Malaysia is one of the most economically developed Countries in Southeast Asia. The Country is rightfully titled one of the four “New Asian tigers” along with Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand due to its high rate of development.

The diplomatic relations between the USSR and Malaysia started on April 3, 1967. However, the connection between Russia and Malaysia began long before the second half of the XX century. In 1874-1875, the outstanding Russian humanist, scientist and traveler N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was conducting research on the Malay Peninsula, the mainland territory of present-day Malaysia.


The first N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s expedition into the Malay Peninsula

(December, 1874 – February, 1875)


The history of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s travels on the territory of today’s Malaysia began in 1874, when the steamship “Namoa” set off from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) with the Russian scientist onboard, entered the Harbor of Singapore, a port on a small eponymous island in the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, where N.N. Miklouho-Maclay went into the jungle of the Johor Sultanate.

Taking into account the immense natural resources of the Peninsula, especially the rich tin deposits, English merchants used to send petitions from Singapore to London calling for the capture of the Malay Sultanates, a number of which are now part of Malaysia.

Sir Andrew Clarke, appointed as the Governor of the Straits Settlements in September 1873, was ordered to annex them to the British Empire, and not only the southernmost Johor Sultanate (now a state of Malaysia), which at that time was under protectorate of the British authorities. Within a year, A. Clarke conquered two large Sultanates in the western part of the Peninsula, Perak and Selangor (now the same name States of Malaysia).

Soon after the arrival of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay, the English Governor welcomed the Russian traveler cordially, but not without intent. For him N.N. Miklouho-Maclay was not just a famous traveler and humanist scientist, but a person who would go deep into the Peninsula and collect information useful for further expansion of the colony. Later, the Russian scientist understood the main reason behind the plans and kept safe the collected information about the Malay population. Interestingly, since the N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s expeditions in many areas of present-day Malaysia, no European reached those places, therefore the Governor and his subordinates had no information about the terrain, rivers, population, relations between local princes and various tribes. At that time, there was another very remarkable figure – Abu Bakar, titled by the British Government as Maharaja of Johor. Abu Bakar spoke excellent English, had been to Great Britain, and was willing to adopt European technical innovations, but remained adherent to some of the customs and religion of his ancestors.

Since the noise and bustle of the hotel disturbed N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s scientific work, he gladly accepted the invitation of Sultan Abu Bakar to move to his Palace in Johor Bahru (now the second most populous city after Kuala Lumpur), the capital of the Johor Sultanate, to continue preparing for a trip to the jungles of Malacca. Before the expedition to the Malay Peninsula, the Sultan provided the Russian scientist with a security certificate written in Malay Arabic script. It instructed the officials and Chiefs of the villages to help Miklouho-Maclay, who “wants to explore the forests, observe and draw the people who inhabit them“.

On December 15, 1874, Miklouho-Maclay set out on his first expedition to the lands of today’s Malaysia, accompanied by assistants from the settlement of Lenga (now mukim of Malaysia in Johor).

At the beginning of his trip to Malacca, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay went down the Muar river on a flat-bottomed boat and visited Kepong village (now a suburb of Kuala Lumpur), where a local Elder wished to accompany the famous traveler to the next Malay village. N.N. Miklouho-Maclay carefully studied the way of life, customs and traditions of the Malays in the villages he visited, but focused on the search and study of “orang utans” (in Malay, orang – “person, man”, utan –”forest”), which he believed might be related to the natives of New Guinea and generally belong to the “Melanesian race”. The “forest people” of the Johor Sultanate mostly belonged to the ancient population of Malacca – the Jakun tribes. At Miklouho-Maclay’s request, the Chiefs of Malay villages arranged meetings with the “forest people”, and later in the forests of Malacca the researcher sometimes came across their temporary settlements, usually located in a forest clearing or a river bank. In these cases, he would stop for a day or two and immerse into the study of the culture, life, and anthropological type of “orang utans”.

With ultimate care, the scientist compiled dictionaries of the basic words from the local dialects, noting the similarities and differences from the other Malay languages. Moreover, during his stay in Malacca, Miklouho-Maclay learned the Malay language. During the day the scientist usually made brief notes and sketches of future drawings, and in the evening, under the light of a torch, he made more detailed records in the diary, and made the sketches clearer. Several dozens of these drawings have survived and are of great interest not only for science, but also for art.

Despite the fact that the local climate aggravated Miklouho-Maclay’s diseases, the Russian humanist scientist not only did not lose heart, but, according to his diary records, at times was in high spirits as the local conditions reminded him of New Guinea, which had become so dear for him.

After visiting the Sembrong river, a tributary of the Endau river (now the city of the same name is located here), and the Madek river, another tributary of the Sombrong river, the Russian scientist headed South along the Johor river, towards Johor Bahru, where the Sultan’s Palace was located. Miklouho-Maclay quickly went down the river to Kota Tinggi. In the city, the Russian humanist scientist saw a completely different landscape: fruit trees, gardens and plantations. This area was inhabited by Malays. In Kota Tinggi the Russian traveler was also welcomed by representatives of the Sultan. Then, on a sailing ship sent for him by Abu Bakar, Miklouho-Maclay arrived in Johor Bahru in January or February 1875.

After the first expedition to the jungles of Malacca, where no European has ever stepped foot, the local Newspapers published an interview with the Russian scientist about his exciting journey, and the telegraph agencies spread the news of N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s return from the jungles of Malacca around the world.


N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s stay on the Malay Peninsula and the idea of a biological station


Because of the acute health problems, the second expedition deep into Malacca had to be postponed for several months. But while in Johor Bahru, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay did not waste time and put in order, systematized and made additional records in the materials of his previous trip, he also continued working on the manuscript “The Ethnology of the Papuans of the Maclay Coast, New Guinea”, which also became world famous.

It was during the trip over the territory of the present-day Malaysia when the Russian scientist decided to establish a zoological (marine biological) station in the southern part of Malacca and put his long-standing idea into practice. The idea of a number of biological stations in various parts of the world, where scientists from all over the world could conduct their research, was unique for that time.

Miklouho-Maclay chose a small hill near Johor Bahru, which forms a promontory in the Johor Strait that separates Singapore from the Malay Peninsula, and asked Abu Bakar to sell it. The Sultan, with his Oriental courtesy, did not say no to the distinguished guest, but no papers were signed. Taking advantage of the postponed expedition, the traveler drafted the rules for using the station, drew a sketch of its building, and even named the station “Tempat Senang” (in Malay – “a place of rest”). Two months later, Abu Bakar informed the traveler that he could not sell the land, but agreed to lease it for several years, which was not suitable for the scientist’s plans. Regardless of the result, the establishment of a biological station was an important goalfor N.N. Miklouho-Maclay. The station would later be established in Watsons Bay, Australia, in 1881.


The second N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s expedition into the Malay Peninsula

(June – October, 1875)


N.N. Miklouho-Maclay started the second expedition to Malacca in quite difficult conditions on June 15, 1875. Dissatisfied with high taxes, the local residents of Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan (now a state in Malaysia) opposed the colonial authorities. Well-wishers warned the Russian scientist that he was in danger, since the actions of the colonizers caused hostility to Europeans throughout the Peninsula, and he could pay with his life if he was mistaken for an English spy. But on June 15, 1875, the traveler left Johor Bahru for a new expedition. Sultan Abu Bakar again helped the Russian scientist.

By the Johor and Endau rivers the traveler reached the northern edge of Abu Bakar’s domain – the border between the Johor and Pahang Sultanates.

N.N. Miklouho-Maclay treated the locals with respect, so he resorted to tactics that helped him in the first period of his stay on the Maclay Coast: when approaching a village, he warned the locals in advance and tried to show his peaceful intentions. This time he did not whistle, as he used to do in New Guinea, but sent a few Malays to the village. They reported to the local landlord: “Dato (in Malayan “highborn”) Maclay travels around the countries of Malay and other countries to learn how people live there, how princes and poor people live, people in villages and people in forests; to get acquainted not only with people, but also with animals, trees and plants in the forests”. The Russian humanist scientist also used his knowledge in medicine and, just as on the Maclay Coast, offered treatment to the local residents.

Then the Russian scientist arrived in Pekan (now a city in Malaysia), the capital of the Pahang Sultanate, where he met the local Sultan of Pahang and told him about his intentions, so the Sultan decided to help the traveler.

Then N.N. Miklouho-Maclay went up the Pahang river to the Tembeling river, crossed a low mountain range on foot and reached the Labir riverhead. Here, in a rough area, at the borders of the Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu Sultanates, Miklouho-Maclay found the “forest people”, who in his opinion were close to the natives of New Guinea in anthropological features. Living as nomads, moving under the pressure of the Malays further into the mountains and forests of the Peninsula, their race remained unmixed and they spoke their original language.

The Lebir river is a tributary of the Kelantan river, which gave the name to the Sultanate (like Johor and Pahang). Along this river, the traveler reached its mouth, where the capital of the Sultanate was – Kota Bharu (now a city in Malaysia, the capital of the Kelantan State). Nikolay Nikolaevich visited Kota Bharu, famous for its buffalo fights and handicraft, and sketched the Sultan’s Palace built in the classical Malay style.

Without abandoning its main goal – the study of the population of the Malay Peninsula, – N.N. Miklouho-Maclay immersed himself in the study of culture, customs and traditions of the Malays and the relationship of the Sultans. N.N. Miklouho-Maclay crossed the Peninsula at its narrowest part in four days and arrived in Alor Setar (now a city in Malaysia, the capital of the Kedah State). Then, after visiting the port of Malacca on the west coast of the Peninsula, N.N. Miklouho-Maclay arrived in Singapore on an English steamer on October 9.

His diaries, drawings and dictionaries of the local dialects’ key words are a great contribution to the anthropology and ethnography of Malays. During the second expedition on the Peninsula, Nikolay Nikolaevich also became a discoverer of the Senoi tribes Semelai and Temoq, as well as a small Semang tribe Batak, representing the household and cultural type of nomadic hunters and gatherers. N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s records on these tribes are a unique ethnographic source.

At the same time, after returning to Singapore from the second expedition, Miklouho-Maclay found out that armed riot had begun in Perak and later in other Sultanates. Local authorities aggressively suppressed the riot, which really shocked Miklouho-Maclay. The traveler seriously thought about what might happen on the Maclay Coast (the northeastern coast of New Guinea) in case of the arrival of British settlers.

Being sure that the local colonial authorities would use the information about the inhabitants of Malacca for their own purposes, the Russian scientist decided not to publish or give the materials to anyone and sailed off on a regular steamer to Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia).



Nowadays, we can easily note another interesting fact: N.N. Miklouho-Maclay visited 6 of the 13 States of the present Malaysia (Johor, Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Kelantan, Kedah). Moreover, the Russian humanist scientist and traveler maintained friendly relations with Maharaja Abu Bakar, who is considered one of the first Malay Rulers of the new type. One of Abu Bakar’s ancestors was Abdul Jalil Shah IV, who ruled Johor in the early XVIII century. While in power, Abu Bakar promoted development of the virgin jungle in the depths of the Sultanate, and also carried out administrative reform, entrusting leadership positions to educated Malays, with whom he once studied. The Sultan of Johor was also a skilled diplomat: he participated in the affairs of neighboring Malay States, defended his interests and, at the same time, maintained friendly relations with Great Britain. In 1865, he went to England and was granted an audience by Queen Victoria, which elevated his status in both Southeast Asia and Europe. In his domain in Johor Bahru and Singapore, Abu Bakar built luxurious European style palaces, where he received distinguished guests. In the last years of his life he started the construction of the mosque that is named after him now.

N.N. Miklouho-Maclay’s travel over the Malay Peninsula once again confirms that the Russian scientist followed his humanistic ideas of the equality of all people on the planet in every place of the world, opposed colonization and was a true friend to the indigenous population, who always came with peace.