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Religion and Festivals

by The Expatriate Lifestyle Editorial Team 9 Jan 2014
Religion and Festivals


Of Malaysia’s peoples, around 58 per cent are Muslim, 22.9 per cent Buddhist, 11 per cent Christian, and 6.3 per cent Hindu. Confucians and Taoists make up about 2.6 per cent, while the remaining percentages consist of other faiths, such as the Bahá’í faith, animism and Sikhism.

However, there are a number of Chinese that actually practice a kind of mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese folk religion, but are likely to state their official religion as Buddhism if only for convenience.

The official religion of Malaysia is Islam, however other religions can be practiced freely as Malaysia is stated to be secular. Malaysian Muslims are primarily Malays, although there are a number of Indian and Pakistani Muslims as well as a number of ethnic Chinese who have since converted.

Living in Malaysia, as in your home country, you will find that some people are more religious than others. For example, you may encounter some religious Muslims who wear the tudung (headscarf), modest clothing, pray five times a day, fast during daylight throughout Ramadhan and adhere to the principles of Islamic banking. Others may only observe some of these customs. It is up to you to be culturally sensitive and careful not to offend.

Sunni Islam is the official legal form of Islam practiced in Malaysia, and you will find that mosques are extremely common. Government offices are closed for two hours on Fridays to allow Muslim employees to perform their prayers.

However, one of the things that make Malaysia such an easy place for expatriates to settle down is the fact that although there is a Muslim majority, the interpretation of Islam is relatively liberal compared to what appears to be the common perception.

It is important to note though, that public displays of affection can sometimes be frowned upon, particularly by the more conservative Malaysians. In Kelantan, a state controlled by PAS, the Islamic Party, gender segregation is practiced for a number of activities, such as going to the cinema and shopping in the supermarket.

The constitution of Malaysia defines Malays as Muslim. Hence, all Malays are technically Muslims, although not all Muslims are Malays. Malays have bumiputra status, meaning “son of the soil”, which entitles them to certain affirmative action policies in university admissions and jobs, for example, or discounts on houses and cars. This is the result of the New Economic Policy, designed to bring the Malays up to the economic level of the Chinese and Indians.

In addition to the civil courts, you may also hear about the Sharia courts during your time in Malaysia. These conduct legal matters pertaining to Islam and family issues faced by Muslims.

Non-Muslims are not obligated to go through the Sharia courts. However, in the event that a non-Muslim marries a Muslim while in Malaysia, they must convert to Islam otherwise the marriage will not be considered legally valid.

The rights of individuals to freely practice their own religion is enshrined in the Malaysian constitution, and all the major festivals/religious occasions of the Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus and Christians are classified as Malaysian public holidays.

However, Good Friday is not a federal public holiday, despite being a state one in Sabah and Sarawak.



In Malaysia numerous festivals are celebrated throughout the course of the calendar year. This is where you will truly see multiculturalism at work. Some are federal public holidays, meaning that all of Malaysia receives the day off from work or school.

Others are only public holidays in certain states, and others are be observed by particular religious or ethnic groups although they are not officially public holidays.

Merdeka, the Malaysian Independence Day is perhaps the most celebrated, and falls on 31st August. It marks the independence of the then-Federation of Malaya from British rule. However, in Sabah it is celebrated on 16th September to honour that date in 1963 when Sabah and Sarawak joined the Federation.

For Muslims in Malaysia, the most celebrated holiday is Hari Raya Puasa (also known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri) which marks the end of Ramadan, the fasting month. For In addition, they also celebrate Hari Raya Haji (also known as Hari Raya Aidiladha), Awal Muharram (the Islamic New Year) and the Prophet Mohammad’s Birthday. Hari Raya Puasa is the Malay equivalent of Eid ul-Fitr, as Hari Raya Haji is the Malay equivalent of Eid ul-Adha. Islam plays an important cultural role in Malaysia.

For the Chinese in Malaysia, Chinese New Year is a huge event, for which new clothes are usually purchased. The festival lasts for 15 days, and is a good time to visit KL if you are not living there, but a bad time to travel from KL to Johor or Penang due to the incredible traffic jams as most people travel home to spend the New Year with their family.

Photo credit: Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson

As you can probably tell, Chinese New Year is incredibly family-oriented. Other notable festivals are the Qing Ming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day), the Dragon Boat Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival. These are all traditional Chinese festivals, and in addition to this, Buddhist Chinese also celebrate Wesak Day.

Most Indians in Malaysia are Hindu, although a number are Muslim. The major Hindu festival is Deepavali, known as “the festival of light”.

Thaipusam is another memorable one and can be a disturbing sight to newly-arrived expatriates due to some of the rituals, such as going into a trance-like state and piercing the body with hooks. During this festival, pilgrims from all over the world flock to Batu Caves in Selangor. Sikh’s also have their own festive celebrations, most notably the Vaisaki, the Sikh New Year.

Christmas and Good Friday are also recognised and celebrated, with the former being a federal public holiday and the latter only being one in East Malaysia. The festivals of various indigenous groups, such as the Iban, are also celebrated in Malaysia.

What makes Malaysia such a unique place to live is that although the majority of the aforementioned festivals are associated with a certain racial/ethnic group or religion, everyone in Malaysia celebrates together, regardless of ethnic background or religion.

The slogan Kongsi Raya was coined as a result of Chinese New year and Hari Raya Puasa coinciding—Gong Xi Fa Cai is a popular Chinese New Year Greeting, and Hari Raya, likewise, is the Hari Raya Puasa greeting. Kongsi Raya could also mean “celebrating together” in the Malay language. For the years when Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali coincide, the slogan Deeparaya or Deepa Raya is used.

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