Selamat Datang means welcome in the Malay language and visitors to this fascinating country will be welcomed to a land that is a bubbling, bustling melting pot of races and religions in which Malays, Indians, Chinese and other ethnic groups live harmoniously in a tropical paradise. Multiculturalism has made Malaysia a model society, a gastronomic paradise and home to a wealth of art, culture and hundreds of colourful festivals that represent the differing cultures of these ethnic groups.
Visitors have a wealth of opportunities and fascinating destinations to choose from, including endless white sandy beaches, lush championship golf courses, mountain retreats and modern cities with an abundance of shopping, dining and nightlife choices. Destination Asia Malaysia provides a variety of excursions to awe-inspiring locations including majestic Mount Kinabalu in Sabah; the tropical beaches of Langkawi; the heritage buildings of UNESCO-listed Penang; or the fast paced beat of the capital city Kuala Lumpur. Geographically, Malaysia is as diverse as its vibrant culture. It is divided into 13 states and three federal territories, separated by the South China Sea, with 11 states and two federal territories (Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya) across Peninsular Malaysia, and two states and one federal territory (Labuan) in East Malaysia.
This diverse territory provides travellers with a wealth of tourism experiences, including an abundance of Malay, Chinese and Indian flavours on Peninsular Malaysia, whereas Borneo offers a complete contrast of wildly differing fauna and flora, including the famed orang-utans, towering granite peaks and remote ethnic tribes.
Visitors are often surprised to discover how developed the country is, yet how rich and varied its cultural traditions remain. Melaka, dubbed the “historic state”, is renowned for its history, culture and museums and the state capital was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2008.
The states of Sabah and Sarawak offer unrivalled nature and adventure. Mount Kinabalu is one of South East Asia’s highest peaks and Borneo has a wilderness containing some of the world’s oldest rainforests. Add some of the best dive sites, containing some of the most prolific marine life on earth, and you will see why Malaysia is known as “Truly Asia”.
One of Malaysia’s key attractions is the extreme contrasts. Towering skyscrapers look down upon wooden houses built on stilts, and five-star beach resort hotels sit several metres away from tropical reefs. All of these favourable qualities make Malaysia a perfect holiday destination in which visitors can enjoy eclectic cultures, observe natural wonders, witness fascinating tribal groups and return to a state-of-the art 21st Century city to enjoy modern day luxuries.
Travelling in Malaysia
Malaysia is one of the most traveller-friendly countries to visit, with modern airports, highways and rail infrastructure and Destination Asia Malaysia offers guests a wide array of transport options, including chauffeured cars, deluxe air-conditioned mini-buses with driver/guide, and full-sized 40 – 44 seat coaches. We will meet you outside your arrival gate and ensure fast and efficient transfers to destinations across the country and beyond.
The transport network in Malaysia was largely developed during British colonial rule and the country’s transport network is highly diverse and modern. Malaysia’s road network is extensive, covering 63,445-km, including 1,630-km of expressways. The main highway of the country extends over 800-km, reaching the Thai border. The railway system is state-run and covers a route of 1798-km, in Peninsular Malaysia.
Destinations in Malaysia
Malaysia is located partly on a peninsula of the Asian mainland and partly on the northern third of the island of Borneo. Peninsular Malaysia shares a border with Thailand; is connected by a causeway and a bridge (the “second link”) to the island state of Singapore; and has coastlines on the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca. East Malaysia (Borneo) shares borders with Brunei and Indonesia. This geographical diversity greatly enhances the tourism experience as it offers a wide variety of land and seas activities and different social, cultural and culinary experiences.
The country is a wonderland of diverse terrain, including mountainous forests, lowland woods, dense tropical rainforests; mangroves and stunning tropical islands. On Peninsular Malaysia there are three prominent national forests worth visiting: Taman Negara (known as the “National Forest”); and Kenong Rimba Park, both of which are inland; and Endau Rompin National Park, which is located towards the south eastern end of the peninsula. These are the easiest forests to reach, especially Taman Negara, which is a half-day trip from the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Fauna and flora
Malaysia is home to a rich diversity of fauna and flora and Destination Asia Malaysia has a wide variety of organised tours that take clients off the beaten track and into the heart of this untouched natural wonderland. Tourists can view a plethora of plants and animals such as the world’s largest flower found on Borneo, the rafflesia, which can grow to over 90-cm in diameter. Another interesting species of Borneo flora is the pitcher plant which survives in poor soil conditions by drawing nutrients from insects and small mammals it captures in its pitcher.
Besides the exotic plant life, tourists can also go on our tours in search of native animals. Malaysia is estimated to contain 20 per cent of the world’s animal species and a vast area of protected primary rainforest in Malaysian Borneo is home to rare creatures including the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Malaysian sun bear and the clouded leopard. A number of rehabilitation facilities on the island provide sanctuary for the famed orang-utan and off the coast many species of sea turtles that use Malaysia’s beaches for nesting grounds are protected.
The country’s ancient rainforests are among the most bio-diverse on the planet and endowed with an estimated 8,000 species of flowering plants, including the world’s tallest tropical tree species, the tualang. There are also approximately 210 mammal species, including 620 birds; 250 reptiles; and 150 frog species. Wildlife includes elephants, rhinos, tapirs, tigers, leopards, honey bears, gibbons and monkeys, orang-utans and pangolins. Bird species include pheasants, sacred hornbills, kingfishers, sunbirds and woodpeckers. Snakes include cobras, vipers and pythons.
Malaysia’s maritime territory is located in the centre of the Indo-Pacific Basin, which contains one of the richest marine habitats in the world. This is at the heart of the genetic wealth of the entire Indo-Pacific and has been subject to the same tropical climate for over 100 million years; with ideal conditions of light and temperature which has nurtured multiple life forms, including over 3,000 species of fish; hawksbill, leatherback and green turtles; dugongs; whale, hammerhead and reef sharks; game fish, such as blue marlin and tuna; and reef fish such as garupas and manta rays.
Regions of Malaysia
Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is divided between three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam. Approximately 73 per cent of the island is Indonesian territory; the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in the north occupy about 26 per cent of the island; and the sovereign state of Brunei Darussalam, located on the north coast, comprises one per cent of Borneo’s land area.
Borneo is the destination of choice for those with adventure in their hearts. The island is home to a rain forest older than the Amazon; rivers that meander through dense jungles; idyllic beaches that stretch for miles; and some of the world’s largest caves. Clearwater Cave, for example, has one of the world’s longest underground rivers. Creatures great and small can be found, including deer the size of a domestic cat that are less than six inches tall; the endangered orang-utan, whose only other natural home is Sumatra; and the large-nosed proboscis monkey.
Peninsular East Coast
Compared to the Peninsular West Coast, this region remains more true to its Malay heritage, with small fishing villages in the south, and strong Islamic communities in the north. Two of the main attractions are the islands of Redang and Tioman. These destinations attract divers from across the world because of their clear waters and abundant marine life and are easily accessible, with daily flights from Kuala Lumpur.
Peninsular West Coast
The Peninsular West Coast is home to the most popular destinations in Malaysia, including the cultural, financial and economic capital of the country, Kuala Lumpur. The capital city is a monument to Malaysian ingenuity and has grown from humble beginnings as a tin-mining shanty town into a 21st-century metropolis, dominated by soaring skyscrapers alongside remnants of colonial rule and historic temples and mosques.
Explore George Town – Orientation, Penang
This fascinating tour gives an insight into Penang’s capital which is famous worldwide for its history, heritage and museums. Named after King George III of England, George Town has one of the largest concentrations of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia. A highlight is a visit to Masjid Kapitan Keling Road, otherwise known as the “Street of Harmony”, because it contains various historic landmarks of worship. One of the most prominent of these is the Anglican church of St George, named after the patron saint of England. Another architectural and religious gem is the Kapitan Keling Mosque, the oldest mosque in Penang which was built originally by the East India Company’s troops in 1818. Our journey of discovery then takes us to the oldest Hindu temple of worship in Penang; Mahamariamman Temple. We then visit the Goddess of Mercy Temple, the first Chinese temple in Penang, which was built by early Hokkien and Cantonese settlers and it remains a popular temple amongst the local community even today. Other highlights include visits to the State Museum and the world’s fourth largest reclining Buddha statue at Wat Chayamangkalaram. This excursion gives a perfect insight into the cultural heartbeat of Penang’s capital, which has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
Penang Scenic Night Tour
Watch the city of George Town come alive at night as we embark on a fun-filled rickshaw ride and head around the city’s picturesque illuminated streets. This traditional form of transport provides the perfect opportunity to take in an alternative view of Penang’s UNESCO World Heritage streets that are bathed in soft lighting and take on a different perspective at night. The evening starts off with a delicious dinner featuring Penang cuisine. Following the rickshaw ride, we board vehicles to journey across the magnificent Penang Bridge, which at 13.5km long is the longest bridge in Malaysia and the fourth longest in South East Asia. After taking in the breathtaking views of the mainland and the island, we head back to Penang by ferry with a trip on the oldest ferry service in Malaysia, which dates back to 1920. This excursion is a great way to experience the island’s best-known after-dark attractions.
Orientation Tour of Kuala Lumpur City
This Kuala Lumpur orientation tour provides the best introduction to this exciting metropolis. Our journey around the capital unveils the beauty and charm of old and new Kuala Lumpur with visits to the iconic Petronas Twin Towers and modern buildings in the capital’s “Golden Triangle”, with stops at the King’s Palace, the National Monument, the National Museum, the National Mosque and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. A mixture of the old and the new, this tour gives a great insight into the contrasts that make Kuala Lumpur such an interesting place to visit.
Evening Colours of Kuala Lumpur with Dinner and Show
This evening tour gives a perspective of Kuala Lumpur at night with visits to the open air bazaar in China Town and a Hindu temple followed by a sumptuous Malay dinner accompanied by a traditional Malay show. The smell of burning jasmine, the incessant chanting of Hindu priests and the intricate carved deities at the Sri Maha Mariamman temple will give you a lasting impression of this enchanting religion. Our walk around China Town will also give you the opportunity to bargain for a wide variety of goods. Later, we head to a Malay Restaurant for a buffet dinner and cultural show. Culture, cuisine and cheap purchases, this tour has it all!
Historical Malacca Tour with Lunch
This full-day tour takes us to Malacca which was formerly ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and lastly the British over a period of 400 years. Highlights include a visit to St. Peter’s Church – the oldest Christian Church still in use in Malaysia. We then drive past the largest 17th century Chinese cemetery outside of China, which is located at Bukit China or Chinese Hill. We then stop at the foothill to view the “Sultan’s Well” before driving through the Portuguese Settlement. Next we take in the famous gateway, Port De Santiago and the ruins of St. Paul’s Church which is lined by 17th century Dutch tombstones. Next on the list is Red Square containing the red Dutch administrative buildings which today house the Malacca Museum and government offices. We then visit Christ Church and the “Abode Merciful Clouds”, or the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple – the only temple which houses the major doctrines of local Chinese belief under the same roof including Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. This tour gives a great insight into one of Malaysia’s most historic regions.
Langkawi Island Tour
This fascinating tour takes us to both the urban and rural areas of the legendry island of Langkawi. The adventure begins with visit to a local cottage industry where you will witness the process of traditional batik painting using wax and dyes. We then visit Makam Mahsuri where the legendary Mahsuri is laid to rest in the garden of a traditional Malay House. The tour continues with a cable car ride up a soaring peak providing a bird’s eye view of this stunning island. We then continue to the Premier’s Gallery and proceed to Eagle Squire in the capital of Kuah. Time is allocated for duty free shopping in Kuah before we return to the hotel.
Discover Mangrove Safari
Located at the northeast tip of Langkawi, the Sungai Kilim Nature Park is a 100-sq-km protected natural area with verdant mangrove forests, remote beaches and blue lagoons. Our eco-adventure starts with a boat journey through limestone caves and along hidden canyons to view monkeys, kingfishers, monitor lizards and mud crabs along the river banks. At Bat Cave we will see thousands of bats clinging upside down on the ceiling of the cave. A visit to a fish breeding farm is next where we get the chance to feed live stingrays, followed by one of the highlights of the tour; watching the protected White Head Eagles being fed. Our journey will continue to Tanjung Rhu and then onto the open sea for a swim and sunbathe on an isolated beach. Lunch is served at the Floating Fish Farm Restaurant.
Land below the Wind full-day tour, plus Kinabalu Park and Poring Hot Springs, Sabah
This tour is the ultimate adventure excursion and takes in the magnificent Kinabalu Park, an area located at 1,585 metres above sea level which showcases an ecological system unrivalled anywhere else in the world. The area around Mount Kinabalu spans 754 sq-km and was converted into a National Park in 1964 because of its geographical and geological importance and the abundance of diverse flora, including 4,500 species of plants, 1,200 types of orchids, 290 known species of butterflies and 326 types of birds. We first head to the mountainous Crocker Range with panoramic views of the stunning landscape. While heading to Kinabalu Park, we will catch the magnificent sight of Mount Kinabalu and on arrival, enjoy a guided nature trek along one of the many trails in the park, before proceeding to Poring Hot Springs which offers an invigorating dip into the rejuvenating hot sulphur springs. For a closer look at nature, we take the 41-metre high canopy walk which offers a spectacular view of the rainforest’s natural wonderland.
Full-day Sandakan Orang-utan Trails
This excursion takes us for a full-day’s sightseeing to the world’s largest orang-utan sanctuary. Early morning, we board a plane for historic Sandakan, one of Sabah’s earliest settlements, to visit the Sepilok Orang-Utan Sanctuary. At this haven, young, orphaned or captured orang-utans are gradually rehabilitated into the wild and we get the opportunity to see orang-utans up close in their natural habitat. A boardwalk leads to a viewing gallery and feeding platform where the orang-utans are fed twice a day. Lunch is served at a local restaurant, followed by a tour of Sandakan, including a visit to the Sandakan Market. Other highlights include a trip to an observation pavilion, a Chinese temple and a water village before returning to hotels in Sandakan, or flying back to Kota Kinabalu.
Sarawak, Land of the Hornbills Full-Day Bako National Park
This exciting eco-adventure takes us to Sarawak’s oldest national park which is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including bearded pigs, 150 species of birds, monitor lizards, the rare proboscis monkey, silver leaf monkeys and the long-tailed macaque. Bako National Park offers an excellent introduction to the rainforest of Borneo. The park also showcases a wide variety of vegetation found in Borneo, including the carnivorous pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts and wild orchids. Over 30km of marked jungle trails give access to all sections of the park. Besides the plant and wildlife, visitors can explore secluded beaches, strange rock formations and the serenity of untouched nature.
Sarawak Fairy and Wind Caves
The Fairy and Wind Caves are located about 50-km away from Kuching and before reaching these attractions, we will pass by fascinating villages, rubber estates, pepper gardens, cocoa plantations and lush rainforest. Our journey also takes us through the gold mine town of Bau. The Fairy cave is home to wonderful limestone formations that are thousands of years old. Some of the rock formations resemble figures and animals and have become a point of religious interest for some of the locals. We then head to the Wind Cave, so called because of the wind that whistles its way continuously through its narrow opening. On the return, we stop at Bau town for refreshment and a visit to the local market.
History of Malaysia
Strategically situated at a trading junction; the result of alternating seasonal northeast and southwest monsoons, Malaysia was the ideal central location for early East-West trade.
The country’s strategic sea-lane position brought trade and foreign influences, including Hindu and Buddhist cultures, which fundamentally influenced its early history with beliefs that are in evidence today in the Malay language, literature and various customs.
The influence of these cultures reached their peak in the Sumatran-based Srivijaya civilization whose influence extended through Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo from the seventh to the 14th centuries.
Here are some of the key periods in Malaysia’s history:
The earliest evidence of human life in what is now known as Malaysia was provided by the discovery of a skull found in the Niah Caves in Sarawak that dates back 40,000 years.
Records suggest that the aboriginal Malays, the Orang Asli, began moving down the peninsula from a probable starting point in southwestern China around 10,000 years ago.
Evidence implies that the first Malays migrated to Malaya and throughout the entire Indonesian archipelago, including Sumatra and Borneo. They brought with them knowledge of agriculture and metalwork, as well as beliefs in a spirit world – attitudes that are still practiced by many groups in contemporary times.
Records also suggest the Malay people were ethnically similar to the people of Sumatra, Java and even the Philippines, and from time to time, various South East Asian empires exerted control over all parts of Peninsular Malaysia.
In the early centuries of the first millennium, the people of Peninsular Malaysia adopted the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Records suggest the Sanskrit writing system was used as early as the fourth century.
In 1405 the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Melaka (Malacca) with greetings from the “Son of Heaven” (Emperor) and more importantly, the promise of protection from the encroaching Siamese from the north. With this support from China, the power of Melaka extended to include most of Peninsular Malaysia.
Introduction of Islam
The Malay Annals relate the story of Parameswara, also known as Iskander Shah, the ruler of Temasek (formerly Singapore) who was forced to flee to Melaka, formerly known as Malacca. He set up a trading port in Melaka in 1402 which grew in population and prosperity, attracting Arab, Chinese and Indian traders.
With Arabs and Muslim Indians came the religion of Islam and Iskander Shah’s son, who assumed the leadership of Melaka after his father’s death, is credited as the first Malay to convert to the new religion. The rule of Melaka was transformed into a sultanate, and the word of Islam won converts not only in Malaya, but throughout Borneo and the Indonesian archipelago.
Melaka’s wealth and prosperity soon attracted European interest and it was the Portuguese who first took over in 1511, followed by the Dutch in 1641. The early Portuguese forces conquered the city in less than 30 days and they chased the sultanate south to Johor and built a fortress to ensure internal security and set up Christian missions. The Portuguese influence continued until 1641, when the Dutch arrived with the aim of expanding their mercantile power in the region.
The British role on the peninsula began in 1786 when Francis Light of the British East India Company, searching for a site for trade and a naval base, obtained the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah. For years, the British were only interested in Malaya for its seaports and to protect their trade routes, but the discovery of tin prompted them to move inland and eventually govern the entire peninsula.
In 1791, the British agreed to make annual payments to the Sultan, and the Sultan ceded Province Wellesley on the mainland.
The 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty defined the boundaries between British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies (which eventually became Indonesia). A fourth phase of foreign influence was the immigration of Chinese and Indian workers to meet the needs of the colonial economy created by the British on Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo.
Dutch-ruled Melaka was then swapped for British-ruled Bencoolen in Sumatra. In 1826, the British East India Company formed the Straits Settlements, uniting Penang, Malacca (Melaka), and Singapore under Penang’s control. In 1867, power over the Straits Settlements shifted from the British East India Company to British colonial rule in London.
The previous 1824 Anglo-Dutch treaty never provided for the island of Borneo. The Dutch unofficially took over Kalimantan, but the areas to the northwest were generally held under the rule of the Sultan of Brunei.
Englishman James Brooke, known in history as the “White Raja” and the North Borneo Company gradually made British inroads into Sarawak and Sabah respectively. Brooke had arrived in Kuching in August 1839 to find the settlement facing an Iban and Bidayuh uprising against the Sultan of Brunei.
Offering his aid to the Sultan, Brooke and his crew helped bring about a peaceful settlement. Then having threatened the Sultan with military force, Brooke was granted the title of Rajah of Sarawak on 24 September 1841, although the official declaration was not made until 18 August 1842.
Back on the peninsula, Kuala Lumpur became a settlement in 1857 because of its strategic position on the crook of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Tin miners from India, China, and other parts of Malaya came inland to prospect and set up a trading post, which flourished and in 1896 it became the capital of the British Malayan territory.
In 1896, Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan were grouped to form The Federated Malay States, under a resident British general. Johor signed a treaty of alliance with Britain in 1885 and accepted a British adviser in 1914. British control of the four remaining Malayan states had been acquired in 1909 when Siam relinquished its claims to sovereignty over Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu.
Second World War
By the start of the Second World War, Malaya’s economy was flourishing with the output of tin and rubber, giving it great strategic importance. Malaya fell under the threat of a Japanese invasion when the US and British governments froze essential raw materials and oil supplies to Japan.
Japan was then forced to look to South East Asia for shipments. While Britain was preoccupied with defending itself against the threat of German invasion at home, the Japanese wasted no time in pursuing their occupation of Malaya, commencing with the bombing of the beaches of Kota Bharu in Kelantan and Singapore on 8 December 1941.
The takeover continued almost without opposition as Commonwealth troops defending Malaya were expecting an invasion by sea and not by land. They were inadequately trained in jungle warfare and lacked ammunition, and fell easily to the Japanese invaders. Malaya was occupied for the next three and-a-half-years by the Japanese. The occupation ended only with the United States’ bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and the end of the war. British forces then landed in Malaya and re-established their authority.
The Malayan Emergency
After the defeat of the Japanese in the Second World War, a new problem emerged for Malaya’s colonial rulers. After the Allied victory and when the British sought to reclaim their colonial sovereignty over Malaya, they found resentment to foreign rule.
Chinese guerrilla fighters, who had been armed and air supplied by the British during the war, emerged from the jungle and under Chin Peng began their terror campaign to take over the country by force. Thus an intense jungle war began between the Malayan Communist Party and British, British Commonwealth and Malay forces.
The security forces coordinated emergency operations, and created 500 new villages for Malayan citizens who had lived in remote areas beyond government protection. These citizens previously lived in constant fear that the Communists would appear and force them to supply food and money.
By depriving the insurgents of their critical sources of supplies and information, the Communists began to attack the new settlements. However, the security forces were fighting on their own ground, and proved too strong for the insurgents. These forces were able to concentrate on jungle operations, thereby destroying the Communists and their camps.
This was to be the only war the West had won against Communism, lasting for twelve years, from 1948 until 1960.
In August 1957, Malaya was granted (merderka) independence from British colonial rule and with independence, the country became a centralised federation with a constitutional monarchy, with Kuala Lumpur named as the capital. Each state had its own fully elected state assembly and its government was chosen from the party which had a majority of elected members in the assembly. However, there followed a period of instability due to the internal Communist uprising and an external confrontation with Indonesia. In 1963, the north Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, together with Singapore, joined Malaya to create Malaysia.
The Federation of Malaysia (Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak) came into existence on 16 September 1963, but Indonesia had voiced its strong opposition to the Malaysia Plan and immediately severed all diplomatic ties with Kuala Lumpur and announced that it would “crush” Malaysia.
The confrontation took the form of armed Indonesian incursions across the borders of Sarawak and North Borneo from Indonesian Kalimantan. British and Commonwealth forces came to assist and defend the newly established Malaysia.
In 1966, President Sukarno was ousted from power and the new Indonesian government was not keen on continuing the confrontation and a signed peace agreement between Indonesia and Malaysia ended the conflict.
Meanwhile, political differences had surfaced between Malaysia and Singapore and on 9 August 1965, Singapore left the federation and became an independent nation.
Internal Unrest and Political Stability
In 1969, violent interracial riots broke out, particularly in Kuala Lumpur, and hundreds of people died. The government moved to dissipate the tensions, which existed mainly between the Malays and the Chinese. Moves to give Malays a larger share of the economic pie led to some resentment among other racial groups. The government moved to dissipate the tensions through a series of reforms and present-day Malaysian society is now a model of peace and integration.
A significant period was the rule from 1981 of legendary statesman Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He held the post for 22 years, from 1981 to 2003, making him Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister and his entire political career spanned almost 40 years.
Malaysia’s economy under Dr. Mahathir grew at a rate of over eight per year until mid-1997, when a currency crisis in Thailand plunged the whole of South East Asia into recession.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, nominally headed by the Paramount Ruler (Yang di-Pertuan Agong), who is “elected” by the sultans for a five-year term from among the nine sultans of the Malay states, though in practice the election usually follows a prescribed order based on the seniority of the sultans at the time of independence. This gives Malaysia a unique political system of rotational monarchy, in which each of the sultans take turns to be the king of Malaysia. The current king from Terengganu was sworn in on 13 Dec 2006.
In practice, the king is only the nominal head of state. The prime minister is the one who wields the most authority in government. The current Prime Minister is Dato’ Seri Mohd. Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak who took office in April 209.
Malaysian Art and Culture
Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multicultural make up, in which people of different religions, countries of origin and race live in a peaceful and harmonious society has influenced its art and culture, in much the same way it has influenced its cuisine. Therefore, the eclectic culture of the country is reflected in most of Malaysia’s music, dance, art and crafts.
Two integral aspects of the culture of Malaysia are music and dance. Both of these evolved from more basic needs into the spellbinding, complex art forms that they are today.
Music in Malaysia was born out of necessity. In order to live comfortably in an age without phones, computers and fax machines, musical instruments like such as the rebana, or giant drums, were used as essential tools of communication
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. Besides drums, other instruments (some made of shells) 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 and celebrating life-cycle events such as harvests.
One of Malaysia’s most prominent art forms is mak yong, a traditional form of Malay drama in which the performers sing, dance and act out heroic legends about sultans and princesses. These performances are backed by Gamelan orchestras; with musicians playing mainly metal percussion instruments including gongs, xylophones and drums. Mak yong is considered the most authentic and representative of Malay performing arts because it is mostly untouched by external sources. Although most traditional Malay dances were influenced by India, Java and other parts of South East Asia, mak yong’s singing and musical repertoire is unique. A performance begins by paying respect to the spirits with an offering, followed by dancing, acting and improvised dialogues.
Malaysian batik is a textile art especially prevalent on the east coast of the country. The method of Malaysian batik production is quite different from that of Indonesian Javanese batik as the patterns are larger and simpler and the colours tend to be lighter and more vibrant than the deep hues of Javanese batik. The most popular motifs are leaves and flowers. Malaysian batik depicting humans or animals are rare because Islam norms forbid animal images as decoration. However, the butterfly theme is a common exception. In line with the “1Malaysia” concept, the Malaysian government endorsed Malaysian batik as a national dress and they encouraged home designers to create new batik designs which reflect the “1Malaysia” concept.
Another popular attraction is Wayang Kulit, a traditional form of theatre using puppets and shadows to relate epic tales about the Ramayana. The shadow play is an old cultural entertainment using shadows cast by intricately carved puppets to relay mythical parables of good versus evil. The puppets are made of cow leather (kulit) that have been stretched and dried. The patterns are then carved; hand painted and held on banana stems. Good characters will appear on the right side of the stage and evil characters on the left. Behind the screen, backlit by a flickering oil lamp, the dalang (puppet master) will weave his tale, bringing to live the play. Moral values are easier to absorb in the form of parables, which is why wayang kulit has flourished.
Also known as Bunga Malai, garland making is an integral part of the cultural heritage of Malaysian Indians and these finished products are used in religious occasions, such as weddings, moving home, or welcoming important guests. Flowers, holy basil, and the leaves of the margosa or mango tree are strung together to form a malai or garland. They are done in different styles to suit each particular occasion.
Malaysian Silat or Silat Melayu is said to have come about through the observation and imitation of animals including the monkey, eagle and tiger. It is a highly stylized Malay art of self-defence and combines a sequence of supple movements which enables a person to defend against attack. Silat is also considered a performing art as it is accompanied by drums and gongs and performed during weddings and other significant occasions. The descendents of former headhunters still perform ancient war dances which are considered the precursor of the freestyle form in silat.
Having the world’s largest reserves of tin, it seems appropriate enough that Malaysia also produces what is widely regarded as the world’s finest pewter. Most of it is produced at the Royal Selangor Pewter Factory, which lies just outside of the capital Kuala Lumpur. Today Royal Selangor is the largest single manufacturer of fine pewter in the world.
The jungle provides an abundance of materials for Malaysia’s weaving industry. Many types of thorny vines are worked and woven into comfortable chairs and tables; unique furniture that was so popular with the English that it could be seen in the parlours of just about every British resident during colonial times. The strong and versatile fronds of the sago palm are also superbly suited for crafting. In Borneo, the sago is dyed and woven into beautiful and distinctly patterned jewellery, baskets, hats, floor mats and more.
Religion and Beliefs
Malaysia is a multicultural society with Islam as the dominant religion, whose followers make up 61 per cent of the population, but the constitution guarantees religious freedom for many other faiths.
Although the country has a secular constitution, debate continues about whether Malaysia should be a secular or Islamic state, with politics often becoming entwined with religion.
Relations between different religious groups are harmonious and tolerant. Christmas, Chinese New Year and Deepavali have all been declared national holidays alongside Islamic holidays. Various groups have been set up to try and promote religious understanding among the different groups, with religious harmony seen as a priority by Malaysian politicians. However, it is illegal to convert Muslims to other religions.
The government promotes a moderate form of Islam known as Islam Hadhari. Any teaching which deviates from the official Sunni code is illegal, and no other forms of Islam are allowed. The country has both civil and Shariah courts, with all Muslims having to follow Shariah law, which is enforced by the government and police forces.
The large Chinese population practices a mixture of beliefs, with influences from traditional religions followed in China such as Buddhism and Daoism. Hinduism is followed by the majority of Malaysian Indians. Christianity has established itself in some communities, especially in East Malaysia but it is not tied to any specific ethnic group. Other religions, such as the Baha’I Faith and Sikhism also have adherents in Malaysia.
According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census, the country’s religious make up is as follows: Muslim 61.3 per cent; Buddhist 19.8 per cent; Christian 9.2 per cent; Hindu 6.3 per cent; Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions 1.3 per cent; Atheist 0.7 per cent; and other or unknown religions 1.4 per cent.
Most Malaysian Chinese follow a combination of Buddhism, Confucianism and ancestor-worship, but when pressed to specify their religion will identify themselves as Buddhists and will list themselves as such for bureaucratic purposes. The indigenous tribes of East Malaysia have mostly converted to Christianity, although Christianity has made fewer inroads into Peninsular Malaysia.
Islam is thought to have been brought to Malaysia around the 13th century by Indian traders. In the early 15th century, the Malacca Sultanate – considered the first independent state on the peninsula – was founded and led by a Muslim prince, the influence of Malacca led to the spread of Islam throughout the Malay population.
Islam is generally practiced liberally, although in the last 20 years strict adherence to Islamic practice has increased. The Malaysian government promotes a moderate version of Islam which is meant to encourage a balanced approach to life and encourages inclusivity, tolerance and looking outwards. The qualities it values are knowledge, hard work, honesty, good administration and efficiency.
Many Malaysian Chinese practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism and for many Chinese people, religion is an essential part of their cultural life. Around 19 per cent of the current population classify themselves as Buddhist and most Malaysian Chinese follow the Mahayana branch, whereas Thai and Sinhalese minorities in Malaysia follow the Therevada branch. A Malaysian Buddhist Council has been created to promote the study and practice of Buddhism and promote solidarity among Malaysian Buddhists.
The majority of the Tamil population of Malaysia practice Hinduism. Current adherents are mostly descended from migrant communities from Tamil Nadu who came to Malaya to work on British rubber plantations. A small community of migrants from North India also exists. Urban temples are often dedicated to a single deity, while rural temples are often home to multiple deities.
The Sikh community in Malaysia owes its beginnings in the country to the British connection and in particular with the recruitment of Sikhs for the paramilitary and police units which formed the nucleus from which the modern police and military forces of the nation derived. The first of these units was the Perak Sikhs. The Sikhs believe and worship the one and only God who is formless. Hence, idol worship is denounced by the Sikh scriptures. The Sikhs’ place of worship is known as a Gurdwara which is open to all irrespective of race, religion, colour or sex.
Early international trade played a key role in bringing Christianity to Malaysia. Some Persian traders were Nestorian Christians. Later, in the era of the middle ages, Catholic diplomats, travellers and priests travelled through the Straits enroute to China. Among the traders residing in Melaka during the Melaka Sultanate in the 15th century were Nestorians and also Armenian Christians from what is today Eastern Turkey. Churches were established in the area with the coming of the Portuguese in 1511, the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1786.
Taste and Flavours of Malaysia
Malaysia’s culinary tradition reflects the waves of immigration, settlement and assimilation that brought uniquely delicious flavours from its multicultural Malay, Indian, Chinese and Eurasian population.
For centuries, Malaysia was a major hub of the spice trade in South East Asia. As seafarers, merchant traders and immigrant workers from many nations descended on the country they brought new culinary traditions, including Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Arab, Dutch, Portuguese and British influences and these blended beautifully to create the melange of cultures and intensely vibrant flavours that represents Malaysian cuisine today.
Primarily consisting of Malay, Chinese and Indian food, Malaysian cuisine also has its hybrids derived from cross cultural influences such as Mamak (Indian-Muslim) and Nyonya (the Malay-Chinese mix).
Hawker stalls are a favourite haunt for Malaysians from all walks of life. All over the country you can find them along the roadside or in hawker centres serving inexpensive and nutritious food.
A Malay meal always revolves around rice, accompanied with assorted curries, fried chicken or fish, vegetable dishes, and small portions of condiments, called sambal. Some of these condiments can be harsh to the Western palate, particularly sambal belacan, which is made with extremely pungent fermented shrimp paste. As all Malays are Muslim, you won’t find pork on the menu and most restaurants are halal. Where mutton is listed, most times it is goat, which is preferred over lamb for its less musty taste and aroma.
Probably one of the most famous Malay dishes is satay; delicious barbecued skewers of marinated chicken, beef, or mutton dipped in a peanut sauce. Another culinary favourite is ikan bakar, which is fish covered in chilli sauce and grilled in foil over an open flame.
Nasi lemak is a mainstay on the menu and is made with rice cooked in coconut milk and served with fried chicken, prawn crackers, dried anchovies, egg and a dark, sweet chilli sauce. Curry-based dishes, such as kari ayam, a mellow, almost creamy golden curry with chunks of chicken meat and potatoes; and rending, stewing beef with a dry curry that has a combination of sweet and savoury tastes, are prominent in every restaurant.
An interesting local variation for tourists to try is Malay food influenced by Indian Muslim cooking. Mamak, or Indian Muslim stalls specialize in a dish called roti canai, which is fried bread, then dipped in chicken curry or dhal cha (vegetarian curry); as well as murtabak, which is bread fried with egg, onion, and meat and also dipped in a curry sauce. These dishes are best enjoyed with a cup of refreshing teh tarik (frothy tea made with sweetened condensed milk).
Regional variations are also notable, particularly when it comes to Penang, which is famous for its regional cuisine. A perfect example of how a region affects a dish can be found in laksa, a seafood noodle soup created by the Peranakans. Laksa has a rich, spicy coconut-based broth, which is almost like gravy. In contrast, Penang laksa is not coconut-based, but is served with a fish-based broth that has a tangy and fiery flavour from the sour tamarind and spicy bird’s-eye chilli. Yet another variation, Sarawak laksa also forgoes coconut milk and instead uses a base of sambal belacan, or fermented shrimp paste. There are as many variations of laksa as there are towns!
Malaysian Indian cuisine
Malaysia Indian cuisine of the ethnic Indians in Malaysia is similar to its roots in India and was brought to Malaysia by Indian migrants in the 19th Century who came as labourers to work in rubber estates and on the railways. Indian cuisine can be divided into two mainstreams, Northern and Southern Indian cuisine.
North Indian cuisine boasts a diet rich in meat and uses spices and ingredients such as yogurt and ghee in dishes that are elaborate without being overly spicy. Bread and chapati (wheat-flour pancakes) replace rice, which is the mainstay of most South Indian meals. Coconut milk, mustard seeds and chillies are also widely used in the South.
Spices are the heart and soul of Indian cooking. But the quantity and proportions vary with the geographical boundaries. Spices are freshly grounded and added in many different combinations and the most commonly used are coriander, turmeric, cumin, chillies, fennel and fenugreek.
Indian food is traditionally served on a thali, a circular metal tray on which a number of small bowls called katori are placed. Eaten with the fingers, rice or bread is placed directly on the thali while curries and other dishes are served in bowls.
Regarding South Indian cuisine, banana leaves are often used as plates in which rice is served in the centre, followed by various curries and accompaniments. These include dried fish, pappadams (lentil wafers), fresh chutneys made from herbs, coconut, and acid fruits among others.
Malaysian Chinese cuisine
Chinese food was brought to Malaysia by the waves of Chinese traders and workers who relocated and brought the Cantonese style of Chinese cuisine.
Since most of Malaysia’s Chinese communities originate from the south of China, cuisine from the southern regions is prevalent. One of the most popular dishes is Hainanese Chicken Rice. The Hainanese influence is also found in the steamboat, a sort of Oriental variation of the Swiss Fondue, in which a boiling pot is placed in the middle of the table and pieces of meat, seafood and vegetable are cooked.
Malaysian Chinese food is usually shared and from its origins in China, the dishes must have balance: traditionally, all foods are said to be either yin (cooling), such as vegetables, fruits and clear soup; or yang (with heat), such as starchy foods and meat. Therefore, the meal should be a perfect balance of both yin and yang.
Cantonese cuisine can offer real extremes such as expensive delicacies such as bird’s nest soup at one end of the scale, to mee (noodles) and congee (rice porridge) at the other end.
Variety is the spice in Malay food. The traditional culinary style has been greatly influenced by the early traders from other countries, such as Indonesia, India, the Middle East, and China. Malay food is often described as spicy and flavourful as it utilizes a melting pot of spices and herbs.
Malay cooking incorporates ingredients such as lemon grass, pandan (screwpine) leaves, and kaffir lime leaves. Fresh herbs, such as daun kemangi (a type of basil), daun kesum (polygonum or laksa leaf), nutmeg, kunyit (turmeric) and bunga kantan (wild ginger buds) are often used.
Traditional spices such as cumin and coriander are used in conjunction with Indian and Chinese spices such as pepper, cardamom, star anise and fenugreek.
Nyonya food, also referred to as “Straits Chinese food” or Lauk Embok Embok, is an interesting amalgamation of Chinese and Malay dishes thought to have originated from the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) of Malaka over 400 years ago. This was the result of inter-marriages between Chinese immigrants and local Malays, which produced a unique culture.
Nyonya food is also native to Penang and Malacca in Malaysia. However, over the years, distinct differences have evolved in nyonya cooking found in Penang and Singapore than that in Malacca. The proximity of Malacca and Singapore to Indonesia also resulted in an Indonesian influence in nyonya food.
Malacca Nyonyas prepare food that is generally sweeter, richer in coconut milk, and with the addition of more Malay spices such as coriander and cumin. Meanwhile, the Penang Nyonyas drew inspiration from Thai cooking styles, including a preference for sour food, hot chillies, fragrant herbs and pungent belacan (a dried shrimp paste).
Influences aside, nyonya recipes are complicated affairs, often requiring hours upon hours of preparation. Nyonya housewives of the past would spend the better part of their lives in the kitchen, but they were fiercely proud of their unique cuisine.
Essential guide to the country’s most famous dishes
Nasi Lemak: Rice cooked in coconut milk enhanced with aromatic pandan leaves [screwpine leaves]. It is typically served with Sambal Ikan Bilis, fried dried anchovies cooked in a dry sambal sauce and garnished with cucumber slices, hard-boiled egg and roasted peanuts. Traditionally packaged in a banana leaf, it is usually eaten as a hearty breakfast.
Satay: This famous barbecued meat-on-a-stick appears on menus across South East Asia and beyond. The secret of tender, succulent satay is the rich, spicy-sweet marinade. The marinated meat of chicken, beef, or even fish is skewered onto bamboo sticks and grilled over hot charcoals. A fresh salad of cucumbers and onions is served with a spicy-sweet peanut sauce for dipping the meat in.
Beef Rendang: Consisting of Malay spiced coconut beef, this grand dish is made by tenderly simmering meat, balanced with robust, tangy spices. Rendang is served on special occasions such as weddings and during the festivals of Ramadan and Eid and it is often accompanied with nasi kunyit (turmeric rice).
Roti Canai: This is an Indian pastry pancake and has become known as the favourite Malaysian appetizer in Malaysian restaurants worldwide. Roti Canai, which is also called Roti Prata, is served with a side curry for dipping.
The culture in Malaysia is as varied as the diversity of its people. Malaysians are viewed as polite and helpful people with a sunny disposition that matches the hot tropical climate. Visitors behaving courteously stand little chance of unintentionally giving offence, but if visiting rural areas and especially someone’s private home, it helps to know something about the local norms.
The Concept of Face
Malaysia’s population of Malays, Chinese and Indians all strive to maintain “face” and avoid shame both in public and private situations. Face is a personal concept that embraces qualities such as good character, and being held in esteem by one’s peers. Face is also considered a commodity that can be given, lost, taken away, or earned. On top of this, the concept of face also extends to the family, school, company and even the nation. Consequently, the desire to maintain face inspires Malaysians to strive for harmonious relationships.
Face can be lost by openly criticizing, insulting, or putting someone on the spot; doing something that brings shame to a group or individual; challenging someone in authority, especially if this is done in public; showing anger at another person; refusing a request; not keeping a promise; or disagreeing with someone publicly.
In contrast, face can be saved by remaining calm and courteous; discussing errors or transgressions in private; speaking about problems without attributing blame; using non-verbal communication to say “no”; and allowing the other person to get out of a tricky situation with their pride intact.
Meeting and Greeting
Don’t offer to shake hands unless you know that your acquaintances are fairly westernized. Even then, let them offer to shake hands first and never shake hands with a woman unless they offer to do so first. The traditional greeting or salam resembles a handshake with both hands but without the grasp. The Chinese handshake is light and may be rather prolonged. Many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect.
Malays: Men add their father’s name to their own name with the term bin (meaning “son of”). Likewise, women use the term binti.
Chinese: The Chinese traditionally have three names. The surname (family name) is first and is followed by two personal names.
Indian: Many Indians do not use surnames. Instead, they place the initial of their father’s name in front of their own name similar to the Malay custom of using the term a/l for men (son of) and a/p for women (daughter of) and then their father’s name.
Hugging and kissing is considered inappropriate behaviour so refrain from doing so, no matter how fond you become of someone, especially someone of the opposite sex. Intimate behaviour in public is a definite no-no, too, particularly in rural and less liberal areas. In traditional homes, it is rude to cross your legs when you sit down in front of the host, particularly for women. Don’t touch the head of an adult and don’t point the bottom of your feet at anyone.
Dressed for success
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and visitors should dress respectfully, particularly in rural areas. Wearing trousers or a long skirt, not shorts, and covering the shoulders is recommended but not essential. In more metropolitan areas such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang, with a significant non-Muslim population, attitudes are more liberal.
A step in the right direction
Malaysians remove their shoes at the door before entering a home. You can always tell if there is a get-together at someone’s home by the number of shoes and sandals scattered around the front door. Likewise, never enter a mosque without removing footwear.
Always use the right hand to pass or accept anything. The left is traditionally “dirty” because of its washroom connections. Pointing with the finger is considered very rude and the whole hand is used to indicate a direction, but never a person. To point to a person, close the right hand into a fist with the thumb on top and then point it at the subject.
Gift Giving Etiquette
General etiquette guidelines
For Malays: If invited to someone’s home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good chocolates; Never give alcohol; Do not give toy dogs or toy pigs to children; Do not give anything made of pigskin; Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning; Avoid yellow wrapping paper, as it is the colour of royalty; If you give food, it must be “halal” (meaning permissible for Muslims); Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large; Gifts are generally not opened when received.
For Chinese: If invited to someone’s home, bring a small gift of fruit, sweets, or cakes; Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate a desire to sever a relationship; Flowers do not make good gifts as they are given to the sick and used at funerals; Do not wrap gifts in the traditional mourning colours of white, blue, or black and it is best to wrap gifts in the happy colours of red, pink, or yellow; It is best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky; Gifts are generally not opened when received.
For Indians: If you give flowers, avoid frangipani as they are used in funeral wreaths; Money should be given in odd numbers; Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large; Do not wrap gifts in white or black; Wrap gifts in red, yellow or green paper or other bright colours as these bring good fortune; Do not give leather products to a Hindu; Do not give alcohol unless you are certain the recipient drinks; Gifts are generally not opened when received.
Meet and greet
Within the business context, most Malaysian business people are culturally-savvy and the correct approach may depend on the ethnicity, age, sex and status of the person you are meeting. As always, the best approach is always friendly yet formal. A few tips include:
The initial greetings should be formal and denote proper respect; if in a team, introduce the most important person first; many Malays and Indians are uncomfortable shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex; it is important that professional titles (professor, doctor, etc.,) and honorific titles are used in business.
Business card protocol
Business cards are exchanged after the initial introductions and if you are meeting Chinese people, have one side of your card translated into Chinese, with the Chinese characters printed in gold. If you are meeting government officials, have one side of your card translated into Bahasa Malaysia. When presenting a card use two hands or the right hand to exchange business cards. Also, examine any business card you receive before putting it in your wallet or card case. This etiquette is important as the respect you show someone’s business card is indicative of the respect you will show the individual in business.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do smile when you greet people. It is normal to see people in the tourist industry to greet visitors by placing their right hand over the left breast. This gesture means: “I greet you from my heart”.
Do dress neatly when entering places of worship. It is advisable for ladies when entering places of worship to wear long sleeves and loose pants or long skirts.
Do pay careful attention to your attire if you’re female. Wearing hot pants and vests on the islands where Malaysians are used to foreigners has become accepted, but it may invite harassment elsewhere. At mainland beaches, bring a wrap-around as well as a swimsuit so you won’t feel conspicuous; Malay women usually go swimming fully dressed and some keep their scarves on.
Don’t bring up the topic of ethnic relations in Malaysia or the political system: They are both sensitive subjects. As a tourist, it is best not to criticize the government or the Malay royal families. You may hear Malaysians criticize their own government, but you do not need to take sides; just listen and feel free to talk about your feelings about your own government.
Do be wary that same-sex relationships are a taboo subject in Malaysia. Gay and lesbian travellers should avoid any outward signs of affection, including holding hands in public. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia.
Don’t even think about buying or transporting illegal drugs, there’s a mandatory death penalty for trafficking (possession of 200 grams of marijuana is considered to be trafficking). The death penalty is mandatory for those convicted of trafficking, manufacturing, importing or exporting more than 15g of heroin, 30g of morphine; 30g of cocaine; 500g of cannabis and 200g of cannabis resin. Possession of these quantities is all that is needed for someone to be convicted. For unauthorised consumption, there is a maximum of 10 years jail, a heavy fine, or both.
Holidays and Festivals
There are two types of holidays in Malaysia; those recognized at the national, and those recognized at the state levels. National holidays are normally observed by most governmental and private organizations. State holidays are normally observed by certain states in Malaysia or when it is relevant to the state itself.
In addition, government agencies are closed every Saturday and Sunday. Meanwhile in Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, government agencies are closed every Friday and Saturday.
2012 Official Holidays
- January 1 – New Year’s Day
- Jan 23 and 24 – Chinese New Year
- Feb 05 – Birthday of the Prophet Mohammed
- May 1 – Labour Day
- May 17 – Vesak Day
- June 02 – Yang Dipertuan Agong’s Birthday
- August 31 – National Day
- Aug 19 and 20 – Hari Raya Puasa*
- *Subject to change – depending on the sighting of the new moon
- September 16 – Malaysia Day
- October 17 – Deepavali
- Oct 26– Hari Raya Haji* (or Korban)
- *Subject to change – depending on the sighting of the new moon
- November 11 – Deepavali or Diwali
- November 15 – Maal Hijrah (the Muslim New Year)
- December 25 – Christmas Day
Types of holidays
Malaysians observe a number of holidays and festivities throughout the year. Some holidays are federally listed public holidays and some are public holidays observed by individual states. Other festivals are observed by particular ethnic or religion groups, but are not public holidays.
The most widespread holiday is Hari Kebangsaan (Independence Day), otherwise known as Merdeka (Freedom), on 31 August commemorating the independence of the Federation of Malaysia.This, along with Labour Day, (1 May), the King’s birthday (first Saturday of June), and some other festivals are major national public holidays. Federal Territory day is celebrated in the three federal territories.
Religious and ethnic holidays
Hari Raya Puasa
Marking the end of Ramadan (which is a month-long period where fasting takes place from sunrise to sunset) is the biggest event of the Muslim calendar. The Hari Raya Aidilfitri festivities take centre stage and it is worth visiting areas where this is celebrated to take in the joyous nature of the Muslim celebrants.
This is a time when you will see Malay families dressed up in their best traditional outfit to mark this special occasion. Similar to the Chinese during Chinese New Year, the Malays also have the tradition of giving Hong Bao (red packets containing money) but on this occasion it is known as duit raya and is given in green packets.
Hari Raya Haji
Approximately 70 days after the celebrations of Hari Raya Aidilfitri the ancient Muslim festival of Hari Raya Haji, also known as the “Festival of Sacrifice” that is celebrated over three days by Muslims worldwide. The festival starts off with prayers by male volunteers and the sacrifice of sheep, goats and cows to symbolize Phophet Ibrahim’s readiness to sacrifice his own flesh and blood.
Malaysian Chinese typically celebrate the same festivals observed by Chinese people around the world with Chinese New Year the most prominent. Other prominent festivals celebrated by Chinese people in Malaysia are the Qingming Festival, the Dragon Boat festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year
The date of the Lunar New Year (Chinese New Year) is determined by the lunar calendar and it often falls annually in either January or February. Being a major event on the Chinese calendar, the Chinese residents celebrate this occasion in stylish red or gold colours. Spring cleaning for this festive season is essential to most Chinese and it is a common sight to see red pieces of paper with Chinese calligraphy bearing good wishes placed onto doors and walls. The distribution of Hong Bao (red packets containing money) by parents and relatives to unmarried children is a common practice during this festive season.
Hungry Ghost Festival
The seventh month of the lunar calendar is when the hungry ghost festival is celebrated. This event is a traditional Chinese festival celebrated worldwide by Chinese people and it involves the offering of food and burning of offerings (i.e., incense and papier-mâché material items such as clothes, gold, cars and houses) as a form of ancestor worship with the meaning of extending filial piety from descendants to their ancestors even after their deaths.
These offerings can be seen along roadsides and on open grounds as a means of appeasing and respecting the departed. In some areas of Malaysia you may even chance upon Wayangs (Chinese operas) which are staged to entertain the wandering spirits. During this festival puppet shows are traditionally held along with live singing performances.
The 15th day of the eighth lunar month marks the day when the full moon shines brightly and families and friends gather under the moonlit sky to savour mooncakes (the traditional food of this festival), pomelos and pots of Chinese tea. Mooncakes come in a variety of sweet and savoury fillings.
The Dumpling or Duanwu Festival, which is sometimes known as the Dragon Boat Festival in Malaysia, is a widely celebrated event usually held on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Though this festival holds more significance in China, it is still observed by the Chinese population in Malaysia, albeit in a more subtle manner. During the celebrations, many Chinese households prepare zhong zi, a dumpling made of glutinous rice containing various kinds of stuffing, wrapped in either bamboo or lotus leaves. The dumplings, much like the mooncake, is a product borne out of a story that has become an integral part of Chinese history. Historians believe Qu Yuan, a great poet, a royal advisor to the emperor, and the epitome of patriotism took his life by drowning himself in a river. The legend relates that a fisherman dreamt that the poet’s body was being eaten by fish, so the people threw rice dumplings into the river in the hope that the fish would eat the dumplings instead of their beloved hero.
Thaipusam is a celebration in which Hindu pilgrims from all over Malaysia meet at the Batu Caves, one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India that is dedicated to Lord Murugan. The celebrations focus around pilgrimages to temples dedicated to Lord Murugan. This begins with a procession led by a chariot bearing the idol of a deity from a temple within the city to holy sites on the outskirts. These holy sites are dedicated to Lord Murugan and are typically a network of temples or shrines built in natural structures, such as caves. The two main holy sites that have become the focal point of Thaipusam celebrations in Malaysia are the Batu Caves in Selangor and the Nattukkottai Chettiar Temple in Penang.
This is a festival when Indian communities are filled with lights, music, scents, arts and performances. Known also as the “Festival of lights”, it is an occasion of celebration for both Hindus and Sikhs. It marks the beginning of a New Year for certain North Indians, while some believe that the departed souls of relatives will descend during this time and rows of tiny oil lamps are used to guide them on a journey to the next world. During this festival, new clothes are worn, and vibrant and colourful lights, festive bazaars and cultural activities enliven the streets of the Indian communities across Malaysia.
The most important Sikh festival is the Sikh New Year or Baisakhi. Because it falls during the month of Vaisakh, the occasion is more commonly known as the Vaisakhi Festival. Other important days are Lodi and Gurpurab. Other Indian and Indochinese communities observe their New Year celebrations at around the same time, such as Pohela Boishakh of the Bengalis and Songkran (the water festival of the Thais). People in the northern states also celebrate the Thai festival of Loy Kratong.
This festival is celebrated on the fifteen day of the fourth lunar month. This Buddhist celebration involves chantings, recitations and offerings at shrines and temples. Symbolizing perfection and commemorating the birth of enlightenment and nirvana of the Lord Buddha, temples are decorated with flags, lights, and flowers and vegetarian meals are served.
Malaysia’s Christian community observes most of the holidays observed by Christians elsewhere, most notably Christmas and Easter. Good Friday, however, is only a public holiday in the two Bornean states. The harvest festivals of Gawai in Sarawak and Kaamatan in Sabah are also important for Malaysians in the Eastern region of the country.
Gawai Dayak marks the important date for the Ibans ethnic group and marks the end of the paddy rice harvest season. The Ibans invite their friends, family and people from different ethnic groups to join in the gaiety celebrated in their longhouses. At the beginning of the ceremony, prayer is usually led by the tribal chief as a traditional way of seeking blessings from the gods, followed by dances performed by men wearing warrior attire. This is followed by the most important part of the ceremony; the miring, a ritual performed by the elderly who simultaneously mutter a chant for peace, safety, protection and a plentiful harvest in the next season.
Tadau Kaamatan is a harvesting celebration held by the Kadazans and Bajaus ethnic groups of Sabah. This is a celebration of thanksgiving offered to the rice gods by the farmers. Thus prayers are also held in hope for an ample harvest the following year.
Malaysians tend to celebrate all festive seasons, including Christmas, and visit friends and families in their homes during the festive season. Shopping malls put up their decorations and lights and Christians put their Christmas trees up one to two weeks before Christmas.