Cultural Diversity in Malaysia
Malaysia’s strategic location in South East Asia in the early Malayan history has made it an important maritime trade center and stopping point for sailors between India and China. In fact, many Indian and Chinese traders converge in this midway point to trade. The many years of trade and foreign influences has brought about many different cultures from all across the region and some as far as Europe, all attracted by the peninsula’s strategic location and rich natural resources.
In the early centuries of the first millennium, the people of the Malay Peninsula adopted the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism before the arrival of Islam. Many Indian traders and Chinese merchants established trading ports in the Peninsula, bringing about their own influences to the region.
However, none compared to the rise of Melaka as a major trading port. The Melaka (Malacca) kingdomsoon became a major cultural center owing its rise to the fantastic trading facilities and strategic location. After adopting Islam as their official religion, Melaka’s prominence in the Peninsula helped spread the religion across the region. The Malay language which has originally been brought to Melaka from Sumatra in time has come to be the official language of the Peninsula. All of these are fundamental to the development of the multi- ethnic, multi-faith Malaysian society we see today.
Subsequent occupations by the Portuguese (1511) and Dutch (1641) in Melaka, then the English have all left some mark on the culture, faith and language in the Malaysian culture today. Indeed some of the Portuguese words and objects have been adopted into the relatively young Malay language and culture such as “bendera” for flag and “gereja” for church. Today, Melaka town still holds many evidences of its rich history.
The various traditional art forms from different cultures are still practiced in Malaysia today especially in the areas of performance art. Chinese Opera, Malay “Silat” martial arts, Indian dance, are all a popular cultural activities. The many cultural festive celebrations are allcelebrated together and many Malaysians now adopt an “open house” culture inviting family and friends of different faiths and cultures to join in the feast and learn more about each other’s culture. Besides promoting unity in diversity through education and understanding, the variety of delicious traditional food is an experience not to be missed.
The Indigenous people are important to the cultural and ethnic mix of Malaysian life. With over 64 different groups, the “Orang Asli” (original people) are diverse in language and culture, living very different ways of life and livelihoods depending on locale. Sabah alone has 30 different groups, speaking 50 languages and 80 dialects. Sarawak’s Iban group is once known to the world as the fiercest headhunters in Borneo although this is no longer in practice for a long while. From hunting with blowpipes to many fascinating traditional dances and games, the indigenous groups of Malaysia add so much more into the diversely rich national heritage and culture.
Melaka as well as Penang provide great insights into the heritage and lifestyles of the Peranakan culture. The two historic cities of the Straits of Malacca bear the marks of multi- ethnic trade and cultural exchange as well as the marks of European influence by three successive colonial powers over the course of almost 500 years. One could take a walking tour in these two UNESCO World Heritage sites and sample the rich culture and history of these two landmarks.
Contact us to plan your next cultural enriching experience or to find out more about the different cultural destinations in Malaysia.