Culture in Malaysia draws on the varied cultures of the different people of Malaysia. The first people to live in the area were indigenous tribes that still remain; they were followed by the Malays, who moved there from mainland Asia in ancient times. Chinese and Indian cultural influences made their mark when trade began with those countries, and increased with immigration to Malaysia. Other cultures that heavily influenced that of Malaysia include Persian, Arabic and British. The many different ethnicities that currently exist in Malaysia have their own unique and distinctive cultural identities, with some crossover.
Some cultural disputes exist between Malaysia and neighbouring countries, notably Indonesia. The two countries have a similar cultural heritage, sharing many traditions and items. However, disputes have arisen over things ranging from culinary dishes to Malaysia’s national anthem. Strong feelings exist in Indonesia about protecting their national heritage. The Malaysian and Indonesian government have met to defuse some of the tensions resulting from the overlaps in culture. Feelings are not as strong in Malaysia, where most recognise that many cultural values are shared.
Public support for the arts is meagre. Malaysian society for the past century has been so heavily geared toward economic development that the arts have suffered, and many practitioners of Malaysia’s aesthetic traditions mourn the lack of apprentices to carry them on. The possibility exists for a Malaysian arts renaissance amid the country’s growing affluence.
Architecture in Malaysia is a combination of many styles, from Islamic and Chinese styles to those brought by European colonists. Malay architecture has changed due to these influences. Houses in the north are similar to those in Thailand, while those in the south are similar to those in Java. New materials, such as glass and nails, were brought in by Europeans, changing the architecture. Houses are built for tropical conditions, raised on stilts with high roofs and large windows, allowing air to flow through the house and cool it down. Wood has been the main building material for much of Malaysia’s history; it is used for everything from the simple kampung to royal palaces. In Negeri Sembilan traditional houses are entirely free of nails. Besides wood, other common materials such as bamboo and leaves were used. The Istana Kenangan in Kuala Kangar was built in 1926, and it the only Malay palace with bamboo walls. The indigenous people of East Malaysia live in longhouses and water villages. Longhouses are elevated and on stilts, and can house 20 to 100 families. Water villages are also built on stilts, with houses connected with planks and most transport by boats.
Chinese architecture can be divided into two types, traditional and Baba Nyonya. Baba Nyonya households are made of colourful tiles and have large indoor courtyards. Indian architecture came with the Malaysian Indians, reflecting the architecture of southern India where most originated from. Some Sikh architecture was also imported. Malacca, which was a traditional centre of trade, has a large variety of building styles. Large wooden structures such as the Palace of Sultan Mansur Shah exist from early periods. Chinese influence can be seen in brightly decorated temples and terraced shop houses. The largest remaining Portuguese structure in Malacca is the A Famosa fort. Other colonial building include the Dutch Stadthuys, the Dutch Colonial town brick buildings, and buildings built by the British such as the Memorial Hall, which combines Baroque and Islamic architecture.
The shapes and sizes of houses differ from state to state. Common elements in Peninsular Malaysia include pitched roofs, verandahs, and high ceilings, raised on stilts for ventilation. The woodwork in the house is often intricately carved. The floors are at different levels depending on the function of the room. Mosques have traditionally been based on Javanese architecture. In modern times, the government has promoted different projects, from the tallest twin buildings in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers, to a whole garden city, Putrajaya. Malaysian firms are developing skyscraper designs that are specifically for tropical climates.
The pre-colonial Malay rulers supported a rich variety of literary figures who produced court chronicles, fables, and legends that form a prominent part of the contemporary Malaysian cultural imagination.
Each of the Malay Sultanates created their own literary tradition, influenced by pre-existing oral stories and by the stories that came with Islam. The first Malay literature was in the Arabic script. The earliest known Malay writing is on the Terengganu stone, made in 1303. Chinese and Indian literature became common as the numbers of speakers increased in Malaysia, and locally produced works based in languages from those areas began to be produced in the 19th century. English has also become a common literary language. In 1971, the government took the step of defining the literature of different languages. Literature written in Malay was called “the national literature of Malaysia”, literature in other bumiputra languages was called “regional literature”, while literature in other languages was called “sectional literature”. Malay poetry is highly developed, and uses many forms. The Hikayat form is popular, and the pantun has spread from Malay to other languages.
Developing a more contemporary national literature has been a struggle because of language, with controversies over whether Malaysian fiction should be composed solely in Malay or in other languages as well. Though adult literacy is nearly 90%, the well-read newspapers lament that the national belief in the importance of reading is stronger than the practice.
A small but vibrant group of graphic artists are productive in Malaysia. Practitioners of batik, the art of painting textiles with wax followed by dying to bring out the pattern, still work in northern peninsular Malaysia. Batik-inspired designs are often produced in factories on shirts, sarongs, table cloths, or dresses forming an iconic Malaysian aesthetic.
Traditional Malaysian art is mainly centred around the crafts of carving, weaving, and silversmithing. Traditional art ranges from handwoven baskets from rural areas to the silverwork of the Malay courts. Common artworks included ornamental kris and beetle nut sets. Luxurious textiles known as songket are made, as well as traditional patterned batik fabrics. Indigenous East Malaysians are known for their wooden masks. Malaysian art has expanded only recently, as before the 1950s Islamic taboos about drawing people and animals were strong. Textiles such as the batik, songket, pua kumbu and tekat are used for decorations, often embroidered with a painting or pattern. Traditional jewellery was made from gold and silver adorned with gems, and in the east leather of beads were used to the same effect.
Earthenware has been developed in many areas. The labu sayong is a gourd-shaped clay jar that holds water. Also used to store water is the angular terenang. The belanga is a clay bowl used to cook, with a wide base that allows heat to spread easily. Carved wood is used as ornamentation for many items, such as doors and window panels. Woodcarving was never an industry, but an art. Traditional woodcarvers spent years simply preparing the wood, due to a belief that woodcarvers need to be a perfect match with their wood. The wood also had to match the buyer, so woodcarving was a very ritualised task.
Performing Arts & Music
Traditional Malay music and performing arts appear to have originated in the Kelantan-Pattani region with influences from India, China, Thailand, and Indonesia. The music is based around percussion instruments, the most important of which is the gendang (drum). There are at least 14 types of traditional drums. Drums and other traditional percussion instruments are often made from natural materials such as shells. Other instruments include the rebab (a bowed string instrument), the serunai (a double-reed oboe-like instrument), the seruling (flute), and trumpets. Music is traditionally used for storytelling, celebrating life-cycle events, and at annual events such as the harvest. Music was once used as a form of long-distance communication. The traditional orchestra can be divided between two forms, the gamelan which plays melodies using gongs and string instruments, and the nobat which uses wind instruments to create more solemn music.
In East Malaysia, ensembles based around gongs such as agung and kulintang are commonly used in ceremonies such as funerals and weddings. These ensembles are also common in the southern Philippines, Kalimantan in Indonesia, and in Brunei. Chinese and Indian Malaysians have their own forms of music, and the indigenous tribes of Peninsula and East Malaysia have unique traditional instruments.
Each ethnic group has distinct performing arts, with little overlap between them. Malay art shows some North Indian influence. A form of art called mak yong, incorporating dance and drama, remains strong in the Kelantan state. However, older Malayan-Thai performing arts such as mak yong have declined in popularity throughout the country due to their Hindu-Buddhist origin. Since the Islamisation period, the arts and tourism ministry have focused on newer dances of Portuguese, Middle Eastern or Mughal origin. Malay traditional dances include joget Melayu and zapin. In recent years, dikir barat has grown in popularity, and it is actively promoted by state governments as a cultural icon. Silat is another popular Malay martial art and dance form, believed to increase a person’s spiritual strength. Wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) has been popular in Malaysia for centuries. The puppets are usually made with cow and buffalo skin, and are carved and painted by hand. Plays done with shadow puppets are often based on traditional stories, especially tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Traditionally, theatrical music is performed only by men. Javanese immigrants brought kuda kepang to Johor, and is a form of dance where dancers sit on mock horses and tells the tales of Islamic wars. The Chinese communities brought traditional lion dances and dragon dances with them, while Indians brought art forms such as bharata natyam and bhangra. Colonialism also brought other art forms, such as the Portuguese farapeira and branyo. There are a variety of traditional dances, which often have very strong spiritual significance. Different tribes from west and east Malaysia have different dances.
Within Malaysia, the largest performing arts venue is the Petronas Philharmonic Hall. The resident orchestra is the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. Malay popular music is a combination of styles from all ethnicities in the country. The Malaysian government has taken steps to control what music is available in Malaysia; rap music has been criticised, heavy metal has been limited, and foreign bands must submit a recording of a recent concert before playing in Malaysia. It is believed that this music is a bad influence on youth.
Events & Festivals
Malaysians observe a number of holidays and festivities throughout the year. Some are federally gazetted public holidays and some are observed by individual states. Other festivals are observed by particular ethnic or religious groups, and the main holiday of each major group has been declared a public holiday. The most observed national holiday is Hari Merdeka (Independence Day) on 31 August, commemorating the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957. Malaysia Day on 16 September commemorates federation in 1963. Other notable national holidays are Labour Day (1 May), and the King’s birthday (first week of June).
Muslim holidays are prominent as Islam is the state religion; Hari Raya Puasa (also called Hari Raya Aidilfitri), Hari Raya Haji (also called Hari Raya Aidiladha), Maulidur Rasul (birthday of the Prophet), and others being observed. Malaysian Chinese celebrate festivals such as Chinese New Year and others relating to traditional Chinese beliefs. Hindus in Malaysia celebrate Deepavali, the festival of lights, while Thaipusam is a religious rite which sees pilgrims from all over the country converge at the Batu Caves. Malaysia’s Christian community celebrates most of the holidays observed by Christians elsewhere, most notably Christmas and Easter. East Malaysians also celebrate a harvest festival known as Gawai. Despite most festivals being identified with a particular ethnic or religious group, celebrations are universal. In a custom known as “open house” Malaysians participate in the celebrations of others, often visiting the houses of those who identify with the festival.