Uncover the Mysteries of Malaysia
Malaysian culture is difficult to explain but easy to appreciate. A rich blend of the historical peoples who have populated the region, with strong Indigenous, Indian, Chinese and Malay influences, the country celebrates its diversity with a multitude of festivals, unique celebrations, delicious food, world-class art and entertaining dance and musical performances. With no single element acting as a standout, a visit to Malaysia will ensure visitors’ senses remain awash with flavours, colours, musical sounds and wafting scents.
The geography of Malaysia has played a crucial role in its ethnic diversity. Divided into two regions, Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia, the country became one when the Federation of Malaya merged with North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore. Today cultural differences between the two regions remains, however there has been a push by the people and the national government towards acceptance and understanding, with freedom of religion a capstone of the government policy dating back to the 1970s. In the 1971 National Culture Policy, the Malaysian government defined Malaysian culture with three guidelines: “it is based on the cultures of indigenous people; if elements from other cultures are judged suitable and reasonable they may be considered Malaysian culture; and that Island will be an important part of the national culture.”
They say you are what you eat, and that saying may not ring more true than when discussing Malaysian cuisine. While many Malaysian dishes are divided along ethnic lines – Chinese, Indian, Malay, for example – there are many crossovers to be found. Whether it’s found in a blend of ingredients or crossing techniques from different regions, many of the flavours found in Malaysian food is derived from the spices used in cooking, thanks to Malaysia’s history as part of the infamous spice route. With dishes similar to what you would find in Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei, the Malaysians add their personal flair by using Malaysian style with Chinese ingredients or vice versa.
Each state and region claims its own traditional dish, however the national dishes that can be enjoyed everywhere include rice or noodles, local chilies and seafood, with a staple being nasi lemak (rice steamed with coconut milk and pandan leaves to provide a rich fragrance). Pork is rarely used in cooking due to the large Muslim population, with fresh vegetables taking the limelight and featuring in many stir fries and plates across the nation. While there are world-famous dining options in Malaysia, especially in Kuala Lumpur, one of the best ways to connect with the locals is by sharing a meal with them.
Let your feet and mind wander through the narrow alleys and broad streets of Malaysian towns as you take in the variety of buildings surrounding you. The architecture in Malaysia is stunning, with structures representing every chapter and culture in Malaysian history.
Traditional Malay style of homes built on stilts and using local materials, as can be witnessed in local villages in Borneo, have large windows to allow cool breezes to enter and are carved with intricate designs; other traditional building styles, like those in Negeri Sembilan, have been built using no nails, and a beautiful example can be seen at the Old Palace of Seri Menanti (http://www.tourism.gov.my/en/us/places/states-of-malaysia/negeri-sembilan/seri-menanti-royal-museum--negeri-sembilan) from 1905.
The Chinese style of architecture can be seen in the temples found dotting the country, as well as in the homes that are built with indoor courtyards. A common sight are the Chinese shopfronts that, while incorporating British and French elements, are uniquely Malaysian and associated with the Chinese. When running shops on the ground floor at street level, families would live above them and this has created tall, skinny shopfronts with bright colours that, in some areas, have been meticulously restored for many more decades of admiration.
Many other styles will catch your attention, including the Islamic style of incorporating geometric patterns and motifs associated with mosques into more common buildings, the Indian carvings and bright figures seen atop many temples or entryways, Dutch colonial architecture which is extremely abundant in the small towns of Melaka and Georgetown, and of course the modern design we associate with the newest structures in Kuala Lumpur, including the world-recognized Petronas Towers (http://www.petronas.com.my/Pages/default.aspx).
As with everything else in Malaysia, the music and dance has been blended and transformed into a national standard with input from Malay, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian and Indian cultures. Malaysia has two traditional orchestras, the gamelan and the nobat, and if you are able to witness a performance, you’ll be in for a treat! Originally from Indonesia, the gamelan is a traditional orchestra that plays more uplifting melodies, while the nobat is a royal orchestra that plays more solemn music for the courts.
Much of the music is based around percussion instruments, with the most important being the gendang, or drum, of which there are at least a dozen varieties of traditional drums and often made with natural, local materials like skins and shells. Eastern Malaysia focuses around the gong more than the drum, including variations like the agung and kulintang which are found in funeral and wedding ceremonies and can be traced back to the southern Philippines and parts of Indonesia and Brunei.
Interestingly, while Malaysian music embraces a rich combination of external influences, the Malaysian government still strongly regulates what is available within the country. One example of such regulation is that foreign bands must submit a recording of a recent concert prior to playing in the country.
The myriad cultures, religions and traditions found in Malaysia add spice and flair to their cultural performances. With dances for celebration, mourning, courtship and joy, each ethnic group has influenced what we see when we visit Malaysia today. And what a treat for us! A small portion of the national dances are:
Malay Mak Yong - Originating from Patani in Southern Thailand, Mak Yong was conceived to entertain female royalty, queens and princesses, when their men were away at war. Combining romantic drama, dance and operatic singing, tales of the golden age of the Malay kingdoms are dramatised in enchanting performances.
Kuda Kepang - is a traditional dance brought to the state of Johor by Javanese immigrants. Dramatising the tales of victorious Islamic holy wars, dancers sit astride mock horses moving to the hypnotic beats of a percussion ensemble usually consisting of drums, gongs and angklungs.
Joget - Malaysia's most popular traditional dance, is a lively dance with an upbeat tempo. Performed by couples who combine fast, graceful movements with playful humour, the Joget has its origins in Portuguese folk dance, which was introduced to Melaka during the era of the spice trade.
Silat - One of the oldest Malay traditions and a deadly martial art, Silat is also a danceable art form. With its flowery body movements, a Silat performance is spellbinding and intriguing.
Dragon Dance - The dragon is a mythical creature that represents supernatural power, goodness, fertility, vigilance and dignity in Chinese culture. Typically performed to usher in the Chinese New Year, the Dragon Dance is said to bring good luck and prosperity for the year to come. Usually requiring a team of over 60 people, this fantastic performance is a dazzling display of perfect co-ordination, skill and grace.
Indian Bharata Natyam - This classical Indian dance is poetry in motion. Based on ancient Indian epics, this highly intense and dramatic dance form uses over 100 dance steps and gestures. As mastery requires many years of practice, some children begin learning the dance form at the age of five.
Bamboo Dance - Another highly popular and entertaining traditional dance is Bamboo Dance. Two long bamboo poles are held horizontally above the ground at ankle-height. They are clapped together to a high-tempo drumbeat. Requiring great agility, dancers are required to jump over or between the poles without getting their feet caught.
In most cultures, art and culture are almost indistinguishable, and Malaysia is no different. Art, music and performing arts date back to the Malay sultanates, with many of the traditional crafts, like carving, silversmithing and weaving, as the central identifiable expressions of history and culture. Examples of these range from handwoven baskets from rural areas, to the intricate and ornate silver of the Malay courts.
Derived from Indian and Indonesian influences, especially Java, puppet shows are a popular form of entertainment, used like we employ fairy tales: to teach lessons of morality and educational themes. As in Bali, shadow puppetry is known as wayang kulit and uses carved wooden figures (puppets) in front of a screen, so the viewer witnesses both the intricate detail of the puppet and can watch the story presented in shadow. Some shows are mythical while others explain historical events that are important to the country and traditions of the people.
Wooden masks are popular in indigenous parts of Eastern Malaysia, and textile creation and decoration, like patterned batik fabrics, are found throughout the country. These fabrics are used for clothing and decoration, and make excellent authentic, lightweight souvenirs. The wooden carvings throughout the country are always decoration and art, never an industry, so many doorways and window sills are ornately carved and appreciated.
A unique aspect of Malaysian art is that artwork depicting humans or animals was restricted until the mid-1900s due to prevailing Islamic taboos, so instead local plants and geometric patterns were featured.
When planning your trip to Malaysia, speak to one of our friendly Holiday Experts and ensure you get the most of your visit by going during one of Malaysia’s many annual festivals. While some are traditional and reflect ancient beliefs and history, new festivals and celebrations are created each year and prove that Malaysia is an ever-evolving country.
Some of the more fun festivals that engage visitors and offer something for everyone include:
Borneo International Kite Festival: Taking place in late September in Bintulu, Sarawak, this festival is meant to show off intricate kites, with international competitors who fly them. This celebration is also accompanied by cultural shows, music and dancing.
Rainforest World Music Festival: Featuring artists from Borneo and throughout the world, this three-day music festival takes place in July and is situated outside of Kuching.
Thaipusam: An important event around the country, Thaipusam is mainly celebrated by Malaysia’s Hindu population. You’ll witness colourful parades, fantastic costumes and body decoration if you are in Sarawak in January and February.
Chinese New Year: A two-week long celebration throughout Malaysia featuring dragon dances, the launching of lanterns and extravagant fireworks in Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.
Other, more recent festivals include the Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism Festival, the Kuala Lumpur International Jazz Festival, the Malaysian Youth Music Festival, the Malaysian International Gourmet Festival and the George Town Literary Festival. Check online or speak to an experienced Holiday Consultant if you’re interested in coordinating your visit with one of these unique celebrations!
From village visits to mouth-watering dinners, the rich and unique culture and heritage of Malaysia can be appreciated in every corner of the country; a country that successfully blends the modern with the traditional, respecting ancient beliefs and welcoming today’s technologies and challenges.
*My Malaysia would like to refer to the Malaysian Tourism Website for some detailed and helpful information; visit their website for even more fascinating explanations of Malaysian culture!