Johor’s history can be traced to the 16th century. It began in 1511 when Sultan Mahmud of the Malacca Sultanate, after losing Malacca to the Portuguese, fled to Johor. From there, he battled to try to recapture Malacca from the Portuguese. He did not succeed and died in Kampar, in Sumatra in 1528.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, was steadily gaining in economic and political strength. The Acehnese were in constant conflict with the Portuguese in Malacca as part of their ambition to gain control of the region. At the same time, the Johor Sultanate, with imperialist ambitions of its own, did not give up its desire to recapture Malacca. This resulted in the Aceh-Malacca-Johor war.
When the Dutch came to this region, they allied with Johor for a combined successful attack on the Portuguese, giving both the Johoreans and the Dutch the military confidence to expand their intertwined empires economically.By the end of 17th century, the Johor Empire was among the strongest in the region. However, a war with the Bugis of Celebes in 1716 weakened Johor.
The Dutch East India Company’s control of Riau-Johor in 1784 ended the Bugis domination in Johor. In 1819, the squabble between the Malay and Bugis factions in Johor gave Stamford Raffles an opportunity to put Singapore - until then, a swampy southern outpost of the empire - under British control.
Sultan Abu Bakar, who became the Sultan in 1885 is fondly remembered as the "Father of Modern Johor", as he is credited with laying the foundation for developing Johor into a modern state. He first transformed Johor Bahru from a humble fishing village into a thriving new town. Thereafter, he extended the development to other parts of Johor, in particular the townships of Muar and Batu Pahat.
Sultan Abu Bakar was the first Malay ruler to visit England. He became the personal friend of Queen Victoria. He used western methods to manage Johor’s internal affairs and secured the personal services and advice of British businessmen and professionals. He introduced a modern public administration system, known as the Johor Civil Service and gave the State its first constitution.
These successes, and his contacts with people in high places in London and Singapore, convinced the British that his government was good and stable and thus, deferred the appointment of a British advisor to help him rule Johor, the only Malay state to be given this degree of independence.
His successor, Sultan Ibrahim, tried to continue his predecessor’s independence-minded policies, but reigned at the time when the British power was at its height. In 1914, Sultan Ibrahim reluctantly accepted a British General Advisor, which effectively put Johor under British control.
Throughout the period of British rule, Johor succeeded in maintaining a strong identity of its own. Its leaders played a major role in the post-1945 independence movement, including the formation of the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) in 1946. Dato’ Onn bin Jaafar, a former Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of Johor was the founder of UMNO.