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Culture of Malaysia: A Nation of Mixed Cultures


Multi-racial Society

Malaysia is blessed with a multi-racial society consisting mainly Malays, Chinese and Indians. The many different ethnicities that currently exist in Malaysia have their own unique and distinctive cultural identities, with some crossover. The country consists Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia and obtained it’s independence on Aug 31, 1957. Some Eurasians of mixed European and Malay descent live in Malaysia. A small community in Malacca are descendants of former Portuguese colonists who married Malay women. While they have adopted Malay culture, they speak their own language and are Catholics. Each ethnic group has its own underlying culture that separates it from the others, and they have achieved different levels of integration. The Chinese have integrated with Malay culture in a number of areas, including parts of Terengganu, and they form Malayanised groups such as the Baba Chinese in Malacca and the Sino-Kadazan of Sabah. Their years under combined British rule brought some joint sense of identity to all the ethnic groups, with English ideas and ideals providing some unifying features. A joint Malaysian culture can be seen in the symbiosis of the cultures of the people within it.


Holidays and Festivities

Malaysians observe a number of holidays and festivities throughout the year, on both the federal and state levels. Other festivals are observed by particular ethnic or religion groups, but are not public holidays. The main holy days of each major religion are public holidays. The most widespread holiday is the “Hari Merdeka”  on 31 August which commemorates the independence of the Federation of Malaya. This, as well as Labour Day, the King’s birthday, and some other festivals are major national public holidays. Federal Territory day is celebrated in the three Federal territories. Malaysia Day, held on 16 September, commemorates the formation of Malaysia through the union of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak, although it is celebrated mainly in East Malaysia. New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year, and the start of the Islamic calendar are all public holidays. Muslim holidays are highly prominent in Malaysia, the most important of these is Hari Raya Puasa celebrated by Muslims worldwide marking the end of Ramadan, the fasting month. They also celebrate Hari Raya Haji, Awal Muharram and Maulidur Rasul. Malaysian Chinese typically hold the same festivals observed by Chinese around the world. Chinese New Year is the most prominent, lasting for 15 days. Hindus in Malaysia celebrate Deepavali, the festival of light, while Thaipusam is a celebration in which pilgrims from all over the country meet at the Batu Caves. Wesak, the day of Buddha’s birth, is a public holiday. Malaysia’s Christian community observes most of the holidays observed by Christians elsewhere, most notably Christmas and Easter. Good Friday, however, is only a public holiday in the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. The harvest festivals of Gawai in Sarawak and Kaamatan in Sabah are also important for East Malaysians.


Traditions and Influences

Arts and music have a long tradition in Malaysia, with Malay art dating back to the Malay sultanates. Traditional art was centred on fields such as carving, silver-smithing, and weaving. Islamic taboos restricted artwork depicting humans until the mid-20th century. Performing arts and shadow puppet shows are popular, and often show Indian influences. Various influences can be seen in architecture, from individual cultures in Malaysia and from other countries. Cuisine is often divided along ethnic lines, but some dishes exist which have mixed foods from different ethnicities. Popular sports in Malaysia include badminton, bowling, football, squash, and hockey. Malaysia has small-scale traditional sports. Wau is a traditional form of kite-flying involving kites created with intricate designs. Malaysia’s coastline is popular for scuba diving, sailing, and other water sports and activities. Whitewater rafting and trekking are also often done. As for freedom of expression, much of the Malaysian media is tied to the ruling Umno party, with the county’s main newspaper owned by the government and political parties in the ruling coalition. Major opposition parties also have their own newspapers. Besides Malay newspapers, there is large circulation of English, Chinese, and Tamil dailies.