Malaysian culture

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia and has the largest number of adherents among the population. Malaysia’s geographical position on the main historic shipping routes between Indian, Arab and European regions on one side and China and Japan on the other has made Malaysia a meeting place of cultures and religions for thousands of years. 


Because of this, almost all major world religions have long had a presence in Malaysia today. For example, 19.8% identify as Buddhist, 9.2% identify as Hindu, and 6.3% identify with traditional Chinese religions (such as Confucianism and Taoism).

Religion is more publicly visible in Malaysia than in most English-speaking Western countries. There is a rich religious history visible in the architecture, and it is not unusual to find various places of worship in close proximity to one another. 

Religious holidays, especially those celebrated in open public spaces such as Ramadan (Islam) and Diwali (Hinduism and Buddhism), further blend the religious experiences of the population.

Religious pluralism and the state

Religious pluralism in Malaysia means that religious identity is often an important aspect of an individual, especially because of the relationship between their ethnic and religious identities. While a person’s ethnicity does not necessarily reflect their religious affiliation, such correlations are emphasized – especially in relation to Malays and Islam. 

This link is politically reinforced by Malaysian law, which defines a “Malay” as someone who identifies as Muslim, speaks Malay and practices Malay customs. 

1,2  Sometimes the word ‘Muslim’ can be used synonymously with ‘Malay’ because of this legal and social correlation.

Given the status of Islam as the official religion of Malaysia, much of the government’s attention is directed towards the Muslim majority. Debates typically revolve around the government’s role in the religious life of citizens and whether the state should promote Muslim beliefs through legal regulations, such as limiting the availability of gambling, pork, and alcohol. 

Although relations between religious communities are harmonious, Islam’s status as a state occasionally creates tension. An example is the prohibition of the use of the word ‘Allah’ (‘God’) in non-Muslim publications. 3  This has led to pressure from Christian and Sikh groups to avoid the use of the word ‘Allah’ in their religious texts.

Islam also plays a significant role in the Malaysian legal system. 

Malaysia has both civil courts and  Sharia (  known as  Sharia in Malaysia ) courts, which cover different aspects of law. Sharia  courts are concerned only with the activities of Malaysia’s Muslim community and mainly focus on religious and family matters such as marriage, inheritance, divorce, apostasy, conversion and child custody. 

The dual court system presents challenges for Muslims seeking to convert, which are rarely granted. Meanwhile, non-Muslims who marry Muslims must convert to Islam. The issue of conversion can create tensions, but such tensions are directed more towards the state than religious communities or individuals.

Islam in Malaysia

From the 10th century to the 15th century, Arab and Indian merchants and traders first introduced Islam to the region of present-day Malaysia. The spread and influence of Islam came primarily through the conversion (rather than conquest) of local chieftains and rulers, who were followed by other members of the population.

 Since the Malacca Sultanate (15th century), Islam has been the most widely practiced religion. Today, nearly two-thirds (61.3%) of Malaysia’s population identify as Muslim. Most are Sunni and follow Shafi’i thought and law.

The influence of Islam in Malaysia can be seen in various aspects of society and culture.  For example, this can be seen in the media (including daily reminders of prayer during television programs), the provision of prayer rooms in buildings, the emphasis on halal in food preparation and consumption  , as well as in the use of Muslims.

Regulations and practices in medical, educational and financial institutions. Many Muslim festivals and events are also national holidays, such as the end of Ramadan,  the end of Hajj  , and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

Other material aspects of Islam in Malaysia include elements of local culture, including colorful costumes, ways of celebrating religious festivals, and Malay adaat (customary law) in Malay weddings and other ceremonies  .

 A popular style of dress for Muslim men (especially during Friday prayers) is  the songkok  (black velvet hat), a loose tunic and pants or  sarong  (long cloth wrapped around the waist). 

Muslim women usually  wear a tudung  , which is a popular style of headscarf worn in Malaysia. In some cases, tudung is a standardized part of the dress code for some government buildings and institutions.

Buddhism in Malaysia

Both Buddhism and Hinduism were introduced to Malaysia by Indian traders two millennia ago. Buddhism also spread from Thailand to the northern parts of the Malay Peninsula. 

For centuries thereafter, both religions greatly influenced Malaysian society, art, culture and governance. Although Buddhism particularly flourished under the Srivijaya Empire (7th–13th century), the religion’s influence declined with the introduction of Islam.

 During the late 19th to early 20th centuries, Buddhism was revived in Malaysia due to immigration from China and Sri Lanka during the British period. Today, Buddhism is the second most popular religion (19.8%).

The long and complex history of Buddhism in Malaysia has had a very diverse influence on the current Buddhist community. For example, both the Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist traditions have strong adherents.

 Generally, most followers of Mahayana Buddhism are Malaysian Chinese, while most followers of Theravada Buddhism are of Malaysian Indian or Thai or Sri Lankan descent. 

4 Each temple, monastery or organization is autonomous, meaning that Buddhist communities have multiple practices and organizational structures. Buddhists in the Malaysian Chinese community may also incorporate elements of Taoism or Confucianism into their beliefs and practices. 

For example, it is not uncommon to find Taoist deities in Mahayana Buddhist temples and vice versa. Nevertheless, Buddhists from different traditions come together to celebrate important Buddhist events and festivals such as Vesak.

Christians in Malaysia

Christianity was introduced to the Malay Archipelago by Arab, Persian and Turkish Christian traders from the 7th century. Portuguese missionaries introduced Catholicism in the 16th century, while Dutch colonists introduced Protestantism in the 17th century.

 Protestant campaigns of various denominations flourished during the British colonial rule in the 19th century. The 20th century saw the introduction of non-denominational and evangelical churches.

This history is reflected in the various denominations, church architecture and worship styles in Malaysia. . For example, churches range from large ornate cathedrals to simple wooden structures in the countryside.

 There are also smaller and independent churches, along with major denominations such as Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, and Seventh-day Adventist.

 Christian communities in Malaysia have established many social services such as schools, hospitals and clinics, as well as welfare homes for various marginalized members of society such as drug addicts, unwed mothers or orphans. 

It is estimated that 9.2% of the Malaysian population identify as Christians, most of whom identify ethnically as non-Malay Bumiputera, Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indians.

Hinduism in Malaysia

Like Buddhism, Hinduism was brought to Malaysia by Indian traders over two millennia ago. Although Hinduism had a significant influence throughout Malaysia, this influence waned after the introduction of Islam.

 Malaysia’s current Hindu population (6.3%) is mainly descended from immigrants from the Tamil Nadu region of India, who came to work on rubber plantations under the British in the late 19th to mid-20th century. A very small number migrated from North India. 

Thus, most of the Hindu population in Malaysia identify ethnically as Malaysian Indians.

Due to the history and diverse origins of Hindu migrant workers, the practice of religion in Malaysia has been influenced by various local images, deities and customs.

 This is reflected in the various temple designs and worship of specific deities. While much of the Hindu population in Malaysia follows the Shaivite tradition, worship of other deities and their avatars can also be found. Many festivals are celebrated across the country dedicated to various Hindu stories and deities such as Thaipusam, Navratri and Diwali.

Sikhism in Malaysia

During the late 19th to early 20th century, Sikhism was introduced to Malaysia by Indians brought to serve in the police and armed forces during the British period. 

Although Sikhs are represented in a variety of professions, this legacy of bravery continues today with many Sikhs serving as soldiers or police officers.

Sikhism, which originated in India, is a monotheistic religion that promotes devotion to a formless God. The religion focuses on principles such as service, humility and equality as well as bravery and valor. 

One of the most recognized symbols of the Sikh community is the Sikh turban (known as ‘  dastar  ‘ or ‘  dumalla  ‘) worn by many men and some women. Malaysia’s first  Gurdwara  (Sikh place of worship) was established in Penang in 1881 by Sikhs in the police force.

 5  Today, there are more than 100 gurdwaras that can be found in large urban areas and small regional towns. The local gurdwara serves as a center for community and social activities, as well as   a place to partake in free communal meals from the gurdwara’s langar (communal kitchen).

Traditional Chinese Worldviews

Various traditional worldviews originating in China were brought to Malaysia by Chinese traders over the centuries. However, there was a large influx of Chinese workers brought into the country by the British in the 19th century. 

Many of these Chinese workers built shrines and temples dedicated to their local deities and cemeteries dedicated to the dead.

In present-day Malaysia, 1.3% of the population identify with traditional Chinese religion. However, people do not recognize only one traditional Chinese religion, mainly due to the syncretism of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. For example, Taoist deities can be found in Buddhist temples and vice versa. 

Thus, adherents to the traditional Chinese worldview may be outnumbered. Many of those who identify with traditional Chinese religions are ethnically Malaysian Chinese.

One of the main traditional Chinese worldviews followed in Malaysia is Confucianism. The foundations of Confucius are derived from the teachings of Confucius, who emphasized the importance of healthy relationships. 

Confucianism promotes the idea that relationships between people are inherently unequal and that each has defined hierarchical roles in relationships (for example, ruler and subjects, husband and wife, father and son). 

When this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it becomes easier to maintain harmonious, stable relationships among individuals and therefore within society as a whole. These core values ​​are reflected in a sense of respect and duty towards others as well as loyalty and honor for oneself and one’s family.

 Common practices include worshiping ancestors, as well as honoring one’s father ( filial piety  ).

Another common traditional Chinese worldview is Taoism, also known as ‘Daoism’. It has its roots in the philosophical teachings of the Chinese philosopher Laozi of the sixth century BC. One of the major underlying ideas in Taoism is that everything that exists is deeply interconnected.

 The main emphasis is on connecting with nature and self-development. Taoist beliefs are concerned with finding harmony, while practices include tai chi meditative physical practice and the cultivation of ‘virtue’.

 Many Taoist communities in Malaysia maintain their links with their respective sects in China and Taiwan. For example, many of the Taoist deities celebrated in Malaysia are local deities from China’s Guangdong and Fujian provinces.

Local and Indigenous Worldviews in Malaysia

In addition to the major world religions and traditional Chinese religions, Malaysia is home to a diversity of local and indigenous worldviews. 

These worldviews are followed by the Orang Asli of West Malaysia, as well as many indigenous groups in Sabah and Sarawak. Among these communities, their traditional or orthodox religions are often   referred to as ‘ Agama Adat ‘.

 6  The various local and indigenous worldviews in Malaysia generally lack formal organizational structures to manage activities, rituals and teachings. Instead, core beliefs, values, and ritual practices are passed down from generation to generation through complex oral traditions.

The nature and structure of local and indigenous religious traditions vary with respect to the diversity of indigenous groups in Malaysia. However, there is usually a general concept of a supreme being or god, as well as a shrine to other deities. 

Environment and landscape also feature prominently in Malaysian local and local worldviews. For example, individual groups and tribes often share a close relationship with nature and may regard ecological features of the landscape as sacred (eg, mountains, trees, valleys, and rivers).

Malaysian culture

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