Monday, July 13, 2009

Malaysian Culture

1:18 AM

Composed primarily of Malays, Chinese and Indians, Malaysian culture is best described as cosmopolitan. Racial unity and interaction has formed a diverse and vibrant society that is exceptionally unique. Nowhere else in the world can one find three major races, various smaller indigenous tribes and a vast assortment of foreigners and expatriates sharing such an excellent relationship, for not only do these races tolerate each other, they actually actively share in one other's cultural richness. This has been the main catalyst for Malaysia's political stability and growth.

The shamanistic cultures and beliefs still practiced by the Malaysian aborigine's date back over 10 millennia. The presence of Hinduism in the Malay Peninsula has been documented as far back as the 3rd and 4th century AD, in Lembah Bujang (Bujang Valley) in the state Kedah. With the arrival of Arab traders during the rise of the Melaka Empire, Islam came to Malaysia. At about the same time the arrival of Chinese traders and the marriage of the Melaka Sultan and a Chinese princess added to the potpourri of cultures. The arrival of Portuguese, Dutch and English conquerors over the next 400 years also left their indelible mark on the Malaysian cultural makeup. All these influences have culminated in the Malaysian culture of today.


Many elements of Indian Hindu culture have insinuated themselves into the Malay adat the most obvious being the Malay marriage ceremony, vice versa the Indian Muslim community in the country share a common religion and hence a similar culture and religious observances as the Muslim Malays as do the Baba-Nyonya Muslim Chinese from Melaka that date back to the aforementioned Chinese princess in ancient times. The Malays have also very recently adopted an age old Chinese custom, the giving of "Ang Pows", or money gifts wrapped in colored envelopes. The Chinese use red, the Malays green.

Malaysians are usually at least bi-lingual, Bahasa Malaysia or the Malay language is the official language and English is the second most widely spoken. The Chinese and Indians are generally tri-lingual, speaking Malay, English and their mother tongue.
Following are brief descriptions on the various peoples and their ways of life in Malaysia.

The Malays

The modern Malaysian Malay can probably trace their ancestry to the myriad seafaring islander tribes in the region, from Indonesia, Phillipines and Borneo, they are widely believed to be the first civilization to take root in Malaysia and can be said, with the exception of the "Orang Asli" indigenous tribes, to be the original settlers to populate the Malay Peninsula.

Currently comprising roughly half the 22 million Malaysian population, the Malay people can be found virtually everywhere in the country though they are less concentrated in East Malaysia. In urban centers they are pervasive in all industries and businesses. The government in Malaysia is staffed predominantly by Malays and the Malays have held great political power ever since the country's independence. In the countryside the Malay population is even more omnipresent, their villages or "kampungs" are scattered far and wide all across the Peninsula.

The Malay Kampung is a reflection of the Malay people, easy-going, warm and accommodating. The kampong is usually a homely and serene setting where everybody knows everybody and all members pitch in and contribute to their community. Traditionally farmers and fishermen, the Malay culture has always been intrinsically linked by a love of the land and a strongly devout belief in Islam. Thusly social norms or the "adat" of the Malay peoples emphasize good manners, family ties, tolerance and goodwill. The development of the nation has taken into consideration the somewhat deficient modern education level of the rural Malays and for the past few decades great changes have been made to remedy this with aid in the form of new schools, new infrastructure and subsidies for the lower income population.

Malays, no matter how well educated and urbanized to suit the breakneck speed of modern day life have always retained the traditions and beliefs of their forefathers. During any holiday, especially any of religious significance we still see a mass exodus called "Balik Kampung" or "Return to the Kampung", when Malays working in the urban centers all return to their hometowns to reunite with their families and friends there. This phenomenon has now extended to all the races in Malaysia and during the main holidays, the huge celebrations of Hari Raya Puasa, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Christmas, the cities, normally teeming with throngs of people turn into veritable ghost towns.

Being Muslim, the Malays strictly do not eat pork and only eat Halal (Food prepared in accordance to Islamic methods) food. They also observe daily prayers and more importantly the Friday prayers. During the month of Ramadan all Muslim observe a half day fast for the month leading to the celebrations of Hari Raya Puasa on the month of Syawal. All Muslims are expected, if at all possible, to conduct a pilgrimage called the "Hadj" to the holy city of Mecca at least once in their lives.

Traditional garments for the Malay male compose the "Baju Melayu" and "Songket", and on formal occasions "Batik" a colorful, silk garment with a brilliant floral motif is usually worn. "Songkok" a hat, which somewhat resembles a Turkish Tarbush is also sometimes worn. For the female the "Baju Kurung" and the more formal "Baju Kebaya" are commonly worn, many Malay women also wear a "Tudung" a religious headdress that covers the hair, neck and shoulders but leaves the face visible. As with everybody else in Malaysia western attire is just as commonly worn.

It should be noted that a dress code for Malaysia, though not a strict rule should be adhered to in any public place, being an Islamic nation, a "decent" appearance is highly desirable, provisions are made for the tropical weather but being too scantily clad is generally frowned upon, especially if one is visiting a mosque or any other place of worship. A tee shirt with jeans or Bermudas is quite acceptable.

Traditionally Malay celebrations are community affairs where the people of the village gather together with the womenfolk responsible for the cooking, the men for the preparation of the venue and decorations, and the children for having a good time. Celebrations that are not strictly religious; such as the harvest festival, are still accompanied by prayers conducted by the local religious leader. Typically, depending on which state one is in, the celebration may consist of dances such as the "Joget" or the "Kuda Kepang", "Mak Yong" opera, "Dikir Barat" performances, "Gasing" or top spinning spectacles or the most famous, "Wau" or giant kite flying competitions, accompanied without fail by large amounts of food and drink. In the cities the celebrations are usually conducted by organizations, companies or government bodies and held at select venues where the public at large is invited for a huge party.

In a nutshell the Malay culture is a blend of traditional values, religious adherences and a modern outlook that has served to instill the Malays with integrity and piety while at the same time preparing them to face a new world and new challenges.

The Chinese

One of the oldest civilizations in the world the Chinese were said to have been the original inhabitants of Malaysia, some findings point that the indigenous peoples or "orang asli" originated from south western China many millennia ago. But it was continuous presence of the Chinese traders during the Melaka Sultanate in the 14th and 15th centuries that the Chinese left a lasting presence in the country.

In the late 15th century, the Ming Dynasty princess Hang Li-Po was sent to the Melaka Sultan to be wed in order to forge an alliance between China and Melaka, and thusly was the rich cultural legacy of the Baba-Nyonya born. Chinese continued to ply the trade route for hundreds of years after the fall of Melaka but few stayed for any great length of time. However during the British rule of Malaysia, large numbers of Chinese labourers were brought in to do the difficult and back-breaking work of mining, construction and transportation.

It was during these times that a large community of Chinese came and called Malaysia home. Over the years the Chinese have made a very comfortable home for themselves in the country, adapting to the harmonious way of life with the other races while maintaining a very strong bond with their parent culture. Being traditionally merchants the Chinese are often regarded as the "towkays" or bosses and business owners, they comprise the majority of the moneyed in Malaysia.

The Chinese culture is strongly based on family ties, the community and entrepreneurship. As such they are in some ways more driven than the other races to provide a better life for themselves and their family. However as with everyone else they have fostered a symbiotic relationship that serves to help their fellow Malaysians to advance, a "prosper thy neighbor" approach. The main Chinese festival of Chinese New Year is always celebrated with much gaiety and goodwill throughout Malaysia, to attend the all important reunion dinner on new years eve, the Chinese (and just about everybody else) vacate the capital city en-masse and return to their hometowns. Once there everybody sits down to a feast and much reconciling. "Open Houses" or "Rumah Terbuka" is another Malaysian custom whereby all are welcome to visit and make merry regardless of race or creed.

Chinese communities tend to congregate in the towns and cities, and are far more common than the Malays or Indians in East Malaysia where they have thrived for many years in the lumber industry. The Chinese communities are somewhat less convivial when compared to the Malays, this may be due to the fact that the urban landscape tends to be less neighborhood oriented. Social norms such as the respect for elders and exchanging of pleasantries are very common and serves to strengthen ties. During special occasions such as weddings, the "Moon Yuet" ceremonies for newborn infants and of course the New Year open invitations are commonly extended to the neighbours.

The lion and dragon dances associated worldwide with the Chinese are a common sight during any celebration; other sights include Dragon Boat races, lantern parades during the Mid-Autumn Festival and the unique "Chingay" flag parade.

Other Chinese celebrations include the Mid-Autumn Festival better known as the "Moon Cake Festival", a celebration in honor of a mythical moon princess dating back for hundreds of years, the "Chap Goh Mei" which is basically a celebration on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year to mark the end of the festivities and being mostly Buddhists and Taoists the Chinese also observe various other religious celebrations in honor of the vast number of Buddhist deities and auspicious dates. A large number of Chinese have also converted to Christianity and a smaller number to Islam and Hinduism.

The average Chinese is typically never dressed in the traditional and elegant silk "Cheongsam" unless it's a very special occasion, mainly due to the pervasive influence of western culture and the aforementioned drive to obtain a better life. The average Malaysian Chinese professional will be identically dressed as his American or European expatriate colleague. Leisure wear is similarly orientated towards current western fashions. One item of note is that the older and more conservative generation will frown on the color black when one comes to visit them, especially if its head to toe black, as black along with white is associated with death and funerals. Wearing these colors to any celebration and Chinese New Year in particular is a MAJOR faux-pas.

In summary an urban lifestyle, high ambitions and a great dose of practicality have molded the Chinese into a driven and dynamic force in Malaysia's economy. Chinese culture and values have remained and often tempers the relentless pursuit of betterment with a deep concern for the community and a desire for the advancement of the country.

The Indians

India like China is a truly ancient civilization and Indians have played a pivotal role in Malaysia, another similarity is that they were also a merchant nation with caravans and trading ships that went far and wide across the world. Indians have been documented as having been in Malaysia for some 2000 years as traders and travelers. The Hindu religion has been documented in Malaysia as far back as the 4th and 5th century AD. By the time of the Melaka Sultanate in the 15th century, the Indians were already a political power with the Hindu faith and Indian traders an accepted part of everyday life.

During the English colonial period Indian laborers were brought in to work in rubber and other plantations. Indian, Sikh and Gurkha soldiers were also brought in to maintain peace and to quell rebellions. Over the years the Indians would carve a niche for themselves in Malaysia and would become an integral part of the nation. The Indian community constitutes fewer than 10 percent of the Malaysian population and is concentrated around the urban areas and rural and suburban rubber estates.

The Malaysian Indians are the smallest of the three main ethnic groups and are oftentimes regarded as a minority race, however their contributions to the culture is no less important or substantial than the other races. Although there is a general perception that most Indians in Malaysia today are either small business owners, professionals or labourers, the truth is Indians are found and excel in virtually every vocation and business in the country.
On a less positive note, there appears to be a divide in the Indian community with the an affluent, well educated, middle and upper middle class on one side and the less educated, lower income, blue collar workers on the other. This schism; although still a nagging problem in the country and more specifically in the Indian community; is slowly being addressed by the government and community leaders. Most middle class Indians are usually well educated professionals.

Indians in Malaysia are something of a middle ground socially between the Chinese and Malays, Indians are often as industrious and entrepreneurial as the Chinese and yet still retain much of their values and traditions and closeness and community awareness. To the Indians filial piety is of paramount importance and ties to the family and their community are extremely strong. Indians are also a deeply religious people, many are devout Hindus and others are Christians and Muslims.

The Indian Hindu community celebrates two main and a great many smaller religious events each year. The two main ones are called "Deepavali" and "Thaipusam", these celebrations are on a somewhat smaller scale than Hari Raya and Chinese New Year because of the smaller Indian community, but are still celebrated in the same spirit of togetherness and unity among all the races in Malaysia. Deepavali the "celebration of light", the literal translation "Deepam" and "Avali", actually means row or column of light. While there are several interpretations about the origins of Deepavali, the most popular one is that of a celebration commemorating the victory of the Hindu god Krishna over Narakasuran a demon who was terrorizing the people. Deepavali is therefore a celebration of light over darkness, good over evil.

Typically, as with everyone else in Malaysia, western culture has influenced Indian lifestyle. Many urban dwelling Indians have adapted their way of life to better reflect their surroundings and peers. As an example, fewer and fewer Indian women wear the "Saree", a simple, elegant and quite practical traditional dress, especially in view of Malaysia's generally hot and humid tropical climate. Among the three races, the use of the English language is perhaps the most widespread and ingrained amongst the Indian community. In general, Indians are also regarded as the most open in terms of cultural acceptance and adaptability among the races in Malaysia. These characteristics have aided immensely in their efforts to better themselves and the country.

In summary the Indians in Malaysia though smaller in number compared to the Malays and Chinese have nevertheless made enormous contributions to the resilient and prosperous socio-political and economic structure that is Malaysia. Economic disparities within the urban and rural Indian communities are slowly but surely being addressed. The Indian community represents an integral and vital component of Malaysian society and thusly they, along with all other Malaysians are justly proud of their accomplishments and their contributions to Malaysia's success.

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