Queen of the Spice Trade
Queen of the Spice Trade
Once upon a time, a shipment of spices from Malaysia made fortunes worthy of kings. The country’s riches were celebrated throughout the ancient world and the Malay Orang, or Malayan people were famed for their skill as sea traders.
In 150 A.D., the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy included the Malaysian peninsula in his map of the world. Almost 1,500 years later, the map was used by Christopher Columbus when he tried to reach the spice islands in Southeast Asia and found the Americas instead.
Modern visitors to the country are drawn less by the promise of vast pepper- or nutmeg-based fortunes and more by its rich culture and natural beauty: some of Malaysia’s islands and reefs have been repeatedly voted the most beautiful in the world.
The country is as attractive to entrepreneurs as it is for tourists: for the last ten years it has ranked highest in the World Bank Groups ease of business index. It also remains a strong contender in the international economic arena: Malaysia’s economy was fifth in the world for countries with a population of over 20 million.
Malaysia: Facts and Figures
  • Malaysia is the only country in the Coral Triangle that is connected with the Asian mainland. The majority of the country’s territory is divided between the Malaysian peninsula and the island of Borneo.
  • Borneo is the world’s third-largest island and the largest in Asia. It is divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.
  • Malaysia has 4,600 kilometers of coastline and borders 4 major bodies of water: the Sulu Sea, the Celebes Sea, the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca.
  • Malaysia is ranked 10th in the world and 2st in Southeast Asia for tourist arrivals.
  • It is estimated that temperatures in Malaysia could rise by 2.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, potentially raising sea levels by up to 1 meter in parts of the country.
  • In 2016, Malaysia’s population was estimated at over 31 million people, and set to increase by a forecasted 1,344 people per day. This means that the country’s population almost quadrupled since 1960, when Malaysia was home to just over 8 million people.
  • Malays are Malaysia’s largest demographic group; it is a diverse group that includes people from various ethnic backgrounds. Ethnic Chinese, Indian, and indigenous groups make up most of the remaining Malaysian population.
Economy and Environment
  • The economy of Malaysia is the third-largest in Southeast Asia, after that of Indonesia and Thailand. In 2015, Malaysia’s economy has been one of the most competitive in the world, ranking 14th globally.
  • After Singapore and Brunei, Malaysia is also the third-richest in the area in terms of GDP.
  • Borneo, the island shared between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world. It is estimated to be 140 million years old, and one of the last remaining habitats for the endangered Bornean orangutan. Due to logging and forest fires, the area covered by the forest has been greatly reduced since the 1960s.
  • Sipadan Island, Malaysia’s only oceanic island, is one of Southeast Asia’s top diving destinations.
  • It is estimated that up to 90 per cent of Malaysia’s fish have been fished out over the last 60—70 years. Fish is one of the staples of the Malaysian diet.
  • Tun Mustapha Marine Park is one of the world’s top 5 largest protected areas, at more than 1 million hectares. The park provides for some 80,000 people living on 50 islands and is home to almost 1,000 marine species.
History and Culture
  • A stone hand axe unearthed in Lenggong, Perak, Malaysia, is the earliest sign of habitation in Southeast Asia. The axe is estimated to be between 0.6 and 1.8 million years old, and is presumed to have been used by homo erectus. The earliest anatomically modern human remains have been found in the Niah Caves in Sarawak.
  • Beginning with the 7th century, Malaysia was part of the Srivijaya Empire, one of the few thalassocratic, or marine-based, states in history.
  • One of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in recorded history was the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, with effects felt around the world.
  • Records dating back to 300 BC show that Malaysia was pivotal to trade routes from China, India, and Europe. Malacca on the Straits of Malacca was a key port for the east-west spice trade and by the 15th century it had become one of the world’s most important commercial centers. Spice was traded for porcelain from China, textiles from India, sandalwood from Timor, frankincense, myrrh and other resins from Arabia.
Yet new dangers threaten this thriving country: almost 3,000 native species on land and in the sea are close to extinction, while deforestation and pollution severely affect the quality of life for humans and animals alike. Malaysia’s coral reefs – which cover an estimated 3,600 km², most of which are found in Sarawak (Peninsular Malaysia) and in Sabah – are under threat from sedimentation caused by land-based agriculture and development. Destructive fishing practices such as dynamiting and cyanide fishing are prevalent and challenging to manage with an ever increasing population dependent on coastal resources. Nearly 40% of Malaysia’s mangroves have been lost and continue to be exploited.
What can you do?
Help us to protect Malaysia’s marine and coastal heritage.
Coral Triangle Center