Malaysia is one of the most mega diverse countries on earth; multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-landscaped. Almost two-thirds of the country is covered in lush, ancient rainforests with rare species such as orang-utans, tigers and rare hornbills. Some of the forests are said to be over a 130 million years old. The 30 million people that live in Malaysia are concentrated on the southern part of the Peninsula.
Being divided into a mainland section and an island part, Malaysia is almost like two countries, cut in half by the South China Sea. Multicultural Peninsular Malaysia has Malay, Chinese and Indian inﬂuences with modern skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur (also known as “KL”) and a strong modern economy. Yet, most of the northern half of the peninsula is covered by jungle and mountains so the majority of the people live in the South.
Malaysian Borneo (the south of Borneo belongs to Indonesia) is the world’s third-largest island and covers the other 50% of Malaysia. It is divided into the states of Sarawak and Sabah, with The Sultanate of Brunei -a tiny oil empire- in between. Both states are covered by dense jungle and vast river systems, mostly in Sarawak. It is a backpacker’s paradise where you can see orang-utans, pristine coastal areas, longhouse villages and Malaysia’s highest mountain, Mount Kinabalu (4101m).
Stretching from Indonesia to the Philippines, Malaysia has always been an important trade route between India and China, and later as a hub for Portuguese, Dutch and British empires on their spice-trading routes. These influences are still present in some of the historical sites.
Malaysia as we know it only exists since 1963, when the federation of the eleven Peninsula states was joined by Singapore and the two Bornean territories of Sarawak and Sabah. Singapore became an independent country in 1965. The official religion is Islam, but there is freedom of religion for non-Muslims. The government system is modelled on the UK parliamentary system and the legal system is based on common law. Today Malaysia is the 3rd largest economy in Southeast Asia with a GDP growing at over 6% per annum in the last 50 years. The economy has traditionally been driven by its natural resources, but today sectors like science, tourism, medical tourism and commerce are developing rapidly. The World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report for 2015 has placed Malaysia in the 6th position in the list of the world’s cheapest countries to travel to.
Although the Malaysian government aims to balance economic growth and environmental protection, it has failed in safeguarding the environment in the past decades. The rainforest of Sarawak has been diminished and the habitat destruction has proved a threat for flora and fauna, including marine life. Leatherback turtle numbers have dropped 98% since the ‘50s. With the increasing awareness of the biological and economic importance of its marine heritage, the government is slowly bringing better access to and protection for the unique marine life. Sipadan is a good example of this.