POPULATION: 11 million
LANGUAGE: Malay; Chinese; Tamil and other Indian languages; tribal languages; English
1 • INTRODUCTION
Many Malays believe that their ancestors were originally from the lowlands of Cambodia and the Mekong River Delta of South Vietnam. They moved to the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra because of a shortage of land and natural resources in Cambodia and Vietnam, population overcrowding, and the opportunity to settle new lands in Malaysia.
In the fifteenth century, Malaysia was the site of a popular port, Malacca, where traders from the east (China) and the west (India, Middle East, and Europe) met to trade commodities such as spices. Malacca was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, taken over by the Dutch in 1641, and handed over to the British in 1811. The British gradually expanded their influence.
The modern country, Federation of Malaysia, formed in 1963. It is made up of thirteen states. Sultans rule nine of the states, and three are ruled by governors. Malaysia practices a constitutional monarchy similar to what is practiced in England. The King is chosen from the nine Sultans once every five years. Elections are also held every five years to elect members of the parliament and the prime minister.
2 • LOCATION
Malaysia has a land area of 127,320 square miles (329,760 square kilometers), making it slightly larger than New Mexico. More than half of its land is covered with tropical rain forests. Large areas of these rain forests are being depleted by logging. Malaysia's climate is tropical, with monsoons bringing an average annual rainfall of about 95 inches (240 centimeters). It is warm, sunny and humid throughout the year with temperatures ranging from 73° to 88° F (23° to 31° C).
Malaysia's 19 million people are multi-racial. There are three main ethnic groups: the Bumiputera ("sons of the soil") includes 11 million Malays and various ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak, and accounts for about 60 percent of the population; the Chinese (30 percent); and the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis (10 percent).
3 • LANGUAGE
Malay is the Malaysian national language. It is taught, with English as a second language, in almost every school in Malaysia.
Although the Malay language is widely spoken in Malaysia, dialects vary between the states. Generally, words are pronounced the way they are spelled, thus it is a very easy language to learn. The Malay language borrows heavily from other languages, including Sanskrit, Portuguese, Persian, Arabic, and English.
Malays typically use Arab names for their children and do not have surnames. A name consists of the person's given name, followed by bin (son of) or binti (daughter of) and the father's first or full name. For example, Helmy, the son of Ismail Nik Dali, would be Helmy bin Ismail or Helmy bin Ismail Nik Dali. The same principle applies to a woman's name, except that her given name is followed by binti. Some common women's names are Fatimah, Lattifah, Zaiton, Aminah, and Zaleha while some common men's names are Ahmad, Sulaiman, Jamalludin, Zakaria, and Ismail.
4 • FOLKLORE
The Malays regard Hang Tuah as their traditional hero. Hang Tuah was noted to be a courageous warrior and a symbol of loyalty to the throne. He proved his loyalty when he killed his best friend, Hang Jebat, who rebelled against his sultan.
Another famous folk tale is about Mahsuri, a princess from the island of Langkawai who was wrongly accused of adultery and was executed. Upon her death, Mahsuri spilled white blood and cursed the whole island for seven generations.
5 • RELIGION
Malays are devout Muslims (followers of Islam). Islam's influence on the Malays goes back to the late fifteenth century when a sultan was converted to Islam. Malaysia's constitution decrees that all Malays are born Muslim, but there is the freedom to practice other religions such as Buddism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Confucianism.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
There are three different New Year's celebrations and holidays: Muslim New Year, Christian (Roman) New Year, and the Chinese New Year. Besides New Year's holidays, the Malaysians celebrate Muslim holidays such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid al-Fitr) and Aidil Adha (Eid al-Adha) ; the Buddhist holiday, Wesak Day; the Hindu holiday, Deepavali;, and the Christian holiday, Christmas. All offices, both government and private, are closed on these days. Malaysians also celebrate Independence Day (August 31), on which day large-scale parades are held in cities throughout the country.
Hari Raya Aidilfitri is a celebration to mark the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting). It provides an opportunity for Muslims to ask for forgiveness for all wrongs done the previous year. This two-day celebration is a time for joy and happiness. It involves alot of eating and a variety of foods prepared for especially for the occasion.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
There are important rites of passage in traditional Malay society. After birth, a baby and a mother are in a confinement period (dalam pantang) of forty-four days. Two common ceremonies during the infant years are naik buaian, a ceremony to introduce the baby to his or her cradle, and potong jambul, an event when a child's head is shaven to "cleanse" her or him.
The circumcision ceremony for a boy is an elaborate event where relatives and villagers are invited to share the occasion. Circumcisions are performed on boys between the ages of seven and twelve. Traditionally, and still in the villages, the circumcision is performed with a knife on a banana tree trunk by a mudim, a person who specializes in performing circumcision ceremonies. Unlike the traditional method, circumcisions in cities are now performed by physicians in hospitals, and the ceremonies are not as elaborate as those of traditional circumcisions. The circumcision of a girl is a private ceremony and is performed on girls in infancy.
Marriage is perhaps the biggest event in a Malay person's life. Although close family friends still arrange marriages, the couple involved must give their full consent. Men are expected to be married by the age of twenty-five to twenty-eight, while women are usually a few years younger.
In the villages, a wedding is usually a two-day affair: the first day of celebration is held at the bride's home, and the following day, at the groom's house. Friends, relatives, and villagers normally help with the preparation. In the bersanding ceremony, which is open to the public, the bridal couple sit on a raised dais (pelamin). Parents and relative scatter scented leaves and flower petals (bunga rampai) onto the open palms of the bride and groom, signifying blessings. A similar feast and ceremony is repeated at the groom's house on the second day. The affluent in Malay society hold weddings in hotels or large community halls.
Death is a very somber and religious affair in a Malay community. The funeral occurs soon after death, since Islam requires the deceased to be buried as soon as possible. Before burial, the body is placed in the center of the living room to give everyone a chance to offer prayers and pay their last respects. The deceased is then wrapped in white cloth and carried to the graveyard to be buried. The normal mourning period is one hundred days, although special prayers are held only on the first three nights, on the seventh day, the fortieth day, and on the hundredth day.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
The traditional Malay greeting when meeting friends in public is, "Where are you going?" The answer is, "For a stroll" or "Nowhere of importance." However, many urban Malays greet each other with "How are you?"
Men and women do not usually shake hands with each other. A Malay woman can only shake hands with a man if she covers her hand with a cloth. A Malay man normally greets another man with a handshake without grasping the hands. He extends both hands to lightly touch the other man's outstretched hands, then brings his hands to his chest, meaning "I greet you from my heart." A Malay woman uses a similar form when greeting another woman.
Pointing with the right forefinger is considered rude, although pointing with the thumb of the right hand with the four fingers folded into the palm is considered polite. It is also considered polite to bend over slightly from the waist, extend the right hand in front of you, touch the right wrist with the fingers of the left hand, then say "May I please pass," when crossing in front of another person.
Upon arrival at a Malay home, shoes must be removed before entering for religious reasons. Shoes are considered "unclean" and may dirty the living room floor, making it unsuitable for prayers. (Muslims pray on a mat laid out on the floor). When visiting relatives or friends, it is appropriate to bring food or fruit as gifts.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Slightly more than 50 percent of Malaysia's population live in urban areas (cities and towns). Both in the urban and rural areas, the kampung (community group) is the center of Malay life. It is a tightly knit community united by ties of family, marriage, or neighborliness, where agreement, compromise, and traditional values reign supreme.
The Malays in the cities own many items such as cars, television sets, VCRs, and refrigerators. Public transportation, such as buses and trains, is reliable and inexpensive. They also have a clean water supply, sanitation services, and electricity in comparison to those who live in the villages. In the villages, some Malays still rely on kerosene for light, and on wells and rivers for water.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
The Malays regard marriage and raising a family as the most important aspects of life. A Malay husband plays as much of a role in rearing their children as does his wife. The average family size of Malays in the cities is smaller in than that of Malays in country areas. In the past, it was not unusual for a couple to have more than six children. Today, the average number of children is four.
In Malaysia, there is no welfare system. The extended family is expected to care for each other, particularly those who are poor, sick, and old. Children are expected to look after their parents.
Cats, fish, and sometimes singing birds are reared as pets by Malay families. Dogs are considered "unclean" by Muslims and are not kept as pets in Malaysia.
11 • CLOTHING
Traditional Malay dress for men and women is based on a simple rectangle of batik cloth. However, the style of wrapping is different for men and women. The women dress in a shirt with the batik cloth wrapped and worn as a skirt. The men wear the batik tied as a headcloth.
The women's customary dress covers the whole body, except for their face, hands, and feet. They usually dress in the baju kurung, a long-sleeved, loose blouse worn over an ankle-length skirt, and they cover their heads with a scarf as a sign of humility and modesty. A married woman may often wear a baju kebaya, a close-fitting lace blouse over an ankle-length skirt. Malay men wear baju Melayu, long-sleeved shirts over an ankle-length sarong or pants. A Malay man who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca usually wears a white skull-cap, and a woman who has made the pilgrimage wears a white scarf.
Some Malays in the cities dress in Western-style clothing. However, they do not wear shorts, miniskirts, or strapless or sleeveless tops.
12 • FOOD
Rice is the main food and is eaten at least once a day. Malays eat rice with fish or meat curry and vegetables cooked in various ways. Muslimsm are prohibited from eating any pork, or any other meat that has not been slaughtered by a Muslim.
Malays usually eat with their fingers, so hands are always washed before and after meals. For this, Malays use the kendi, a water vessel which is either put on the table or passed around from person to person. While meals are always eaten with the right fingers, the serving spoons provided for all the dishes can only be used with the left hand. The left hand is also used for passing dishes of food and for holding a glass.
One of the Malays' popular breakfasts is nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk and served with hot and spicy sambal (shrimp or anchovy paste), fish, eggs and vegetables.
13 • EDUCATION
Malaysia has a literacy (ability to read and write) rate of 92 percent. It is mandatory for all Malays to attend school until the age of fifteen.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Traditional Malay music is heard during special occasions. One of their most popular musical ensembles played during such occasions is the gamelan, an instrumental ensemble made up of drums, xylophones, metallophones, tuned gongs, and bamboo flutes.
Traditional Malay dances are performed on special occasions, accompanied by the gamelan. These dances are ensemble dances for men only, for women only, and for men and women together. This includes dances such as Kuda Kepang (a trance dance), joget (a courtship dance), ghazal (a dance based on Middle Eastern music that is performed by young women for the enjoyment of sultans and other members of the royal houses), and mak yong (a dance-drama performed by actors and actresses in imitation of heroic tales of sultans and princesses of olden times).
15 • EMPLOYMENT
Traditionally, the Malays in rural areas they are farmers, tending vegetable farms or small holdings of rubber or oil-palm trees. Others are fishers. Malays in cities are often civil servants, laborers, transport workers, or industrial workers. Some have risen to the national elite, holding high-level positions in the government and military.
16 • SPORTS
A popular Malay games is sepaktkraw, or kickball. It is played with a round ball made of rattan which must be kept in the air as it is kicked around or across a net (like volleyball played with the feet) by a group of players standing in a circle. A point is lost whenever the ball touches the ground.
The most popular spectator sport among Malaysians is soccer, known as football in Malaysia. There are soccer leagues even in the smallest towns. It is a common sight everywhere in Malaysia to see youngsters and adults flocking to the soccer fields to play or to watch a soccer game.
Badminton is a national passion in Malaysia, where top Malaysian players are usually among the contenders for world badminton championships. Other Western sports such as volleyball, field hockey, basketball, rugby, squash, and cricket are played in Malaysia.
17 • RECREATION
Kite-flying is popular among people in coastal villages. Kites are flown mainly as recreation, but sometimes competitions are organized to see who can fly their kites the highest. Spinning tops made of wood is a popular pastime.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
The Malays have many folk arts and crafts. An exotic folk art is the wayang kulit, a traditional shadow-puppet show. The puppets are made of water buffalo hide, stiffened by a piece of buffalo horn, and they have movable arms controlled by a dalang (the puppeteer) with thin poles. The puppets are seen only as shadows cast by a light upon a cloth screen. The dalang both recites the narrative of the play, and speaks the parts of each character. The show is usually accompanied by a small gamelan (musical ensemble).
Malays are renowned for their refined and delicate woodcarvings. These artistic carvings can be seen on their fishing boats, house panels, and walls. These decorative designs were created both for their elegant appearance and to equip the boats or houses with spiritual power. Traditional Malay houses also have rich decorations and carvings, primarily as decorative pieces on doors, windows, and wall panels.
The weaving of kain songket is another fine Malay craft. It is made from silk or cotton yarn and is woven using a wooden loom. The making of kain songket involves a long and complicated process, beginning with preparing the yarn and ending with the actual weaving.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Malaysia's government permits arrest and detention without trial for those considered dangerous to the country. Malaysia has received criticism from human-rights activists for its political actions. The government has arrested individuals who were alleged to threaten the country's racial and religious harmony.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
American University. Malaysia: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984.
Andaya, Leonard, and Barbara W. A History of Malaysia. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.
Major, John S. The Land and People of Malaysia and Brunei. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
Malaysia in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.
Wright, D. Malaysia. Chicago, Ill.: Children's Press, 1988.
Interknowledge Corp. Malaysia. [Online] Available www.interknowledge.com/malaysia/, 1998.
World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/my/gen.html, 1998.