Malaysia is a country of many cultures, religions and ethnic backgrounds. The country is also divided into 13 states and 3 federal territory, 2 of those states and 1 federal territory is on the island of Borneo which over 500 km from the nearest point on the Malay Peninsula. The people of East Malaysia (the Malay part of the island of Borneo) have a very different history and cultural background to the people of the Malay Peninsula which is itself split three ways amongst people of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage, with a large number of indigenous ethnic groups living in the central parts the Malay Peninsula. The key to understanding Malaysian society is understanding the tensions that exist between the different groups in Malaysia and the mechanism in place to overcome those tensions.
Malaysia is a federation of states, which governmental responsibility split between central government and state authorities. Malaysia has never been a unified nation state and the current political set up reflects this. The decision for the parts of what is now Malaysia to join together was in greater part a consequence of British intervention. The territories that make modern Malaysia are the territory which Britain gained control of and from 1946 started at administer as a single entity. Initially Singapore was part of Malaysia but differences of opinion and interest between Singapore’s state government and the federal government lead to Singapore being forced out of the Malaysian Federation in 1965. 9 out of the 13 states in modern Malaysia have their own royal family (these 9 states are all located in West Malaysia) and the King of Malaysia is elected by these nine rulers and serve a 5 year term as monarch.
Since 1963 when the Federation of Malaysia was created there have been tensions between different ethnic groups and the sense of shared identity between the peoples of the Federation towards a common goals has been threatened by a sense that one group has been favoured over another or indeed one state other another. There were significant race riots in 1969 with ethnic Malays attacking people of Chinese ethnic origin who they felt had been successful at the expense of the indigenous population. Since that time successive Malaysian Governments have adopted policies which to a greater or lesser degree favour ethnic Malays although in more recent times affirmative action in favour of ethnic Malays has been reduced and a more inclusive society is starting to develop. A second source of tension is between the ethnic Malays and the Orang Asli. The Orang Asli are the indigenous people of the Malay Peninsula and they are themselves split into 18 distinct groups. Like the Aborigines of Australia and the Native American Indians of North America, the Orang Asli claim ownership of the lands upon which they have resided long before other people came there and have chosen not to assimilate into mainstream Malaysian society.