Despite its centrality in the history of trade and conflicts in South East Asia, Malaysia is seldom the subject of international media coverage. It is even less present in news reports, not for lack of importance, but because it is a stable country, with a strong and steady economy, no internal conflicts, nor tensions with neighbouring countries.
It is also a well-established tourism destination thanks to its cultural diversity, complex history, and rich and generally well preserved natural environment.
Malaysia’s estimated 28 million inhabitants are unevenly distributed in the nearly 300 square kilometres of land – comprising both the continental and insular territories. They have a decent standard of living and people are equally employed in agriculture, industry, trade, and tourism.
A “paradise,” a typical tropical paradise, blurred by abundant rains, emerging unscathed from the strong tensions that have affected its neighbouring countries for the past fifty years, it is now experiencing animosities and resentments that may lead to changes full of uncertainty.
The political evolution in the past five years and above all the May 5 general election were signs of change. The opposition promoted change for the establishment, which has been static since the birth of the Malaysian Federation. Another factor favouring change in the country is variety, one of Malaysia’s most distinguishing features.
The debate on ethnic-religious identity and political alternation linked to economic factors has strongly influenced life in Malaysia. For example, there are marked disparities in income and economic opportunities between the mainland and the vast Sabah and Sarawak regions of Borneo.
The majority of tribal ethnic groups (11 per cent of the population) and Christians are concentrated in these areas, home to interests for resources and disputes over the protection of the environment. The Chinese population (26 per cent) is distributed throughout the country, while the Indians, 8 per cent, are concentrated in the peninsular region.
The country also plays a well-defined international role. It is at the centre of an area that, after decolonization and various conflicts (such as the Indochinese war), is experiencing deep changes while focusing on economic and financial convergence with a view to the Common Market of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). This group of ten member countries should be established in 2015, and comprise Malaysia.
A federal state
Malaysia is a 13 state federation. It also includes the metropolitan area of ??the capital Kuala Lumpur and the island of Labuan, two federal territories with special constitutions, each with its own autonomous Parliament and government for local issues.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy. The head of state is an elected monarch chosen for a 5 year term from the hereditary rulers of the nine Malay states: Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor, and Trengganu.
The two Houses of Parliament, which elect and control the central government, maintain the country’s delicate balance. Alliances and initiatives of groups and individuals joining common territorial and religious interests are often more powerful and representative than parliamentary politics.
Particularisms have always characterized this country. It was officially born in 1963 after gaining independence from British domination six years earlier. Eleven small peninsular Malay kingdoms and some Borneo territories that had failed to achieve self-determination were unified under the Malaysian federation. Singapore, the “pearl” of Her Majesty’s Eastern Empire, merged with the federation under several reciprocal conditions – to then leave in 1965, as Brunei had done in 1962.
Heir of a colonial system, Malaysia has always facilitated the immigration of substantial Indian communities and encouraged a gradual population growth of Chinese immigrants as well as their economic and trade development. However, over the past decades the country has had a priority – which is instead a fear for minorities – of “restoring power” to Malays, who are 53 per cent of the population. The majority are Muslims. This could put the country at risk of a growth of radical Islam. It is marginal but on the increase, already pressing to impose Koranic law.
Since the first Parliament, politics has always been a cohesive element (the Barisan Nasional coalition, with the Umno party and the United Malays National Organization, have 3.5 million followers, the largest political party). Malaysia has also had strong political leadership. First under Mahathir Muhammad, Prime Minister for 22 years until 2003, then with Najib Razak’s premiership, re-elected Prime Minister for the second time after the May 5 vote. The leadership is now threatened by a stronger opposition and weakened by internal contradictions, arrogance, and corruption. (S.V.)