Malaysia: what you need to know about Asia’s melting pot

Story highlights

Malaysia is a country of only 31 million but has one of the region's strongest economies

A mixture of three main cultures, Muslim-Malay, Chinese and Indian, makes it vibrant

Sitting between Singapore and Thailand, Malaysia has rich biodiversity

CNN  — 

Sandwiched between swanky Singapore, tourism-friendly Thailand and island filled Indonesia, Malaysia is a mishmash of both jungle and futuristic metropolis.

On one hand its colonial past is mixed in with flashy high-rise buildings and fancy shopping malls in booming Kuala Lumpur. On the other side, the jungles of Borneo and the tropical islands on both coasts of the peninsula feel like a step back in time.

The country is lush, sitting firmly in the tropics with a relatively hot and humid climate year-round, which lends itself to tourism. It also has a reputation for being charming and laidback.

Melting pot?

What makes Malaysia distinct from its neighbors in South East Asia, though, is its vibrant mix of cultures – the majority Muslim-Malays, Chinese and Indian populations, along with the indigenous people known as the Orang Asli, all call this country home.

The mix of cultures is evident in Malaysian food. The Chinese-Malay “Nonya” food, sits next to Indian food and traditional Chinese fare. Malay food stalls serve up local favorites including roti canai, an Indian-style flatbread, and spicy soup called Laksa.

Whether in a fancy food court in one of the many upscale shopping malls or on the street, food is abundant, cheap and a real way of life for Malaysians, who are eager to share their love of local cuisine.

Despite this warm and welcoming attitude, Malaysia is also a moderate-conservative country with strict state control over media and tough censorship laws. Print media must renew their licenses annually, and the government can suspend or take away publishing permits if they feel the need to do so.

Several female pop stars have had to cancel their performances in Malaysia on account of their clothing or shows that were deemed immoral. Beyonce and Kesha are two such performers who have made headlines in recent years, both having had to ditch tours to Malaysia due to cultural and religious sensitivities.

Stable economy

Economically, Malaysia has found itself comfortably well-off, and hopes to achieve high-income status by 2020 – meaning it will be classified as a fully developed country.

This stability is thanks to its success as a big exporter of electronics, oil and gas, palm oil and rubber industries as well as attracting investments in Islamic finance. The oil and gas sector has provided the Malaysian government with around 29% of its revenue in 2014, according the the CIA World Factbook.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, Malaysia is “continuing its upward trend” and stands out as one of the very few countries in the region that has been “relatively successful” at tackling corruption and red tape.

Political change?

For nearly 60 years, Malaysia has been independent of British rule. But a quick glance will show there are remnants of the old Malaya, as it was known during the British colonial rule, which ended in August of 1957.

Carcosa Seri Negara, the former British ambassador’s residence in Kuala Lumpur, sits in the pretty Lake Gardens (modeled on London’s Kew Gardens) and is now a hotel which serves high tea. School children can be spotted, even in the “kampung” or village, wearing uniforms similar to those in Great Britain. Tea plantations dot the country’s higher elevations, complete with Mock Tudor houses and pubs.

Still, for a country which prides itself on its cultural mix of its three main groups, there is tension simmering below the surface.

Despite its motto “One Malaysia”, the country’s ruling body has been in power for 56 years and many, including the opposition, feel it’s time for a change.

Opponents of the ruling National Front claimed major electoral fraud in the 2013 elections, allegations the ruling party strongly denied.

In August, thousands attended protests calling for the resignation of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, over his alleged involvement in a financial scandal. Mr. Razak has denied any wrongdoing.

Recent setbacks

More recently, Malaysia has been in the headlines for some unfortunate news events.

Malaysia Airlines, the country’s national carrier, has struggled financially in the wake of twin tragedies in 2014, including the disappearance of flight MH370 and the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine.

Another recent setback has been the ongoing haze pouring into Malaysia from neighboring Indonesia, said to be burning trees for agriculture, specifically plantations for palm oil.

Though it happens every year, the haze in 2015 has been particularly bad with reports of smoke from forest fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island and Borneo at dangerous levels. The fires have created a layer of smog in Malaysia, with many schools even having to close in October.

Despite all this, Malaysia continues its economic growth, with the iconic Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur representing what the country continues to aspire to.