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Home > Malaysia Hotels > Malaysia People

Malaysia Travel Guide - with Wired Destinations


Discount Hotels in Malaysia : Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi, Cameron Highlands, Sarawak, Melaka, Kuantan, Kota Bahru, Johor, Perak, Terengganu, Genting Highlands, Sabah


The People of Malaysia – with Wired Destinations

Aborigines, Malays, Indians, Europeans, Chinese — these are just some of the many and diverse peoples that have given Malaysia its unique character. The
Malaysia traveler will be fascinated by the obvious multi-ethnicity of the country: there are Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians; as well as large tribal communities like the Kadazandusuns of Sabah and the Than of Sarawak. And given the melting pot of ethnicities, a sizeable number of people of mixed race abound as well.

The population stands at around 25 million today, with 83 percent living in Peninsular Malaysia, 9 percent in Sarawak and the remaining 8 percent in Sabah. The distribution of population is grossly unequal when one considers that most people are found in the peninsula, which at 131,587 sq km (50,800 sq miles) is considerably smaller than Sarawak (124,967 sq km/48,250 sq miles) and Sabah (72,500 sq km/27,900 sq miles) put together.

The original inhabitants of the peninsula, the Orang Asli, were followed by the Malays, who built upon traditions of the soil and ocean, and embraced influences from elsewhere as well. Due to its rich resources and strategic location, Malaysia attracted still others – the culturally-rich Indians, Chinese, and Europeans – resulting in rich yet culturally diverse traditions.

Orang Asli in Malaysia

The Malay term Orang Asli means "original people" and covers three more or less distinct groups and a score or more of separate tribes. Of the estimated 98,000 Orang Asli, 89 percent live in rural areas, many of which are on the fringes of towns, selling forest produce such as bamboo, and wild fruit and vegetables to the townspeople. The British were perhaps the first to group the Orang Asli together, using the term Sakai or debt-slave to define them. Their origins still remain something of a mystery; what is known is that the main groups vary from one another racially, culturally and linguistically.

Undoubtedly, the oldest inhabitants of the Malaysian Peninsula are the Negritos, arriving in the Malay Peninsula at least 10,000 years ago. Numbering around 2,000, they are mostly dark-skinned and frizzy-haired, their features, though unique, are similar to the peoples of Papua New Guinea or East Africa. The Negritos mostly inhabit the northeast and northwest of the peninsula, and are the only truly nomadic of the Orang Asli tribes. Practicing little or no cultivation, the Negrito tribes pride themselves on their mobility. However, like other tribes, some Negritos have left the forest and sought education and jobs in the city.

The largest group, numbering around 40,000, is the Senoi – thought to share a common ancestry with the hill peoples of northern Cambodia and Vietnam – arrived in the Malay Peninsula between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. Most of the tribes are shifting cultivators, moving from a settlement when the land is exhausted. Many Senoi in the Cameron Highlands have become wage-earners, working on the highland tea estates. Others have headed for the bright city lights, getting jobs as varied as civil servants and taxi drivers.

The last group of Orang Asli, the Proto Malays or Aboriginal Malays, were the last to arrive – from the Indonesian island of Sumatra – around 4,000 years ago. Many of this group also have a distinct resemblance to the Malays; indeed modern Malays have a common ancestry with many of them.

Malays in Malaysia

The Malays, long linked to the land as bumiputra, or sons of the soil, are known for being generous and hospitable with an easy smile and a well-developed sense of humor – traits perhaps of a people who have had the good fortune to live peacefully in a land abundant year-round with food.

As a whole, Malays comprise 52 percent of Malaysia's population. Historically, the Malays have always wielded political authority. However, when the status quo of the Malays was threatened in the 1969 elections, culminating in bloody racial riots, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was set in place to protect the interests of the bumiputra. Racial quotas, scholarships and business and housing subsidies were introduced to raise the Malay stake in the economy.

Rural Malays today still cherish the simplicity of the uncluttered, outdoor life, nurturing a provincial conformity laid down centuries ago. Malay kampung are peaceful enclaves, with wooden houses propped up on stilts above courtyards shaded by coconut palms, banana and papaya trees. The village mosque calls the faithful to prayer several times a day, often interrupting evening television programs that are now a part of everyday family life.

Kampung youth and children may favor shorts and blue jeans but the daily dress code is still the comfortable cotton sarung. Rolled expertly at the waist, and topped off with either a batik shirt or T-shirt, this airy garment is especially indispensable among older Malays. On special occasions, the traditional and comfortable baju kurung, a long-skirted suit usually made of colorful silk, is worn by women, while men don their baju melayu, a loose pantsuit worn with a short sarong, topped with a black velvet fez known as a songkok.

The inherent talents of the Malays, however, find outlets far from the countryside. Malay businessmen and civil servants in the cities wear Western-style clothes, drive cars, speak English fluently, and carry mobile phones. Urban youths pick up the latest in street fashion from the US and display their new togs in shopping malls. Hard rock and heavy metal is popular, as is the electric guitar. The amplified sounds of the instrument can even be heard blaring, from isolated kampung houses.

Although the rift between the kampung and the city has widened over the years, it does not threaten the strong unity the Malays derive from a common faith. The laws of Islam immediately set a Malay apart from fellow Malaysians. Intermarriage between races is uncommon, though Muslim foreigners are accepted, keeping the Malay-Muslim cultural identity distinctly separate.

Muslim women, especially, stand out from other ethnic Malaysians mainly because of their dress codes. Recently, an increasing number of Malay women have chosen to wear the veil, or tudung, a garment of modesty. Despite this seemingly strict dress code and traditional Islamic laws, Muslim women in Malaysia are given an increasing amount of employment and property rights; many run their own businesses and have high-profile jobs.

Indians in Malaysia

Indians began visiting Malaysia 2,000 years ago, following rumors of fortune in a land their ancestors knew as Suvarnadvipa, the fabled "golden peninsula". Tamil blood even flows through the royal lineage dating back to 13th-century Melaka, where the first sultanate was found. But it was not until the 19th century that Indians arrived and stayed in large numbers, employed mainly as rubber tappers or other plantation laborers. Most came from south India, and about 80 percent were Tamil, with small numbers of Sikh, Bengali, Keralan, Telugu and Parsi. Malaysian Indians still maintain strong home ties with their former villages, sometimes even taking wives from there and brining them to live in Malaysia.

Today, Indians (mostly concentrated in the states of Selangor, Perak and Penang) make up less than 10 percent of the population of Malaysia, yet they own less than one percent of the country's corporate wealth. It has been estimated that four out of five Indians, mostly Tamils, are still manual laborers on plantations, a situation that has been explained as a legacy of colonial Malaysia.

However, as the country gains in economic prosperity, other Indian communities are increasingly well-represented in the various professions. Several programs have been initiated to raise the Indian share of Malaysia's wealth but the general consensus is that the economic restructuring plans of the NEP have generally overlooked the Indians.

Indian Muslims are also a significant part of the Indian community. When they arrived in Malaysia, many opened restaurants, textile shops and other successful businesses, and some of them married Malay women.

Southern Indians have brought a rich cultural influence and color to Malaysian life. Bright silk saris, fiery Indian cuisine, Tamil movies with their song-and-dance scenes, and the indomitable prevalence of the Hindu faith that continues to absorb change have all become part of Malaysia.

Chinese Malaysia

The Chinese population makes up 30 percent of the country's total, yet their presence and control of major industries such as rubber and tin and the commercial sector would seem to make their numbers far greater. They can be found in any trading centre, from Kuala Lumpur to the smallest isolated shop far up the Rejang River in Sarawak. In 1794, Francis Light, founder of Georgetown, Penang, was so impressed by the hardy Chinese that he wrote: "The Chinese constitute the most valuable part of our inhabitants:... they are the only people from whom a revenue may be raised without expense and extraordinary effort by the government."

It was for both fortune and adventure that the Chinese first headed for Nanyang, the South Seas. From the 13th century onwards, the Chinese were frequent traders in the Indonesian and Malay Archipelago. However, the majority of the Chinese arrived in the 19th century during the Manchu dynasty when problems were rife in China. An edict was issued banning Chinese from traveling abroad, but a number risked their lives and escaped. These later Chinese immigrants were organized under clan associations (kongsi) and secret societies, which often engaged in rival warfare. The new settlers took on many of the toughest jobs in tin mining, road and railway construction; but they also played as hard as they worked, and opium and gambling, were popular pastimes.

Rather than integrating with Malay culture, the Chinese community has put its own traditional stamp on the land. Officially, all Chinese must learn Malay, but at home, Mandarin and local dialects prevail. Younger generations, however, are more caught up in modem Western lifestyles.

There is a strong belief in self-help and industriousness among the Chinese, but close family and clan ties are also priorities. The Chinese in Malaysia are defined by their history of hardship and pioneering, as well as the three important Chinese codes of ethics: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Even if converted to Islam or Christianity, this background is deep-rooted and many of the associated festivals are regularly celebrated.

Even among, modern Malaysian Chinese, the belief in symbolism is prevalent. Jade is worn by the majority of Malaysian Chinese for aesthetic reasons as well as for its evil-warding powers. Feng shui (literally, "wind, water") is the Chinese belief system based on geomantic omens. The numeral 8 is extremely coveted for house numbers and car license plates, as it sounds like the Cantonese character for "prosper"; meanwhile, the number 4 is carefully avoided, as it sounds like "death".

Peranakans in Malaysia

The Peranakan culture was first established when Chinese trade missions established a port in Melaka in the early 1400s. Intercultural relationships and marriages were forged between traders and local Malay women, as well as between Melaka's sultans and the Chinese Ming emperors. In 1460, Sultan Mansor Shah married Ming Princess Hang Li Poh, who brought with her 500 "youths of noble birth", and many handmaidens and settled around Bukit Cina (Chinese Hill).

Subsequent generations of Chinese-Malays were known as Straits Chinese, or Peranakan, which in Malay means "born here". When the Dutch colonists moved out in the early 1800s, more Chinese immigrants moved in, thus diluting Malay blood in the Peranakans, so that later generations were almost completely Chinese. However, this did not alter the Straits Chinese identity, which combines the best of Malay and Chinese cultures. This colorful balance encompasses Malay dress such as the sarong kebaya, a unique bi-cultural cuisine, and a spoken language of mixed Malay, Chinese and some English colloquialisms.

Peranakan culture reached its height in the 19th century, and though Melaka was the Peranakan centre, large communities also flourished in Penang and Singapore. Today's Peranakans are proud of their heritage and consider themselves different from the other Chinese, although they are counted as part of the community.

Eurasians in Malaysia

When the Sultanate of Melaka fell to Portuguese invaders in 1511, the new rulers sought to establish control by encouraging the Portuguese soldiers to marry local Melakan women. As can be expected, a strong Eurasian community grew up with loyalty to Portugal through its ties of blood and the Catholic faith.

Nearly 500 years after their arrival, there is still widespread evidence of the Portuguese legacy. Eurasians in Melaka, as well as in other towns in Malaysia, bear such Portuguese surnames as Sequiera, Pinto, Dias, D'Silva and D'Souza, and still cherish the traditions of their European lineage. They are proud of their unique Eurasian cuisine, and some still continue to speak Cristao, a medieval dialect from southeastern Portugal. The language has long since died out in Europe, but is still used in some parts of Malaysia. Descendants of cross-cultural marriages in the 19th and 20th century are equally proud of their English or Dutch heritage.

The People of Sabah and Sarawak

The two easternmost states of Sabah and Sarawak, situated in the north of the island of Borneo, have the most diverse racial groups of all Malaysia. Most of them are of Mongoloid extract and moved here from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

In Sabah, the largest group comprises the Kadazandusun tribes, followed by the Murut, Bajau and Rungus, and Bisaya, Suluk, Lundayeh and Kedayan in smaller numbers.

In Sarawak there is an even greater diversity of peoples and languages: the Dayak include Ibans, who make up the majority of the Sarawak population, and the Bidayuh or land Dayaks. The Melanau are also a large community, and then there are many tribes lumped together under the name of Orang Ulu. This term, meaning "interior people", has become somewhat derogatory in the sense that it denotes a primitive and ignorant people – most tribes prefer to be known by their own names. The Orang Ulu group includes the nomadic Punan and Penan, the highly structured Kayan and Kenyan communities, and the Kajang, Kelabit, Lun Bawang and Bisaya. Even these names house several different tribes who have their own special names.   

The best way of experiencing the diversity of Malaysia culture is an extended stay at a Sarawak hotel or Melaka hotel. We have recommendations for  Malaysia Travel and a   Malaysia Travel Guide with Malaysia Tavel Tips on Malaysia Dining, Malaysia Beaches and Malaysia Sightseeing.  Find out about the metropolis Kuala Lumpur with  Kuala Lumpur Travel info, Kuala Lumpur Culture and Kuala Lumpur Sightseeing. Here you have all the Kuala Lumpur travel information you’ll ever need. We can also find the finest Malaysia hotels and Kuala Lumpur hotels at discountend rates. 

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