A Crash Course in Malaysian Culture for Visitors
We’re often told by the travellers we meet that experiencing different cultures in amongst local people is one of the staples of a great trip. But in a world full of diverse and wide ranging ways of life a quick course in a country’s background never hurts! After all, in order to soak up and enjoy a nation’s traditions we need to know a little bit about how the natives live and what they enjoy. Malaysia is one country that’s been a runaway success with English speaking visitors and in this article we hope to teach you a little about the friendly local people you’ll meet on your journey.
Malaysia has long been considered one of the world’s great melting pots when it comes to the integration of different communities and ethnic groups. As a matter of fact, the nation serves as a fine example of harmony and respect between diverse people side by side. So without further ado, let us introduce you to some of the staples of the Malay culture.
Islam is the predominant religion with an estimated 60% of the population followers. As a mosaic of diverse communities and ethnic groups Malaysia is also home to large populations following Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism and Hinduism respectively, all of which are represented by significant numbers of Malaysian people.
Malaysia’s national language is Malay (also known as Bahasa Malaysia) but in business contexts and especially in urban areas, English is widely spoken and understood. English speaking visitors almost always find integration very easy but in rural areas, particularly in Malaysian Borneo, you’ll tend to find a wide range of distinctive languages and dialects. In addition, many different languages are spoken in different areas and in particular social settings. As a country prized for its mixture of many varied ethnic groups that live side by side harmoniously, it’ll come as little surprise that dozens of languages still thrive in Malaysia to this day. The Indian community will often speak Hindi and/or Tamil whilst the Chinese population use a handful of dialects besides Mandarin. The people of Borneo have their own strongly forged identity and here you’ll find the Iban people who speak in their own Malayo-Polynesian tongue.
Music is an integral part of the Malaysian way of life and plays a significant role in many cultural events. In times long gone music was used as a fundamental means of communication. Different drum beats marked everything from births to weddings! Influences today come from all across the globe including China, India and Portugal. Malaysia is a developing and increasingly prosperous nation and with this trend has come a taste for European and American chart music. Traditional Malaysian music incorporates gongs, drums and various string instruments to create a soft and melodic sound.
When we think about the great buildings of the world our minds are instinctively drawn to Western relics such as the Empire State Building, the Houses of Parliament and the Eiffel Tower but Malaysia boasts several underrated ancient and modern feats of design and construction itself! Take for example the Petronas Towers, one of the most beautiful high rise office buildings in the world, as well as one of the tallest. Check it out at night for a sight to behold!
It isn’t just modern architecture that defines Malaysia, however. The Buddhist temple of Kek Lok Si in Penang is a beautiful piece of traditional Chinese architecture that is brought to life year round by colourful paintwork and beautiful flowers. It’s particularly special, however, in Chinese New Year during which thousands of lanterns illuminate every walkway.
Another gem is Melaka’s St Pauls Church. This is close to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Malacca Town and stands strategically on a tall hill. Built in the 1753 by Dutch settlers this building represents some of Malaysia’s most defining historical events. Melaka was settled by Portuguese explorers but due to the importance of the Malacca Strait in trade routes, Dutch sailors wreaked havoc and assumed control of the region. Today, Melaka still holds close ties to Europe both historically and culturally. Make sure you squeeze it into your trip!
Dance too is held in high esteem within Malaysia. Different varieties and traditions vary across the states but one particularly popular form is Joget – a dance performed by couples. It is a frenetic yet graceful variety that goes down particularly well with tourists! The Chinese community is fond of the Lion Dance, which is typically performed during ceremonies and festivals. It’s all about elegance and is truly a spectacle to behold.
Finally, the Candle Dance is also particularly well regarded. This form involves carrying candles on plates whilst the dancers demonstrate great balance to move their bodies simultaneously. The effect is a scintillating illumination of every movement in the most compelling way imaginable! It is also a spectacle of discipline and control.
Festivals in Malaysia are engrained in the way of life of the local people. Some are religion specific whilst others are celebrated by all members of the community with equal joy.
One particularly noteworthy celebration is Chinese New Year which is usually best enjoyed in Penang or Kuala Lumpur. The party spirit lasts a full 15 days, during which buildings are awash with red colored decorations. The Chinese community believes this brings lasting luck for the year ahead! In Penang you’ll be able to find dances, gatherings and firework displays to enjoy.
One especially quirky event is the Hungry Ghost Festival enjoyed by the Buddhist and Taoist communities. During the festival families create and subsequently burn paper houses to bring peace to deceased relatives in another world. Whilst the notion is very unique the underlying principles is a display of Malaysia’s deep rooted family values.
The bottom line is that Malaysia is a melting pot of diverse religions, languages and ultimately cultures. The harmony exhibited by this nation is truly a lesson to all of us!
This piece was written by the team at the independent Malaysia travel and tourism guide. As a team of Malaysian natives we showcase the country with an invaluable touch of local expertise! We cover all of Malaysia’s destinations (both popular and off the beaten track) as well as topics of interest to visitors such as diving and choosing accommodation.