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by The Expatriate Lifestyle Editorial Team 1 Jun 2013


Of Malaysia’s approximately 29 million people, over 6 million live in East Malaysia, while Peninsular Malaysia is home to an estimated 23.5 million. Malaysia comprises three main racial groups: Malays (50.4 per cent), Chinese (23.7 per cent) and Indians (7.1 per cent), as well as numerous indigenous groups (11 per cent). The remaining 7.8 per cent comprises those that do not fit into the aforementioned categories.


Malays, by constitutional definition are denoted “bumiputra” status, as are a number of indigenous groups. The Malays actually originated in Yunnan, Southern China, from where they later migrated to South East Asia and converted to Islam.

Indigenous Peoples

There are a number of non-Malay indigenous groups also accorded “bumiputra” status, such as the Kadazandusun, Iban, Dayak, and Melanau. These groups comprise more than half of Sarawak’s population and approximately 66 per cent of Sabah’s, and are mainly concentrated in these two states.

Many practice traditional beliefs and share common ways of living, although some have since become Christian or Muslim. The Sarawak Cultural Village is an excellent place to see how the various indigenous groups live.

Chinese and Indians

Chinese make up the second largest ethnic group and have historically played an important role in trade and commerce. Indians are the third largest group, mostly comprising Hindu Tamils. Neither of these groups, irrespective of their Malaysian citizenship holds “bumiputra” status. Those of mixed Chinese and Indian parentage are often referred to as Chindians, although this is not an official category.

The “others” category primarily refers to Malaysians of European and Middle Eastern descent, however there lacks a general consensus regarding the classification of children of mixed parentage.

Some identify themselves according to paternal ethnicity, while others consider themselves to fit into the “others” category rather than pick the ethnicity of either parent. A large number choose to identify themselves as Malays if they have a Malay parent, due to the benefits accorded to those with “bumiputra” status.

Orang Asli

Literally meaning “original man”, the indigenous peoples of Peninsular Malaysia are known as Orang Asli, and make up about 60,000 of Malaysia’s 26 million people. Approximately 60 per cent are jungle dwellers, while 40 per cent are village dwellers. The Orang Asli were the first inhabitants of Malaysia, some having descended upon these shores as long as 40,000 years ago.


Bahasa Melayu (meaning “Malay Language”) is the official language of Malaysia and is primarily spoken by the Malays. However, it is also spoken by people of other races, particularly those who have attended government schools where it is the medium of instruction. Not just the official language of Malaysia, it is also an official language of Brunei and Singapore.

In both spoken Malay and Malaysian English, it is often referred to simply by its initials, BM. However, English is widely spoken, particularly in professional and commercial fields. It is also the language used in the superior courts. Other languages are also common, such as Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hindi.


Thanks to Malaysia’s unique culture, the variety of traditional costumes and textiles are ravishing and colourful. From magnificent tribal head-feathers with bark body-covers to antique gold-woven royal songket fabric, anyone is bound to be enchanted by them.

In the early days, the aboriginal tribes wore native bark costumes and beads. With the advent of the ancient kingdoms, hand-loomed fine textile and intricate Malay batik motifs were used by the Malay royalty. As foreign trade flourished, costumes and textiles such as Chinese silk, the Indian pulicat or plaid sarong and the Arabian jubbah, a robe with wide sleeves were introduced to the country.

Today, traditional attire such as the Malay baju kebaya, Indian sari and Chinese cheongsam are still widely worn, especially during formal events or festive seasons.

Malay Costume

Before the 20th century, Malay women still wore kemban, just sarongs tied above the chest, in public. As they began to adopt Islam, they began wearing the more modest yet elegant baju kurung. The baju kurung is a knee-length loose-fitting blouse that is usually worn over a long skirt with pleats at the side.

It can also be matched with traditional fabrics such as songket or batik. Typically, these traditional outfits are completed with a selendang or shawl or tudung or headscarf.

The traditional attire for Malay men is the baju melayu. The baju melayu is a loose tunic worn over trousers. It is usually completed with a samping—a short sarong wrapped around the hips.

Chinese Costume

Comfortable yet elegant, the traditional cheongsam/qi bao or “long dress” is also a popular contemporary fashion choice for ladies. Usually, it has a high collar, buttons or frog closures near the shoulder, a snug fit at the waist and slits on either one or both sides. It is often made of shimmering silk, embroidered satin or other sensual fabrics.

Flowers are often embroidered on the dress as not only objects of beauty, but also as symbols of longevity, fertility and happiness.

For Chinese men however, their daily wear was a round-necked robe. Traditionally, the colours that each man could wear was regulated, as were the embroidered animal images, such as the lion, Chinese unicorn, tiger, jackal, hawk, or wild goose. These were specially conferred upon by the authorities to be embroidered on the robes of civilian and military officials.

Indian Costume

The sari is the world-renowned traditional Indian garment. A length of cloth usually five to six yards in width, the sari is worn with a petticoat of similar shade and a matching or contrasting choli or blouse.
Typically, it is wrapped around the body such that the pallau—its extensively embroidered or printed end—is draped over the left shoulder. Made up of a myriad of materials, textures and designs, the sari is truly exquisite.

Popular with northern Indian ladies is the salwar kameez or Punjabi suit; a long tunic worn over trousers with a matching shawl. The kurta is the traditional attire for men on formal occasions. It is a long knee-length shirt that is typically made from cotton or linen cloth.

Baba Nyonya

The elegant Kebaya Nyonya of Malacca’s Baba Nyonya—Chinese immigrants who adopted local Malay culture into their Chinese heritage—can be described as traditional haute couture.

Hand-made with great skill using the best materials, its intricate embroidery is equivalent to the best Venetian lacework. The pièce de résistance is a delicate needlework technique called tebuk lubang - literally meaning to punch holes. When done correctly, the end results is fine lace-like embroidery on the collar, lapels, cuffs, hem and the two triangular front panels which drape over the hips, known as the lapik.


Descended from Portuguese settlers of the 16th century, Malacca’s Portuguese-Eurasian’s traditional attire reflects their heritage. Dominated by the colours black and red, men wear jackets and trousers with waist sashes whilst ladies wear broad front-layered skirts.


With its diverse ethnic groups, Malaysia’s largest state, Sarawak, has a plethora of unique tribal costumes. Using a variety of designs and native motifs, common materials for the Orang Ulu or upriver tribes are hand-loomed cloths, tree bark fabrics, feathers and beads.

Sarawak is known for the woven pua kumbu of the Iban tribe, songket of the Sarawak Malay, colourful beaded accessories, traditional jewellery and head adornments.


Like Sarawak, Sabah is also blessed with a rich mix of ethnic groups. Each group adorns attire, headgears and personal ornaments with distinctive forms, motifs and colour schemes characteristic of their respective tribe and district.

However, culturally different groups who live in close proximity may have similarities in their traditional attire.

Notable hats and head-dresses include the Kadazan Dusun ladies’ straw hats, the Bajau woven dastar and the head-dress of the Lotud man, which indicate the number of wives he has by the number of fold points.


Every country has its own customs and traditions and Malaysia is no exception. You may interact with a variety of people during your time in Malaysia, ranging from people who are highly traditional in terms of social customs to people who are not.

However living in Malaysia entails having a certain amount of knowledge about these customs so that you know what to do in the event that a certain situation arises. Some examples are as follows.

When meeting Muslim ladies, they should always be the first to initiate a handshake, particularly if you are a man. Some prefer to simply nod and smile upon introduction, so do not offer a handshake unless they ask or initiate it.

The traditional Malay greeting equivalent to a handshake is known as a “salam” is recognisable in that it resembles a handshake with both hands, but without the grasp. This is done by lightly touching the other party’s outstretched hands, and then bringing your hand to your chest, to mean “I greet you from my heart”.

It is always polite to call beforehand when visiting someone’s home. When visiting an Asian or Malaysian home, you should remove your shoes before entering the house. This is the case for certain shops as well, although these particular shops are not often frequented by expatriates.

It is also best to dress formally, particularly when visiting a Muslim home. The same goes for places of worship. Shoe must always be removed before entering. Some mosques provide robes and scarves for female visitors, as they are required to cover their hair, arms and legs. If you want to take photographs at any places of worship that you visit, it is best to ask permission beforehand.

When eating, particularly with Muslims or in a Muslim home, the right hand is always used as the left is considered unclean. Same applies when giving or receiving gifts. Business cards are often given with both hands and should be received likewise.

When pointing or indicating a place, object or person, do not use the right forefinger. Instead, curl the fingers of your right hand into a fist-like formation, placing the thumb over the top.

In Malaysia, toasting is not a common practice due to the large number of Muslims, who do not consume alcohol. However, you may witness it at many Chinese wedding ceremonies, where alcohol is permitted.


An open house (or “rumah terbuka”) is a Malaysian concept whereby people celebrating various holidays will invite friends to drop by for festive snacks and fellowship.

Many Malaysians visit one another during festivals, whether or not they themselves celebrate the holiday in question. An open house requires those hosting to hold a party at their place, inviting family and friends.

These parties can range from small, intimate gathering, to a huge occasion, where just about everyone is invited. It may be that, if a large number of guests are invited, some are asked to stop by in the early afternoon and others in the evening.

It is a very Malaysian way to celebrate the festive season together where everyone gathers around the table to feast on the scrumptious traditional dishes prepared by the host. Some even make the effort to bake all the cookies or cakes instead of ordering from a bakery.

The Prime Minister and other politicians also organise open houses. These can be held in either a hotel ballroom or a public place such as a field or park, where the locals can gather and enjoy the food prepared for them. The Prime Minister usually hosts an annual Hari Raya open house for the public at his residency in Putrajaya.

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