Hello there. ‘Selamat Datang ke Malaysia’. That means, ‘Welcome to Malaysia’ in our national language Bahasa Malaysia. It would be impossible to tell you everything about Malaysia in such a short period of time, but I will give you a general idea.
One of the things you will find most fascinating about Malaysia is its people and culture. Being a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society of 28 million is no easy feat, as race continues to be a hotly debated issue and permeates almost every aspect of Malaysian life.
The Malaysian population consists of 62% Bumiputeras, which includes Malays and the Indigenous peoples, 24% Chinese, 8% Indians, and the rest are other minorities. Or as we say in Malaysia, ‘lain-lain’ or others. Citizenship in East Malaysia or the states of Sabah and Sarawak are a little different from citizenship in Peninsular Malaysia for immigration purposes. When West Malaysians visit East Malaysia, they are required to bring their MyKad, a biometric smart chip identity card, which must be carried by citizens of Malaysia at all times.
The Malays form the largest community, and they are defined as Muslims in the Constitution of Malaysia- in other words, if you are Malay, you are automatically Muslim. The Malays are the big brothers of politics, dominating the political scene. Their native language is Malay, the national language of the country. They are also sometimes called ‘bumiputra’, or ‘princes of the soil’ and are favoured with certain affirmative action policies. This has been a point of discontent with a lot of minorities. Among others, getting a 10% to 25% discount when buying a house and receiving government tenders and scholarships are some of these benefits. How did this come about? I’ll tell you more in the economy section.
The second biggest group are the Chinese. They are mostly Buddhists, Taoists or Christians. The Chinese community speaks a variety of Chinese dialects including Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew- all from the native familial provinces in China. But today, many Chinese speak English as their first language; in fact there are some who speak only English. If the Malays dominate the political scene, the Chinese dominate the business scene. There is a sizable middle class consisting of the Chinese.
The third biggest group are the Indians. The Indians in Malaysia are mainly Hindu Tamils from southern India whose native language is Tamil. Of course there are other Indian communities living here and they speak many dialects like Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi. Many middle to upper-middle class Indians in Malaysia also speak English as a first language. There is also a vigorous 200,000-strong Indian Muslim community that thrives as an independent cultural group. In fact, if you get hungry in the middle of the night, you most probably will head to a ‘mamak’, a kind of 24-hour restaurant that is often owned by an Indian Muslim. There is also a sizable Sikh community in Malaysia numbering over 100,000.
The largest non-Malay indigenous tribe is the Iban of Sarawak, who number over 600,000. Some still live in traditional jungle villages in long houses along the Rajang and Lupar rivers, though many have moved to the cities. Then, there are the Bidayuhs, who number around 170,000 and are concentrated in the south western part of Sarawak. Then there are the Kadazans, the largest indigenous tribe in Sabah and they are mostly Christian farmers. Then there are the 140,000 Orang Asli, or aborigines, living in Peninsular Malaysia. Traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, many have been partially absorbed into ‘modern’ Malaysia.
Besides that, through interracial marriage, there are a significant number of racial groups such as the Eurasians, who are descendants of marriages among the British, Dutch and Portuguese and the locals. They speak a Portuguese-based creole, called Papiá Kristang. There are also Eurasians of Filipino and Spanish descent, mostly in Sabah. Descended from immigrants from the Philippines, some speak Chavacano, the only Spanish-based creole language in Asia. Then there are Cambodians and Vietnamese, who are mostly Buddhists. Then there are Thai Malaysians, who populate a big part of the northern peninsular states of Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Perak, Kelantan and Terengganu. Besides speaking Thai, most of them are Buddhists, celebrate Songkran or Water festival and can speak Hokkien, but some of them are Muslim and speak the Kelantanese Malay dialect. Then there are the Bugis and Javanese, who make up a part of the population in Johor. In addition, there have been many foreigners and expatriates who have made Malaysia their second home, also contributing to Malaysia’s population. Then there are the Babas and Nyonyas, or Straits Chinese; descendants of Chinese who came to trade in ancient Malacca who married local Malays. They combine Malay and Chinese traditions in such a way as to create a new culture. Most of them dress in typical Malay fashion, wearing the kebaya ketat, which is a Malay traditional costume, and they speak a special kind of Malay, and cook food that is a mix of the both cultures.
Being a multiracial country, cultural exchanges and cultural integrations are inevitable. For example, this can be seen in Malay wedding ceremonies, which incorporates elements of the Hindu traditions of southern India. The bride and the groom dress in gorgeous brocades, sit in state, and feed each other yellow rice with hands painted with henna. Another example is that the Muslims and Hindus have adapted the Chinese custom of giving little red packets of money or ‘ang pau’ at festivals such as Aidilfitri, and Deepavali. The colours of the packets vary, but the practice is similar.
In Malaysia, it is entirely possible to go from a kampong or a village, to a rubber estate to a Chinese coffee shop and feel as if you’ve seen so many different sides to one country. Travel to any Kuala Lumpur suburb and observe. A Chinese house will have a mother praying and lighting joss sticks for her ancestors, an Indian family will be playing the radio featuring the latest Tamil hit, while the Malay family will be getting ready to walk to the closest mosque.
Racial relations remain a thorny issue that permeates every aspect of the Malaysian life. Stereotypes are then inevitable. The Malays are lazy and slow, the Chinese are greedy and like to gamble, and the Indians are always drunk and they beat their wives. You can still hear this very often in the streets, most of the time as a joke, but sometimes as an insult. To be identified with your race is very common. For instance, job interviews require you to state your race, though this practice is slowly diminishing. When you tell a Malaysian that you saw a road accident, he would likely ask you if it was a Malay, a Chinese or an Indian. If you got robbed, you’d be asked if it was a Malay or an Indian. If you get paid peanuts, your boss is likely Chinese. If you ride a motorbike, you’re most likely Malay. If you live in a high-end neighbourhood, you’re most likely Chinese. I could go on, but I encourage you to find out these stereotypes yourself!
Besides being a melting pot of various races, Malaysia is also a multi-religious society with Islam as the official religion. Roughly 63 percent of the population practice Islam; 18 percent Buddhism; 7 percent Christianity; 6 percent Hinduism; and 2 percent traditional Chinese religions such as Taoism. The remaining numbers are accounted for by other faiths, including Animism, Folk religion, Sikhism, while 1 percent has no religion.
While the Malaysian constitution guarantees religious freedom, Malay Muslims are obliged to follow the decisions of Syariah courts when it comes to matters concerning Islam. Converting out of Islam in Malaysia is a largely problematic issue, and while it has been attempted by some, it is a process that requires long legal battles and is not well-received by the majority of the Muslim faithful. The Islamic judges in the Syariah courts are expected to follow the Shafi`I school of Islam, which is the main denomination of Islam in Malaysia. The power of the Shariah court is limited only to Muslims over matters such as marriage, inheritance, apostasy, religious conversion, and custody. No other criminal or civil offenses are under the jurisdiction of the Syariah courts. But there have been moves by the Pan Islamic Party to implement the hudud law, or Islamic law.
That was a lot to digest. But it’s worth understanding how culture, race and religion work in Malaysia in order to understand Malaysian life. Now go out and see if you can recognize who’s Malay, who’s Chinese, who’s Indian, and who’s, as we Malaysians love to say, Lain-lain, or others.
Let’s take a quick look at the Malaysian economy now.
Spice trade used to be big business in Malaysia during the time of the Malaccan Sultanate. When the British took over, rubber and palm oil trees became big business. Soon, Malaysia became the world’s largest producer of tin, rubber, and palm oil. With these three lucrative commodities, Malaysia was poised for great economic growth.
During this growth period, the government tried to eradicate poverty with the controversial New Economic Policy, or the NEP, after the May 13 Incident of racial rioting in 1969. At that time, the economies were raced based- the Malays worked as farmers in the paddy fields or civil servants, the Chinese owned businesses and the Indians tapped rubber trees in the rubber estates. The policy’s main objective was the elimination of the association of race with economic function as it was during the time of the British. However, the New Economic Policy was laden with controversial affirmative policies that favoured the Malays, and it was a source of discontent even until today.
Back then, Malaysia was very reliant on agriculture. It needed to move to an economy based on manufacturing. Inspired by the Asian Tigers in the 70s, which were South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, Malaysia moved from being reliant on mining and agriculture to an economy based on manufacturing. Then, Malaysia consistently achieved more than 7% GDP growth along with low inflation in the 1980s and the 1990s. Today, Malaysia is home to one of the world’s largest computer hard disk manufacturing sites.
The Asian Financial Crisis hit in the fall of 1997 and delivered a shock to Malaysia’s economy. Foreign direct investment fell sharply and, as capital flowed out of the country, the value of the ringgit dropped from 2.50 Ringgit versus 1 US Dollar to, at one point, 4.80 Ringgit versus 1 US Dollar. A National Economic Action Council was then formed to deal with the monetary crisis. Bank Negara, the country’s central bank imposed capital controls and pegged the Malaysian ringgit at 3.80 to the US dollar. Malaysia refused economic aid packages from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, much to the surprise of many analysts.
Rejuvenation of the Malaysian economy coincided with massive government spending and budget deficits in the years that followed the crisis. It eventually enjoyed faster economic recovery compared to its neighbours. Malaysia’s rapid economic growth and prosperity is symbolized by the building of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the tallest twin buildings in the world and the headquarters of the national oil giant.
While the pace of Malaysia’s development today is not as rapid, it is seen as more sustainable. Malaysia is also the world’s largest Islamic banking and financial centre.
Eventually, the fixed exchange rate was abandoned in July 2005 in favour of a managed floating system within an hour of China announcing the same move. In that very same week, the ringgit strengthened one percent against various major currencies and was expected to appreciate further.
Currently Malaysia is recognized as a newly industrialized country and as of 2008, has a GDP per capita of 14,215 USD, ranking the country 48th in the world, and 2nd in Southeast Asia, but lagging far behind its Southern neighbour, Singapore.
Let’s take a quick look at healthcare in Malaysia. Malaysia generally has an efficient and widespread system of healthcare. It implements a universal healthcare system, and co-exists with a private healthcare system. Anyone can walk into a government hospital and get treatment for free, though waiting time is usually longer. Prescriptions may cost money but are often given to the patient at a subsidized rate. Infant mortality rate – a standard in determining the overall efficiency of healthcare – in 2005 was 10, coming in favourably in a comparison with the United States and Western Europe. Life expectancy at birth in 2005 was 74 years.
If you need medical assistance in Malaysia, you’re free to walk into any government or private hospitals, but as a tourist, you will not be able to enjoy the free healthcare.
Before we get into some language lesson, I’d like to tell you how the Malaysian education system is organized. Why do different children go to different types of school? At this point, you’d not be surprised if I tell you that the education system is very much based on race too.
If you’re between 3 to 6 years old, you’d most likely go to a kindergarten. Usually they are run privately, but some are run by the government.
When you turn 7, you’d move on to primary school for the next six years. There are two types of primary school you could go to. The first is the SRK, or Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan, which are government run schools. You’d be using the Malay language as the medium of instruction.
Or, if your parents are Chinese or Indian, they could choose to send you to the second type of school called SJK, or Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan. Here, you will be using either Mandarin or Tamil, depending on which school you go to. If you’re a girl, you will wear a dark blue pinafore, coupled with a white shirt, or the dark blue and white baju kurung, or Malay traditional costume. If you’re a boy, you will wear dark blue pants or shorts and a white shirt. And you’ll happily slog through 6 years, and by the end of year 6 or when you’re 12 years old, you’ll be taking a much-dreaded exam called the Primary School Achievement Test or Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah, UPSR.
Then, you’d move onto Secondary education where you will study for the next 5 years. National secondary schools use Malay as the main medium of instruction. At the end of Form Three when you turn 15, you will sit for another much-dreaded exam called Lower Secondary Assessment or Penilaian Menengah Rendah, not so fondly known as PMR. And finally, in the last year of secondary education or Form Five when you turn 17, you sit for the really dreaded Malaysian Certificate of Education or Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, SPM. It is similar to the British Ordinary or ‘O’ Levels, and more comprehensive that the American SATs.
You’ll realize there are a lot of exams for Malaysians students to take. This is because we take after the British system of ‘qualification by examination’, a legacy of our colonial days.
While English and Maths used to be taught in English for a short period, the government has decided to scrap this measure and revert to Bahasa Malaysia, starting in 2012, a move many have protested.
Here’s another stereotype. Due to the stringent teaching methods, Chinese schools are noted for producing some of the top students in the country, making some Malay and Indian parents send their children to these schools as well.
Oh, your education journey is not over just yet. At 17, if you’re lucky enough to be born Malay and bumiputra, you get into a fast track called matriculation and secure a safe seat at university. In line with affirmative action policies that favour your race, you won’t have to worry much if you’ll get a place. If you’re Chinese, Indian or Lain- Lain, you’ll have to go through two years of upper secondary education called Form Six, divided into Lower Six and Upper Six, at the end of which you will be rewarded with the most dreaded of all exams- the Malaysian Higher School Certificate or Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia, or STPM. It is the Malaysian equivalent to the British Advanced or ‘A’ levels. However, if you have money to burn, you can buy your way out of STPM by enrolling yourself in a matriculation course in private colleges.
And finally, the pinnacle of education- the university. The number of public universities in Malaysia is few, in fact less than 20, so places are very limited. Finding a place in a public university is an annual source of frustration, with many qualified students going to the media to complain they have been denied a place. If you’re Malay or bumiputra, you can save your parents’ retirement fund and secure an almost guaranteed place in a public university, where schooling fees are minimal. However, if you’re Chinese or Indian and you fail to secure a place, your other option is private college education, where you will need to ask your parents to postpone their retirement by a couple of years.
I did tell you that race plays an important role in the Malaysian society.
Then, after 3 to 6 years of university, you graduate with a degree and can choose to continue your post graduate studies.
Alright, that’s the end of our education on education. And now, comes the practical part. Here are some handy tips for you to make your stay in Malaysia better.
Communication is easy in Malaysia. Contrary to popular belief, most of us speak English, at least some English. Bahasa Malaysia or Malaysia language is the official language. Here are some helpful conversational Bahasa Malaysia phrases you can try. Let’s begin!
Good morning! Selamat Pagi
Good evening! Selamat Petang
How are you? Apa Khabar?
I’m fine, thanks! Khabar Baik, Terima Kasih
Thank you! Terima Kasih
You’re welcome! Sama-sama
Good night! Selamat Malam
See you later! Jumpa Lagi!
Good bye! Selamat Jalan!
If you need to ask for some help or directions, these are some useful phrases:
I’m lost Saya Sesat
Can you help me? Boleh Tolong Saya?
Where is the toilet? Mana Tandas?
Go straight! Then turn left/ right! Jalan Terus/ Kemudian Pusing Kiri/ Kanan
I’m looking for my friend. Saya Cari Kawan Saya.
How much is this? Berapa Harga Ni?
Excuse me!Maafkan Saya…
If you’re really enthusiastic about trying out even more Bahasa Malaysia, here are some more advanced phrases.
Do you speak English? Awak Cakap Bahasa Inggeris ke?
Just a little. Sedikit sahaja.
What’s your name? Apa nama awak?
My name is… Nama Saya…
Where are you from? Awak Dari Mana?
I’m from…Saya Dari…
Where do you live? Awak Tinggal Di mana?
I live in…Saya Tinggal Di
I have to go Saya Pergi Dulu.
I will be right back! Saya Akan Pulang Nanti.
I Don’t Understand! Saya Tak Faham!
I Don’t Know! Saya Tak Tau!
Now that you know some simple phrases, get cracking and converse with some locals, and get them to teach you more! There’s no better way to make friends than by taking some effort in learning their language. Malaysians will love you for it!
Here are some tips for you. If you’re being introduced to a Malay Muslim for the first time, extend both your hands, grasp theirs and bring yours back to your chest. This is the traditional Malay ‘salam.’ To keep it simple, smiling and nodding is fine if you don’t know whether to shake hands or not. With Muslim women, in general, if a hand is not offered, it’s best not to shake hands!
If you ever get lost or need any help, look for the tourist police officer. They can be recognized by their chequered hat bands, dark blue shirts and trousers, and the letter “I” for information on a red and blue badge on their breast pocket. They usually stand around tourist areas. However, if you’re looking for regular policemen, the number to call is 999 from your phone. Emergency calls in Malaysia are free.
Malaysia has approximately 20 public holidays in a year, so plan your trip wisely and check with the Tourism Malaysia website. Also affecting travel are school holidays, as families take days off with their children, so certain parts of the country, like tourist sites and beaches could get crowded.
As you’ll be doing a lot of walking, you can always buy mineral water bottles for drinking, and it’s generally not safe to drink straight out of the tap. The electrical supply is on a 240-volt 50-cycle system, similar to Britain.
Should you wish to catch up on local news and events, the English language papers that are available are The New Straits Times, The Star, Business Times, Malay Mail, Daily Express, Sabah Daily News and Sarawak Tribune. If you want international newspapers, you can most certainly find them at any major bookstores and newsstands. For events, try Time Out and Klue magazines.
The two significant climate changes centre on the monsoon season, but besides that, the weather rarely changes. It is either hot with rain, or hot without rain. The temperature ranges between 21 C and 32 C, but with high humidity. Rain tends to occur between November and February on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, western Sarawak, and the north-eastern part of Sabah.
Due to the climate, light clothing is ideal. It is advisable for ladies, when entering mosques and temples, to wear long sleeves and loose pants or long skirts. Or you could carry a shawl- it’s a lighter alternative.
If you need to adjust your watches before arriving, Malaysia is 8 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
Remove shoes when entering homes and places of worship. Malaysians do not wear shoes around the house.
While sitting down or resting in a group, do not direct your feet towards someone, or any religious statues.
Public display of affection in larger cities like Kuala Lumpur is generally tolerated but might invite unnecessary attention from the public. Public displays of affection in more rural areas are frowned wupon and should be avoided. Also, same-sex relationship is taboo in Malaysia, so gay and lesbian travellers should avoid outward signs of affection, and this includes holding hands in public. Due to strong influence from Islam, homosexuality is technically illegal, although there are many underground gay and lesbian clubs.
This is the end of part two of About Malaysia. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about the people of Malaysia, and its economy, healthcare and education systems, as well as the short language course and general tourist tips.
Now that you’ve gotten an idea of the country, it’s time to go out and explore! Do make sure you take your time to soak in the essence of the country, its people and most importantly, its food! Have a great time in Malaysia.
Until next time, Selamat Tinggal and goodbye.
For the best and only audio guides to Malaysia, visit Audio Guide Malaysia.