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People and Society of Malaysia

Malaysia’s population represents almost all the main ethnic groups of Asia- Indians, Chinese, Malays, Negritos, etc. Sometimes it’s hard to believe you’re still in the same country, because people and their way of living differ dramatically from one place to another!

The indigenous peoples of Malaysia, known as the 'Orang Asli’ though a minority, are an anthropologically important segment. Other than the Orang Asli, the other main race is that of the Malays, who are mainly Muslims, and are spread out all over the country in rural and urban areas. They consist of a number of different tribes, mostly living in the jungles. Interestingly enough, the orangutan apes are also considered as a tribe by some of the jungle dwellers! The tribes vary a lot in their ethnic origins; the Negritos are generally believed to be the oldest group among them, and are also the only purely nomadic group.

Malaysia has a number of other races too. Of these, major groups include the Indians (mainly south Indians, who first came here 2000 years ago, and today constitute about 10% of the population), the Chinese (around 35% of the population, and very prominent in the business community), and the Eurasians, descendants of Portuguese-Malay ancestors. In addition, there are the Peranakans or the ‘Straits Chinese’, of mixed Chinese-Malay blood.

Malaysian society is, in many ways, a very traditional one. Whether Malays, Indians, or Chinese, nearly everybody follows certain rules of conduct, and as a foreigner, if you’re aware of these it helps you get by without offending anybody’s sensibilities.

Most Malaysians respect their elders tremendously; often the highest and best seats in a house will be reserved for the eldest, and it’s unthinkable to venture on anything without first consulting older people. Malaysia being largely Muslim, most women are expected to adhere to certain norms of 'modesty’ or 'decency’-veiled and dignified. Even as a traveller, if you’re a woman, you’ll be expected to be modestly clad - no short skirts or shorts, and if you’re visiting a place of worship, or rural areas, no sleeveless tops.

Besides this, there are two things you might like to remember: firstly, never point with your finger- it’s dreadfully ill mannered. Secondly, if you’re entering a home, do take off your shoes at the door; this is a common tradition. Always eat with your right hand- the left is considered unclean, and never cross your legs, especially when in the presence of elders. Also, never touch anyone’s head- particularly a Malay’s- without permission, as it’s thought to be very rude to do so. On the whole, all you have to do is be polite and you can’t go much wrong!

The national language in Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysia. English, Tamil, Chinese (in its different dialects- Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan and Foochow), Telugu, Malayalam and Punjabi are the other languages spoken by different ethnic groups. In addition, in East Malaysia several indigenous languages are spoken, the main ones being Iban and Kadazan. English is widely spoken by the business community. Mandarin and Tamil are taught concurrently with Bahasa Malaysia and English in schools.

People and Society of Malaysia