Malaysian Culture: A Closer Look

Malaysian culture is a unique blend of eastern and western elements. Malaysia is a wonderful melting pot of customs and practices spanning generations, with a diverse population comprising numerous ethnic groups. This, coupled with western sensibilities, creates a fascinating contrast that is a pleasure to experience.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the flavors and colors Malaysia has to offer, keep on reading to find out more about the country, its culture and its people. Let’s get started.


The History of Malaysia

Do you know much about Malaysia’s history? If you don’t, don’t worry! We’ll give you a brief rundown on the country’s past in relation to the Malaysian culture.

Malaysia’s first settlements extend back 40,000 years, and the country’s past is rife with immigration and settlers. As early as the first century CE, trade routes between indigenous Malay tribes, China, and India demonstrate thriving commerce; this migration also brought Buddhism and Hinduism to the peninsula. After indigenous monarchs such as Langkaasuka and Srivijaya founded empires, the Malacca Sultanate captured the majority of current Malaysia and introduced Islam to the region in the 15th century.

The Portuguese, Dutch, and British conquered Malaysia in the 16th and 17th centuries, culminating in several centuries of colonial control – many skirmishes were waged along the Malay coast and nearby islands during this time. Conflicts and tensions between the peninsula’s diverse immigration and ethnic groups grew after WWII, culminating to the Federation of Malaya’s independence in 1957 and Malaysia’s formal proclamation as a sovereign republic in 1963.

Life In Malaysian Society

A Closer Look at Malaysia's Unique and Rich Culture

Traditional Malaysian society was dominated by men, although rigorous gender segregation is not a feature of modern Malaysia. Women are entering the labor field in greater numbers with each passing decade. Women have historically worked in agriculture, but modern Malaysian women work in a wide range of fields, including academia, healthcare, information technology, industry, and business, to name a few. Cooking, cleaning, and childrearing are still believed to be solely female responsibilities in many households. These duties are commonly allocated to foreign maids in wealthy households.

Malaysian marriage traditions are various due to the ethnic diversity of the country. With the exception of Muslims, no religious sect prohibits marriage. Malaysian Muslims who marry non-Muslims face official repercussions. If their non-Muslim partner converts to Islam, however, this risk disappears. Marriage rites and traditions vary per ethnic group in the country. Malay weddings, for example, are linked with lavish dinners and eating oil-cooked rice, whereas Indian weddings are multi-day affairs. People frequently marry before the age of 30. However, the average age of marriage is gradually growing.

Malaysia’s average household size has shrunk dramatically over time. Parents and their children make up the vast majority of urban families. Rural areas still have extended families. Malaysian children are treasured and well-cared for. Grandparents are commonly active in the upbringing of young children. Children are taught to respect their elders, use appropriate titles, and follow other social rules. Their education is very important to their parents.

What Daily Life in Malaysia Looks Like

Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures strive to maintain face and avoid humiliation in both public and private contexts. Face is a personal concept made up of characteristics such as a reputable name, admirable character, and peer esteem. Face is a valuable commodity in Malaysian culture that can be given, taken, or obtained. This covers the family, school, business, and even the country.

Malaysians search out amicable collaborations since their reputation is important to them.

Openly criticizing, insulting, or putting someone on the spot; doing anything that embarrasses the group; publicly questioning a person in authority; displaying hostility toward another individual; denying a request; failing to honor a commitment; or publicly disagreeing can all result in the loss of face. Face, on the other hand, can be kept by remaining cool and courteous, resolving errors or transgressions privately, assessing hurdles without assigning blame, using nonverbal communication to indicate “no,” and allowing the other person to leave the situation with dignity intact.

Malaysian Languages

A Closer Look at Malaysia's Unique and Rich Culture

Malaysia’s most widely spoken languages are Bahasa Malay and English, although the country’s thriving migrant population has facilitated the spread of Mandarin Chinese, Tamil, and other Asian languages. English is the official language of communication, and the majority of the population is multilingual. It is essential that you learn a few Malay phrases in order to make friends with the locals and to better understand Malaysian culture.

Common Phrases

  • Selamat Malam”: Good evening
  • Selamat Jalan“: Goodbye
  • Terima Kasih”: Thank you
  • Ya/Tidak“: Yes/no
  • Sedap“: Delicious
  • Berapa“: How much for this?

Malaysian Food

A Closer Look at Malaysia's Unique and Rich Culture

Malay, Chinese, Peranakan, Indian, Indonesian, Filipino, Javanese, Thai, Japanese, and Western cuisine are available in Malaysia. Meaty treats include Mee Goreng Mamak (yellow noodles with beef and shrimp), Laksa (fish noodle soup), Roti john (minced meat sandwiches), and Rendang (coconut milk and meat curry), while vegetarian options include Apam Balik (rice pancakes), Kuih (sweet pastries), Popia Basah (wet spring rolls), and Bubur (coconut milk porridge).

The main flavors in this cuisine are coconut, jaggery, tamarind, spices, and meats such as chicken, lamb, and beef. Due to religious prohibitions, pork is rarely used in Malaysian culture inclusing its cuisine. The street hawker booths provide a cheap opportunity to enjoy Malaysia’s traditional cuisine, a cultural highlight. Tipping is not expected in Malaysian society.

Festivals in Malaysia

Malaysian holidays are exciting; the celebrations are colorful, vibrant, noisy, and dynamic. The Mooncake Festival (August/September) is a must-see if you want to try the wonderful cakes and pray to the Chinese moon goddess for love and prosperity. In contrast, the Chinese New Year (January/February) is a week-long celebration with delectable cuisine, dance, and music.

Thaipusam (January/February) and Diwali (November) are best celebrated in temples like the Batu Murugan temple, but the Dragon Boat Festival (December) and Malaysia Water Festival (April) include long snake boat races and dragon dances as an important aspect of Malaysian culture. Milad Un Nabi (October) and Eid (May) both promise delectable biryani and kebabs, as well as musical performances and merriment. Younger people are drawn to Urbanscapes and the Good Vibes music festivals.

Malaysia Folk Dance & Music

A Closer Look at Malaysia's Unique and Rich Culture

Malaysians enjoy a wide range of musical styles, including soothing ballads, lively folk and tribal songs, rock-and-roll chart-toppers, and the distinctive pop Yeh-yeh movement. Traditional Malay music is composed primarily of percussion instruments, flues, and oboes and is performed during weddings, festivities, and religious rituals. Indian, Chinese, and Islamic music are popular styles. Hip hop, jazz, and rock are popular modern genres in the country, and there are various pubs and live music venues in the city where one may enjoy an evening of music.

Arts and Crafts in Malaysia

A Closer Look at Malaysia's Unique and Rich Culture

Malaysia’s diverse indigenous tribes are skilled at weaving, stitching, woodworking, and blacksmithing. Silver and bronze statues are expertly created here, and beautiful woodwork carvings of deities and animals are astoundingly lifelike. Embroidered fabrics, rugs, and textiles are fantastic gifts and souvenirs. Traditional Malaysian masks make lovely centerpieces as well. Glazed pottery and ceramics are sold at flea markets. Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Malacca art galleries and museums provide a wealth of insight into the peninsula’s unique art culture.

Religion and Malaysian culture

A Closer Look at Malaysia's Unique and Rich Culture

Despite the fact that Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, the country has a high level of religious diversity. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and practitioners of traditional Chinese religions coexist peacefully in the country. Malaysian culture is home to countless calm places of worship, with various pockets and districts of temples, mosques, Buddhist shrines, Chinese temples, and churches. It is critical to emphasize that the country forces Islam on the ethnic Malay majority while allowing other groups to practice their own religion.

It is encouraging to know that there is still a country capable of accommodating a diverse range of ethnicities and beliefs in these turbulent times. Despite the fact that many would say that it is not perfect, there is little doubt that Malays, Chinese, Indians, and indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak coexist in a tolerant and cooperative spirit of community. We can all practice Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other religion we like. Malaysia is distinguished further by the government’s formal recognition of numerous religions and declaration of public holidays for their major festivals. Malaysia is the only country I’ve visited that has done so. It recognizes that religion is still an important part of society and strives to show respect for all religions.

Any discussion of racial peace must, of course, include the “open-house” concept, in which Malaysians open their houses to family, friends, and neighbors during important holidays and festivals. During the Hari Raya celebrations, all Malaysian residents are invited to the Prime Minister’s mansion to partake in his generosity and have a good time. There aren’t many countries where the president invites residents to a party once a year. Those with a more cynical disposition may scoff at this and claim that he does it to seek public favor.

Another interesting aspect of Malaysian culture is that each race is allowed to build public schools that educate in its own language. Some may argue that this is divisive, and there is truth to it to some extent, but that does not change the fact that Malaysia is the only country that allows such thing. English, Bahasa Melayu, Chinese, and Tamil are all taught at schools. Even Australia, a country with a substantial immigrant population, has English-only public schools. Despite the country’s much-touted respect for civil liberties, public schools in the United States are still only permitted to educate in English. Malaysia’s government’s adaptability and openness to its public schools contribute to Malaysian culture.

Malaysian culture: Architecture

A Closer Look at Malaysia's Unique and Rich Culture

Malaysia’s ethnic diversity has resulted in a dizzying mix of architectural styles, from pre-colonial timber cottages on stilts and Islamic mosques to harsh Victorian and Dutch monuments and futuristic skyscrapers. The Petronas Towers, the world’s highest twin skyscrapers, are located in Kuala Lumpur and are a must-see!

The lush greenery of Putrajaya’s garden city is stunning. Exquisite antiquities and East Asian rugs cover the walls of the regal Malay palaces. Malaysian culture comprises Dravidian temples, Chinese monasteries, spire-like mosques, and tall churches bordering lanes lined with Malay shophouses and shacks, while the city is densely packed with large structures and glass facades.

Malaysian Law and Security

In Malaysia, Muslims are regulated by Sharia Law; therefore, persuading a Muslim to violate these restrictions, such as drinking alcohol, is illegal. Driving under the influence of alcohol is punishable by arrest and may result in other problems. In Malaysia, the death sentence is applied for drug-related offenses. Remember that destroying the natural environment, removing flowers, and endangering wildlife is a serious infraction punishable by a caning. Environmental devastation is strongly disliked in Malaysian society.

Sports In Malaysia

Bowling, football, badminton, squash, and field hockey are among the most popular sports in Malaysia. Wau is a traditional Malaysian sport that involves kite flying. The kites used in this game can soar as high as 500 meters with the help of bamboo attachments. Traditional sports include kick volleyball (Sepak Takraw), dragon dancing, and dragon boat racing. Due to the country’s large coastlines and numerous islands, Malaysians enjoy a variety of aquatic sports and activities such as sailing, swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, and so on.

Malaysian Customs, Traditions & Etiquettes

A Closer Look at Malaysia's Unique and Rich Culture

A Multi-Cultural Society

Malaysia is a multi-cultural society. The indigenous Malay, Chinese, and Indian people are the main racial groups. Visitors to the country can see that ethnic groups maintain their beliefs, customs, and way of life. Each tribe’s most important festivals are observed as holidays.

Although children attend the same schools and work in the same offices as they grow older, few marry outside of their ethnicity. Families tend to socialize within their own ethnic group in order to maintain their unique customs and ways of life.

Cultural similarities exist despite ethnic difference.

Group Orientation

The family is seen as the focal point of the social structure. As a result, the emphasis is on unity, loyalty, and reverence for the past. The family is the only location where both emotional and financial assistance may be assured.

When one member of the family suffers a financial setback, the rest of the family will do whatever they can to assist. Families are usually large, though this is not necessarily true in larger cities.

The Concept of Face

Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures strive to maintain face and avoid humiliation in both public and private contexts. Face is a personal concept that includes characteristics such as a reputable name, admirable character, and peer esteem. Face is a commodity that can be given, taken, lost, or earned. This face also extends to the family, school, workplace, and even the nation.

Malaysians desire peaceful partnerships because they want to keep their face.

Face can be lost by openly criticizing, insulting, or putting someone on the spot; doing something that brings embarrassment to the group; publicly questioning someone in charge; exhibiting anger toward another person; denying a request; failing to honor a commitment; or publicly disagreeing. Face, on the other hand, can be kept by remaining cool and polite, discussing mistakes or transgressions privately, discussing challenges without assigning blame, using nonverbal communication to express “no,” and allowing the other person to leave the situation with dignity intact.

  • Malaysians place great importance on family and self-respect.
  • Raising one’s voice and arguing in public is considered unfriendly; consequently, do not escalate a conflict into a loud disagreement.
  • PDA is frowned upon in smaller towns; hence, do not engage in PDA while out and about.
  • It is considered disrespectful to touch one’s head while speaking.
  • When offering and receiving objects, only use your right hand.
  • Remember that some locals, particularly Muslim women, may be uncomfortable shaking hands with someone of the other gender.
  • Wait for the other person to extend their hand before greeting, or bow with your hand to your heart.
  • When meeting a native for the first time, it is customary to bring a gift. Remember not to give alcohol or anything lined with pigskin to Malays.
  • When visiting a Chinese home, bring gifts wrapped in red or yellow paper but no flowers, as these are considered funeral gifts.
  • Only use denominations with an odd number of digits when giving money to Native Americans.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. What is Malaysian culture like?

With a rich cultural diversity, Malaysia is a country that has many traditions. One of these is the use of belacan, a shrimp paste, in various dishes. Other traditions include carving, weaving, and silversmithing.

2. What is Malaysian culture most known for?

Malaysia’s cuisine is known for its cultural diversity. Malay and Chinese dishes, as well as other regional cuisines such as mamak food, are commonly eaten in the country.

3. Why do Malaysians want to maintain their face?

The desire to maintain one’s facial appearance is a fundamental component of Malaysian culture. It encourages people to develop harmonious relationships.

4. What is Malaysia’s main ethnic group?

In Malaysia, there are various ethnic groups. The main ones are the Malays, Indians, and Chinese. The customs and religions of these groups are still intact. Public holidays are the most important events held for each of these groups.

Video: How Diverse is MALAYSIA?!

Malaysia is a vastly different place from when it was back in 2014 when the vlogger first visited. In this video, the vlogger talks about his third visit to the country. It’s amazing how fast the city has changed.

One of the most interesting things about Malaysia is its extreme diversity. In every street in the country, you’ll see people with varying backgrounds. They all identify themselves as Malaysians, which is unique because there are no two individuals with the same blood type.

In this video, the vlogger talks a bit more about Malaysian culture and its amazing diversity. Since he’ll be staying in Kuala Lumpur over the next couple of days, he’ll be able to explore its various sites, people, and lifestyle.

If you’re wondering why this Asian country is best known for its cultural diversity, this video will show you why.

Final Thoughts

Malaysian culture is truly unique. Its people are some of the friendliest in the world, and they love to share their culture with visitors. The country’s diversity is also something that shouldn’t be missed out on if you’re planning a trip there.

We hope you’ve learned a thing or two about Malaysia, and that you’ll consider visiting it for yourself.

READ NEXT: 10 Tourist Attractions in Malaysia

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