Travel Bucket List: Malaysia Part 2 – Johor: Part 1

Also spelt as Johore, Johor is Malaysia’s southernmost state and has land borders with Pahang to the north and Malacca and Negeri Sembilan to the northwest and shares maritime borders with Singapore to the south and Indonesia to both the west and east. Johor Bahru is the capital city and the economic centre of the state, while Kota Iskandar is the seat of the state government, and Muar serves as the state’s royal capital. Johor Lama served as the old state capital during the period of the Johor Sultanate. It is the second-most populated state in Malaysia. Johor has highly diverse tropical rainforests and an equatorial climate. Johor Bahru is one of the anchor cities of the Iskandar Malaysia development corridor and is one of the most densely populated and fastest-growing urban areas in Malaysia.

A state that is high in the diversity of ethnicity, culture, and language, Johor is known for its traditional dance of Zapin and Kuda Kepang. The head of the state is the Sultan of Johor, while the head of government is the Menteri Besar. The government system is closely modelled on the Westminster parliamentary system, with the state administration divided into administrative districts. Islam is the state religion, but other religions can be freely practised. Both Malay and English have been accepted as official languages for the state since 1914.

Johor is one of the main economic powerhouses in Malaysia and is currently among the top 4 contributors to the national gross domestic product, along with Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Sarawak. The state economy is mainly based on the services and manufacturing sectors. It is also one of the most vital international trade centres in Malaysia, with the Port of Tanjung Pelepas being the 15th busiest port in the world, as well as the busiest container port in the nation.

The area was first known to the northern inhabitants of Siam as Gangganu or Ganggayu or the Treasury of Gems due to the abundance of gemstones near the Johor River. Arabic traders referred to it as Jauhar, a word borrowed from the Persian Gauhar, which also means precious stone or jewel. As the local people found it difficult to pronounce the Arabic word in the local dialect, the name subsequently became Johor. The old Javanese eulogy of Nagarakretagama called the area Ujong Medini or land’s end, as it is the southernmost point of mainland Asia. Another name, through Portuguese writer Manuel Godinho de Erédia, referred to Marco Polo’s sailing to Ujong Tanah or the end of the Malay Peninsula land in 1292. Both Ujong Medini and Ujong Tanah had been mentioned before the foundation of the Sultanate of Malacca. Throughout the period, several other names also co-existed such as Galoh, Lenggiu and Wurawari. Johor is also known by its Arabic honorific as Darul Ta’zim or the Abode of Dignity.

A bronze bell estimated to be from 150 AD was found in Kampong Sungai Penchu near the Muar River. The bell is believed to have been used as a ceremonial object rather than a trade object as a similar ceremonial bell with the same decorations was found in Battambang Province, Cambodia, suggesting that the Malay coast came in contact with Funan, with the bell being a gift from the early kingdom in mainland Asia to local chieftains in the Malay Peninsula. Another important archaeological find was the ancient lost city of Kota Gelanggi, which was discovered by following trails described in an old Malay manuscript once owned by Stamford Raffles. Artefacts gathered in the area have reinforced claims of early human settlement in the state. The claim of Kota Gelanggi as the first settlement is disputed by the state government of Johor, with other evidence from archaeological studies conducted by the state heritage foundation since 1996 suggesting that the historic city is located in Kota Tinggi District at either Kota Klang Kiu or Ganggayu. The exact location of the ancient city is still undisclosed but is said to be within the 34,595-acre forest reserve where the Lenggiu and Madek Rivers are located, based on records in the Malay Annals that, after conquering Gangga Negara, Raja Suran from Siam of the Nakhon Si Thammarat Kingdom or the Ligor Kingdom had sailed to Ganggayu. Since ancient times, most of the coastal Malay Peninsula has had its rulers, but all fell under the jurisdiction of Siam.

After the fall of Malacca in 1511 to the Portuguese, the Johor Sultanate, based on the descendants of the Malaccan Sultanate, was founded by Mahmud’s son, Ala’udin Ri’ayat Shah II, in 1528 when he moved the royal court to the Johor River and set up his royal residence in Johor Lama. Johor became an empire spanning the southern Malay Peninsula, Riau Archipelago, including Singapore, Anambas Islands, Tambelan Archipelago, Natuna Islands, a region around the Sambas River in south-western Borneo and Siak in Sumatra together with allies of Pahang, Aru and Champa, and it aspired to retake Malacca from the Portuguese. The Aceh Sultanate in northern Sumatra had the same ambition, which led to a three-way war between the rivals. During the wars, the Johor administrative capital moved several times based on military strategies and to maintain authority over trading in the region. Johor and the Portuguese began to collaborate against Aceh, which they saw as a common enemy. In 1582 the Portuguese helped Johor thwart an attack by Aceh, but the arrangement ended when Johor attacked the Portuguese in 1587. Aceh continued its attacks against the Portuguese and was later destroyed when a large armada from the Portuguese port in Goa came to defend Malacca and destroy the sultanate.

After Aceh was left weakened, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) arrived and Johor allied with them to eliminate the Portuguese in the second capture of Malacca in 1641. Johor regained authority over many of its former dependencies in Sumatra, such as Siak in 1662 and Indragiri in 1669, which had fallen to Aceh while Malacca was taken by the Dutch. Malacca was placed under the direct control of Batavia in Java. Only when the Bugis began to threaten Dutch maritime trade did they become involved with local disputes.

The dynasty of the Malaccan descendants lasted until the death of Mahmud II, when it was succeeded by the Bendahara Dynasty, a dynasty of ministers who had previously served in the Malacca Sultanate. In the 18th century, especially when the English East India Company started to establish a presence in the northern Malay Peninsula, the Dutch seized the Bugis areas of Riau and expelled the Bugis from both Riau and Selangor so these areas would not fall under British rule and ended Bugis political domination in the Johor-Pahang-Riau empire, resulting in the Bugis being banned from Riau in 1784. During the rivalry between the Bugis and Dutch, Mahmud Shah III concluded a treaty of protection with the VOC on board the HNLMS Utrecht and the sultan was allowed to reside in Riau with Dutch protection which escalated the mistrust between the Bugis and the Malays. Malacca was returned to the Dutch in 1818 and served as the staging area for the British victory in 1811.

After the death of Mahmud Shah III, the elder son Hussein Shah was supported by the Malay community, and the younger son Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah was supported by the Bugis community. In 1818, the Dutch recognised Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah as the legitimate heir to the Johor Empire in return for his supporting their intention to establish a trading post in Riau. The following year, the British recognised Hussein Shah as the legitimate heir to the Johor Empire in return for his supporting their intention to establish a trading post in Singapore. Before his death, Mahmud Shah III had appointed Abdul Rahman as the Temenggong for Johor with recognition from the British as the legitimate Temenggong of Johor-Singapore, marking the beginning of the Temenggong Dynasty. Abdul Rahman was succeeded by his son, Daeng Ibrahim, although his recognition by the British only occurred 14 years later.  With the partition of the Johor Empire due to the dispute between the Bugis and Malay and following the defined spheres of influence for the British and Dutch resulting from the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, Daeng Ibrahim intended to create a new administrative centre for the Johor Sultanate under the new dynasty. As he maintained a close relationship with the British and the latter wanted to have full control over trade in Singapore, a treaty was signed between Daeng Ibrahim and Hussein Shah’s successor, Ali Iskandar, recognising Ali as the next sultan. Through the treaty, Ali was crowned as the sultan and received $5,000 in Spanish dollars and an allowance of $500 per month, but was required to cede the sovereignty of the territory of Johor, except Kesang of Muar, which would be the only territory under his control to Daeng Ibrahim.

With the establishment of a new capital in mainland Johor, the administrative centre was moved from Telok Blangah in Singapore. As the area was still an undeveloped jungle, the Temenggong encouraged the migration of Chinese and Javanese to clear the land and develop an agricultural economy in Johor. During his reign, Johor began to be modernised and this was continued by his son, Abu Bakar. In 1885, an Anglo-Johor Treaty was signed that formalised the close relations between the two. The British were given transit rights for trade through the sultanate territory and responsibility for its foreign relations, as well as to protect the Sultanate. The treaty also provided for the appointment of a British agent in an advisory role, although no advisor was appointed until 1910.  Abu Bakar also implemented a constitution known as the Undang-undang Tubuh Negeri Johor or the Johor State Constitution and organised his administration in the British style. By adopting an English-style modernisation policy, Johor temporarily prevented itself from being directly controlled by the British, as happened to other Malay states.

Under the reign of Ibrahim, due to overspending, the sultanate faced problems caused by the falling price of its major source of revenue and problems between him and members of his state council, which gave the British an opportunity to intervene in Johor’s internal affairs. Despite Ibrahim’s reluctance to appoint a British adviser, Johor was brought under British control as one of the Unfederated Malay States or UMS by 1914, with the position of its General Adviser elevated to that of a Resident in the Federated Malay States or FMS.

Since the 1910s, Japanese planters had been involved in numerous estates and the mining of mineral resources in Johor as a result of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. After World War I, rubber cultivation in Malaya was largely controlled by Japanese companies. By the 1920s, Ibrahim had become a personal friend of Tokugawa Yoshichika, a scion of the Tokugawa clan whose ancestors were military leaders who ruled Japan from the 16th to the 19th centuries. In World War II, at a great cost of lives in the Battle of Muar in Johor as part of the Malayan Campaign, the Imperial Japanese Army forces with their bicycle infantry and tanks advanced into Muar District which is today’s Tangkak District on 14 January 1942. During the Japanese forces’ arrival, Tokugawa accompanied General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s troops and was warmly received by Ibrahim when they reached Johor Bahru at the end of January 1942. Yamashita and his officers stationed themselves at the Sultan’s residence, Istana Bukit Serene, and the state secretariat building, Sultan Ibrahim Building, to plan for the invasion of Singapore. Some of the Japanese officers were worried since the location of the palace left them exposed to the British, but Yamashita was confident that the British would not attack since Ibrahim was also a friend of the British, which proved to be correct.

On 8 February, the Japanese began to bombard the northwestern coastline of Singapore, which was followed by the crossing of the IJA 5th and 18th Divisions with around 13,000 troops through the Straits of Johor. The following day, the Imperial Guard Division crossed into Kranji while the remaining Japanese Guard troops crossed through the repaired Johor–Singapore Causeway.  Following the occupation of the whole of Malaya and Singapore by the Japanese, Tokugawa proposed a reform plan by which the five kingdoms of Johor, Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah-Penang and Perlis would be restored and federated. Under the scheme, Johor would control Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Malacca while a 2,100-sq km area in the southern part of Johor would be incorporated into Singapore for defence purposes. The five monarchs of the kingdoms would be obliged to pledge loyalty to Japan, would need to visit the Japanese royal family every two years, and would assure the freedom of religion, worship, employment and private ownership of the property to all people and accord every Japanese residing in the kingdoms with treatment equal to indigenous people.

Meanwhile, Ōtani Kōzui of the Nishi Hongan-ji sub-sect of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism suggested that the sultan system should be abolished and Japan should rule the Malay kingdoms under a Japanese constitutional monarchy government. In May, a document was published called A Policy for the Treatment of the Sultan, which was a demand for the Sultan to surrender his power over his people and land to the Japanese emperor through the IJA commander. Through the Japanese administration, many massacres of civilians occurred with an estimate that 25,000 ethnic Chinese civilians in Johor perished during the occupation. Despite that, the Japanese established the Endau Settlement, also known as the New Syonan Model Farm in Endau for Chinese settlers to ease the food supply problem in Singapore.

In the five weeks before the British resumed control over Malaya following the Japanese surrender on 16 August 1945, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army or MPAJA emerged as the de facto authority in the Malayan territory. Johor and the rest of Malaya were officially placed under the British Military Administration or BMA in September 1945 and the MPAJA was disbanded in December. Fighting between the British occupation forces and their Malayan collaborators against the People’s Army continued through the formation of the Malayan Union on 1 April 1946 and the proclamation of the independence of the Federation of Malaya on 31 August 1957.

Since the 1960s, the state’s development has expanded further with industrial estates and new suburbs. The town of Johor Bahru was officially recognised as a city on 1 January 1994 and on 22 November 2017, Iskandar Puteri was declared a city and assigned as the administrative centre of the state, located in Kota Iskandar.

The constitutional head of Johor is the Sultan and this hereditary position can only be held by a member of the Johor Royal Family who is descended from Abu Bakar. The current Sultan of Johor is Ibrahim Ismail, who took over the throne on 23 January 2010. The main royal palace for the Sultan is the Bukit Serene Palace, while the royal palace for the Crown Prince is the Istana Pasir Pelangi; both of which are located in the state capital. Although the Malaysian constitution states that the federal government is solely responsible for foreign policy and military forces in the country, Johor is the only state to have a private army. The retention of the army was one of the stipulations in 1946 that Johor made when it participated in the Federation of Malaya. This army, the Royal Johor Military Force or Askar Timbalan Setia Negeri Johor, has since 1886 served as the protector of the Johor monarchs. It is one of the oldest military units in present-day Malaysia and had a significant historical role in the suppression of the 1915 Singapore Mutiny and served in both World Wars.

Johor has a land area of nearly 19,166 sq km, and it is surrounded by the South China Sea to the east, the Straits of Johor to the south and the Straits of Malacca to the west. The state has a total of 400 km of coastline, of which 237.7 km have been eroding. A majority of its coastline, especially on the west coast is covered with mangrove and Nipah forests. The east coast is dominated by sandy beaches and rocky headlands, while the south coast consists of a series of alternating headlands and bays. Its exclusive economic zone extends much further into the South China Sea than in the Straits of Malacca.

About 83% of Johor’s terrain is lowlands areas, while only 17% is higher and steep terrain. While being relatively flat, Johor is dotted with many isolated peaks known as inselbergs, as well as isolated massifs, with the highest point being Mount Ledang, also known as Mount Ophir, at a height of 1,276 m. Much of central Johor is covered with dense forest, where an extensive network of rivers originating from mountains and hills in the area spreads to the west, east and south. The jungles of Johor host a diverse array of plant and animal species, with an estimated 950 vertebrate species, comprising 200 mammals, 600 birds and 150 reptiles, along with 2,080 invertebrate species.

Johor is the biggest fruit-producing state in Malaysia with approximately 532,249 tons of fruit produced in 2016, with the Segamat district having the largest major fruit plantation and harvesting area in the state. In the same year, Johor was the second biggest producer of vegetables among Malaysian states. Due to its proximity to Singapore, the state benefits from Singaporean investors and tourists. The state also had a policy of twinning with Singapore to promote their industrial development, which increased the movement of people and goods between the two sides.

Johor is also the most populous Malaysian state and despite the racial diversity of the population, most people in Johor identify themselves as Bangsa Johor or Johor race, which is also echoed by the state royal family to unite the population regardless of ancestry. The majority of Johoreans are at least bilingual with proficiency in Malay and English; both of which languages have been officially recognised in the state constitution since 1914. Johorean Malay, also known as Johor-Riau Malay and originally spoken in Johor, Riau, Riau Islands, Malacca, Selangor and Singapore, has been adopted as the basis for both the Malaysian and Indonesian national languages. Due to Johor’s location at the confluence of trade routes within Maritime Southeast Asia as well as its history as an influential empire, the dialect has spread as the region’s lingua franca since the 15th century; hence the adoption of the dialect as the basis for the national languages of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

In the next part, let’s take a look at Johor’s capital of Johor Bahru

Travel Bucket List: Malaysia Part 1 – Introduction

After completing the series on India, I decided to focus my attention on another country which is very close to Singapore and is a favourite travel destination from the island. So over the next few months, let us explore the Malaysian peninsula as well as the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak. I will start with a short history of the country and then the first state I will explore will be the state of Johor, which is the closest to Singapore and historically has been attached to the island for centuries.

Consisting of 13 states and three federal territories, Malaysia is separated by the South China Sea into two regions – Peninsular Malaysia which has 11 states and two federal territories and Borneo’s East Malaysia which has two states and one federal territory. Peninsular Malaysia shares a land and maritime border with Thailand and maritime borders with Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia. East Malaysia shares land and maritime borders with Brunei and Indonesia, and a maritime border with the Philippines and Vietnam. Kuala Lumpur is the national capital, the country’s largest city, and the seat of the legislative branch of the federal government. Putrajaya is the administrative centre, which represents the seat of both the executive branch and the judicial branch of the federal government. With a population of over 32 million, Malaysia is the world’s 45th-most populous country. The southernmost point of continental Eurasia is in Tanjung Piai. Located in the tropics, Malaysia is one of 17 megadiverse countries, home to numerous endemic species.

A multiethnic and multicultural country, half of Malaysia’s population is ethnically Malay minorities of Chinese, Indians, and indigenous peoples. The country’s official language is Malaysian Malay, a standard form of the Malay language while English remains an active second language. Officially an Islamic country, the country’s constitution grants freedom of religion to non-Muslims. The government is modelled on the Westminster parliamentary system, and the legal system is based on common law. The head of state is an elected monarch, chosen from among the nine state sultans every five years and the head of government is the Prime Minister.

The Malaysian economy has traditionally been fuelled by its natural resources but is expanding in the sectors of science, tourism, commerce and medical tourism. Malaysia has a newly industrialised market economy, ranked third-largest in Southeast Asia and 36th-largest in the world. It is a founding member of ASEAN, EAS, and OIC and a member of APEC, the Commonwealth, and the Non-Aligned Movement.

The name Malaysia is a combination of the word Malays and the Latin-Greek suffix ia which can be translated as the land of the Malays. The origin of the word Melayu is subject to various theories. It may derive from the Sanskrit Himalaya, referring to areas high in the mountains, or Malaiyur-pura, meaning mountain town. Another similar theory claims its origin lies in the Tamil words malai and ur meaning mountain and city, land, respectively. Another theory is that it comes from a Javanese word meaning to run, from which a river, the Sungai Melayu or the Melayu River, was named due to its strong current. Similar-sounding variants have also appeared in accounts older than the 11th century, as toponyms for areas in Sumatra or referring to a larger region around the Strait of Malacca. The Sanskrit text Vayu Purana thought to have been in existence since the first millennium CE, mentioned a land named Malayadvipa which was identified by certain scholars as the modern Malay peninsula.  Other notable accounts are by the 2nd-century Ptolemy’s Geographia which used the name Malayu Kulon for the west coast of the Golden Chersonese, and the 7th-century Yijing’s account of Malayu.

At some point, the Melayu Kingdom took its name from the Sungai Melayu. Melayu then became associated with Srivijaya, and remained associated with various parts of Sumatra, especially Palembang, where the founder of the Malacca Sultanate is thought to have come from. It is only thought to have developed into an ethnonym as Malacca became a regional power in the 15th century. Islamisation established an ethnoreligious identity in Malacca, with the term Melayu beginning to appear interchangeable with Melakans. It may have specifically referred to local Malays speakers thought loyal to the Malaccan Sultan. The initial Portuguese use of Malayos reflected this, referring only to the ruling people of Malacca. The prominence of traders from Malacca led Melayu to be associated with Muslim traders, and from there became associated with the wider cultural and linguistic group. Malacca and later Johor claimed they were the centre of Malay culture, a position supported by the British which led to the term Malay becoming more usually linked to the Malay peninsula rather than Sumatra.

Malaysia has its origins in the Malay kingdoms, which, from the 18th century on, became subject to the British Empire, along with the British Straits Settlements protectorate. During World War II, British Malaya, along with other nearby British and American colonies, was occupied by the Empire of Japan. Following three years of occupation, peninsular Malaysia was unified as the Malayan Union in 1946 and then restructured as the Federation of Malaya in 1948. The country achieved independence on 31 August 1957. Independent Malaya united with the then British crown colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore on 16 September 1963 to become Malaysia. In August 1965, Singapore was expelled from the federation and became a separate independent country.

Before the onset of European colonisation, the Malay Peninsula was known natively as Tanah Melayu or the Malay Land. Under a racial classification created by a German scholar Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the natives of maritime Southeast Asia were grouped into a single category, the Malay race. Following the expedition of French navigator Jules Dumont d’Urville to Oceania in 1826, he later proposed the terms of Malaysia, Micronesia and Melanesia to the Société de Géographie in 1831, distinguishing these Pacific cultures and island groups from the existing term Polynesia. In 1850, the English ethnologist George Samuel Windsor Earl, writing in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, proposed naming the islands of Southeast Asia as Melayunesia or Indunesia, favouring the former. The name Malaysia gained some use to label what is now the Malay Archipelago. In modern terminology, Malay remains the name of an ethnoreligious group of Austronesian people predominantly inhabiting the Malay Peninsula and portions of the adjacent islands of Southeast Asia, including the east coast of Sumatra, the coast of Borneo, and smaller islands that lie between these areas.

The state that gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1957 took the name the Federation of Malaya, chosen in preference to other potential names such as Langkasuka, after the historic kingdom located at the upper section of the Malay Peninsula in the first millennium CE. The name Malaysia was adopted in 1963 when the existing states of the Federation of Malaya, plus Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak formed a new federation. One theory posits the name was chosen so that sia represented the inclusion of Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak to Malaya in 1963. Politicians in the Philippines contemplated renaming their state Malaysia before the modern country took the name.

Evidence of modern human habitation in Malaysia dates back 40,000 years. In the Malay Peninsula, the first inhabitants are thought to be Negritos with traders and settlers from India and China arriving as early as the first century AD, establishing trading ports and coastal towns in the second and third centuries. Their presence resulted in strong Indian and Chinese influences on the local cultures, and the people of the Malay Peninsula adopted the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Sanskrit inscriptions appear as early as the fourth or fifth century. The Kingdom of Langkasuka arose around the second century in the northern area of the Malay Peninsula, lasting until about the 15th century. Between the 7th and 13th centuries, much of the southern Malay Peninsula was part of the maritime Srivijayan empire. By the 13th and 14th centuries, the Majapahit empire had successfully wrested control over most of the peninsula and the Malay Archipelago from Srivijaya. In the early 15th century, Parameswara, a runaway king of the former Kingdom of Singapura linked to the old Srivijayan court, founded the Malacca Sultanate. The spread of Islam increased following Parameswara’s conversion to that religion. Malacca was an important commercial centre during this time, attracting trade from around the region. In 1511, Malacca was conquered by Portugal, after which it was taken by the Dutch in 1641.

In 1786, the British Empire established a presence in Malaya, when the Sultan of Kedah leased Penang Island to the British East India Company. The British obtained the town of Singapore in 1819, and in 1824 took control of Malacca following the Anglo-Dutch Treaty. By 1826, the British directly controlled Penang, Malacca, Singapore, and the island of Labuan, which they established as the crown colony of the Straits Settlements. By the 20th century, the states of Pahang, Selangor, Perak, and Negeri Sembilan, known together as the Federated Malay States, had British residents appointed to advise the Malay rulers, to whom the rulers were bound to defer by treaty. The remaining five states on the peninsula, known as the Unfederated Malay States, while not directly under British rule, also accepted British advisers around the turn of the 20th century. Development on the peninsula and Borneo were generally separate until the 19th century. Under British rule, the immigration of Chinese and Indians to serve as labourers was encouraged. The area that is now Sabah came under British control as North Borneo when both the Sultan of Brunei and the Sultan of Sulu transferred their respective territorial rights of ownership, between 1877 and 1878. In 1842, Sarawak was ceded by the Sultan of Brunei to James Brooke, whose successors ruled as the White Rajahs over an independent kingdom until 1946, when it became a crown colony.

In the Second World War, the Japanese Army invaded and occupied Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore for over three years. During this time, ethnic tensions were raised and nationalism grew. Popular support for independence increased after Malaya was reconquered by Allied forces. Post-war British plans to unite the administration of Malaya under a single crown colony called the Malayan Union met with strong opposition from the Malays, who opposed the weakening of the Malay rulers and the granting of citizenship to the ethnic Chinese. The Malayan Union, established in 1946, and consisting of all the British possessions in the Malay Peninsula except Singapore, was quickly dissolved and replaced on 1 February 1948 by the Federation of Malaya, which restored the autonomy of the rulers of the Malay states under British protection.

During this time, the ethnically Chinese rebels under the leadership of the Malayan Communist Party launched guerrilla operations designed to force the British out of Malaya. The Malayan Emergency which took place between 1948 and 1960 involved a long anti-insurgency campaign by Commonwealth troops in Malaya. On 31 August 1957, Malaya became an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations and after this, a plan was put in place to federate Malaya with the crown colonies of North Borneo, which joined as Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore. The date of the federation was planned to be 31 August 1963 to coincide with the anniversary of Malayan independence; however, the federation was delayed until 16 September 1963 for a United Nations survey of support for the federation in Sabah and Sarawak, called for by parties opposed to federation including Indonesia’s Sukarno and the Sarawak United Peoples’ Party, to be completed.

The Federation brought heightened tensions including a conflict with Indonesia as well as continual conflicts against the Communists in Borneo and the Malayan Peninsula, which escalated to the Sarawak Communist Insurgency and Second Malayan Emergency together with several other issues such as the cross-border attacks into North Borneo by Moro pirates from the southern islands of the Philippines, Singapore being expelled from the Federation in 1965, and racial strife. This strife culminated in the 13 May race riots in 1969. After the riots, the controversial New Economic Policy was launched by Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, trying to increase the share of the economy held by the Bumiputera. Under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad there was a period of rapid economic growth and urbanization beginning in the 1980s. The economy shifted from being agriculturally based to one based on manufacturing and industry. Numerous mega-projects were completed, such as the Petronas Towers, the North–South Expressway, the Multimedia Super Corridor, and the new federal administrative capital of Putrajaya. However, in the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis almost caused the collapse of the currency and the stock and property markets, although they later recovered. The 1MDB scandal was a major global corruption scandal that implicated then-Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2015. The scandal contributed to the first change in the ruling political party since independence in the 2018 general election. In the 2020s, the country was gripped by a political crisis that coincided with health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was then followed by an earlier general election in November 2022, which resulted in the first hung parliament in the nation’s history. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won 82 seats and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) gained 73 seats. Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition was the biggest loser, securing just 30 seats in the 222-member parliament. On 24 November 2022, Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as the 10th Prime Minister of Malaysia.

The long, narrow, and rugged Malay Peninsula extends to the south and southwest from Myanmar and Thailand. The Malaysian portion of it is about 800 km long and — at its broadest east-west axis — about 320 km wide. Peninsular Malaysia is dominated by its mountainous core, which consists of many roughly parallel mountain ranges aligned north-south. Karst landscapes which are limestone hills with characteristically steep whitish-grey sides, stunted vegetation, caves created by the dissolving action of water, and subterranean passages are distinctive landmarks in central and northern Peninsular Malaysia. Bordering the mountainous core are the coastal lowlands. East Malaysia is an elongated strip of land approximately 1,125 km long with a maximum width of about 275 km. There is a mountainous backbone that forms the divide between East Malaysia and Kalimantan. Most of the summits of the ranges are between 4,000 and 7,000 feet and Mount Kinabalu towers above this mountain complex; at 13,435 feet, it is the highest peak in Malaysia and the Southeast Asian archipelago as a whole.

The characteristic vegetation of Malaysia is dense evergreen rainforest. Rainforest still covers more than two-fifths of the peninsula and some two-thirds of Sarawak and Sabah; another fraction of the country is under swamp forest. Soil type, location, and elevation produce distinctive vegetation zones: tidal swamp forest on the coast, freshwater- and peat-swamp forest on the ill-drained parts of the coastal plains, lowland rainforest on the well-drained parts of the coastal plains and foothills up to an elevation of about 2,000 feet (600 metres), and submontane and montane forest (also called cloud forest) in higher areas. The highly leached and sandy soils of parts of central Sarawak and the coast support an open heathlike forest commonly called kerangas forest.

The flora of the Malaysian rainforest is among the richest in the world. There are several thousand species of vascular plants, including more than 2,000 species of trees, as well as the parasitic monster flower, Rafflesia arnoldii of the Rafflesiaceae family, which bears the world’s largest known flower, measuring nearly 3 feet in diameter. One acre of forest may have as many as 100 different species of trees, as well as shrubs, herbs, and creepers. The forest canopy is so dense that little sunlight can penetrate it. Much of the original rainforest has been destroyed by clearances made for agricultural or commercial purposes, by severe wind and lightning storms, and by indigenous peoples clearing it for shifting cultivation. The forests and scrublands are inhabited by a large variety of animal life including elephants, tigers, Malayan gaurs, Sumatran rhinoceroses, tapirs, wild pigs, and many species of deer. Crocodiles, monitor lizards, and cobras also are indigenous to the country, while green sea turtles and giant leatherback turtles nest on the beaches of the east coast. Animal life in East Malaysia is even more varied than it is on the peninsula. In addition to the peninsular species, East Malaysia is also the home of fast-disappearing orangutans and rhinoceroses, sun bears, also called honey bears, and unique proboscis monkeys — a reddish tree-dwelling species. There also are vast numbers of cave swifts, whose nests are regularly collected and sold as the main ingredient of Chinese bird’s nest soup.

The people of Malaysia are unevenly distributed between Peninsular and East Malaysia, with the vast majority living in Peninsular Malaysia. The population shows great ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity. The Malay Peninsula and the northern coast of Borneo, both situated at the nexus of one of the major maritime trade routes of the world, have long been the meeting place of peoples from other parts of Asia. As a result, the population of Malaysia, like that of Southeast Asia as a whole, shows great ethnographic complexity. Islam, Malaysia’s official religion, is followed by about three-fifths of the population and is one of the most important factors distinguishing a Malay from a non-Malay, and, by law, all Malays are Muslim.

About one-fourth of Malaysia’s population is rural. The basic administrative unit in both East and Peninsular Malaysia is the kampung which is the village, or a community of houses. Much of the population of East Malaysia still lives in rural areas, where a great variety of settlement types is encountered. This variety is a direct reflection of the considerable ethnic diversity of the population and of the mixture of indigenous and immigrant groups that have settled in the rural areas. The cities and large towns of Peninsular Malaysia were built during the colonial and postcolonial periods and are distributed mainly in the tin and rubber belt along the west side of the peninsula. Before World War II, there was a free flow of people to and from both Peninsular and East Malaysia, and the rate of population growth was greatly influenced by a net surplus from immigration. However, a series of laws passed since 1945, particularly after the political separation of Singapore in 1963, restricted the entry of immigrants from all countries. Thus, legal immigration has long ceased to be a major cause of population growth.

Malaysia’s economy has been transformed since 1970 from one based primarily on the export of raw materials like rubber and tin to one that is among the strongest, most diversified, and fastest-growing in Southeast Asia. Since the early 1970s the government has championed a social and economic restructuring strategy, first known as the New Economic Policy or NEP and later as the New Development Policy or NDP, that has sought to strike a balance between the goals of economic growth and the redistribution of wealth. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing once formed the basis of the Malaysian economy, but between 1970 and the early 21st century their contribution to the country’s gross domestic product or GDP declined from roughly one-third to less than one-tenth. Rubber and palm oil are the dominant cash crops and by the early 21st century, Malaysia had become one of the world’s top producers of palm oil. Other common cash crops include cocoa, pepper, coffee, tea, various fruits, and coconuts. The extensive forests of both Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia are heavily exploited for their timber. Malaysia’s most valuable mineral resources are its reserves of petroleum and natural gas. Crude oil, refined petroleum, and, more recently, liquefied natural gas together account for a major portion of the country’s commodity export earnings. Almost all the major oil and gas fields are offshore — off the east coast of the peninsula, the northeast coast of Sarawak, and the west coast of Sabah.

Most of the peninsular states are led by hereditary rulers. Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Pahang, Perak, Selangor, and Terengganu have sultans, while Perlis has a raja or King, and Negeri Sembilan is ruled by the Yang di-Pertuan Besar or the chief ruler. The heads of state of Melaka, Penang, Sarawak, and Sabah, known as Yang di-Pertuan Negeri or the state ruler are appointed to office.

Malaysia has a rich cultural life, much of which revolves around the traditional festivities of its diverse population. The major Muslim holidays are Hari Raya Puasa or the Holiday of Fasting or Aidilfitri, to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and Hari Raya Haji or the Holiday of the Pilgrimage, or Aidiladha, to celebrate the culmination of the season of pilgrimage to Mecca. Buddhists honour the life of the Buddha on Hari Wesak or Wesak Day, and Chinese Malaysians celebrate the Chinese New Year. Deepavali or Diwali, a Hindu festival of lights spanning several days, is observed by many Indian Malaysians, while Christmas is the principal holiday of the Christian community. On most of these holidays, it is customary to host an open house, where guests are treated to Malaysian delicacies and hospitality. A holiday that spans all ethnic groups and religions is Hari Kebangsaan or National Day, a celebration of Malaysia’s independence on August 31. The states have their holidays. Sarawak, for instance, celebrates Gawai Dayak or the Dayak Festival. Rooted in the harvest rituals and festivities or gawai of the Iban and Bidayuh peoples, this holiday broadly honours the state’s non-Malay indigenous heritage.

Now that we know a fair bit about Malaysia, let’s explore the different states, starting from the one closest to Singapore – the state of Johor.

Festivals of India: Eid al-Fitr

Yesterday marked the last day of the fasting month of Ramadan and today, billions of Muslims worldwide celebrate the festival of Eid al-Fitr.

Eid al-Fitr or the Feast of Breaking the Fast, is the earlier of the two official holidays celebrated within Islam, with the other being Eid al-Adha. This festival marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan and falls on the first day of Shawwal in the Islamic calendar. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the date of the festival changes every year. The start of the Hijri month varies based on when the new moon is sighted by local religious authorities. Also known as Ramzan Eid, the Lesser Eid, or simply Eid, Eid al-Fitr commemorates the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. An occasion for special prayers, family visits, gift-giving and charity, it takes place over one to three days, beginning on the first day of Shawwal, the 10th month in the Islamic calendar and is a day of joy as families get together after a month of austerity and fasting.

One of the five pillars of Islam, during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan, nearly all Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sundown and abstain from smoking, drinking, including water and sexual activity during the daylight hours. Ramadan is the month in which the Prophet Muhammad received the teachings of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, as a guide for mankind and a means for judging between right and wrong. Fasting during Ramadan, known as Sawm, is one of the five pillars, the basic principles that are essential to the Islamic faith. Muslims observe Ramadan by reading the Quran, emphasising charity or zakat, abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours, and concentrating on prayer and study to increase their taqwa, or sacred consciousness. Fasting during Ramadan takes people out of their normal lifestyles and requires them to engage in solemn contemplation and examination. Experiencing hunger and thirst is supposed to heighten people’s awareness of the sufferings of the poor, and gain a greater appreciation for what they have.

After a month of prayer, devotion and self-control, Muslims celebrate the accomplishment of their sacred duties during Ramadan with the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, or the Festival of Breaking the Fast. The festival is a national holiday in many countries with large Muslim populations. Celebrations of Eid al-Fitr typically last for three days, one day fewer than those of Eid al-Adha. For this reason, Eid al-Fitr is often called Lesser or Smaller Eid. Eid al-Adha, known as Greater Eid, is seen as the more important holiday of the two.

Eid al-Fitr was originated by the Islamic prophet Muhammad. According to certain traditions, these festivals were initiated in Medina after the migration of Muhammad from Mecca. Anas, a well-known companion of the Islamic prophet, narrated that, when Muhammad arrived in Medina, he found people celebrating two specific days in which they entertained themselves with recreation and merriment. At this, Muhammad remarked that Allah had fixed two days of festivity: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

During Eid al-Fitr, Muslims take part in special morning prayers, greet each other with formal embraces and offer each other greetings of Eid Mubarak or Have a blessed Eid. They gather with family and friends, give games and gifts to children and prepare and eat special meals, including sweet dishes like baklava or Turkish delight in Turkey, date-filled pastries and cookies in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and bint al sahn or honey cake in Yemen.

Another of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat or giving to those in need. Muslims often prepare for Eid al-Fitr by giving money to charity so that less fortunate families can enjoy the festivities as well. In addition to charity, Muslims are also encouraged to give and seek forgiveness during Eid al-Fitr and look forward to the opportunity to fast again during Ramadan the following year.

Traditionally, Eid al-Fitr begins at sunset on the night of the first sighting of the crescent moon. If the moon is not observed immediately after the 29th day of the previous lunar month, either because clouds block its view or because the western sky is still too bright when the moon sets, then the holiday is celebrated the following day. Eid is celebrated for one to three days, depending on the country and it is forbidden to fast on the day of Eid, and a specific prayer is nominated for this day. As an obligatory act of charity, money is paid to the poor and the needy known as Zakat-ul-Fitr before performing the Eid prayer which is performed by the congregation in an open area such as a field, a community centre or a mosque. No call to prayer is given for this Eid prayer, and it consists of only two units of prayer, with a variable amount of Takbirs and other prayer elements depending on the branch of Islam observed. The Eid prayer is followed by the sermon and then a supplication asking for Allah’s forgiveness, mercy, peace and blessings for all living beings across the world. The sermon also instructs Muslims as to the performance of rituals of Eid, such as the zakat. The sermon of Eid takes place after the Eid prayer, unlike the Friday prayer which comes first before prayer with some imams believing that listening to the sermon at Eid is optional. After the prayers, Muslims visit their relatives, friends, and acquaintances or hold large communal celebrations in homes, community centres, or rented halls.

In India, Eid is a public holiday and the holiday begins after the sighting of the new moon on Chand Raat. On that evening, people head to markets to finish their shopping for Eid, for clothing and gifts and begin preparing their food for the next day. Traditional Eid food often includes biriyani, sheer khurma, and sevvaiyyan, a dish of fine, toasted sweet vermicelli noodles with milk and dried fruit, among other regionally-specific dishes. Women and girls also put henna in each others’ hands and the next morning, Muslims go to their local mosque for the Eid Namaz and give Eid zakat before returning home. Afterwards, children are given Eidi or cash gifts and friends and relatives visit each other’s homes to eat and celebrate. In Pakistan, this Eid is also known as Chhoti or Lesser Eid and is celebrated more or less like in India. At home, family members enjoy a special Eid breakfast with various types of sweets and desserts, including Kheer and the traditional dessert Sheer Khurma, which is made of vermicelli, milk, butter, dry fruits, and dates. Children also get cash gifts known as Eidi with the State Bank of Pakistan issuing fresh currency notes every year for this purpose.

In Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, Eid is more commonly known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Hari Raya Idul Fitri, Hari Raya Puasa, Hari Raya Fitrah or Hari Lebaran where Hari Raya means a celebration day. It is customary for workers in the city to return to their home town to celebrate with their families and to ask forgiveness from parents, in-laws, and other elders. This is known in Malaysia as balik kampung or homecoming. The night before Hari Raya is filled with the sounds of takbir in the mosques or musallahs. In many parts of Malaysia, especially in the rural areas, pelita, panjut or lampu colok which are oil lamps, similar to tiki torches are lit up and placed outside and around homes. Special dishes like ketupat, rendang, lemang which is a type of glutinous rice cooked in bamboo and other Malay delicacies such as various kuih-muih are served during this day. It is common to greet people with Salam Aidilfitri or Selamat Hari Raya which means Happy Eid. Muslims also greet one another with maaf zahir dan batin, which asks to forgive their physical and emotional wrongdoings. In Singapore and Malaysia, especially in the major cities, people take turns to set aside a time for an open house when they stay at home to receive and entertain neighbours, family and other visitors. It is common to see non-Muslims made welcome during Eid at these open houses. Children are given token sums of money, also known as Duit Raya, from their parents or elders.

To everyone celebrating Eid, Eid Mubarak and Selamat Hari Raya Adilfitri!

Instagram Interludes

The other day, GG, BB and I were grumbling about not having taken any holiday for almost 18 months now and with even the border between Singapore and Malaysia closed to tourists, we griped about how we could not even drive down there for a quick holiday.

That brought back memories of two of our trips to mainland Malaysia – one to Langkawi when the children were about nine years old and then to Penang when we did a quick trip during their PSLE marking holiday, so when they were around twelve years old. Both times, though we flew into the cities, we rented a car there and were able to go where we wanted to which was so easy for us. So I went back to my photos and revisited these places in the hope we go back soon. Enjoy them as much as I did.

Langkawi Mangroves Tour
Langkawi Bridge
Somewhere in Langkawi where we stopped to take this photo
A stunning Thai temple we found in a detour
An Indian temple next to the Thai temple against a stunning backdrop
The E&O Hotel in Penang where we stayed
View of Penang from Penang Hill
One of Penang’s iconic street art
Another view from Penang Hill
Another street art in Georgetown, Penang

Instagram Interludes

Facebook reminded me sometime back about our trip to Langkawi some eight or nine years back. So I decided to share some photos here. We went when the children were little and so hired a car and took our own sweet time to roam around. On one such trip, we came across a Thai wat and a Hindu temple next to each other and the location just below some cliffs made for some stunning photos!