Malaysian Culture



Cultures have been meeting and mixing in Malaysia since the very beginning of its history. More than fifteen hundred years ago a Malay kingdom in Bujang Valley welcomed traders from China and India. With the arrival of gold and silks, Buddhism and Hinduism also came to Malaysia. A thousand years later, Arab traders arrived in Malacca and brought with them the principles and practices of Islam. By the time the Portuguese arrived in Malaysia, the empire that they encountered was more cosmopolitan than their own. 

Malaysia's cultural mosaic is marked by many different cultures, but several in particular have had especially lasting influence on the country. Chief among these is the ancient Malay culture, and the cultures of Malaysia's two most prominent trading partners throughout history--the Chinese, and the Indians. These three groups are joined by a dizzying array of indigenous tribes, many of which live in the forests and coastal areas of Borneo. Although each of these cultures has vigorously maintained its traditions and community structures, they have also blended together to create contemporary Malaysia's uniquely diverse heritage. 


One example of the complexity with which Malaysia's immigrant populations have contributed to the nation's culture as a whole is the history of Chinese immigrants. The first Chinese to settle in the straits, primarily in and around Malacca, gradually adopted elements of Malaysian culture and intermarried with the Malaysian community. Known as babas and nonyas, they eventually produced a synthetic set of practices, beliefs, and arts, combining Malay and Chinese traditions in such a way as to create a new culture. Later Chinese, coming to exploit the tin and rubber booms, have preserved their culture much more meticulously. A city like Penang, for example, can often give one the impression of being in China rather than in Malaysia. 

Another example of Malaysia's extraordinary cultural exchange the Malay wedding ceremony, which incorporates elements of the Hindu traditions of southern India; the bride and groom dress in gorgeous brocades, sit in state, and feed each other yellow rice with hands painted with henna. Muslims have adapted the Chinese custom of giving little red packets of money (ang pau) at festivals to their own needs; the packets given on Muslim holidays are green and have Arab writing on them. 

You can go from a Malaysian kampung to a rubber plantation worked by Indians to Penang's Chinese kongsi and feel you've traveled through three nations. But in cities like Kuala Lumpur, you'll find everyone in a grand melange. In one house, a Chinese opera will be playing on the radio; in another they're preparing for Muslim prayers; in the next, the daughter of the household readies herself for classical Indian dance lessons. 

Perhaps the easiest way to begin to understand the highly complex cultural interaction which is Malaysia is to look at the open door policy maintained during religious festivals. Although Malaysia's different cultural traditions are frequently maintained by seemingly self-contained ethnic communities, all of Malaysia's communities open their doors to members of other cultures during a religious festival--to tourists as well as neighbors. Such inclusiveness is more than just a way to break down cultural barriers and foster understanding. It is a positive celebration of a tradition of tolerance that has for millennia formed the basis of Malaysia's progress. 

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Who are Malaysians? 


The Malay are Malaysia's largest ethnic group, accounting for over half the population and the national language. With the oldest indigenous peoples they form a group called bumiputera, which translates as "sons" or "princes of the soil." Almost all Malays are Muslims, though Islam here is less extreme than in the Middle East. Traditional Malay culture centers around the kampung, or village, though today one is just as likely to find Malays in the cities.  


The Chinese traded with Malaysia for centuries, then settled in number during the 19th century when word of riches in the Nanyang, or "South Seas," spread across China. Though perhaps a stereotype, the Chinese are regarded as Malaysia's businessmen, having succeeded in many industries. When they first arrived, however, Chinese often worked the most grueling jobs like tin mining and railway construction. Most Chinese are Tao Buddhist and retain strong ties to their ancestral homeland. They form about 35 percent of the population. 


Indians had been visiting Malaysia for over 2,000 years, but did not settle en masse until the 19th century. Most came from South India, fleeing a poor economy. Arriving in Malaysia, many worked as rubber tappers, while others built the infrastructure or worked as administrators and small businessmen. Today ten percent of Malaysia is Indian. Their culture -- with it's exquisite Hindu temples, cuisine, and colorful garments -- is visible throughout the land.   


The oldest inhabitants of Malaysia are its tribal peoples. They account for about 5 percent of the total population, and represent a majority in Sarawak and Sabah. Though Malaysia's tribal people prefer to be categorized by their individual tribes, peninsular Malaysia blankets them under the term Orang Asli, or "Original People." In Sarawak, the dominant tribal groups are the Dayak, who typically live in longhouses and are either Iban (Sea Dayak) or Bidayuh (land Dayak). In Sabah, most tribes fall under the term Kadazan. All of Malaysia's tribal people generally share a strong spiritual tie to the rain forest.