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Sunday, June 10, 2001
Travel

The magic that is Malaysia
A.S. Prashar

Malay, Chinese, Indian and other ethnic groups live in harmony in Malaysia.
Malay, Chinese, Indian and other ethnic groups live in harmony in Malaysia. In the background is seen the world's tallest building, the magnificent Petronas Twin Towers standing 452 metres high in the heart of Kuala Lumpur

THE political and cultural ties of India and Malaysia date back to the pre-Christian era. The strong influence of India permeates the social mores of Malaysia, its family traditions and rituals of the royalty, and the etymology of its language called Bahasa Malaysia. Although there is evidence of it having established contacts with the Indian subcontinent as early as sixth century BC, regular contacts with China and India were established only around the 1st century BC. With the arrival of Islam in the 13-14th centuries, brought primarily by Indian and Arab traders, the Hindu/Buddhist influence declined in Malaysia. With the conversion of Parameswara, the Malay-Hindu ruler of the Melaka sultanate into Islam around 1400, Islam became a major influence in the peninsula. Melaka was ransacked by the Portuguese in 1511, marking the ascension of European power in the region.

The Japanese conquest of Malaya and British Borneo during World War II, and the humiliating surrender of the British at Singapore in early 1942, shattered the myth of western colonial supremacy.

Under the twin pressure of Communist insurgency and the development of a strong Malay nationalist movement represented by the United Malays National Organisation, British granted independence to Malaysia on August 31, 1957.

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Malaysia comprises Malay peninsula and the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the Island of Kalimantan (Borneo). Malaysia lies to the south of Thailand and covers an area of 130,000 sq km, while Sabah and Sarawak, totalling about 199,000 sq km, lie on the northern and north-western part of the Island of Kalimantan. Wedged between the eastern Malaysian states is the oil-rich Kingdom of Burnei, formerly a British protectorate and independent since 1984.

Penang bridge links the mainland to the "Pearl of the Orient"
Penang bridge links the mainland to the "Pearl of the Orient"

The Federation of Malaysia consists of the following states: Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Johor, Pahang, Terengganu, Kelantan, Sarawak and Sabah. There are also three federation territories: Kuala Lumpur and Labuan, which is being developed as an off-base financial centre, and Putrajaya, the recently built administrative capital of Malaysia.

Peninsular Malaysia has a mountainous spine known as the Main Range or Barisan Titiwangsa running from the Thai border, effectively separating the eastern part of the peninsula from the western.

Malaysia is a multi-racial country with a population of 23.3 million. A little over 51 per cent of the population are Malays, about 27 per cent are Chinese and 8 per cent are Indians. Confusion sometimes arises in the uses of the words "Malay", "Malaysian" and "Malaya". Malay connotes ethnicity, and describes people of a particular race, Malaysian denotes nationality regardless of racial origin, while Malaya is the old geographical name of the peninsular that formerly constituted the Federation of Malaya.

Ferry services link the mainland to the Penang island
Ferry services link the mainland to the Penang island

Islam is the state religion of the Malaysian Federation. However, its constitution also gives every person the right to profess, practise his own religion. The other religions practised in Malaysia are Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Christianity. There are over 1000 Hindu temples and about 100 gurdwaras in Malaysia.

Malaysia has a unique system of constitutional monarchy giving each of the nine state rulers a chance to be the king for five years in rotation. This idea about the rotation of the post was the brainchild of its first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Malaysia consists of 13 states and two federal territories. Nine Malay states have hereditary rulers or sultans, while the others have governors appointed by the king. The government is based on parliamentary democracy. The bicameral parliament consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives.

Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur
Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur

There are over 1.8 million people of Indian origin, possibly the largest PIO community outside the Indian sub-continent. Organised immigration to Malaysian peninsula began with the establishment of the East India company in Penang in 1786. They consist of Tamils who together with Malayalis and Telugus constitute over 85 per cent of the total Punjabis, mostly Sikhs, and a small number of Bengalis, Sindhis, Gujaratis and others. The majority of people of Indian origin came to Malaysia as plantation labourers, and this remains the single largest group even today. The Indians are also in the teaching, medical and legal professions as well as in the government service. In the private sectors, Indians are mostly in retail business and sundry services. It may be noted that people of Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are included in the category of Indians for statistical purposes. In economic terms, the Indian community is far behind the Chinese and the Malays.

There are approximately 40,000 Indian expatriates in Malaysia. Indian expatriates have formed the Bharat Club in Kuala Lumpur.

Pulau Singa Besar Wildlife Sanctuary in  Perlis
Pulau Singa Besar Wildlife Sanctuary in Perlis

Kuala Lumpur, meaning a muddy confluence, had its origins as a shanty mining outpost for tin trade in the 1800s at the confluence of the Gombak and the Klang Rivers. Today, KL as it is popularly known is a bustling metropolis, the federal capital of Malaysia and is the principal centre of commerce, politics, entertainment and international activities.

The city skyline is rapidly changing and, at present, boasts of the world's tallest building, the magnificent Petronas Twin Towers standing at 452 metres, as well as the Menara Kuala Lumpur, the world's fourth tallest building. Modern transportation that includes the light rail transit system ensures smooth travel. However, despite its transformation into an ultra-modern city, KL still retains its old world charm depicted in the majestic buildings of the colonial era, quaint pre-war shop-houses and in the way business is conducted.

One gets the feel of its "Garden City" ambience, the moment one lands in the city. At night, the streets adorned with trees and decorative shrubs, as well as the buildings are colourfully lit to give the city a unique dazzle. The city is also an excellent hunting ground for shopping buffs.

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