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The region now known as Malaysia was first mentioned in Chinese and Sanskrit records of the 7th and 8th centuries. In subsequent centuries the area was under the influence of Thai and Indonesian empires until, in the 15th century, it became a centre of Islamic influence centred on Malacca. Colonised by the British in the 19th century, the 11 separate states of Peninsular Malaysia fell to the Japanese during the Second World War. In 1946, as British Protectorates, they were united in the Malayan Union, which became the Federation of Malaya in 1948. In the same year, communist guerrillas launched an armed independence struggle which continued until 1960, although Malaya became independent (within the Commonwealth) in 1957. In 1963 the Federation of Malaya merged with Singapore and the former British colonies of Sarawak and Sabah (North Borneo) to form Malaysia.
The Prime Minister since independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, remained in charge of the new republic. In 1965 Singapore seceded. Five years later, Tunku Abdul Rahman resigned and was succeeded by Tunku Abdul Razak who created the Barisan Nasional (NF, National Front), now a multi-party coalition whose main component the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). The Front won the 1982 general election convincingly under the leadership of Tun Mahathir Mohammed.
Over the rest of the decade, Tun Mahathir orchestrated a shift in Malaysian foreign policy. Previously a stalwart of the pro-Western ASEAN bloc (Association of South-East Asian Nations), Malaysia established diplomatic relations with its communist-run neighbours, including Vietnam. Also in 1989, Malaysia hosted the biennial Commonwealth conference.
Malaysia has a stake, along with five other countries (China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei), in one of the region's main outstanding territorial disputes, the possibly mineral-rich Spratly Islands. Tun Mahathir has also been a keen proponent of increasing East Asia's political influence to match its economic clout and has acquired a reputation for extreme sensitivity to perceived slights against himself or his country.
Relations with both Britain and Australia have been temporarily broken on that account. His fierce independence was apparent in his proposal for the creation of an East Asian Economic Caucus - deliberately designed to exclude the United States which holds membership of all the major regional organisations, including APEC and ASEAN. Although strong opposition from Washington baulked the plan, it attracted much support from elsewhere.
Following the 1997 Asian currency crisis, Tun Mahathir adopted an entirely different course of action from his neighbours, refusing IMF support and advice, and slapping on stringent currency controls as part of a strategy to reverse the economic decline. The strategy was, against many expectations, reasonably successful but came at a heavy political price. On the domestic front, Tun Mahathir's position had been all but unassailable throughout the 1980s and this continued into the next decade.
A snap election in October 1990 was notable for the first serious challenge to Tun Mahathir in the form of Semangat '46 (Spirit of '46), a new party led by Tun Mahathir's former Cabinet colleague Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah. In the event, Razaleigh's support simply evaporated, as Barisan Nasional won a crushing victory. By the next election in April 1995, Semangat '46 was just one more opposition party, joining the Chinese-led Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and several smaller parties in sharing out 30 seats in the House of Representatives. Barisan Nasional holds all the rest. Malaysia's continuing economic success meant there was precious little political threat to UMNO.
Within the party, however, there were stirrings of a movement to oust Tun Mahathir in favour of Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim who was generally accepted to be his heir apparent. But it was not until the 1997 Asian financial crisis that relations between the two men reached crisis point as they disagreed on measures to take to mollify its effects. Anwar was subject to Tun Mahathir's full wrath. First he was arrested in August 1998 for alleged homosexual practices. To these, charges of corruption were later added.
Despite the clearly fabricated nature of the charges, Anwar was sentenced to six years imprisonment. The immediate political consequence was that Anwar and his wife became the focus of opposition to Tun Mahathir. Many people, including influential figures within UMNO, believed that Tun Mahathir had finally overreached himself. But his legendary wiliness served him well as he ran a well-judged campaign which ensured that, despite defeats in some key areas, Barisan Nasional retained a substantial majority at the November 1999 poll, taking over 140 seats in the Dewan Rakyat. Anwar's wife, ophthalmologist Wan Azizah, won her husband's old parliamentary seat, but otherwise her political vehicle, Keadilan, performed below expectations. In year 2003 Abdullah Ahmad Badawi elected as new prime minister of Malaysia.