Malaysia and Borneo Fact File
General factsCountry name: Malaysia
Area: 329,750 sq km
Terrain: Coastal plains rising to hills and mountains
Population: 28 million
Age structure: 0-14years: 27.2%, 15-64years: 68.1%, 65years and over: 4.7%
Life expectancy at birth: 73.8 years
Ethnic Groups: Malays 60.3%, Chinese 22.9%, Indians 6.8%
Religions: Islam (Sunni) 61.3%, Buddhism 19.8%, Christianity 9.2%, Hinduism 6.3%, Other 3.4%
Literacy: 92.5% of population
Capital: Kuala Lumpur
Languages: Bahasa Malay, Chinese, Thamil, and many indigenous languages. English is widely understood
Government type: Federal parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch
International Airports: Kuala Lumpur (KLIA and LCCT), Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, Langkawi, Penang
Currency: Malaysian Ringgits
The Location of the Conservation CentreThe conservation centre is located on the small and remote Pom Pom Island, 45 minutes by boat from the eastern coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
After collection from the airport in Tawau, you will be taken to the jetty at Semporna, the closest coastal town to Pom Pom, where a scenic boat ride will get you to the camp on Pom Pom, which surrounded by deserted white sand beaches, crystal clear water and a panorama of tropical, jungle-clad islands.
There are currently travel warnings in place for Pom Pom island due to some isolated local incidents.
We ask volunteers check the FCO website
or their own country's government travel advice before travelling.
Accommodation at the Conservation ProjectThe conservation centre is on the beach of Pom Pom island and volunteers sleep in individual, private tents with mosquito nets, complete with comfortable airbeds, sheets and real pillows, and electric light & fan. Couples who wish to share can be assigned two tents - one with a double mattress and one to store your clothing and other belongings. The tents are protected from rain by large plastic sheets that also create a large porch area around each tent.
The volunteer camp has a shower and toilet area along with a dining and communal area. Electricity is available from a generator and all the tents have fans and lighting. Phone and 3g internet is available on Pom Pom although this cannot be guaranteed.
Volunteers cook with others on a rota and the project provides food for three meals per day. Vegetarians can be catered for.
ClimateThis part of Sabah enjoys a tropical coastal climate. The weather is hot and humid all year round with occasional rain. There are no monsoon storms. Underwater visibility is rarely less than 15m, and usually much more than that. Daytime temperatures vary between 28 to 34 degrees Celsius, but sea breezes keep things feeling a little cooler on the island. At night, the mercury rarely dips below 22 degrees. The water temperature is a pleasant 27-29 degrees Celsius.
Getting to the projectThe nearest airport to Pom Pom Island is Tawau, Malaysia (Airport code TWU)
To help you find the best air fares Globalteer has formed a partnership with a division of The Flight Centre Group who will tailor make your travel arrangements for you at a competitive price.
You can contact them for a free, no obligation travel quote by calling 0844 560 9944 from within the UK, or if you are outside the UK you can call +44(0)203 056 1146. Make sure you mention Globalteer when you call and if you do purchase your travel through them, Globalteer will receive a small donation. However, don’t forget that it’s up to you to make sure your travel arrangements are right for you and your project.
Extra ActivitiesPom Pom Island offers endless scuba diving and snorkelling. If you really want to kick back and relax after a day’s diving, it is the perfect place to unwind during free time, either on a deserted stretch of beach or in the centre grounds. The centre also hosts regular barbecues on the beach, and there are two dive resorts on the island, where you can go for drinks in the evening. Those expecting a wild night life will be disappointed.
Overnight trips to Semporna on the mainland can be arranged, where volunteers can visit the few bars and restaurants that cater to diving community, dive instructors and backpackers, but again the scene is very low key. In Semporna you can organize dive or snorkel trips to other famous dive sites in the area such as Sipadan and Mabul.
There are some tasty and inexpensive seafood restaurants as well as great Indian food available in the Thamil restaurants. There is also a very well stocked supermarket here for buying up provisions to take back to Pom Pom. Internet cafes are found here too.
The Globalteer DifferenceThese days there are a great many opportunities to volunteer overseas, but not all organisations are the same.
Watch our short video presentation to see what makes Globalteer different from your average volunteering organisation!
VisasMost nationalities receive a free 90 day visa on arrival in Malaysia. A passport with at least 6 months validity is required, and the passport must be in good condition, and not damaged in any way. For longer stays, you can make a border crossing before your 90 day visa expires, and receive another 90 days with no questions asked.
Note: As visa requirements can change and are not the same for all nationalities, it is the volunteers responsibility to arrange entry visas.
You only need a tourist visa for volunteer work in Malaysia. It is better not to confuse immigration officers by telling them you are “working”, just state you are visiting Malaysia for tourism.
Local ExpensesThe local currency is Malaysian Ringgits (Rm), and at the time of writing, the exchange rate is as follows:
$1 USD : 3.5 RM
£1 GBP: 5.4 RM
$1 AUS: 3.0 RM
€1 euro: 4.2 RM
Food: Local Malaysian and Tamil restaurants serve up meals for 3 to 8 Rm. A 500ml bottle of water is 1.5Rm. In Semporna, Western food such as pizza can be had for around 24Rm, and a can of beer will set you back 8Rm.
Local transport: In bigger Malaysian cities, local buses are available, and short journeys are very cheap. In Semporna, small taxis are the only way to get from one end of town to the other – distances are short, so expect to pay no more than 4-6Rm for local journeys. If, for any reason, you are making your own way to Semporna from Tawau City, a minibus costs 20Rm and takes 1 hour. A shared minibus from Semporna to the airport costs 20-40Rm, and a Taxi between Semporna and the airport around 90Rm.
Keeping in touch: Whilst international roaming works on the "mainland" to use your mobile phone on Pom Pom island you will need to buy a local SIM, available for about 5 Ringgit, and ensure that your phone is unlocked. Alternatively you can buy a local phone on arrival in Malayasia.
Internet usage at the project is free if you have a smart phone or laptop, although it can be intermittent. In Semporna, The Sipadan Inn, where volunteers usually stay for their first night, has free internet in the lobby. Internet cafés charge between 2 and 6Rm for an hour.
The international dialing code for Malaysia is +60. Network coverage is excellent nationwide, although the remoteness of Pom Pom can make for sporadic coverage on parts of the island.
Money: At the centre, there are a few things to spend your cash on, such as alcohol, canned soft drinks or perhaps a project T shirt! There is only one ATM in Semporna, and there is a constant queue of people getting money out for all their friends! Moreover, if that is out of service your nearest ATM would be at the airport or Tawau city. Take enough cash to get you through your stay and out of Semporna. Don't forget you can also get Ringgit from the ATMs at KL airport on your way through.
Laundry: Laundry service is available at the project for a small cost. If you are in Semporna, you can get washing done and returned to you on the same day for 3 -5Rm per kilo.
Health and SafetyThe project has a comprehensive first aid kit, suitable for minor injuries, and there is always a trained first aider on site. There is a clinic and a hospital in Semporna (1 hour away) suitable for all other issues, and if you are thinking of doing any deep diving, the closest recompression chamber is in Semporna also, and managed by the Navy. There is always a spare boat available at the project for emergency trips to the mainland.
IslamIslam is central to and dominant in Malay culture. Islam is so ingrained in Malay life that Islamic rituals are practised as Malay culture. The terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Malay’ are interchangeable in many daily contexts. However, Malaysia is a very tolerant of non-muslims and western travellers find it easy to fit in.
A Brief history of MalaysiaMalaysia today is a multicultural society, with influences from as far away as Persia, India, and China leaving their mark on everything from religion to architecture. With the peninsular being located in what historically has been a strategic location for trade and commerce, an influx of people from several continents was perhaps inevitable. Indigenous tribes (Orang Asal) that inhabited the peninsula before foreign traders settled still form the majority of the population in East Malaysia, and today the large presence of Tamil Indians and Chinese makes determining a national identity somewhat difficult.
Ancient Malaysia: 35,000 BC - 100 BC
The truth is that there is not much archeological evidence or written records from ancient Malaysia; but it is likely that this situation will change. Many suspect that there are more prehistoric archeological sites along the coasts and in the jungles and hills, but given Malaysia's dense vegetation it will take time to find them.
We do know that homo sapiens have been in Malaysia for a long time. The oldest known evidence of human habitation is a skull from Sarawak dating from 35,000 years BC. On the peninsula, stone age tools and implements from about 10,000 BC have been found, and some archeologists suggest that they were left there by the predecessors of the Negrito aborigines - one of the earliest groups to inhabit the peninsula.
We also know that about 2,500 years BC a much more technologically advanced group migrated to the peninsula from China. Called the Proto-Malays, they were seafarers and farmers, and their advances into the peninsula forced the Negritos into the hills and jungles. History's periodic waves of cultural evolution, however, soon created another group, the Deutero-Malays. They were a combination of many peoples - Indians, Chinese, Siamese, Arabs, and Proto-Malays - and they had risen by mastering the use of iron. Combined with the peoples of Indonesia, the Deutero-Malays formed the racial basis for the group which today we simply call the ‘Malay’.
Hindu Kingdoms : 100 BC - 1400 AD
Early writings from India talk of a mystical, fantastically wealthly kingdom called Savarnadvipa -- the Land of Gold. This was said to lie in a far away and unknown land, and legend holds that it was on an odyessy in search of Savarnadvipa that the first Indians were lured to the Malay Peninsula. Blown across the Bay of Bengal by the reliable winds of the southwest monsoon, they arrived in Kedah sometime around 100 BC. It is unknown as to whether the natives they encountered were those from Savarnadvipa, but it is certain that the sailors considered the trip lucrative, and since then a stream of Indian traders arrived in search of gold, aromatic wood, and spices.
Goods were not the only items exchanged in the peninsula's ports: the Indians also brought Religion. Hinduism and Buddhism swept through the land, bringing temples and Indian cultural traditions. Local kings, who sent emissaries to the subcontinent, were impressed by the efficiency of the Hindu courts, and they integrated what they considered the best Indian governmental traditions with the existing structure, and historians typically refer to these kingdoms as "Indianised kingdoms." Today, the most visible example of the early Indian influence is in the Malay wedding ceremony, which is very similar that of the subcontinent.
Islam and the Golden Age of Malacca : 1400 AD - 1511 AD
Until the 15th century, the Hindu kingdoms of peninsular Malaysia were largely overshadowed by neighboring kingdoms in Cambodia and Indonesia. The strongest of these kingdoms was called Srivijaya, and the records of Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders laud it as the best trading port in the region. It was the first great maritime kingdom in the Malay archipelago, and other ports quickly emulated its success. At some time around the 13th century, as other ports emerged, Srivijaya's influence declined. The lack of a strong central power, coupled with the ever-present nuisance of pirates, amplified the need for a secure, well-equipped port in the region. Fate would make this port the city of Malacca.
According to the Malay Annals, Malacca was founded in 1400 by a fleeing Palembang prince named Parameswara. Its rise from a village of royal refugees to a wealthy kingdom was swift. Perfectly located for trade, within 50 years it was the most influential port in Southeast Asia. At any one time, ships from a dozen kingdoms great and small could be seen in the harbor. With these traders came Islam, and Malacca's rulers now referred to themselves as "sultans." The sultans were the heads of a highly organized municipal government, whose main purpose was to facilitate trade. Most importantly, Malacca was able to control what had always been the bane of trade in the Straits area - pirates. By building alliances with outlying tribes and ports, Malacca established a kind of regional "navy" that policed the local waters and escorted friendly vessels.
With the success and power it enjoyed, Malacca came to control the entire west coast of the Malay peninsula, the kingdom of Pahang, and much of Sumatra. At the height of its power, however, fate would ruin the city as quickly as it built it up. In 1511, the Portugese arrived, beginning a colonial legacy that would last well into the 20th century.
Colonial Malaysia : 1511 AD - 1957 AD
At the beginning of the 16th century, the eastern spice trade was routed through Egypt, and no non-Muslim vessel was permitted to dock in Arabian ports. The competing European powers, painfully aware of the need for an open trade route to India and the Far East, sought to establish their own trading ports at the source. In 1511, a Portuguese fleet led by Alfonso de Albuquerque sailed into Malacca's harbor, opened fire with cannon, and captured the city. Malacca's golden age had come to an end.
The Portuguese constructed a massive fort in Malacca, which the Dutch captured in turn in 1641. This would give the Dutch an almost exclusive lock on the spice trade until 1785, when the British East India Company convinced the Sultan of Kedah to allow them to build a fort on the island of Penang. The British were mainly interested in having a safe port for ships on their way to China, but when France captured the Netherlands in 1795, England's role in the region would amplify. Rather than hand Malacca over to the French, the Dutch government in exile agreed to let England temporarily oversee the port. The British returned the city to the Dutch in 1808, but it was soon handed back to the British once again in a trade for Bencoleen, Sumatra.
The Dutch still largely controlled the region, however, and in 1819 Britain sent Sir William Raffles to establish a trading post in Singapore. These three British colonies - Penang, Malacca, and Singapore - came to be known as the Straits Settlements.
While the European powers played their regional chess game, the local Malay sultanates continued on their own affairs. After Malacca was captured, the new Muslim trading center became Johor, then later on Perak. Both the Minangkabau Immigrants from Sumatra and the Bugi people from Celebes immigrated to the peninsula in large numbers, leaving lasting cultural contributions. In the late 1860's, a number of Malay kingdoms began fighting each other for control of the throne of Perak, causing enough of a disturbance in the region to inspire Britain to intervene and essentially force the Malay rulers to sign a peace treaty known as the Pangkor Agreement in 1874. The treaty, unsurprisingly, gave Britain a much greater role in the region - a role it would need in order to maintain its monopoly on the vast amount of tin being mined in the peninsula.
Coupled with the power of the White Rajas in Borneo, Britain ruled over what was then called Malaya until the Japanese invaded and ousted them in 1942. During this time, large numbers of Chinese fled to the jungle and established an armed resistance which, after war's end, would become the basis for an infamous communist insurgency. In 1945, when W.W.II ended, Britain resumed control again, but Malaya's independence movement had matured and organized itself in an alliance under Tunku Abdul Rahman. When the British flag was finally lowered in Kuala Lumpur's Merdeka Square in 1957, Tunku became the first prime minister of Malaya.
Independence and Onward: 1957 - present day
With 1957's independence, a new series of difficult decisions lay ahead of Malaya, the first of which was to determine exactly what territories would be included in the new state. In 1961, the term "Malaysia" came into being after Tunku convinced Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak to join Malaya in a federal union (Singapore later opted out of the union, peacefully, in 1965). Afraid that the union would interfere with his plans, Indonesia's president Sukharno launched attacks against Malaysia in Borneo and on the peninsula, all of which were unsuccessful.
Another immediate problem was the determination of a national identity. Malaysia was a mix of people from many races and cultures, and uniting them under a common flag was not an easy enterprise. Because Malays represented the majority, the constitution gave them permanent spots in the government, made Islam the national religion, and made Malay the national language; but the Chinese firmly dominated business and trade, and most Malay were suffering economic hardships. The government, controlled by the United Malay National Organization, passed the New Economic Policy, which attempted to increase economic opportunity for the Malay by establishing various quotas in their favor. Unsurprisingly, many Chinese opposed the new arrangement and formed a significant opposition party. In 1969, after the opposition party won significant seats, riots swept through Kuala Lumpur and the country was placed in a state of emergency for two years. It was a painful moment in the young nation's history that most Malaysians prefer to forget.
In the last two decades, Malaysia has undergone tremendous growth and prosperity, and has arguably made significant progress in race relations. However, the policy of ‘Bumiputra’ (special position being given to Native Malays* and indigenous people), which many deem to be racially discriminatory, still proves to be a dividing line in a country famed for its multiculturalism.
*A native Malay is described in Article 160 of the Constitution of Malaysia and Malay Islamic identity as a citizen born to a Malaysian citizen who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language, adheres to Malay customs, and is domiciled in Malaysia or Singapore.