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Malaysian People And Culture

Info: 3864 words (15 pages) Essay
Published: 6th Jun 2017 in History

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There has been a rich literature on issues pertaining to domestic crisis involving different ethnic groups. According to the history of many countries with diverse ethnic compositions, racial or ethnic crisis has been inevitable. Malaysia as a country with diverse ethnic and religious groups is not resistant to this situation. In order to understand the culture of Malaysia, its ethnic classification needs to be well understood. In view of this, there is a need to peruse the different characteristics of the different groups to have an in-depth knowledge on the role culture play in the Malaysian coexistence.

Research Question

This study will basically attempt to find answers to the following research questions stated below:

  • Does culture play any role in the Malaysian society?
  • Is the government encouraging unity among the people?

Significance of the study

This paper will provide an insight on how the people of Malaysia live together in peace despite their different ideological beliefs.

Objective of the study

Globally, a growing number of countries are attempting to find a lasting solution to the ethnic and religious crisis. Generally, this paper attempts to explore the historical background of the Malaysian people and the role of their cultural heritage in the present – day Malaysia.

Scope of the study

As a result of time constraint, this research paper is restricted to library based and the resources used are textbooks, journal articles and internet information.


Orang Asli: (original people), Babas and Nyonyas: (some of the indigenous people that married to the Malays and have combine their culture with theirs), Perankans: (born in Malaysia Chinese).

Historical Background:

Several dominant themes in Malaysian history are essential to understand the contemporary Malaysian society. Malaysia with an area of 329 750 sq km (127,317 sq mi), comprises of two non adjacent areas: Peninsular Malaysia (previously West Malaysia), on the mainland of Asia, and two states which is Sarawak and Sabah, recognized jointly as East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. Relatively, Malaysia has large area compared to the state of New Mexico. Peninsular Malaysia, project southward from the mainland of Asia, comprises an area of 131,587 sq km (50,806 sq mi), lengthen 748 km (465 mi) SSE-NNW and 322 km (200 mi) ENE-WSW. It shares the border with Thailand on the North, and East by the South China Sea, on the South is the Strait of Johore, and on the West is the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea, with a total boundary length of 2,068 km (1,285 mi). Sarawak, covers an area of 124,449 sq km (48,050 sq mi), on the northwest coast of Borneo, lengthen 679 km (422 mi) NNE-SSW and 254 km (158 mi) ESE-WNW. It is surrounded by Brunei on the N, Sabah on the NE, Indonesia on the E and S, and the South China Sea on the W. Sarawak’s boundary length of 2,621 km (1,629 mi). which is located at the northern end of Borneo, Sabah with an area of 74,398 sq km (28,725 sq mi), a length of 412 km (256 mi) E-W and a width of 328 km (204 mi) N – S . The Balabac Strait at the N, Sulu Sea at the NE, to the SE is the Celebes Sea, to the S Indonesia, to the SW Sarawak, and to the W the South China Sea, with a total boundary length of 2,008 km (1,248 mi). The total boundary length of Malaysia is 7,344 km (4,563 mi), of which 4,675 km (2,905 mi) is coastline.

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Malaysia’s population was estimated at 27 730 000 in 2008 [1] . The country has ethnic groups with the majority groups comprise of Malay. Of the total population, 5.44 million Malaysians live in East Malaysia and 21.2 live in Peninsular Malaysia. Malaysian population continues to grow at a rate of 2.4% per annum; about 34% of the population is under age of 15. Malays and other Bumiputera groups make up 65% of the population, Chinese 26%, Indians 8% and other unlisted ethnic groups 1% [2] .

Malaysia got its independence from the British colonial Masters in 1957. It formally came into being on September 16, 1963. The Environment and people of Malaysia was subsequently established in this year. The Federation of Malaysia comprises of the long peninsular land mass which separates the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea, together with the northern quarter of Borneo but excludes the small state Brunei. Peninsular Malaysia covering 131 573 square kilometer (sq km), is made up of eleven states; Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor (with the Federal Capital Territory of Kuala Lumpur), Melaka, Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan. At 795sq km, Perlis is the smallest state, while Pahang (35 694sq km) is the largest after Sarawak. The island of Singapore, which was part of Malaysia between 1963 and 1965, is now independent. The Borneo territories, Sabah( formerly British North Borneo), Sarawak, and the federal territory of the island of Labuan, together cover roughly 198 000 sq km, but are separated at the closest point from the peninsula by over 530 kilometres (km). Kota Kinabalu (previously Jesselton), the capital of Sabah, is 864 km from kuching (Sarawak’s capital) and more than 1600km from Kuala Lumpur.

The terrain of both the peninsula and Borneo is characterized by coastal plains giving way to a rugged mountainous interior. The spine of the peninsula is the main Range, running roughly north-south for 483km and varying from 914 meters to 2134 meters (m) above sea level.

Both peninsular Malaysia and the Borneo states lie between 2 and 6 north of the equator. The climate is uniformly ranging from 25.5 to 33, except at high altitude where the nights are considerably cooler. The passing of the seasons is not marked by variations in temperature but by the changes in rainfall, which in turn are related to the cycle of the monsoonal winds. Throughout most Malaysia, the rainfall averages from 2000 milliliters (mm) to 4000mm per annum, but there are many variations between different regions. There is no truly dry season but some region may be considered wetter than others.

Although Malaysian soil is not really fertile but heavy rainfall and warm temperatures provide almost perfect conditions for growth of the equatorial forests. Most of the original forests have now been removed to make way for settlement, roads, communication, and the development of commercial agriculture and industries. Similarly, some jungle areas have been substantially reduced by heavy logging over the last two decades, especially Sabah and Sarawak.

The varied composition of Malaysia’s population remains one of its most distinguishing features. The dominant ethnic group in Malaysia is the Malays, who are above half per cent of Peninsular Malaysia’s population. The category of Bumiputera in Peninsular Malaysia include other numerically small but historically important indigenous groups known as orang Asli (son/ daughter of the soil).

Among the peninsula’s non-indigenous population, includes a range of different groups such as; Arabs, Armenians, Eurasians, Filipinos and many others. The main communities are the Chinese and the Indian. The Chinese and Indian are mainly descendant of migrant who arrived to work in the colonial economy.

The national language which is Malay has been the most important means of linking the nation together. English is widely use in schools as a medium of instruction but Malay remains the official language and also use as medium of instruction especially in government-owned schools. Other commonly spoken languages include; Mandarin by Chinese and Tamil by the Indians and numerous regional languages.

The match of religion and cultural traditions within Malaysian society is complex. Several religions co-exist in Malaysia, helping to accentuate regional and ethnic distinctions. The spread of Islam was predominantly for Malays and as such the country’s religion is Islam, and all Malays are by right, Muslims.

The historical extension of Islam within the present – day Malaysia helps to account for the dichotomy between Malays, Chinese, and Indian. The divisions within the Malaysians in term of religious belief have been so pronounced during the Sultanate era. Some Indigenous groups have adopted Islam or Christianity while some significant numbers retained their ingenious religions. Some Chinese are Muslims, but majority are Bhudist, Confucianist or combination of these.

Malaysia and Singapore are the only two countries in Southeast Asia that have held elections at regular intervals since they became independent. The head of the state is called (yang dipertuan agung) which is among the sultans of the Peninsular states. Malaysia as a federation, granted the Borneo territories special right when they joined. Malaysia has successfully maintained co-operation and harmony among its different communities despite their disturbing racial and ethnic violence.

In terms of literacy, in 2009, Malaysia’s literacy rate was estimated at 91.9% on average with higher rate for women than men [3] . Malaysian government provides government supported education with compulsory attendance for primary education [4] . The education system consists of pre-school which is basically provided by private bodies, while primary, secondary, pre-university and tertiary education are provided by both government and private bodies.


Malaysia is unique in the community of nations in its combination of diverse people and culture who live in harmony and has become a model to many communities. With independence, the state acquires the distinct characteristic of a multi-ethnic citizenry with many shared experiences and collective memories of living in a land that was once ruled by Britain (Keong, 2007).

Culture and ethnicity provide vital information that is very pertinent to understand the setting and way of life of a particular society. Culture and its significant role in human behavior has been recognized for many years, as far back as Hippocrates from the classical Greek era (see Dona, 1991). A culture is the name given to the physical manifestations created by ethnic groups- the actual language, art forms, religion, social order and achievements of a particular ethnic group. Culture and ethnicity are directly dependent upon each other in a symbolic relationship (Betancourt and Lopez, 1993).

Culture is essential to set up an order and regulation in the society. It does not only a mean the way people communicate, but also creates a feeling of belonging and togetherness amongst people in the society.

Every society has various cultures, where a specific language, traditions, behaviors, perceptions and beliefs is shared among the people. Culture provides them an identity that makes them distinctive and different from people of other cultures. When people of different cultures migrate and settle in a new society, the culture of that society turn out to be the dominant culture and folks of the immigrants form the subculture of the community. Usually, people who settle in other nations take in the new culture; while at the same time struggle to conserve their own.

Even though every society has a definite culture, there are certain basics of culture that are universal.

The physical features and geographic location of past and current of Malaysia influenced how the people of the region live and contribute to the way they interact with each other. This applies equally to events at the local as well as the national level which tends to explain why some features of Malaysian culture continue to be significant and been maintained.

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This paper will examine the race, culture, religion, and various ethnic adaptations of the Malaysians as a whole. The discussion will survey decades of Malaysia multi-ethnicity prior to independence. The aborigines (Orang Asli) and people of the nation who vary based on the area and part of Malaysia they come will also be discussed. The focus of this paper will be on the pioneering spirit of the Malays and the settlers (Chinese and Indian) towards progress of the country.

The rest of this paper is structured as follows. Part A explains about people of Malaysia, while Part B….discusses the various indigenous tribes, Part C …..Discusses the main three ethnic group and Part D discusses socio-cultural and the role of goverment…….concludes the paper.

People of Malaysia:

There are about 27million (2008 est.) people in Malaysia from various background. It can be said that in diversity there is union because in Malaysia all the races; ethnic Malays, and Indigenous people (son of the soil) Indian as well as Chinese, Eurasians and many others work and live together in harmony.

In pre-modern times, environment and mode of lifestyle had a great deal of influence on the kind of social organization that shaped the way individuals relate to each other, such a small population dependent on mobility might be expected to have different convections concerning marriage, child-rearing inheritance and so on.

It is possible to see a set of shared beliefs common to the religious system of many of the groups indigenous to Malaysian territories. Among these is the understanding that all matter has its own spiritual essence and that well being and harmony results from their correct matching.

Indigenous People:

One useful way of trying to understand the relationship between the diverse groups of indigenous peoples of the Malay Peninsula is to compare types of social organization and the lifestyle. When this is done, socio-cultural pattern can be recognized such as; Malay, Senoi, Semang and Malayic (Hooker, 2003).

Malay Pattern:

In contemporary Malaysia, the religion of Islam is followed by more than half of Malaysian’s population. Islam being a religion of adoption has developed in the Malaysian territories as elsewhere in the world but less extreme.

Malay language is part of the very large group known as Austronesian, whose speakers stretch from the pacific to Madagascar.

Senoi Pattern:

People of this pattern mainly depend on swidden (fell and burn) farming supplemented by trading. This way of life is found mainly in the mountain areas of the central part of the Peninsula. People following this socio-cultural pattern include the Temiars, Semais, Jah Hut and Btsis. There are many variations in religious system among these peoples. It is thought that spirit inhabit natural sites and have to be appeased before entering their domains.. They can ward off evil spirits and to find lost souls by seeking aid from their spirit familiars.

The Semang Pattern:

This lifestyle is based largely on foraging (hunting and gathering). On the peninsula, small populations still follow this pattern to some degree: Kintas, Jahais and so on. Their religious belief in general is similar to those of the Senoi parttern discussed earlier.

Malayic Pattern:

This is followed by people who combine subsistence farming or fishing with collecting of forest or marine product for trade. People with this style combine the Senoi and Semang pattern.. They are found in lowland areas of the Peninsula and south Sumathra, and the island in the strait Malaka.

Culture of Malaysians:

Malaysia’s ancient cultural mosaic is marked by many different cultures; one of the common is the ancient Malay culture and the culture of its two prominent trading partners through out history (Chinese and Indian).


Malays have been found as far as Africa. They are the majority race in Malaysia, comprising of more than half per cent of Malaysia’s population. Malays are Muslim, born of a Malay father and native speaker of Malay language. They are also called Bumiputera (the native people). Malays adopted the Arabic writing system and indigenized it and renamed it as “Jawi”. The Terengganu stone, which described the obedience to Allah and His law, is thought to be the oldest Malay text in Arabic script dating back to the 14th century.

Malay subjects have the divine duty never to be disloyal to their rulers, even if they behave unfairly or are unjust to them. In this system, the ruler is subject only to God. Malays are considered very gentle, due to their warmth, dignity and politeness. This attitude and inherited beliefs from their rulers enabled Malays to be accommodating and which obviously reflects in the way their country is being governed. This approach and way of life has enabled them to progress more than expected when compared with other countries that they got independence in the same period.

Malaysian Chinese Culture:

Chinese are the second largest ethnic group, most descendent immigrant during 19th century. Different dialect are spoken such as; Hokkies which is mainly spoken in the northern part of Penang. Cantonese in Kuala Lumpur there are other dialects like Teochew and other small dialect. Mandarin is widely used in the southern state. Malaysia Chinese culture are drawn from the culture of their ancestors Taiosm, Confuism, embedded in this culture are core values that are compatible with those advocate by various religions and societies. These values are derived from the teaching and philosophy of Confuism and many others by blending with element from local culture thus; Chinese culture has produced features that are uniquely Malaysia. The Chinese traded with Malays for centuries then settled in numbers during 19th century when word of richness in the Nyayang ore south seas spread across china, the Chinese are regarded as businessmen of Malaysia. Most Chinese are Tao, Budhist and retain strong ties to their ancestral homeland (Keong, 2007).

Malaysian Indian Culture:

Indian is the smallest of the three major groups, of these Malaysia ethnic group population most are from Tamil speaking south India who fled a poor economy and migrated to Malaysia during colonial times. Arriving in Malaysia many worked as rubber tappers, while others build infrastructure. They brought with them Hindu and Sikh culture, unique temples, spicy cuisines, colourful garment, ornament and many others. Indian had been visiting Malaysia for many years without settling until the19th century. Hindu tradition remains strong until today in the Indian community of Malaysia. There is also the chitty community in Malacca similar to the Babas and Nyonyas, it is the result of the assimilation between the Indian immigrants and local culture. Though they remain Hindu, the chitties speak Bahasa Malaysia and their women dress in Sarong Kebayas instead of Sarees. However, other Indian Hindus retain their vernacular languages and dialects [5] .


This group is classified as others. After Malacca was conquered by the Portuguese, in the year 1511, in order to gain control, Portuguese soldier’s marriage with local women was encouraged. Descendants of the cross-cultural marriages in the 19th and 20th century are equally indicative of their English or Dutch heritage. Malacca was at one point in time a Dutch colony.

During British colonial rule, many bright students that were handpicked was given scholarships (e.g. Rhodes) to tertiary institution in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia, on their return to serve the government, they brought back not only the education, but also their British European culture.


The Peranakans were first well-known when Chinese trade missions established port in Malacca in the early 1400s. Inter-relationship and marriages were faked between these traders and the local Malay women; example of this was the marriage of a sultan of Malacca to Ming Princess Hang Li Poh. She came in company of some people that settled around what is known in Malacca today as Bukit China. Subsequent descendant of these Chinese-Malays were known as Straits Chinese, or Peranakan (means “born here” in Malay). Those who embraced Islam were also classified as bumiputeras. Even though Malacca was the Peranakan centre, their communities can also be found in Singapore and Penang. The man is referred to as “baba,” while the lady is referred to as “nyonya.” The combination of this is known as “babanyonya” which they combine the best of Malay and Chinese favorites among many locals and visitors alike.

Malaysia for foreigners:

People visiting Malaysia today will be mesmerized by the multi-culturalism of the country, composing of Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians, and as well as the indigenous communities in the likes of the Kadazandusuns of Sabah and the Iban of Sarawak.

Based on population statistics, Malaysia’s population stands at around 29 million today, with about 85% living in Peninsular Malaysia, and about 15% in both Sabah and Sarawak.


Malaysia is one the young states that gained independence in the post-war era, as a country it traces its genesis to British colonial rule which expanded incrementally from 1786. Since 1963, Malaysia has been a country of three major geographical components that has now led to unique identity as a multi-ethnic country.

The country has become the acknowledge form of organization by which its form of government with its legitimate right of sovereignty over the Malaysians is being nurtured by shared commonalities and collective effort of its entire inhabitant. It is very clear that one of the most important objectives of any society is to realize greater justice in the society. Despite the different historical background and religious beliefs of Malaysians, the people have been able to accept one another, adapting to the cultural differences and tolerating individual religious beliefs. In support of this, the Malaysian government has also embarked on a mission of lumping together the mosaic of people of regardless of their cultural background, religion, language and other attributes (Slogan: Satu Malaysia). This approach to equality of the citizenry will go a long way to bring peace and harmony to the country and subsequently, cooperation and prosperity becomes achievable.


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