Hello there. ‘Selamat Datang ke Malaysia’. That means, ‘Welcome to Malaysia’ in our national language Bahasa Malaysia. It would be impossible to tell you everything about Malaysia in such a short period of time, but I will give you a general idea.
One of the things you will find most fascinating about Malaysia is its people and culture. Being a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society of 28 million is no easy feat, as race continues to be a hotly debated issue and permeates almost every aspect of Malaysian life.
The Malaysian population consists of 62% Bumiputeras, which includes Malays and the Indigenous peoples, 24% Chinese, 8% Indians, and the rest are other minorities. Or as we say in Malaysia, ‘lain-lain’ or others. Citizenship in East Malaysia or the states of Sabah and Sarawak are a little different from citizenship in Peninsular Malaysia for immigration purposes. When West Malaysians visit East Malaysia, they are required to bring their MyKad, a biometric smart chip identity card, which must be carried by citizens of Malaysia at all times.
The Malays form the largest community, and they are defined as Muslims in the Constitution of Malaysia- in other words, if you are Malay, you are automatically Muslim. The Malays are the big brothers of politics, dominating the political scene. Their native language is Malay, the national language of the country. They are also sometimes called ‘bumiputra’, or ‘princes of the soil’ and are favoured with certain affirmative action policies. This has been a point of discontent with a lot of minorities. Among others, getting a 10% to 25% discount when buying a house and receiving government tenders and scholarships are some of these benefits. How did this come about? I’ll tell you more in the economy section.
The second biggest group are the Chinese. They are mostly Buddhists, Taoists or Christians. The Chinese community speaks a variety of Chinese dialects including Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew- all from the native familial provinces in China. But today, many Chinese speak English as their first language; in fact there are some who speak only English. If the Malays dominate the political scene, the Chinese dominate the business scene. There is a sizable middle class consisting of the Chinese.
The third biggest group are the Indians. The Indians in Malaysia are mainly Hindu Tamils from southern India whose native language is Tamil. Of course there are other Indian communities living here and they speak many dialects like Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi. Many middle to upper-middle class Indians in Malaysia also speak English as a first language. There is also a vigorous 200,000-strong Indian Muslim community that thrives as an independent cultural group. In fact, if you get hungry in the middle of the night, you most probably will head to a ‘mamak’, a kind of 24-hour restaurant that is often owned by an Indian Muslim. There is also a sizable Sikh community in Malaysia numbering over 100,000.
The largest non-Malay indigenous tribe is the Iban of Sarawak, who number over 600,000. Some still live in traditional jungle villages in long houses along the Rajang and Lupar rivers, though many have moved to the cities. Then, estekhdamkhabar there are the Bidayuhs, who number around 170,000 and are concentrated in the south western part of Sarawak. Then there are the Kadazans, the largest indigenous tribe in Sabah and they are mostly Christian farmers. Then there are the 140,000 Orang Asli, or aborigines, living in Peninsular Malaysia. Traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, many have been partially absorbed into ‘modern’ Malaysia.
Besides that, through interracial marriage, there are a significant number of racial groups such as the Eurasians, who are descendants of marriages among the British, Dutch and Portuguese and the locals. They speak a Portuguese-based creole, called Papiá Kristang. There are also Eurasians of Filipino and Spanish descent, mostly in Sabah. Descended from immigrants from the Philippines, some speak Chavacano, the only Spanish-based creole language in Asia. Then there are Cambodians and Vietnamese, who are mostly Buddhists. Then there are Thai Malaysians, who populate a big part of the northern peninsular states of Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak, Kelantan and Terengganu. Besides speaking Thai, most of them are Buddhists, celebrate Songkran or Water festival and can speak Hokkien, but some of them are Muslim and speak the Kelantanese Malay dialect. Then there are the Bugis and Javanese, who make up a part of the population in Johor. In addition, there have been many foreigners and expatriates who have made Malaysia their second home, also contributing to Malaysia’s population. Then there are the Babas and Nyonyas, or Straits Chinese; descendants of Chinese who came to trade in ancient Malacca who married local Malays. They combine Malay and Chinese traditions in such a way as to create a new culture. Most of them dress in typical Malay fashion, wearing the kebaya ketat, which is a Malay traditional costume, and they speak a special kind of Malay, and cook food that is a mix of the both cultures.
Being a multiracial country, cultural exchanges and cultural integrations are inevitable. For example, this can be seen in Malay wedding ceremonies, which incorporates elements of the Hindu traditions of southern India. The bride and the groom dress in gorgeous brocades, sit in state, and feed each other yellow rice with hands painted with henna. Another example is that the Muslims and Hindus have adapted the Chinese custom of giving little red packets of money or ‘ang pau’ at festivals such as Aidilfitri, and Deepavali. The colours of the packets vary, but the practice is similar.