The best history books on British Malaya, World War II Malaysia, and the top historical novels & comics. Chasing the restless tiger: 12 good books about the History of Malaysia
Malaysia is a beautiful tropical country composed of the southernmost section of the Malay Peninsula and Northern Borneo.
The Proclamation of Malaysia happened in 1963, but the country boasts a much longer history, spanning from early settlers to Indianized kingdoms which were later Islamized, leading to growingly complex political institutions.
Various European colonizers fought hard to acquire the geopolitically crucial Malayan Peninsula and the British eventually took over, to then leave the country after it gained independence.
The majority of the Malaysian population is Malay, but starting centuries ago, immigrants from China and India moved to the country, gaining Malaysian citizenship without merging with them.
This ethnic, cultural, and religious variety is what makes Malaysia unique.
In this article on the best books on Malaysian history, you will find a general section, one on the British domination, one on post World War II Malaysia, and one on Novels and comics related to Malaysian History.
A short history of Malaysia
by Virginia Matheson Hooker
In this ambitious and concise book, Professor Matheson Hooker presents a Complete History of Malaysia from its earliest human inhabitants to the 2000s.
Her deep knowledge of Malay Literature, coupled with her dissemination skills result in a versatile book, suitable for different categories of readers.
Whether you are planning a trip to Malaysia or you are an academic expanding your knowledge of the Country, we are sure this book will be your speed.
A great and accessible text that makes it one of the best Malaysia history books.
A History of Malaysia
by Barbara Watson Andaya
What makes this one of the best books on Malaysian history is Professor Watson Andaya’s unique approach. She gives great importance to geography which, she deems, was the ultimate trigger for the development of Malaysia.
A huge part of all trade in Asia had to (and still has to) pass through Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Sumatra island and this book gives you an idea of how international Malay Sultanates could be.
by Nigel Barley
Before joining Malaysia in 1963, Sabah and Sarawak had their very own political institutions.
In 1841 Sarawak, an Englishman named James Brooke founded a dynasty of White Rajas, who ruled the State for more than one century, managing inter-ethnic relations to achieve peace.
In this book, the author Nigel Barley intertwines much-needed historical context with details on the personal life of Sir Brooke, without skimping on the gory details.
Out in the Midday Sun
by Margaret Shennan
This book is a good introduction to the British domination of Malaya from 1880 to 1960.
Through multiple historical sources, as well as first-hand accounts of witnesses of the time, it retells the history of this tumultuous period, from the beginnings of 2 world wars until the first sprouts of Independence.
One of the best books on Malaysian history and a good compass to track the winding roads of the British diaspora.
Post Second World War
The war of the running dogs
by Noël Barber
The “running dogs” Barber’s book title refers to are the Malaysians who remained loyal to the British after the end of Japanese occupation.
This is the way their communist antagonists used to call them. The civil war between the two factions lasted for 12 years (1948 to 1960) and Noël Barber’s book describes it in vivid detail, without losing sight of contemporary events unfolding in neighboring countries.
The Battle For Singapore
by Peter Thompson
The fall of Singapore in February 1942 was one of the British Army’s greatest World War II disasters. Thompson thinks this single event buried the well-ingrained belief in the intrinsic military superiority of the West.
The gross underestimation of Japanese military capability led to a rapid defeat and subsequent retaliation on the local population. The geopolitical context and the aftermaths of this crucial event are also well explained in the book.
The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370
by Florence de Changy
To some of you, the name Malaysia only recalls distant tropical impressions and the tragic disappearance of the MH370 flight in 2014.
This book by the French investigative journalist Florence De Changy deals with the latter. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, she started noticing inconsistencies and contradictions as well as the authorities’ weird behavior.
Instead of merely raising doubts, she offers her own explanation of this unbelievable event.
Novels and comics
The Night Tiger: A Novel
by Yangsze Choo
Part ghost story, part thriller, part romance, this book starts with a severed finger in a jar and unfolds through the story of two characters.
One is Ji-Lin, half dressmaker half dancer, the other is Ren, the 11 years old servant of a British doctor.
The book is set in the 1930s Malaysia, a time when people’s life was still ruled by magic and superstition. A great introduction to Yangsze Choo‘s work.
The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng
Set during Second World War in Penang island, this book tells the story of Philip Hutton, a sixteen years old half-Chinese, half-English rich boy who feels no belonging to either world.
He befriends a Japanese diplomat and shows him around the island, to then realize he is a spy. When the Japanese take over Malaysia, disappointed Philip decides to work in secret to save as many compatriot lives as possible.
A Flutter in the Colony
by Sandeep Ray
This novel starts in 1956 when the Sengupta family decides to leave Calcutta for Malaysia.
Their fate is bound to these 2 countries: a famine-stricken Bengal torn by religious clashes and a seemingly quieter Malaysia, in fact undergoing struggle for independence and civil war.
Such crucial historical events put to test the Sengupta family, whose only choice is to adapt to their new country. Ray’s movie-making experience gives the book cinematic features.
The Weight of Our Sky
by Hanna Alkaf
The setting of this book is 1969 Malaysia, home of 16 years old Mel. She alternates peaceful teenage life with severe OCD symptoms: a djinn (demon of the Islamic tradition) threatens her with recurring images of her mother’s plausible deaths.
Her condition worsens as racial riots hit Kuala Lumpur separating Mel from her mother until she realizes the only way to get her back is to revert to the djinn’s powers.
Sooner or later in life, every single Malaysian enjoyed Lat’s comics, and most of them read his classic, “Kampung Boy”.
This sketchy comic book hits the point better than many history books and this is why we included it in this selection of best books on Malaysian history.
In this largely autobiographic book, Lat sees the World through the eyes of a Kampung (countryside) boy, witnessing the clash between tradition and modernity.
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