Malaysia: A Country Overview

Information on history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Malaysia...


Malaysia is located in southeast Asia, just north of the Equator, and is bordered by Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei, and shares maritime boundaries with Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Federation of Malaysia includes Peninsular Malaysia, and the states of Sabah and Sarawak (on the island of Borneo) in East Malaysia. Malaysia is divided into 13 states and three federal territories, which are separated by the South China Sea. The Peninsula has 11 states and two federal territories (Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya), while East Malaysia has two states and one federal territory (Labuan).

The South China Sea separates Malaysia from Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Both the Peninsula of Malaysia and East Malaysia share a similar landscape, with coastal plains and mountains. The coastal regions of East Malaysia are divided by hills and valleys, as is the Peninsula where the heavily forested Titiwangsa Mountains divide the east and west coasts. The tallest mountain is Mount Kinabalu, which is part of the protected Kinabalu National Park. Many islands lie around the Peninsula and East Malaysia, the largest of which is Labuan.


The independent state of Malaysia was created on 16 September 1963 as a federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. However, in 1965 Singapore withdrew from the federation to become a separate nation. The 11 states of former Malaya are known as West Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, and East Malaysia.

The first settlers migrated to the area between 2500 and 1500 BC. Hinduism was replaced by Islam around the fifteenth century. During the 1800s, British and Dutch influence in the region grew as a consequence of trade and colonialism. During World War Two, Japan occupied Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore. After the War, the Allied Forces tried to unite the administration of Malaya in the Malayan Union, which was met by opposition so it quickly dissolved, and was replaced in 1946 by the Federation of Malaya under British protection.

Between this time and the formation of modern day Malaysia in 1965, there were numerous guerilla operations launched by the Chinese against the British. As a result, in 1963 a federation of Malaya with the British colonies of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, was created.

Politics and Government

Malaysia is a federal constitutional elective monarchy, which is modeled on the British parliamentary system. The head of state is Yang di-Pertuan Agong, often referred to as the King. The head of state is elected to run a five-year term by the nine hereditary rulers in the Malay states. The four states, which do not have Governors, do not participate in the election. Since 1994 the head of state's role has been mainly ceremonial.

Legislative power is divided between the federal and state legislatures. Parliament consists of the Lower House, the House of Representatives and the Upper House, the Senate. Each member of the House of Representatives is elected in a general elections and represents a constituency.

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Malaysia has a growing GDP, with the state still playing a role in guiding the economy. The economy, which once was mainly agricultural- and mining-based has grown to include other sectors. The Chinese population in Malaysia is responsible for the majority of the country's market capitalisation.

International trade is very important and the country's main exports are natural and agricultural resources. The government has tried to diversify the country's economy by focusing on tourism, science programmes and banking.


Malaysia has a tropical climate. Temperatures range between 21 and 32 degrees centigrade, but it is colder in the mountains. Average annual rainfall is between 2,000 and 2,5000 mm. The monsoon season is from April to October in the southwest, and from October to February in the northeast. Humidity is usually high. Earthquakes and tsunamis are also known to occur in the region.

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Malaysia, like much of South East Asia, has a high terrorism threat especially in places frequented by westerners. Kidnapping is a risk for foreign tourists in the eastern state of Sabah and precaution is advised in coastal areas and when travelling on boats to dive sites or between islands. In general, petty crime such as pick-pocketing, bag snatching and scams are a persistent problem for visitors. Other criminal activity includes drug trafficking and corruption, such as fraud. Street crime and robberies can be a problem, especially in large urban areas. Violent crime against tourists and foreigners is relatively rare. Any crime should be reported to the Royal Malaysian Police Force.

Foreigners Living in Malaysia

It is estimated that there are approximately three million migrant workers, of whom one million are thought to be illegal. There are about 32,000 expatriates living in West Malaysia; however, their number has been declining since 2004.

  • For information about immigration to Malaysia: Click here


Tourism plays a big part in Malaysia's economy and Malaysia promotes itself as a destination for tranquil beach holidays, cultural city breaks, and adventure holidays. Highlights in Malaysia include Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown and Melaka, the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, Tioman Island, the jungle of Taman Negara National Park, the Cameron Highlands, as well as many islands .

Further Information