Malaysia - Truly Asia!
Malaysia is a Southeast Asian country occupying parts of the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo. It’s known for its beaches, rainforests and mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and European cultural influences. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, is home to colonial buildings, busy shopping districts such as Bukit Bintang and skyscrapers such as the iconic, 451m-tall Petronas Twin Towers.
Malaysia, country of Southeast Asia, lying just north of the Equator, that is composed of two noncontiguous regions: Peninsular Malaysia (Semenanjung Malaysia), also called West Malaysia (Malaysia Barat), which is on the Malay Peninsula, and East Malaysia (Malaysia Timur), which is on the island of Borneo. The Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, lies in the western part of the peninsula, about 25 miles (40 km) from the coast; the administrative centre, Putrajaya, is located about 16 miles (25 km) south of the capital.
History of Malaysia
Extending well into the western zone of the Southeast Asian archipelago, the Malay Peninsula has long constituted a critical link between the mainland and the islands of Southeast Asia. Because Malaysia itself is divided between the two regions, the history of the country can be understood only within a broad geographic context. The Strait of Malacca, narrowly separating the peninsula from the archipelago, has been a crossroads for peoples, cultures, and trade passing through or taking root in both areas. Influences from China, India, the Middle East, and, later, Europe followed the maritime trade. Peninsular Malaysia and the two states of East Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah, have shared many historical patterns, but each region also has developed in unique ways.
Malaysia’s prehistory remains insufficiently studied, but bone and artifact discoveries at the Niah Cave site in northern Sarawak confirm that the area was already inhabited by Homo sapiens about 40,000 years ago. The vast cave complex contains remains that not only indicate a nearly unbroken succession of human visits and occupations but also chronicle the evolution of stone tools until some 1,300 years ago. Peninsular Malaysia has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years, archaeologists having unearthed evidence of Stone Age and early Bronze Age civilizations; Neolithic culture was apparently well established by 2500 to 1500 BCE.
Early historical studies postulated that successive waves of peoples—ancestors of the contemporary Malays—migrated into the region from China and Tibet during the 1st millennium BCE, pushing earlier inhabitants into the western Pacific or remote mountain enclaves. More recently it has been suggested that the southward migration consisted of small groups who imposed their culture and language and created new ethnic fusions.
Small Malay kingdoms appeared in the 2nd or 3rd century CE, a time when Indian traders and priests began traveling the maritime routes, bringing with them Indian concepts of religion, government, and the arts. Over many centuries the peoples of the region, especially those within the royal courts, synthesized Indian and indigenous ideas, making selective use of Indian models—including Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism—in shaping their political and cultural patterns. The most significant complex of Indianized temple ruins has been found around Kedah Peak in northwestern Peninsular Malaysia.
Because the peninsula and northern Borneo both lacked broad, fertile plains, they were unable to support the high population densities that were the foundation of other, more powerful Southeast Asian civilizations, such as those that flourished on the island of Java and on the mainland in what is now Cambodia. However, scant documentation, chiefly from Chinese written sources, suggests that perhaps 30 small Indianized states rose and fell in Malaya—the Malay region of the peninsula—during the 1st millennium CE. The most important of these states, Langkasuka, controlled much of the northern part of the region.
Malaya developed an international reputation, both as a source of gold and tin and as the home of renowned seafarers; as its reputation grew, however, Malaya increasingly was exposed (or subjected) to cultural influences from surrounding powers. Between the 7th and 13th centuries many of the region’s small, often prosperous maritime trading states likely came under the loose control of Srivijaya, the great Indianized empire based in Sumatra. At various times, other Indianized powers of Southeast Asia—including the Khmer (Cambodian) empire based at Angkor, the Tai kingdom of Ayutthaya, and the Majapahit empire centred in eastern Java—also claimed suzerainty in the region. These early cultural forces in Malaya left a living legacy, traces of which are still evident in the political ideas, social structures, rituals, language, arts, and other traditions of Malay Muslims.
Although development was slower in more remote, less fertile northern Borneo, the area that is now Sarawak had entered the Iron Age by CE 600. Archaeological excavations in the Sarawak River delta have revealed much evidence not only of early ironworking but also of extensive trade with China and the Southeast Asian mainland. The local peoples offered edible bird’s nests, rhinoceros horns, hornbill “ivory” (from the casque atop the bird’s beak), camphor, spices, wood, and other goods in exchange for Chinese ceramics, metal, and probably clothing. Meanwhile, Neolithic boatbuilders along the east coast of present-day Sabah were involved in extensive interregional trade; the maritime peoples of the area called the territory the “land below the wind” because it lay south of the tropical cyclone (typhoon) belt.
The advent of Islam
From the 13th through the 17th century, Sunni Islam, carried chiefly by Arab and Indian merchants, spread widely through peninsular and insular Southeast Asia. The new religion offered equal-opportunity social advancement through spiritual devotion, which ultimately challenged (but did not entirely eliminate) the power of the traditional elites; Islam also embodied a complex theology that held much appeal for farmers and merchants in the coastal regions. The dissemination of Islam was intimately linked to the florescence of the great Indian Ocean trading routes that connected China through the Strait of Malacca to India, the Middle East, and eastern Africa.
The arrival of Islam coincided with the rise of the great port of Malacca (now Melaka), established along the strait on Malaya’s southwest coast by Sumatran exiles about 1400. The Indianized king—who successfully sought a tributary relationship with powerful China—converted to Islam, becoming a sultan and hence attracting Muslim merchants. Soon Malacca became Southeast Asia’s principal trading entrepôt, while at the same time it gained suzerainty over much of coastal Malaya and eastern Sumatra. Malacca also served as the regional centre for the propagation of Islam and as the eastern terminus of the Indian Ocean trading network. Indonesian spices, Malayan gold, and Chinese silks and tea all passed through Malacca on their way to South Asia, the Middle East, and, ultimately, Europe.
At its height in the late 15th century, Malacca hosted some 15,000 merchants of many nationalities, including Chinese, Arabs, Persians, and Indians; attracted by a stable government and a policy of free trade, the ships in the harbour purportedly outnumbered those in any other port in the known world. The Chinese admiral Zheng He called at the port several times in the first decades of the 15th century as part of the great naval expeditions of the Ming dynasty to the western Indian Ocean. Malacca’s political and religious influence reached its height under Tun Perak, who served as chief minister (1456–98) after defeating the expanding Siamese (Thai) in a fierce naval battle; during his tenure Islam became well entrenched in such districts (and subsidiary sultanates) as Johor (Johore), Kedah, Perak, Pahang, and Terengganu.
The mostly Islamicized people of 15th-century Malacca began calling themselves “Malays” (“Melayu”), likely a reference to their Sumatran origins. Thereafter the term Malay was applied to those who practiced Islam and spoke a version of the Malay language. Religious and linguistic behaviour, rather than descent, then, became the criteria for being Malay; this enabled previously Hindu-Buddhist peoples and former adherents of local religions to identify themselves (and even merge) with the Malays—regardless of their ancestry. Over time this loose cultural designation became a coherent ethnic group populating what is commonly called the “Malay world,” a region encompassing Malaya, northern and western Borneo, eastern Sumatra, and the smaller islands in between. Islam, however, came to overlay the earlier beliefs so that, before the rise of religious reform movements in the 19th century, few Malays were orthodox Muslims. Hindu-influenced ritual remained important for those of noble heritage, and local spirits were richly incorporated into Islamic practices.
People of Malaysia
The people of Malaysia are unevenly distributed between Peninsular and East Malaysia, with the vast majority living in Peninsular Malaysia. The population shows great ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity. Within this diversity, a significant distinction is made for administrative purposes between indigenous peoples (including Malays), collectively called bumiputra, and immigrant populations (primarily Chinese and South Asians), called non-bumiputra.
Ethnic groups and languages
The Malay Peninsula and the northern coast of Borneo, both situated at the nexus of one of the major maritime trade routes of the world, have long been the meeting place of peoples from other parts of Asia. As a result, the population of Malaysia, like that of Southeast Asia as a whole, shows great ethnographic complexity. Helping to unite this diversity of peoples is the national language, a standardized form of Malay, officially called Bahasa Malaysia (formerly Bahasa Melayu). It is spoken to some degree by most communities, and it is the main medium of instruction in public primary and secondary schools.
In general, peninsular Malaysians can be divided into four groups. In the order of their appearance in the region, these include the various Orang Asli (“Original People”) aboriginal peoples, the Malays, the Chinese, and the South Asians. In addition, there are small numbers of Europeans, Americans, Eurasians, Arabs, and Thai. The Orang Asli constitute the smallest group and can be classified ethnically into the Jakun, who speak a dialect of Malay, and the Semang and Senoi, who speak languages of the Mon-Khmer language family.
The Malays originated in different parts of the peninsula and archipelagic Southeast Asia. They constitute about half of the country’s total population, they are politically the most powerful group, and, on the peninsula, they are numerically dominant. They generally share with each other a common culture, but with some regional variation, and they speak dialects of a common Austronesian language—Malay. The most obvious cultural differences occur between the Malays living near the southern tip of the peninsula and those inhabiting the eastern and western coastal areas. Unlike the other ethnic groups of Malaysia, Malays are officially defined in part by their adherence to a specific religion, Islam.
The Chinese, who make up about one-fourth of Malaysia’s population, originally migrated from southeastern China. They are linguistically more diverse than the Malays, speaking several different Chinese languages; in Peninsular Malaysia, Hokkien and Hainanese (Southern Min languages), Cantonese, and Hakka are the most prominent. Because these languages are not mutually intelligible, it is not uncommon for two Chinese to converse in a lingua franca such as Mandarin Chinese, English, or Malay. The community that is colloquially called Baba Chinese includes those Malaysians of mixed Chinese and Malay ancestry who speak a Malay patois but otherwise remain Chinese in customs, manners, and habit.
The peoples from South Asia—Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans—constitute a small but significant portion of the Malaysian population. Linguistically, they can be subdivided into speakers of Dravidian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and others) and speakers of Indo-European languages (Punjabi, Bengali, Pashto, and Sinhalese). The Tamil speakers are the largest group.
The population of East Malaysia is ethnographically even more complex than that of Peninsular Malaysia. The government, tending to oversimplify the situation in Sarawak and Sabah, officially recognizes only some of the dozens of ethnolinguistic groups in those two states.
The main ethnic groups in Sarawak are the Iban (Sea Dayak), an indigenous group accounting for more than one-fourth of the state’s population, followed by the Chinese, Malays, Bidayuh (Land Dayak), and Melanau. An array of other peoples, many of whom are designated collectively as Orang Ulu (“Upriver People”), constitute an important minority. The various indigenous peoples of Sarawak speak distinct Austronesian languages.
The Iban, formidable warriors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, trace their origins to the Kapuas River region in what is now northern West Kalimantan, Indonesia. The traditional Iban territory in Sarawak spans the hilly southwestern interior of the state. Iban who still live in rural regions usually cultivate rice through shifting agriculture, whereby fields are cleared, planted for a short period, and then abandoned for several years to allow the soil to regenerate. The Iban language is related to, but distinct from, Malay.
The Chinese of Sarawak generally live in the region between the coast and the uplands. In the rural areas, they usually grow cash crops in smallholdings. They speak mostly Hakka and Fuzhou (a Northern Min language) rather than Cantonese, Hokkien, and Hainanese, which are predominant among peninsular Chinese.
Few Malays of Sarawak are of peninsular origin; rather, most are the descendants of various indigenous peoples who since the mid-15th century have converted to Islam. Despite their diverse ancestries, the Malays of Sarawak and those of Peninsular Malaysia share many cultural characteristics, cultivated largely through the practice of a common religion. Sarawak Malays, however, speak dialects of the Malay language that are distinct from those spoken by their peninsular counterparts.
Like the Iban, the Bidayuh originally came from regions that now lie in northwestern Indonesian Borneo; in Sarawak the Bidayuh homeland is in the far western portion of the state. Most rural Bidayuh practice shifting rice cultivation. Although they have for centuries lived in close proximity to the Iban, the Bidayuh speak a separate language, with a number of different but related dialects that to some extent are mutually intelligible.
Sarawak’s south-central coastal wetlands between the city of Bintulu and the Rajang River are the traditional territory of the Melanau. The Melanau are especially known for their production of starch from the sago palms that surround their villages. Culturally and linguistically linked to certain inland peoples to the southeast, the Melanau purportedly moved to the coast from the interior centuries ago. The dialects of the northeastern portion of the Melanau region differ so starkly from those of the southwest that some local Melanau speakers hear the dialects as separate languages.
Smaller indigenous groups, such as the Orang Ulu—an ethnic category embracing the Kenyah, Kayan, Kelabit, Bisaya (Bisayah), Penan, and others—also contribute much to Sarawak’s ethnic and cultural character. The Kenyah, Kayan, and Kelabit generally trace their origins to the southern mountains on the border with North Kalimantan, Indonesia. Other Orang Ulu groups stem from lower-lying inland areas, primarily in Sarawak’s northeastern region. Many distinct languages, some with multiple dialects, are spoken by Sarawak’s indigenous peoples, often within just a few miles of each other.
Sabah also has a kaleidoscopic mixture of peoples. The largest groups, who in roughly equal numbers account for about half of the population, are the Kadazan (also called Dusun or Kadazan Dusun), the Bajau, and the Malays. Indigenous peoples, such as the Murut, Kedayan, Orang Sungei, and Bisaya, together constitute a significant portion of the state’s inhabitants as well. Chinese, Europeans, Eurasians, Indonesians, Filipinos, and South Asians make up the remainder.
Until the late 20th century, the Kadazan were generally called Dusun, an ethnic term that, like the term Orang Ulu in Sarawak, applied to a number of related peoples. Since that time, however, Kadazan has become the more common term in colloquial usage. For administrative purposes, the government has used both names together, sometimes merging them into the term Kadazandusun (especially when referring to language). The various Kadazan peoples speak related dialects that most other Kadazan can understand.
Sabah’s Chinese population is predominantly Hakka-speaking, but there are also many speakers of Cantonese, Hokkien, Chaozhou (Chaoshan), and Hainanese. The Bajau are a diverse community split into two main groups: sedentary agriculturists of the north coast and seafaring people of the east coast. Their languages, which are related to those of the southern Philippines, are not all mutually intelligible. The Murut of Sabah inhabit an area from the western lowland south through the hills into North Kalimantan, Indonesia. The lowland-dwelling Murut generally call themselves Timugon, while their upland counterparts are known as Tagal. Both communities engage in shifting agriculture. Murut languages are, for the most part, mutually intelligible.
Islam, Malaysia’s official religion, is followed by about three-fifths of the population. Islam is one of the most important factors distinguishing a Malay from a non-Malay, and, by law, all Malays are Muslim. The Chinese do not have a dominant religion; many, while subscribing to the moral precepts of Confucianism, follow Buddhism or Daoism; a small minority adheres to various denominations of Christianity. Most of the Indians and Sri Lankans practice Hinduism, while the Pakistanis are predominantly Muslim. Some Indians are Christian. The Sikhs, originally from the Indian state of Punjab, largely adhere to their own religion, Sikhism.
Art & Culture of Malaysia
Malaysia is a point of convergence of several major cultural traditions that stem from archipelagic Southeast Asia as well as from China, South Asia, the Middle East, and the West. Malay culture, the Orang Asli cultures of Peninsular Malaysia, and many of the cultures of East Malaysia are indigenous to the area. In the first one and a half millennia CE, indigenous Malay culture in the Malay Peninsula and in other parts of Southeast Asia was strongly marked by pre-Islamic Indian and early Islamic influences. Indian contact with the Malay Peninsula, which extended from about the 2nd or 3rd century to the late 14th century, exerted a profound influence on religion (through Hinduism and Buddhism), art, and literature. Islam, introduced to Malacca (now Melaka) in the 15th century, soon became the dominant religion of the Malays. Western cultural influences, especially since the 19th century, also have affected many aspects of Malay life, particularly in the realms of technology, law, social organization, and economics. Contemporary Malay culture is thus multifaceted, consisting of many strands—indigenous, early Hindu, early and modern Islamic, and, especially in the cities, Western—interwoven to yield a pattern that is distinct from other cultures yet recognizably Malay.
The early Chinese traders who settled in Malacca and on the island of Penang were partially assimilated (at least to the extent of adopting the Malay language). By contrast, the Chinese who emigrated in large numbers to the Malay Peninsula in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were both a more heterogeneous group and a largely transient population that tended to establish self-contained communities. Chinese cultural influence in this region, then, has been less pronounced.
Most of the Indians and Pakistanis originally came as labourers to work in the coffee and rubber plantations from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries. Like the Chinese, they also were mainly transients (until World War II), living in closed communities and remaining relatively unassimilated.
The communities of Malaysia have been affected profoundly by British colonial rule and Western cultural influences, especially in education and institutional forms. The rural areas—particularly in eastern Peninsular Malaysia and in the interior of East Malaysia—have been least affected, while the cities have been the focus of the most-rapid cultural changes. However, extraordinary economic growth and development since the mid-20th century increasingly has allowed a cosmopolitan outlook, carried largely from the urban centres by an expanding middle class, to penetrate smaller towns and even newer rural settlements.
Daily life and social customs
Malaysia has a rich cultural life, much of which revolves around the traditional festivities of its diverse population. The major Muslim holidays are Hari Raya Puasa (“Holiday of Fasting”), or Aidilfitri (ʿĪd al-Fiṭr), to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and Hari Raya Haji (“Holiday of the Pilgrimage”), or Aidiladha (ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā), to celebrate the culmination of the season of pilgrimage to Mecca. Buddhists honour the life of the Buddha on Hari Wesak (“Wesak Day”), and Chinese Malaysians celebrate Chinese New Year. Deepavali (Diwali), a Hindu festival of lights spanning several days, is observed by many Indian Malaysians, while Christmas is the principal holiday of the Christian community. On most of these holidays, it is customary to host an “open house,” where guests are treated to Malaysian delicacies and hospitality. A holiday that spans all ethnic groups and religions is Hari Kebangsaan (National Day), a celebration of Malaysia’s independence on August 31.
The states have their own holidays. Sarawak, for instance, celebrates Gawai Dayak (“Dayak Festival”). Rooted in the harvest rituals and festivities (gawai) of the Iban and Bidayuh peoples, this holiday broadly honours the state’s non-Malay indigenous heritage.
Beyond the official holidays and other religious festivities, important life events such as birth, circumcision (for young Muslim men), and marriage are usually celebrated by a feast, known in Malay as kenduri. The wedding ceremony is generally the most important and elaborate of such events among both Malay and non-Malay peoples. In rural areas the kenduri is normally held at the house of the host family, while in urban areas the feast often takes place in a large hall or hotel.
Malaysian cuisines reflect the mixture of ethnic groups in the country’s population. The three most prominent cuisines are Chinese, Indian, and Malay. Popular Chinese foods include sweet-and-sour Cantonese dishes and a milder favourite, Hainanese chicken rice. Indian cuisine ranges from the hot vegetarian dishes of southern Indian cooking to the more subtly spiced Muslim Indian food to the yogurt-marinated meats of tandoori cookery from northern India. All these foods, while recognizably Chinese or Indian, have developed a distinctly Malaysian character.
Traditional Malay cuisine consists of white rice served with various curries and fried dishes. Sate, small skewers of chicken or beef dipped in a spicy peanut sauce, nasi goreng (“fried rice”), and nasi lemak (“fatty rice”), which is coconut rice served with fried anchovies, peanuts, and a curry dish, are among the most common Malay foods. Noodles, cooked and served in various styles, are also local favourites.
Non-Muslim indigenous peoples of Peninsular and East Malaysia typically eat a staple food such as rice, tapioca, or sago served with locally grown or gathered vegetables (e.g., ferns and tapioca leaves) and fish, wild boar, venison, or other game. The food is generally not spicy or only mildly so.
The history and cultural life of Malaysia are exhibited primarily in various museums in Kuala Lumpur and several state capitals throughout the country. Built in a Malay architectural style in 1963, the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur houses a diverse archaeological and ethnographic collection that documents Malaysia’s social, cultural, artistic, and economic history. The Perak Museum in Taiping is the oldest museum in Peninsular Malaysia and contains collections of the natural history and material culture of the region. The Penang Museum and Art Gallery highlights Penang Island’s immigrant and colonial history. In East Malaysia, the Sabah Museum in Kota Kinabalu and the Sarawak Museum in Kuching, both established in the late 19th century, chronicle the unique prehistory and history of these states and their peoples.
In addition to the broadly ethnographic or historical museums, there also are numerous institutions dedicated to the documentation of particular Malaysian phenomena. The Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur, for instance, traces the advent and growth of the art and culture of Islam in Malaysia from the 7th century to contemporary times. Other such topical museums include a numismatic museum, a museum of telecommunications, and an armed forces museum, all located in the capital city.
Malaysia is home to many art galleries and theatres for the performing arts as well. The National Art Gallery has permanent exhibitions of modern paintings by Malaysian artists and rotating exhibitions of art from around the world. Plays, dances, and musical productions by Malaysian and international performers are staged regularly at the grand national theatre, called the Istana Budaya (“Palace of Cultures and Arts”), in Kuala Lumpur.
Sports and recreation
Sports in Malaysia are a mixture of traditional and Western games. From the mid-19th century, British expatriates introduced football (soccer), cricket, track and field events, and rugby to the peninsula; they formed a number of clubs and organized competitions. The Malaysia Cup (formerly the H.M.S. Malaya Cup), first contested in 1921, is the country’s premier football competition.
Traditional sports also enjoy local popularity. Top-spinning (main gasing) competitions are seriously contested, with winning tops often spinning for well over an hour. In some areas, top spinning is not merely a random pastime but is associated with the agricultural cycle. Kite flying also is a favourite activity, as are bird-singing contests, which may feature hundreds of birds, all with unique songs. Sepak takraw (“kick ball”) is a uniquely Southeast Asian game (now played in other regions) that is similar to volleyball but is played with a woven rattan ball and without using the hands. The sport is internationally competitive, and Malaysia has fronted winning teams.
Malaysia made its debut at the Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956. At the 1992 and 1996 Summer Games the country took medals in men’s badminton. Malaysia was one of the founders of the biennial Southeast Asian Games and has hosted the event several times since its inception in 1957.
Reasons to Visit Malaysia
Truly Asia, Malaysia. This country has it all to accomodate your escape. From the cityscapes of skyscrapers, urban located theme parks, fun in the sun, breezing highlands and so much more.
Being a multicultural society, there’s always something to discovered and yet still uncovered. To celebrate the year, there is no better place to elighten yourself in the meaning of rythmic contrast and beautiful diversity, in its people and its nature.