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11.3: The Insular Region (Islands of Southeast Asia)

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize the economic development of each of the countries in this section.
    2. Understand that Malaysia is divided between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo.
    3. Outline how the structured island nation of Singapore became an economic tiger.
    4. Describe the physical geography of Indonesia and the population dynamics of the island of Java.
    5. Summarize the cultural characteristics of the Philippines. Learn why this country is a popular destination for business process outsourcing (BPO).

    The insular region of Southeast Asia includes the countries of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Of the Southeast Asian countries, East Timor most recently gained its independence, as was mentioned in the previous lesson. In comparing these island nations, extensive diversity in all aspects will be found. There are major differences in cultural, economic, and political dynamics, and in the ethnic groups that make up the dominant majorities in each. There is also a high level of linguistic and religious diversity. The physical geography varies from island to island; some have high mountain relief and others are low-lying and relatively flat. Active tectonic plate action in the region causes earthquakes and volcanic activity, resulting in destruction of infrastructure and loss of life; both acutely impact human activities.

    Economic forces continue to prompt the countries of Southeast Asia to enter into trade relationships that integrate them with global networks based on dependency and reliance. The old colonial powers may no longer control them politically but may affect them economically. The new dynamics of corporate colonialism, with their economic power located in the core economic regions, still seek to exploit the countries of Southeast Asia for their labor and resources. These Asian nations are working to develop their own economies and use their own labor and resources to gain national wealth and increase the standard of living for their people. Each country has to contend with globalization forces within the international network of economic relationships.


    Malaysia is a country made up of various British colonies that came together as a federation and then became an independent country. Britain started establishing colonies in the region in the late 1700s. The two main areas include the western colonies on the Malay Peninsula and the eastern colonies on the island of Borneo. The western settlements were part of the Malay Peninsula, which included the colonies of Pinang and Singapore. Eventually, the British took control of the eastern colonies of Brunei, Sarawak, and Sabah on the island of Borneo. In 1957, the western colonies on the mainland peninsula broke from their British colonizers and became an independent country called the Federation of Malaya. In 1963, the British Borneo colonies of Sarawak and Sabah joined the Federation of Malaya to form the current country, which is called Malaysia. In 1965, Singapore broke off from Malaysia and became an independent country. Brunei, which was still a British protectorate, became independent in 1984.

    Malaysia has two main land areas separated by the South China Sea. The regions of Sarawak and Sabah, on the island of Borneo, are called East Malaysia; the mainland on the Malay Peninsula is called West Malaysia. These regions have similar physical landscapes, which include coastal plains with nearby densely forested foothills and mountains. The highest mountains, rising 13,436 feet, are in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Located near the equator, Malaysia has a tropical Type A climate with monsoons regularly occurring from October to February.

    Figure 11.12 Provinces in East and West Malaysia


    Diversity of Culture and Ethnicity in Malaysia

    Malaysia’s culture is diverse in that several major religions are practiced within its borders. Islam is considered the official religion and is supported by at least 60 percent of the population. About 20 percent of the people are Buddhists, 10 percent Christians, and 6 percent Hindu. The remaining percentages of the population include traditional Chinese religions and local tribal beliefs. In this Islamic country, there are concerns that Muslims get preferential treatment by government programs and policies. There are even special judicial legal courts for Muslims only to work out issues regarding marriage, custody, inheritance, or other conflicting Islamic issues regarding faith and obligation. This court only hears Islamic issues and no other legal matters. There have been movements by minority extremist groups that would like to see Malaysia shift toward a true Islamic state, complete with the Sharia Criminal Code as the law of the land. The movement, however, has been cracked down on by the government. Since the 9-11 incident in the United States, there has been more concern about extremist religious views.

    People of Malay ethnic background make up more than 50 percent of the population. People of Chinese descent are the second-largest group at about 24 percent. An additional 11 percent of the population is made up of indigenous groups. During British colonialism, a number of people from South Asia were brought to Malaysia. For example, Tamils were brought from India to work the plantations. Their Hindu beliefs were infused into the culture and some Tamils also converted to Christianity. Sikhs were brought from South Asia to help Britain run the country as police, soldiers, or security officers. The Sikhs who came brought their religion with them, which added to the multireligious dynamics of the country.

    Figure 11.13 The Tuaran Road of Kota Kinabala City in Malaysia during a Time of Slow Traffic


    Notice that the cars are driving on the same side of the road as they would be in Great Britain, Malaysia’s former colonizer.

    Jason Thien – Busy Roads of Kota Kinabalu City – CC BY 2.0.

    Malaysia’s diverse ethnic and cultural mix often results in strong centrifugal forces that push and pull on the societal dynamics of the country. China has been active in the business community and has established strong economic ties with regional countries that have Chinese populations. The single largest minority group in the province of Sarawak on Borneo is Chinese. As a minority group, Chinese citizens of Malaysia have felt discrimination. Since the official language is Malay and the official religion is Islam, there have been concerns about discrimination against all minority groups. Working through the cultural and ethnic diversity has been a major challenge for the country. Each minority religious or ethnic group desires to celebrate its own special holidays. For example, there is the usual New Year’s celebration on January 1, and then there is the traditional fifteen-day Chinese New Year celebration celebrated at a different time of the year. Sikhs celebrate the Sikh New Year. Buddhists celebrate a holiday in honor of the life and enlightenment of Buddha. Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter. Many other holidays of significance are respected or honored by various minority groups.

    Economic Development in Malaysia

    Malaysia has rapidly advanced its economy in recent decades and is modernizing its infrastructure—roads, bridges, highways, and urban facilities. In the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia built a modern central business district with a twin high-rise office building claimed to be the world’s tallest at the time of construction. Before the global economic downturn that started in 2007, Malaysia had developed a fast-growing economy and was industrializing at a rapid rate. Malaysia has taken advantage of its location on a major shipping lane and has shifted to manufacturing as an important sector of its economy. The country has been a leader in the export of natural resources such as tin, rubber, and palm oil and has developed its agricultural and extractive sectors to gain income. The 1980s and 1990s were prosperous times for the country and it matured its manufacturing base from light textiles into electronics and heavy industries.

    One aspect of the country that is looming on the horizon and may cause problems is the high population growth rate. In 2010, Malaysia’s population was estimated at more than twenty-five million, with a doubling time of about forty years. Though the country is 70 percent urban, family size (fertility rate) is still at about 3.0, which indicates an increasing population growth pattern. One-third of the population is under the age of fifteen. Malaysia is one case where the general principle that if a country urbanizes and industrializes the family size will go down has not taken place fast enough. The fertility rate has dropped from 5.0 to 3.0, but it needs to get below a rate of about 2.0 if the country is going to successfully stabilize its population growth. Unless the country addresses this population growth, the demand for resources might outstrip economic progress in the future.