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Made up of thirteen states and three federal territories, Malaysia is divided into two regions, Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia, on Borneo Island, separated by the South China Sea.

Peninsular Malaysia is bordered by Thailand in the north, while East Malaysia shares Borneo Island with Brunei and Indonesia. It is separated by water from the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Additionally, eight hundred and seventy-eight islands are part of Malaysia, along with more than five hundred rocks, sandbanks, and ridges.

Malayans and other indigenous people make up over half the population of Malaysia, followed by Chinese, at about 25%, and Indians, with under 10%. Besides the Malays, other indigenous groups include the Ibans, Bidayuhs, Melanaus, and Muruts.

The rainforests of Sarawak are home to the Kayan, Kenyah, Lahanan, and Ukit. The Chinese are mostly on the peninsula, where they are engaged in business and trade. Indian families came to Malaysia in the 1800s, largely as indentured servants, although some can trace their ancestry several centuries in Malaysia.

Citizenship is not automatically granted to children born in Malaysia, and dual citizenship is not recognized. Citizenship in Malaysian Borneo is distinct from that in Peninsular Malaysia for purposes of immigration. At the age of twelve Malaysian citizens are issued a card with a biometric smart chip that they must carry with them at all times.

Relations between the ethnic groups in Malaysia are more stable today than they were in the mid-1900s when ethnic riots were common. Nevertheless, the government's perceived biases in favor of its Malay population have led to resentment, although improving economic conditions have had a placating effect. Still, ethnic tensions do flare up into violence from time to time, and ethnic groups tend to segregate. Intermarriage between members of different ethnic groups can carry serious social, religious, and even legal repercussions, particularly among the country's Muslim populations.

Constitutionally, Malaysia is a secular state, with freedom of religion guaranteed. At the same time, Islam is the state religion. More than 60% of the population practices Islam, 20% Buddhism, 9% Christianity, 6% Hinduism, and the remainder divided between Confucianism, Taoism, and traditional Chinese religions, with just under 1% claiming no religion. Muslims in Malaysia are under Shariah law in matters relating to religion and family issues.

Malaysian is the national language of Malaysia, although English is an official language in Sarawak, along with Malaysian. More than a hundred ethnic languages are in use in various parts of the country.

Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy. Its head of state is generally referred to as the king, who is elected to a five-year term by the nine hereditary rulers of the Malay states, while the other four states do not participate in the selection. Although not required, the position of king is rotated among the nine states. The king's role is largely ceremonial, however. Legislative power is shared by federal and state legislatures, with its federal parliament consisting of an upper and a lower house. House members are elected to five-year terms, while members of the Senate serve three-year terms. Each state has elected assemblies. At the federal level, executive power is in the hands of the cabinet, which is headed by a prime minister, who must be a member of the house of representatives. The cabinet is selected from members of both houses of parliament.

The history of Malaysia has been influenced by its position on the South China Sea and along the Strait of Malacca. The region of Peninsular Malaysia has been inhabited for at least eight thousand years, and possibly for as long as thirty-five thousand years, and bones and other artifacts found in northern Sarawak, on Borneo Island, date back forty thousand years.

The area prospered through maritime commerce and was a base for piracy over the years. Islam was introduced to the region in the 1300s. In time, the indigenous people of the region who took up Islam began referring to themselves as Malays, a term that was applied to anyone who practiced Islam and spoke the Malay language.

In 1511, Portugal took control of Peninsular Malaysia, the Dutch in 1641, and the British began exerting influence in 1786, taking control of the peninsula by 1900. Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo developed separately and did not begin to share a history until the 1800s, when both areas had come under British control.

During World War II, the Japanese occupied Malaysia, and the clamor for independence began after the Japanese were defeated. Britain's plan to unite the region under a crown colony met with strong opposition and was replaced by the Federation of Malaya, which became independent in 1957.



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