Developing SE Asia: Singapore and Malaysia


  1. Regional Overview
  2. Malaysia
  3. Singapore
  4. Review Questions

Regional Overview

Within the area known as South East Asia are the two most rapidly developing countries of the world, Malaysia and Singapore. Physically, South East Asia contains mountains with unproductive highlands, rugged coastlines with highly productive coastal plains, and islands formed by volcanoes or movement of the landmasses. Dense, tropical forests once covered most of the land, but these forests grow smaller each year as development of the land continues at a rapid pace. The climate of Malaysia and Singapore is characteristic of their equatorial location, tropical with hot temperatures and high rainfalls. There are two monsoons each year in this region.

The development of these countries and most of South East Asia has progressed through the migrations of many people. For over 2000 years, the Chinese have been migrating to this part of S.E. Asia. As the British entered this region, they developed a complicated system of colonies and plantations, especially along the western side of Malaysia, known as Malaya at that time. Following the invasion of the Japanese in WWII, Britain regained control of this area for a short time. Both Malaya and Singapore gained their independence from Britain in the late 1950's, joined forces in 1963 to form the Independent Federation of Malaysia, and went their separate ways in 1965 to form what we know today as Malaysia and Singapore. In their urban landscapes, educational systems, civil services, governments, and other countless ways, the centuries of colonial rule have left strong cultural imprints.

The populations of Malaysia and Singapore are very similar by their paralleled developments. Many ethnic groups are represented in their populations, with the Chinese and Malaysian natives known as the Malays being the two largest components. Religiously, the majority of the Chinese are Buddhists and most of the Malays are Islamic. These two groups have a history of political tension. The rest of the population is divided among Indian, Pakistani, and Eurasian minorities. Most of these people follow the religions of Hinduism and Christianity. Behasa Malaysia, English, and Chinese are the main languages spoken throughout Malaysia and Singapore.

Economically, these countries have developed exponentially in the last decade. Since the colonial days, these areas have been known for their production of rubber and palm oil from their plantations. Rapid industrialization of Malaysia and Singapore has helped them to become two of the leading producers of computer components in the world. This industry will help to launch them into the competitive markets for the start of the 21st century.


In the 17th century, the Dutch conquered the Portuguese to gain control of Malaysia, then known as Malaya. It wasn't until the 18th century that the British became active in search of trade in the area. In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company founded Singapore, and British control began in Singapore and Malaya. After a Japanese takeover during World War II, the British regained control of this country. There was a Communist revolt that eventually lead to Malayan independence in 1957. Two states on the island of Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak, joined Malaya and Singapore in 1963 to form the Independent Federation of Malaysia (I.F.M.). By 1965, Singapore left the I.F.M. and gained its entire independence, leaving Malaysia on its own.

Today, Malaysia is a country that bridges mainland and peninsular S.E. Asia. Most of Malaysia occupies the southern tip of the Malaya Peninsula, south of Thailand, and is also known as Peninsular or West Malaysia. Today, this part of the country is rapidly developing in industry and manufacturing. It shows little resemblance to the colonial plantations of the previous centuries. East Malaysia occupies the northern portion of the island of Borneo, across the South China Sea. This island part of the country is made up of two states, Sabah and Sarawak, and is just beginning to escape its tribal past.

The population in 1996 was about 20.6 million people with an annual increase of 2.4%. 80% of the people live in West Malaysia and are concentrated along the western portion of the peninsula. Ethnically, the population is made up of 50% Malays, 32% Chinese, 8% Indians, and other minorities including Eurasians. The Malays are the majority and thus have the most governmental control, but the Chinese have dominated the economy and control much of the business. These two groups have a history of tension between them including uprisings and rioting in 1969.

Because Islam is the major religion of the Malays, and the Malays make up the highest percent of the population, the culture is strongly centered on religion. Other religions represented throughout the culture are Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians. Cultural imprints from the centuries of British Colonial rule also exist. Behasa Malaysia, English, and Chinese are the main languages spoken throughout the country. Each minority group has its own beliefs and different cultural characteristics. However, the Malaysian government is trying to unify the groups through a free education system where only one language is taught.

Many of the dense jungles that once covered Malaysia's landscape have been cleared for agricultural land dominated by plantations. Rubber was once the leading export of Malaysia from its numerous rubber plantations. However, production of rubber is declining due for two reasons. The most obvious reason for the decreasing rubber production is the lack of labor. As manufacturing continues to grow and attracts more and more of the labor force, the rubber plantations continue to lose workers. Also, plantation owners and other farmers are raising crops that can have their processes mechanized; this is how Malaysia came to be the leading producer of palm oil.

The rapid development of industry in Malaysia since the 1960's has helped it to become a world exporter. The majority of Malaysia's labor force is employed in manufacturing, especially the processing of export commodities. These include the processing of rubber, tin and petroleum, lumbering, metal forging, the production of electrical and electronic equipment, motor vehicles and chemicals. Today, Malaysia is the world's leading exporter of computer chips and hard drives. This recently booming sector of the economy has helped Malaysia to raise its GNP per capita to over $19,000, and its standard of living to one of the highest. It is important to note that this economic activity is in West Malaysia, and that East Malaysia (island) is far behind in development.

In spite of the economic domination by the Chinese minority for many years, manufacturing activities are expanding, and the production of electronics and electrical equipment is adding to the bright future of Malaysia. Malaysia is trading with the U.S., Japan, and other EEC members. As the world's top exporter of computer chips, Malaysia has exponential possibilities for the future.


In the 14th Century, Singapore was known as Temasek, which means Sea Town. It is on the island located just off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, and it is a major port in the passage between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The city of Singapore as we know it today was founded as a trading post in 1819 by the British. Just like Malaysia, Japan captured and controlled the island during WWII and was back into British control in 1945. After gaining independence from Britain in 1959, and backing out of the Independent Federation of Malaysia in 1965, Singapore finally gained its full independence.

In 1819, Singapore began with 100 people, and it has grown to about 3 million. Because of the small size of the country, the city of Singapore covers most of the island, and over 90% of the people live in the urban area. The second largest ethnic group are the Malays, and they make up 14% of the population of Singapore. Just like Malaysia, there are also other minorities including Pakistani, Indian, and Eurasians.

With the high Chinese ethnic majority, the Chinese culture is the most evident in Singapore. Reflected in this Chinese culture is the influence of their primary religion, Buddhism. The Chinese control the business economy as well as the majority of the governmental decisions, and political tension is not as strong as in Malaysia. Although the majority of the people are Chinese, English is the principle language in the business world, in the government and in the education system. Malay, English, and Chinese are all official languages and are spoken throughout the country. Cultural imprints from the centuries of British Colonial rule also exist. As part of this imprint, Singapore is a very ordered society with laws against littering and chewing gum, and controlling the number of cars that can be purchased each year.

Singapore has one of the strongest economies and one of the highest standards of living of any country in Asia. The GNP per capita is $23,360, and this is increasing rapidly. Agriculture is relatively unimportant to the economy because of the limited land area available. The surrounding water is good for the fishing industry and shipbuilding. As with Malaysia, industry has grown rapidly in the last 20 years, and manufacturing continues to draw people out of the rural villages and into the urban center. Singapore has also developed as one of the leading producers of computer components and finds this a stale economic factor. It is also known as the "banking capitol" of SE Asia, because it has a strong system of financial centers. Tourism is also growing as a major sector of the economy.

In spite of the economic domination by the Chinese for the last 15 years, manufacturing activities are expanding, and the production of electronics and electrical equipment is adding to the bright future of Singapore. The export business and demand for these products is increasing exponentially as we move to a more technological world society.

Review Questions

1. Which three Southeast Asian countries once were French possessions? A. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos; B. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos; C. Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei; D. Myanmar, Thailand, Laos; E. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand

2. The dominant religion of both Indonesia and Malaysia is: A. Islam; B. Hinduism; C. Buddhism; D. Christianity; E. none of the above.

3. Which of the following SE Asian countries has a higher per capita income than many European countries. A. Indonesia, B. Philippines, C. Thailand, D. Singapore

4. Which of the SE Asian countries has the largest percentage of Chinese population: A. Singapore, B. Malaysia, C. Thailand, D. Myanmar

5. In 1965, _______ broke away from Malaysia and became the smallest political entity in SE Asia: A. Singapore, B. Honk Kong, C. Shenzhen, D. Brunei

6. The population concentration on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula is the result of: A. tea production; B. rubber plantations; C. diamonds; D. excellent port facilities; E. proximity to India.

7. The population on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula is the result of: A. tea production, B. rubber plantations, C. diamonds, D. excellent port facilities, E. proximity to India.

8. Three countries located on the Malay Peninsula are: A. Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam; B. Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma); C. China, Korea, Malaysia; D. Malaysia, Singapore, Tibet

9. The dominant religion of both Indonesia and Malaysia is: A. Islam, B. Hinduism, C. Buddhism, D. Christianity

10. Three countries located on the Malay Peninsula are: A. Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam; B. Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma); C. China, Korea, Malaysia; D. Malaysia, Singapore, Tibet; E. Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore.

Submitted by Robert Wiederien June 1997