Malaysia has a rich cultural life, much of which revolves around the traditional festivities of its diverse population. The major Muslim holidays are Hari Raya Puasa (“Holiday of Fasting”), or Aidilfitri (ʿĪd al-Fiṭr), to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and Hari Raya Haji (“Holiday of the Pilgrimage”), or Aidiladha (ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā), to celebrate the culmination of the season of pilgrimage to Mecca. Buddhists honour the life of the Buddha on Hari Wesak (“Wesak Day”), and Chinese Malaysians celebrate Chinese New Year. Deepavali (Diwali), a Hindu festival of lights spanning several days, is observed by many Indian Malaysians, while Christmas is the principal holiday of the Christian community. On most of these holidays, it is customary to host an “open house,” where guests are treated to Malaysian delicacies and hospitality. A holiday that spans all ethnic groups and religions is Hari Kebangsaan (National Day), a celebration of Malaysia’s independence on August 31.
Iban girls in a Gawai Dayak parade, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.
© Gini Gorlinski
The states have their own holidays. Sarawak, for instance, celebrates Gawai Dayak (“Dayak Festival”). Rooted in the harvest rituals and festivities (gawai) of the Iban and Bidayuh peoples, this holiday broadly honours the state’s non-Malay indigenous heritage.
Men carrying banners in Gawai Dayak parade, Kuching, Sarawak, Malay.
© Gini Gorlinski
Beyond the official holidays and other religious festivities, important life events such as birth, circumcision (for young Muslim men), and marriage are usually celebrated by a feast, known in Malay as kenduri. The wedding ceremony is generally the most important and elaborate of such events among both Malay and non-Malay peoples. In rural areas the kenduri is normally held at the house of the host family, while in urban areas the feast often takes place in a large hall or hotel.
Malaysian cuisines reflect the mixture of ethnic groups in the country’s population. The three most prominent cuisines are Chinese, Indian, and Malay. Popular Chinese foods include sweet-and-sour Cantonese dishes and a milder favourite, Hainanese chicken rice. Indian cuisine ranges from the hot vegetarian dishes of southern Indian cooking to the more subtly spiced Muslim Indian food to the yogurt-marinated meats of tandoori cookery from northern India. All these foods, while recognizably Chinese or Indian, have developed a distinctly Malaysian character.
Traditional Malay cuisine consists of white rice served with various curries and fried dishes. Sate, small skewers of chicken or beef dipped in a spicy peanut sauce, nasi goreng (“fried rice”), and nasi lemak (“fatty rice”), which is coconut rice served with fried anchovies, peanuts, and a curry dish, are among the most common Malay foods. Noodles, cooked and served in various styles, are also local favourites.
Non-Muslim indigenous peoples of Peninsular and East Malaysia typically eat a staple food such as rice, tapioca, or sago served with locally grown or gathered vegetables (e.g., ferns and tapioca leaves) and fish, wild boar, venison, or other game. The food is generally not spicy or only mildly so.
The history and cultural life of Malaysia are exhibited primarily in various museums in Kuala Lumpur and several state capitals throughout the country. Built in a Malay architectural style in 1963, the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur houses a diverse archaeological and ethnographic collection that documents Malaysia’s social, cultural, artistic, and economic history. The Perak Museum in Taiping is the oldest museum in Peninsular Malaysia and contains collections of the natural history and material culture of the region. The Penang Museum and Art Gallery highlights Penang Island’s immigrant and colonial history. In East Malaysia, the Sabah Museum in Kota Kinabalu and the Sarawak Museum in Kuching, both established in the late 19th century, chronicle the unique prehistory and history of these states and their peoples.
In addition to the broadly ethnographic or historical museums, there also are numerous institutions dedicated to the documentation of particular Malaysian phenomena. The Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur, for instance, traces the advent and growth of the art and culture of Islam in Malaysia from the 7th century to contemporary times. Other such topical museums include a numismatic museum, a museum of telecommunications, and an armed forces museum, all located in the capital city.
Malaysia is home to many art galleries and theatres for the performing arts as well. The National Art Gallery has permanent exhibitions of modern paintings by Malaysian artists and rotating exhibitions of art from around the world. Plays, dances, and musical productions by Malaysian and international performers are staged regularly at the grand national theatre, called the Istana Budaya (“Palace of Cultures and Arts”), in Kuala Lumpur.
Sports in Malaysia are a mixture of traditional and Western games. From the mid-19th century, British expatriates introduced football (soccer), cricket, track and field events, and rugby to the peninsula; they formed a number of clubs and organized competitions. The Malaysia Cup (formerly the H.M.S. Malaya Cup), first contested in 1921, is the country’s premier football competition.
Traditional sports also enjoy local popularity. Top-spinning (main gasing) competitions are seriously contested, with winning tops often spinning for well over an hour. In some areas, top spinning is not merely a random pastime but is associated with the agricultural cycle. Kite flying also is a favourite activity, as are bird-singing contests, which may feature hundreds of birds, all with unique songs. Sepak takraw (“kick ball”) is a uniquely Southeast Asian game (now played in other regions) that is similar to volleyball but is played with a woven rattan ball and without using the hands. The sport is internationally competitive, and Malaysia has fronted winning teams.
Malaysian men playing cricket.
© Ahmad Faizal/Fotolia
Malaysia made its debut at the Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956. At the 1992 and 1996 Summer Games the country took medals in men’s badminton. Malaysia was one of the founders of the biennial Southeast Asian Games and has hosted the event several times since its inception in 1957.
The press is the principal source of information in urban areas of Malaysia. The newspapers are all privately owned (many by political parties) and vary greatly in circulation, quality of reporting, and news coverage. Dozens of daily papers circulate in all the major languages of the country, including Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil. In Sabah several dailies also are issued in the Kadazan language.
Although many public and private radio stations cater to urban listeners, radio is the primary information channel in remote rural areas. Both on the peninsula and in East Malaysia, the government-operated Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) broadcasts in Malay, English, and assorted Chinese languages, as well as in various indigenous languages, such as Iban in Sarawak. RTM also broadcasts internationally in Arabic, English, Chinese, and the national languages of several of Malaysia’s Southeast Asian neighbours.
Television is a popular medium across geographical and linguistic boundaries. The government had a monopoly on television broadcasting until the mid-1990s, when it opened the industry to private operators. Since that time several commercial stations have been established, and the emergence of private cable and satellite companies has allowed television broadcasting to reach the most remote rural regions of the country.
Ooi Jin Bee Thomas R. Leinbach Zakaria Bin Ahmad