Malaysia's ruling party is coming under increasing pressure.
Malaysia has an unusual geographical composition. Its territory is evenly divided between a portion on the Asian mainland and a similar area on the north-west of the island of Borneo. On the mainland, peninsular Malaysia, which has around 80% of the population, is largely mountainous in the north, with coastal lowlands to the west and south. Eastern Malaysia, 600 kilometres away across the South China Sea, is more sparsely populated, with a swampy coastal plain rising to high mountains that form the border with Indonesia.
Malaysia also has a distinctive racial composition. The majority are classified as ethnic Malays, most of whom are Muslims. But around one-third of the population are of Chinese origin, who live chiefly in the urban areas. There are also a number of South Asians, as well as small tribal groups who are found particularly in Eastern Malaysia. Standards of education and health have improved rapidly though there remain wide disparities between urban and rural areas and between richer and poorer states. There are also notable differences in population growth between ethnic groups. In 2007 the growth rate for Malays was 2.2% while for Indians it was 1.4% and for the Chinese 1.1%.
Since the early 1970s, Malaysia has transformed itself into an export-oriented industrial country. More than one-quarter of the population now work in manufacturing industry, which until recently was largely concentrated in states on the west of the peninsula. However the government has now created 14 ‘free industrial zones’ along with 200 other industrial estates across the country. Much of this has been driven by electronics multinationals that have used Malaysia as an assembly base.
The government has recently been making efforts to have more manufacturing take place in Malaysia and use higher levels of technology. The most ambitious project is a ‘multimedia super-corridor’, carved out of land that previously was either jungle or palm-oil plantations. This was slow to take off but by mid-2005 had attracted 1,112 companies employing 23,000 workers.
Attracted by better-paid jobs in the cities, many people have been leaving the land. As a result, agricultural production has fallen and Malaysia is now a net importer of rice. Production of rubber, long a major export, has also been declining—though partly because plantations have switched to the more lucrative palm oil of which output continues to expand.
Malaysia is also reliant on immigrant labour. In 2009, foreign residents were officially 6% of the population but there may be one million more migrants there illegally, primarily from Indonesia.
Rulers take turns as king of Malaysia
Malaysia's distinctive ethnic mix has also had a profound impact on its political processes. The country is a federal constitutional monarchy, and formally it is an Islamic state. Each of the 13 states has a state assembly and an executive council that deals with state issues. Nine of the states have hereditary rulers who take turns to serve a five-year term as king.
Since independence in 1957, political power at the federal level has been in the hands of the main Malay political party, the United Malays' National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled in a National Front coalition with parties representing other racial groups.