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  • Fatin Fatihah & Arianna Iman

The Vibrant Tapestry of Malaysian Culture

In the spirit of celebrating Malaysia’s 66th Independence Day, let’s briefly explore the cultures and races of Malaysia!

The rich and diverse culture of Malaysia is a beautiful tapestry woven from a myriad of ethnic influences, primarily dominated by Malay, Chinese, Indian and Indigenous people traditions. This harmonious blend gives Malaysia its unique character, which has been shaped over centuries.


At the heart of Malaysia's ethnic makeup are the Malays, the country's largest ethnic group. Predominantly Muslim, the Malays practice Islamic customs intertwined with age-old Malay traditions. They primarily communicate in Bahasa Malaysia, an Austronesian language deeply rooted in the region. Their influence can be seen, felt, and experienced throughout the country, from the harmonious adhan (call to prayer) that echoes five times a day to the vibrant celebrations during Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

However, the Malaysian Chinese community significantly contributes to the nation's rich culture, making up roughly a quarter of the total population. With ancestral roots tracing back to various regions of China, they primarily speak Hokkien, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The Malaysian Chinese have had a profound impact on Malaysia's socio-economic landscape and have contributed immensely to its culinary, architectural, and cultural arenas. Chinese New Year, for instance, is a grand celebration across the country, marked by lion dances, fireworks, and festive foods like Yee Sang and Mandarin oranges.

Lion dance, chinese culture in Malaysia
Photograph by Paolo Camera, via Flickr

Similarly, the Malaysian Indian community, which constitutes about 10% of the population, brings with it the colorful tapestry of South Asian culture. This community predominantly speaks Tamil, Malayalam, and Punjabi, among other languages. Deepavali (or Diwali), the Festival of Lights, is a major event celebrated by the Indians, illuminating the country with its grandeur and signifying the triumph of light over darkness.

Indian traditional dance
Photograph by Abhijith Madhukar, via Flickr

It's essential not to overlook the indigenous groups that offer a glimpse into Malaysia's deep-rooted history. In Peninsular Malaysia, Orang Asli, or the native inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia, falls into 18 subgroups under the Negrito (Semang), Senoi, and Aboriginal-Malay categories. Each have distinct languages and cultural practices unique to their tribes.

In Sabah, the indigenous population consists of 39 distinct ethnic groups and is referred to as natives or Anak Negeri. They form around 58.6% of Sabah's population, which is approximately 3,813,200. Among the most prominent groups are :

Dusun: The Dusun are primarily rice farmers, and their culture is deeply associated with the rice planting and harvesting cycle. The Kaamatan festival is a major celebration for the Dusun, marking the end of the rice harvest.

Murut: Known as the "hill people", the Murut traditionally lived in communal longhouses. They have a warrior past and were among the last tribes to renounce headhunting. Their celebrations often include the 'Magunatip' bamboo dance.

Paitan: A lesser-known tribe of Sabah, the Paitan, have distinct traditions and rituals that revolve around agricultural activities, as well as river and sea fishing.

Bajau: Often referred to as the "Sea Gypsies", many Bajau are skilled fishermen and traditionally live in houses on stilts in the coastal areas.

Kadazan Dusun people
Kadazan Dusun people. Photograph by Cn0ra, via iStock

Similarly, in the state of Sarawak, the indigenous communities are referred to as the natives, which encompass both Dayak and Orang Ulu. Notable ethnicities in this group include the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Lunbawang, Punan, Bisayah, Kelabit, Berawan, Kejaman, Ukit, Sekapan, Melanau, and Penan.

Iban: The Iban are the largest indigenous group in Sarawak. Traditionally, they are known for their longhouses, communal living structures that can house multiple families. The Iban have a strong warrior tradition and are known for their headhunting past, a practice that has long been abandoned. The Gawai Dayak festival is an important event that celebrates the Iban's rice harvesting season with music, dance, and traditional rituals.

Bidayuh: Predominantly found in the southern part of Sarawak, the Bidayuh are known for their unique bamboo longhouses. Their traditional dances, such as the "ring dance", are performed during special occasions and ceremonies.

Melanau: Originally coastal dwellers, the Melanau built tall houses to protect against tidal waves. They celebrate the Kaul festival, a thanksgiving for the past year's harvest and a prayer ritual for the next planting season.

Penan: They are one of the last nomadic tribes in Malaysia. The Penan are skilled hunters and gatherers, primarily depending on the sago palm for sustenance. They have deep knowledge of the rainforest and practice blowpipe hunting.

Warrior from the indigenous Iban people performs a traditional dance
Photograph by Chen Wei Seng, via BigStock


Malaysia, a shimmering jewel in Southeast Asia, epitomizes the allure of multiculturalism. A land where ancient rainforests merge with bustling metropolises, it’s not just the varied landscapes that captivate but also its vast tapestry of cultures, languages, and traditions. The rich tapestry of Malaysia's history is woven from centuries of trade, migration, and the intricate dance of geopolitical shifts. From the indigenous tribes of Sabah and Sarawak to the vibrant mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian, each community has left an indelible mark on the nation's identity.

The harmonious coexistence of such diverse communities is a reflection of Malaysia's spirit. Each ethnic group, while holding onto its unique customs, languages, and rituals, has also embraced elements from others, leading to a delightful fusion that can be seen in its cuisine, art, music, and daily life.

PSA: The Malaysia Festival celebrates and honors the unique contributions of every ethnic group in the nation, highlighting the vibrant diversity they bring to Malaysia. Any unintended inaccuracies or oversights are unintentional.

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1 Comment

Wan Muhammad Haikal Bin Wan Adlin
Wan Muhammad Haikal Bin Wan Adlin
Sep 02, 2023

Great content

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