Malaysia is situated in Southeast Asia, bordered by Thailand in the north, Indonesia in the south, and the Philippines in the east. The country has an area of 329,758 square kilometers (127,320 square miles). Comparatively, the territory of Malaysia is slightly greater than that of the state of New Mexico, the fourth-largest state in the United States. The Federation of Malaysia consists of 13 states, and is divided into 2 parts: 11 states are located in Peninsular Malaysia (also called West Malaysia) and 2 comprise East Malaysia, which is situated on the island of Borneo (see map). Peninsular and East Malaysia are separated by 640 kilometers (400 miles) of the South China Sea. Malaysia's capital city, Kuala Lumpur, is located in southeast Peninsular Malaysia, just 300 kilometers (187 miles) from Singapore. However, a new capital, Putrajaya, is being developed outside the overcrowded metropolitan area as the new administrative center. The strategic importance of Malaysia is in its location along the Strait of Malacca, which is a major sea-route connecting the Far East to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
The population of Malaysia was estimated at 21,793,000 in July 2000. It has almost doubled since the 1960s due to improved health, medical facilities, and longer life expectancy. In 2000, the birth rate stood at 25.3 per 1,000, while the death rate stood at 5.25 per 1,000. The estimated population growth rate is 2.01 percent and if the current trend remains unchanged, the population could reach 31 million by 2020. The population is very unevenly distributed, with almost 81 percent, or 17.5 million, living in Peninsular Malaysia, and 19 percent, or 4.2 million, living in East Malaysia. The population density is about 129 people per square kilometer (334 people per square mile) in Peninsular Malaysia and about 20 people per square kilometer (52 people per square mile) in East Malaysia.
Malaysia is a multinational and multicultural country with a very diverse population. Malays and several indigenous groups make up 58 percent of the population. Ethnic Chinese, the second-largest ethnic group, make up 26 percent of the population; Indian descendants make up 7 percent, and various other groups together account for the remaining 9 percent. The current ethnic structure was formed during the colonial era in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the British administration encouraged migration from India and especially from China. The Malaysian population is very young, with 35 percent below age 14 and just 4 percent of the population older than 65. Urbanization came to Malaysia relatively late. In 1970, just over 28.8 percent of Malaysians lived in urban areas. In 1999 over half of Malaysians—57 percent—were living in urban areas. It is expected that within the next 10 to 15 years more than 70 percent of the population will live in urban areas, mainly in the Peninsular Malaysia.
Religion plays a very important role in the country. Islam is the official national religion and nearly all Malays are Muslims. Most ethnic Chinese are Buddhist. The majority of Indians (comprising the descendants of migrants from what became India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) are Hindu, although there are many Muslims among members of this community. The largest proportion of the Chinese community has traditionally lived in the urban areas, while Malays have often lived in the country's rural regions.
In 1960, the Malaysian population was about 8 million, and the country at one time had one of the highest
Tin, oil, and gas are the major natural resources of export significance produced by the mining sector in Malaysia. The mining of tin was introduced during the colonial era and until the 1980s the country was the world's largest producer of tin, being overtaken in the early 1990s by Brazil and neighboring Indonesia. The major mines are situated in Peninsular Malaysia, making it easy to transport their products to the nearest seaports. Malaysia's exports of tin declined from 36,812 metric tons in 1994 to 22,376 metric tons in 1998, affected by fluctuations in the world market.
During recent decades, Malaysia has increased production of crude petroleum and natural gas. In 1999, it produced 693,000 barrels of crude oil per day and 3.8 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The high-quality oil is extracted mainly from offshore platforms in the states of Terengganu, Sabah, and Sarawak, with a total of about 40 oilfields in operation (1999). There are 5 oil refineries situated in Malaysia. The production of gas increased steadily in the 1990s to meet the rising demand in the domestic and international markets, with exports mainly going to Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. Malaysia was ranked thirteenth in the world in terms of gas reserves and twenty-second in oil reserves in 1999. The state-controlled petroleum corporation, Petronas, has been seeking a greater role in the international market, investing in promising new projects in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Overall, mining plays a declining role in the national economy of the country, contributing just under 7.3 percent of GDP and providing employment for 39,000 people or under 1 percent of the labor force (1998). However, there is great potential for development of this sector, since Malaysia has various relatively under-exploited mineral resources in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), including bauxite, iron ore, copper, ilmenite, and gold. Additionally, there are large offshore reserves of high-quality oil and gas.
Malaysia has established a diverse and quickly-growing manufacturing sector that plays an increasing role in the Malaysian economy. Manufacturing contributes about 29 percent of the GDP, providing employment to 2.3 million people or 27 percent of the workforce (1999). From the late 1970s, the proportion of GDP provided by the manufacturing sector in Malaysia grew from 20.2 percent in 1979 to around 29 percent in 1999. The United States continues to be the single largest foreign investor in Malaysia's manufacturing sector, with approved new manufacturing investments totaling US$1.37 billion (RM5.2 billion) in 1999. The major investment projects were in the chemical, electronics, and electrical industries.
Malaysia built up its manufacturing sector mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, utilizing its long-established industrial centers on the island of Pinang and the Kelang Valley, its well-developed transportation infrastructure (including seaports and railways), and the entrepreneurial skills of its small and medium-sized businesses. The industrial sector initially consisted of oil refining, machinery assembly, and light industries (including foodstuff processing and textile manufacturing). However, as in neighboring Singapore, the Malaysian manufacturing sector was boosted in the 1970s and 1980s by the extensive growth of the electric assembly and electronics sectors. Malaysia became an important producer of radios, television sets, stereo equipment, and other related products. In the 1980s, the Malaysian government launched its national automobile project, the locally produced Proton car (in cooperation with Mitsubishi of Japan), and in the late 1980s, it started exporting the Proton to the international market. In the 1990s, there was further growth in the manufacturing sector, especially in export-oriented electronics production, including semiconductors, silicon wafers, and other items. Malaysia has become the world's third-largest producer, and one of the world's largest exporters, of semiconductors.
As in neighboring Singapore, the Malaysian government has played an active role in industrialization and economic development. In this regard, the Malaysian Industrial Development Agency (MIDA) has been instrumental in promoting the rapid development of targeted sectors of industries (especially knowledge-and technology-intensive sectors), since all industrial projects that involve foreign direct investments (FDIs) must be approved by the MIDA. The government also used direct investments and encouraged the inflow of FDIs, establishing special export-processing zones where investors were given access to well-developed infrastructure and enjoyed tax breaks and other privileges. Since the 1980s, the government has actively promoted the electronics, information technology, and multimedia sectors, and has encouraged the relocation of labor-intensive industries to Indonesia and Thailand.
Most of Malaysia's electrical and electronic products are produced for export to the United States, Europe, and other markets. This makes its manufacturing economy vulnerable to downturns in the regional and international market. Despite some restrictive measures and financial initiatives, Malaysia was negatively affected by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In 1997 and 1998, its manufacturing sector experienced serious contraction; dozens of plants were closed and thousands of workers lost their jobs. In 1998 alone, the sector was reduced by about 10.9 percent across the board. However, in 1999 and 2000, Malaysia managed to reverse the recession in manufacturing, and this sector experienced an impressive growth of 12 percent per annum.
Malaysia is one of ASEAN's leading exporters of furniture, with total exports reaching about US$1.02 billion (RM3.9 billion) in 1999. Access to cheap local wood makes Malaysian furniture manufactures very competitive in the international market. In 1999, the United States was the largest single market for Malaysian wooden furniture (37 percent), followed by Japan (14 percent), Singapore (9 percent), and the United Kingdom (9 percent). If the rapid growth in this sector remains unchanged, by 2005 Malaysia could become one of the top ten furniture exporters in the world.
Tourism is becoming an increasingly important sector of Malaysia economy. Together with the retail sector, it provides employment for almost 1.57 million people, or around 17 percent of the labor force. Roughly 7.5 million tourists visited the country in 1999, contributing RM10 billion to the national economy. This makes tourism one of Malaysia's top foreign exchange earners. According to the national authorities, the country has 1,426 hotels, the total room capacity of which almost doubled during the 1990s to about 110,000 in 2000. Most visitors have been from Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, China, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
In order to develop tourism, Malaysia has promoted its diverse cultural environment, hosting a number of cultural festivals and performances. It has also publicized its rich natural heritage, which includes tropical forests, coral reefs, unspoiled mountain ranges, rivers, and national parks. The country offers tax-free bargain shopping and excellent service, with top-class hotels such as Sheraton, Hilton, Intercontinental, and other well-established international chains opening branches. It offers a wide variety of activities, from eco-friendly and adventure tourism to scuba diving and relaxed family holidays on the numerous Malaysian islands and beaches. Additionally, Malaysia has signed visa-free regimes with most countries in Asia, the Americas, and Europe, enabling international tourists to travel to Malaysia without obtaining entry visas. In 1997, however, tourism suffered from the regional financial crisis and by the smog caused by several months of forest fires in Indonesia. The number of tourist arrivals declined significantly in 1997 and 1998; however, there was a strong recovery in arrivals in 1999 and 2000.
The financial service industry is another rapidly growing sector of Malaysia's economy. In terms of employment, it almost doubled from 230,900 people in 1988 to 447,200 people in 1998. Traditionally, this sector was built around the banking system, investments, insurance, and some other activities. For more than a decade until 1997, the financial service sector experienced rapid expansion fuelled by the inflow of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs), reasonably cheap credits, and overall rapid economic growth in all sectors of the economy. Malaysia developed a sophisticated computerized banking payment system, encouraging development of electronic payment systems and electronic banking. The U.S.-based Motorola and Unisys have taken part in these projects as members of consortia that included local companies. Malaysia's government considered developing Kuala Lumpur into a regional financial center, competing with Singapore for this role, although it was slow to allow foreign brokers to operate at the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (KLSE).
The 1997 regional financial crisis started with the collapse of the Thai currency (the Baht), which severely affected the Malaysian financial sector. Share and property prices declined significantly, provoking panic among local and international investors. Within a short time, the Malaysian ringgit had depreciated against major international currencies, especially the U.S. dollar. This inflicted considerable damage on local businesses, as a significant number of credits were in U.S. dollars and local companies faced extreme difficulties repaying those credits. The Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (KLSE) lost more than half its value, plunging from RM807 billion in the middle of 1996 to RM376 billion in the middle of 1997. In response to this crisis, the Malaysian government imposed currency and capital controls, locked in foreign investors' share holdings for 1 year, and initiated a share-buying scheme with the government-controlled funds. In 1999 and 2000, financial services began their recovery, and the government slowly eased various restrictions and state control in this sector.
Traditionally, in Malaysia many small and medium-sized businesses were built around the retail sector and were often associated with small shops and cafés run by Chinese merchants. The retail sector grew, in terms of its size and quality of service, due to a general rise in income among the population and an increase in tourism arrivals. In the 1990s, major international retail chains such as Yaohan and SOGO of Japan, Marks and Spencer of the United Kingdom, MAKRO of France and fast-food franchises such as McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), and others opened outlets in Malaysia. However, there are still a number of small family-run traditional shops and cafés, selling both imported and locally-made products.
Tourists can also buy pirated products, including footwear, optical disks (CDs), and computer software. According to one study, piracy may have accounted for losses of US$84.2 million (RM320 million) in market value in 1999. In April 2000, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) placed Malaysia on the special Priority Watch List for its failure to reduce pirated optical disc production and export. In response to this, the Malaysian police regularly launch crackdowns on unlicensed software businesses.
Malaysia has no territories or colonies.
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Malaysian ringgit (also known as the Malaysian dollar). One Malaysian ringgit (RM1) equals 100 sens. There are coins of 1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 sens. Paper currency is in denominations of RM2, 5, 20, 50, and 100.
Electronic equipment, petroleum and liquefied natural gas, chemicals, palm oil, wood and wood products, rubber, textiles.
Machinery and equipment, chemicals, food, fuel, lubricants.
US$229.1 billion (at purchasing power parity, 1999 est.).
Exports: US$83.5 billion (1999 est.). Imports: US$61.5 billion (1999 est.).