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Immigration to Malaysia is the process by which people migrate to Malaysia to reside in the country. The majority of these individuals become Malaysian citizens. After 1957, domestic immigration law and policy went through major changes, most notably with the Immigration Act 1959/63. Malaysian immigration policies are still evolving.

In Malaysia there are four categories of immigrants: family class (closely related persons of Malaysian residents living in Malaysia), economic immigrants (skilled workers and business people), other (people accepted as immigrants for humanitarian or compassionate reasons) and refugees (people who are escaping persecution, torture or cruel and unusual punishment).

Currently, Malaysia is known as a country with a broad immigration policy which is reflected in Malaysia's ethnic diversity. According to the 2010 census by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, Malaysia has more than 50 ethnic groups with at least 40% of Malaysians being a first- or second-generation immigrant; also around 30% of Malaysian residents in late 2010s are not born on Malaysian soil.[citation needed]


Pre-colonial migration

For most of human history people were free to move between regions. Malaysia's first generation of migrants consisted of indigenous peoples, the Orang Asli, believed either to have been among the first wave of human migration from Africa around 50,000 years ago, or to belong to the more recent events of Asian human evolution.[1][2]

The Malay Peninsula enjoyed a position of strategic importance, connecting Indochina and the Indonesian archipelago, on the trade routes from China to India.[2] As a result, it grew from port towns that thrived on trade, and hosted the next groups of migrants as merchants became domiciled in the ports, some settling permanently and assimilating into the local communities.[3] By the 5th century, networks of these towns had evolved into organised political spheres of influence that contemporary historians describe as mandalas, as each was defined by its centre rather than its borders. At the periphery, control is less certain, borders may become permeable, In fact, mandalas sometimes overlapped, where areas could be subject to several powers, or none.[4]

Langkasuka was among the earliest kingdoms founded on the Malay Peninsula, believed to have been founded in the 2nd century. By the 8th century it had come under the control of the powerful Srivijaya empire, that was based on the island of Sumatra (now part of Indonesia). In the 15th century, the centre of power shifted from Sumatra to the Malay Peninsula as the Malacca Sultanate succeeded Srivijaya as the region's dominant influence. In addition to being linked by political rule, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula were also linked by intermarriage between Sumatran and Peninsular ruling elite, which led to migration of their followers.

Other significant early migrants are those now classified as Melayu Anak Dagang: non-Malays that migrated to the region and later assimilated into Malay culture (contrasted with Melayu Anak Jati: ethnic Malays that are native to the region):[5]

Researcher Anthony Reid draws another conclusion from this history - that Malaysia, like the US and Australia, is best viewed as an immigrant society:[6]

In Malaysia of course official ideology requires that 62% of the population be regarded as ‘sons of the soil’, defined in racial terms rather than place of birth. But there is also an older pre-nationalist tradition there of understanding Malaya as an immigrant society, and a tendency as in other immigrant societies for the relatively recent migrants in all communities to provide much of the innovative energy and leadership...

The colonial era

The next wave of migration, by Europeans, was particularly significant as it signaled the beginning of the colonial era. The Portuguese arrived first, setting up in Malacca in 1511, while the English East India Company began operation in 1600, and the Dutch East India Company in 1602. As these Europeans settled in this region, they also married locals and other non-Europeans. The inter-racial marriages account for a new set of people in Malaysia, called the Eurasians.[citation needed] Adding these new groups to the Arab, Chinese, Indian, and Southeast Asian traders who settled, resulted in the urban complexes of Malacca and Penang becoming extraordinarily plural places, with no dominant community up to the mid-19th Century.[6]

Although the colonial powers established ‘political’ boundaries to demarcate their respective territories, borders were kept open, mainly because of sparse population, and also to encourage immigration and the development of colonial territories.[7]

After the Dutch moved to Indonesia, and with the British acquisitions of Penang (1786), Singapore (1819), Malacca (1824), and British influence in Sarawak (1841) and Sabah (1882), the British became the dominant investor in the region that would become Malaysia.[citation needed]

British colonial immigration policy and goals can be divided into three phases.[7]

During the first phase, 1900–27, the country witnessed the expansion of the tin and rubber industries, along with construction of supporting infrastructure, and the entry of thousands of migrant workers to labor in these enterprises. The immigration rate (immigrants per 1,000 population) of Malaya (Peninsula Malaysia and Singapore) was the highest in the world throughout the period 1881-1939, more than ten times the rate of the United States.[6] For Chinese, Indian and Indonesian, entry was completely free and unrestricted.[7]

While Chinese, Indian, and Javanese migrants were often fleeing destitution caused by overpopulation, landlessness, or political turmoil, the indigenous people and Malays generally were not subject to these hardships. Thus, they were not receptive to working as wage labourers for the British colonizers. This meant the colonizers could not meet their aggressive goals of resource exploitation with existing stock of labour, leading them to invite/attract more migrant workers.[7][8] Under the British colonial administration a divide and rule policy kept the immigrant workers apart from each other, and from the indigenous population, with the local Malays and the Indonesians confined to the rural areas as peasant farmers, the Indians mainly employed as wage labour in the plantations and in the infrastructure construction sectors, while the Chinese worked in the tin mines and in trade and commerce in the urban areas. This pattern of economic and geographical segregation continued to linger on in post-colonial Malaysia, as a legacy of colonial rule.[8]

The second phase, during 1928–46, began when the colonial government enacted its first piece of restrictive legislation: the Immigration Restriction Ordinance. This legislation enabled the government to establish a basic framework for border controls, and empowered it with the means to control the entry of labor deemed surplus to the requirements of the country. The Great Depression brought rising unemployment and depressed economic conditions, forcing the closure of some mines and rubber estates. This prompted the government to impose a monthly quota on adult Chinese male immigration from August 1930. In January 1933 the Immigration Restriction Ordinance was replaced by the Aliens Ordinance. The Aliens Ordinance provided the colonial state with a mechanism for registering aliens resident in Malaya and represented an important stage in the development of statutes and measures to monitor immigrants in Malaya.[7]

During the third phase, 1947–57, the Aliens Ordinance was replaced by the Immigration Ordinance of 1953. This Ordinance, coinciding with rising Malay nationalist sentiment, resulted in even more stringent border controls and laid down for the first time the specific composition of migrants allowed entry into Malaya, restricting by nationality and occupation, and thus placed greater emphasis on the skills of the migrants. New stipulations required potential immigrants to have job contracts of at least two years with Malayan firms and set a minimum earnings requirement.[7]

Finally, the Malayan Emergency (1948–60) resulted in the introduction of the Internal Security Act (ISA), and a compulsory system of identification cards for all residents aged twelve years and over. The identity cards categorized people on the basis of their nationality and residential/occupational status and, in effect, created the ‘outsider’. This an enduring legacy of colonial rule, adapted to the needs of the national state.[7]

Post-colonial migration

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Major sources of immigration

Malaysian immigrant population by country of origin

This list includes both pre and post independence immigrants.

Rank Country of birth Population Portion of Malaysian population Notes
1  China 6,642,000 23.4% see Malaysian Chinese
2  India 2,012,600 7% see Malaysian Indians
3  Indonesia 2,000,000–2,500,000 7%–8% see Indonesians in Malaysia
4 Arab World 520,000 1.8% see Arab Malaysians
5  Myanmar 500,000 1.76% see Burmese in Malaysia
6  Philippines 325,089 1.14% see Filipinos in Malaysia
7 Africa 254,331 0.9% see Africans in Malaysia
8  Bangladesh 221,000 0.77% see Bangladeshis in Malaysia
9  Pakistan 120,216 0.42% see Pakistanis in Malaysia
10  Vietnam 70,000 0.24% see Vietnamese in Malaysia
11  Thailand 50,000–70,000 0.17%–0.24% see Malaysian Siamese
12  Iran 45,000 0.15% see Iranians in Malaysia
13  United Kingdom 45,000 0.15% see British people in Malaysia
14  Portugal 37,000 0.13% Some are of mixed Portuguese and Malaccan descent. See Kristang people
15  Japan 22,000 0.07% see Japanese in Malaysia
16  Netherlands 12,690 0.044% see Dutch people in Malaysia
17  Cambodia 11,381 0.01% Mostly are Cham people
18  Syria 10,000 0.01%

Illegal immigration in Malaysia

Main article: Illegal immigration in Malaysia

See also


  1. ^ Simonson TS, Xing J, Barrett R, Jerah E, Loa P, Zhang Y, et al. (2011). "Ancestry of the Iban Is Predominantly Southeast Asian". PLOS ONE. 6 (1): e16338. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016338. PMC 3031551. PMID 21305013.
  2. ^ a b Hatin WI, Nur-Shafawati AR, Zahri MK, Xu S, Jin L, Tan SG, et al. (2011). "Population Genetic Structure of Peninsular Malaysia Malay Sub-Ethnic Groups". PLOS ONE. 6 (4): 2. Bibcode:2011PLoSO...618312H. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018312. PMC 3071720. PMID 21483678.
  3. ^ Drabble, John (July 31, 2004). "Economic History of Malaysia". EH.Net Encyclopedia. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  4. ^ Ferguson, R. James (1994). "Complexity in the centre: the new Southeast Asian mandala". Culture Mandala: The Bulletin of the Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies. 1 (2): 3. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  5. ^ Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli; Rahmat Mohamad (June 5, 2014). "Were the Malays immigrants?". Malay Mail Online. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  6. ^ a b c d Reid, Anthony (July 2010). "Malaysia/Singapore as Immigrant Societies". Asia Research Institute. ARI Working Paper, No. 141. p. 14. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Labor crossings in Southeast Asia: Linking historical and contemporary labor migration" (PDF). New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies. 11 (1): 276–303. June 2009. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  8. ^ a b Asia Pacific Migration Research Network (APMRN). "Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific: Issues paper from Malaysia" (PDF). pp. 99–123. Retrieved 21 November 2016.