The People & Culture

by Audrey Lim, Apr 19, 2001 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kuala Lumpur
A melting pot - Malaysians sitting down for a drink in true cultural spirit

A melting pot - Malaysians sitting down for a drink in true cultural spirit

A melting pot - Malaysians sitting down for a drink in true cultural spirit

Malaysia, although still basically young in terms of independent years, has a strong history when it comes to its culture and people. The meeting and mixing of its culture took place more than fifteen hundred years ago. The integration between the Malays, Chinese and Indians came about in Bujang Valley, where the Malay kingdom welcomed traders into their land. These traders bring with them gold and silks. They also brought along their religion - Buddhism and Hinduism. One thousand years after that, the Arab traders came to Malacca and introduced Islam to all who lived there. Soon after that, the Portuguese arrived in Malaysia, and by then, the empire was already a melting pot.

Although Malaysia's culture is made up of many different ethnic groups, however, there is only a few that left a strong imprint and influence in the country. Number one on the list is the ancient Malay culture. This is followed by the Chinese, and then the Indians. Below these three main groups are many other indigenous tribes. Most of these tribal people live in the forests and coastal areas of Borneo. Through the years, each ethnic group managed to maintain their actual religion, beliefs and background. Many kept their traditions intact to this day. But thanks also to the multicultural blend, each of these groups have managed to gel in very well with each other, thus creating a contemporary and unique lifestyle known as the Malaysian heritage.

Through the years, the Malaysian culture has undergone a complex mixture. Take the Chinese for example. The Chinese came as immigrants to the land many years ago, bringing with them their ideologies and traditions. The first Chinese to settle on this land set up their home in the straits, in and around Malacca. Soon, they adopted the elements of the Malay culture. Intermarriages took place, thus producing a whole new generation known as the babas and nyonyas. This combination later produced a whole new set of beliefs, arts, practices and traditions - a mixture of Chinese and Malay. And a new culture is born!

As years go by, more Chinese made their way to Malaysia - another group who are more meticulous and protective of their culture. They settled in and built another new community. If you are in Malaysia, do take a trip to the Island of Penang. This is where you'll see the manifestations of these people. Penang is a place where you'll feel more Chinese than in any other part of the country.

Another wonderful example of this unique blend of cultures can be seen during a wedding. If you've the opportunity to attend a Malay wedding, you'll notice several elements of the Hindu traditions of Southern India within the ceremony itself. For example: the bride and groom will be dressed in lovely brocades, seated on a pelamin, and feeding each other with yellow rice. Their hands will be painted with henna.

The Malays have also adopted another custom belonging to the Chinese. This is obvious during the festive season. It is a Chinese custom to give ang paus (red packets containing money) during Chinese New Year. Now, you'll see the Muslim doing the same during their festive day - only theirs is green in color and have Arabic writings on them.

Speaking of festivals, this is also the best time to experience the complexity and joy of celebrating so many occasions with each other, despite the differences in cultures. Whether you're a Malay, Chinese or Indian, the "open house" policy during festive seasons is widely practiced throughout the country. Although each cultural traditions stick to their own form of celebrations, yet their doors are always open to members of another culture, tourists and neighbors.

When in Malaysia, it is very easy to feel as if you've experienced the lifestyle of three different nations. All you need to do is to take a drive past a Malay kampung (settlement) with the kids playing in the yard. You'll then pass a rubber estate manned by the Indians. When you reach Penang, you'll experience the Chinese kongsi. Such are the vividness of each location. Cultural and ethnic differences are less prominent in the big cities like Kuala Lumpur as you can find many races living in the same neighborhood.

At the end of the day, it is these rich heritage and wonderful cultural mix that brought Malaysia to where it is today. The country's progress is made up of this. It's something we Malaysians are very proud of!