of Malaysia that we see today gained its contours through colonial contingencies. Apparently, the first contact that the peninsula had with Europeans was made in August 1511, when the Portuguese attacked the port of Malacca as part of a campaign to divert the spice trade away from routes controlled by Arab traders. The peninsula soon experienced the political power of Dutch and English merchants and officials. English influence also came to cover the northern areas of the island of Borneo, which are now parts of Malaysia except for the rich but tiny sultanate of Brunei. The modern nation of Malaysia is, therefore, very much the result of British control over the trade routes between East Asia on the one hand and the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and Europe on the other. Today, Malaysia is composed of thirteen states, nine having sultans or rajas, one of whom is chosen every fifth year to serve as the constitutional monarch or Yang di-Pertuan Agong of all of Malaysia. The population structure of Peninsular Malaysia is Malays (50 per cent), Chinese (24 per cent) and Indians (7 per cent), with other minority communities, such as the Eurasians, forming the rest. Sabah and Sarawak have large numbers of indigenous communities such as the Iban, Kadazan, Melanau and Orang Ulu, besides the Malays and the Chinese. Malays are invariably Muslims (indeed, the constitution defines them as such), while the Chinese and Indians are mostly Buddhists and Hindus, respectively. There are also large numbers of Christians in Sabah and Sarawak. It is controversially said that the 1957 Constitution, based on the work of the Reid Commission, constituted a “social contract” among the major 6 Malaysia 06 SEA NewEra.indd 113 4/27/10 1:47:12 PM Reproduced from Southeast Asia in a New Era: Ten Countries, One Region in ASEAN edited by Rodolfo C. Severino, Elspeth Thomson and Mark Hong (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010). This version was obtained electronically direct from the publisher on condition that copyright is not infringed. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Individual articles are available at SOUTHEAST ASIA IN A NEW ERA: Ten Countries, One Region in ASEAN 114 ethnic communities. This pact granted citizen rights to all on the principle of jus soli, by virtue of birth in the country, not on the basis of the citizenship of one’s parent or parents. Article 153 guarantees the special position of the Malays (or later, in 1963, Bumiputeras [sons of the soil]). Article 152 establishes Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) as the National Language, and Article 11 guarantees religious freedom with Islam as the “religion of the federation” (Article 3). The British had rejected an alternative constitution in 1947, which was proposed by the PUTERA-AMCJA coalition of multi-ethnic and multi-religious forces. This “People’s Constitution” called for all Malayans to be recognized as “Melayu” and gave no special status to the Malays. EARLY HISTORY Political entities and trading settlements have existed in the region for over 1,700 years. Westerly winds blew seafaring Indian traders to the northern end of the Strait of Malacca and to land at the mouth of the Kedah River, guided as they were by the mountain in the backdrop known today as Kedah Peak. They moved further into the archipelago, coming into close contact with peoples living throughout the region, and influenced them with their civilization, religions, ways of thought and their political and cultural structures. The cultural impact of the Indian sub-continent on Southeast Asia is therefore undeniable. Chinese presence in the area was apparent after the fifth century, when the overland silk route was closed by non-Chinese or semi-Chinese kingdoms in the north, and the demand for Persian goods led the Chinese to make full use of the maritime silk route. As was the case with the Turkic peoples in Central Asia, who benefited greatly as middlemen from trade between China and the Middle East and India, entrepreneurial seafarers of Southeast Asia helped to bridge the distance between Persia and China. Trading ports thus evolved as the standard form of political and economic life in maritime...


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