Malaysian Culture

Religion

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia and has the largest following among the population. The geographic position of Malaysia on the main historical shipping routes between Indian, Arab and European regions on the one side and China and Japan on the other has made Malaysia a meeting ground of cultures and religions for thousands of years. Because of this, nearly all the major world religions have a longstanding notable presence in Malaysia today. For instance, 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 also more publicly visible in Malaysia than it is in most English-speaking Western countries. There is a rich religious history visible in architecture, and it is not uncommon to find various places of worship all in close proximity to one another. Religious holidays, particularly 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

The religious pluralism of Malaysia means that religious identity is often an important aspect of an individual, especially due to the association between ethnic and religious identity. While an individual’s ethnicity does not always necessarily reflect their religious affiliation, such correlations tend to be emphasised – especially in regards to Malays and Islam. This link is solidified politically by Malaysian law, which defines “Malay” as someone who identifies as Muslim, speaks Malay and conforms to Malay customs.1,2 At times, the term ‘Muslim’ may 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 oriented towards the Muslim majority. Debates generally revolve around the government’s role in the religious life of citizens and whether the state should further promote Muslim beliefs through legal regulations, such as placing limits on gambling, pork-rearing and availability of alcohol. Though relations between religious communities tend to be harmonious, the state’s elevated status of Islam does occasionally surface tensions. One instance is the prohibited use of the word ‘Allah’ (‘God’) in non-Muslim publications.3 This has seen Christian and Sikh groups come under pressure to avoid the use of the word ‘Allah’ in their religious texts.

 

Islam also plays a notable role in Malaysia’s legal system. Malaysia has both civil courts and shari’a (known as syariah in Malaysia) courts, which cover different aspects of law. The syariah courts are only concerned with the activities of Malaysia’s Muslim community, and primarily focus on religious and family matters such as marriage, inheritance, divorce, apostasy, conversion, and child custody. The dual-court system presents challenges for Muslims wishing to convert, which is rarely granted. Meanwhile, non-Muslims who marry a Muslim are required to convert to Islam. The issue of conversion can surface tensions, but such tensions are more so directed towards the state rather than religious communities or individuals.

 

Islam in Malaysia

Islam was first introduced to the region of present-day Malaysia by Arab and Indian traders and merchants from the 10th century through to the 15th century. The spread and influence of Islam mainly occurred with the conversion (rather than conquest) of local chieftains and rulers, which was followed by other members of the population. Since the Malacca Sultanate (15th century), Islam as been the most widely followed religion. Today, nearly two-thirds of Malaysia’s population (61.3%) identify as Muslim. Most are Sunni and follow the Shafi’i school of thought and law.

 

The influence of Islam in Malaysian is evident in various aspects of society and culture. For instance, this is visible in the media (with daily reminders of prayer during television programs), the provision of prayer rooms in buildings, emphasis on halal in food preparation and consumption, as well as the application of Muslim norms and practices in medical, educational and financial institutions. Many Muslim festivities and events are also national holidays, such as the end of Ramadan, the end of hajj and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

 

Other material aspects of Islam in Malaysia have incorporated elements of local culture, which are evident in colourful dress attire, the ways in which religious festivities are celebrated, and the incorporation of Malay adat (customary law) at Malay weddings and other ceremonies. Popular style of dress for Muslim men (especially during Friday prayer) is a songkok (black velvet cap), a loose tunic and pants or a sarong (long cloth wrapped around the waist). Muslim women often wear a tudung, which is a popular style of headscarf worn in Malaysia. In some cases, the tudung is a standard part of the dress code for some government buildings and institutions.

 

Buddhism in Malaysia

Both Buddhism and Hinduism were introduced to Malaysia over two millennia ago by Indian traders. Buddhism also spread to the northern part of the Malay Peninsula from Thailand. For many centuries after, both religions heavily influenced Malaysian society, arts, culture and governance. Though Buddhism particularly flourished under the Srivijaya Empire (7th-13th century), the religion’s influence declined with the introduction of Islam. Immigrants from China and Sri Lanka during British colonial rule brought a resurgence of Buddhism back to Malaysia in the late 19th through to the 20th century. Today, Buddhism is the second most identified religion (19.8%).

 

The long and complex history of Buddhism in Malaysia has influenced the present-day Buddhist community to be quite diverse. For example, both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist traditions have strong followings. Generally, most followers of Mahayana Buddhism are Malaysian Chinese, while most followers of Theravada Buddhism are Malaysian Indian or of Thai or Sri Lankan ancestry.4 Each temple, monastery or association is autonomous, meaning that there is a plurality of practice and organisational structure across the Buddhist communities. Buddhists from the Malaysian Chinese community may also incorporate elements of Taoism or Confucianism in their beliefs and practices. For instance, it is not uncommon to find Taoist deities represented in Mahayana Buddhist temples and vice versa. Nevertheless, Buddhists from different traditions come together to celebrate important Buddhist events and festivals, such as Vesak.

 

Christianity in Malaysia

Christianity was first introduced to the Malay archipelago by Arab, Persian and Turkish Christian traders from the 7th century. Catholicism was introduced by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, while Dutch colonists introduced Protestantism in the 17th century. Protestant missions from various denominations flourished during British colonial rule from the 19th century. The 20th century saw the introduction of non-denominational and evangelical churches.

 

This history is reflected in the diverse variety of denominations, church architecture and worship styles in Malaysia. . For example, churches range from large ornate cathedrals, to simple wooden structures in rural areas. Alongside larger denominations such as Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist, there are also a range of small and independent churches. Christian communities in Malaysia have also established numerous social services such as schools, hospitals and clinics, as well as welfare homes for various marginalised members of society such as drug addicts, unwed mothers or orphans. It is estimated 9.2% of the Malaysian population identify as Christian, most of whom identify as ethnically non-Malay Bumiputera, Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indian.

 

Hinduism in Malaysia

Like Buddhism, Hinduism was brought to Malaysia more than two millennia ago by early Indian traders. Although Hinduism was particularly influential throughout Malaysia, this influence dwindled with the introduction of Islam. Malaysia’s current Hindu population (6.3%) are mainly descendants of migrants from the Tamil Nadu region in India, who came to work on rubber plantations under the British in late 19th to mid 20th century. A much smaller number migrated from northern India. Thus, much of Malaysia’s Hindu population also identify as ethnically Malaysian Indian.

 

The history and diverse origins of Hindu migrant workers has led the practice of the religion in Malaysia to be influenced by various local images, deities and customs. This is reflected in the different temple designs and specific deities worshipped. While many of Malaysia’s Hindu population follow the Shaivite tradition, worship of other deities and their incarnations can also be found. There are also many festivals celebrated throughout the country dedicated to the many Hindu narratives and deities such as Thaipusam, Navaratri and Diwali.

 

Sikhism in Malaysia

Sikhism was introduced to Malaysia by Indians who were brought to work in the police and armed forces during British colonisation in the late 19th to early 20th century. Though Sikhs are represented in various professions, this legacy of valour continues today with many Sikhs who work as soldiers or police officers.

 

Originating in India, Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that promotes devotion to a formless God. The religion is centred tenets such as service, humility and equality, as well as valour and gallantry. One of the most recognised symbols of the Sikh community is a Sikh turban (known as a ‘dastar’ or a ‘dumalla’) worn by many men and some women. The first gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship) in Malaysia was established in Penang, 1881 by Sikhs in the police force.5 Today, there are over 100 gurdwaras that can be found in large urban areas and smaller regional towns. The local gurdwara acts as a hub for community and social activities, as well as a place to share in a free communal meal from the gurdwara’s langar (communal kitchen).

 

Traditional Chinese Worldviews

Various traditional worldviews that originated in China were brought to Malaysia by Chinese traders over centuries. However, there was a great influx of Chinese workers brought to 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 those who passed away.

 

In present-day Malaysia, 1.3% of the population identifies with a traditional Chinese religion. However, people tend not to identify exclusively with a single traditional Chinese religion, largely due to the syncretism of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. For instance, Taoist deities can be found in Buddhist temples and vice versa. Thus, the number of those who practice traditional Chinese worldviews may be higher. Many of those who identify with traditional Chinese religions tend to be ethnically Malaysian Chinese.

 

One of the main traditional Chinese worldviews followed in Malaysia is Confucianism. The foundations of Confucianism are derived from the teachings of Confucius, who emphasised the importance of healthy relationships. Confucianism promotes the idea that relationships between people are inherently unequal and that everyone has defined hierarchical roles within relationships (for example, ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son). When this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it is easier to maintain harmonious, stable relations between individuals and, therefore, in society as a whole. These core values are reflected in respect and a sense of duty towards others, as well as maintaining loyalty and honour for oneself and their family. Common practices include ancestor veneration, as well as respecting their elders (filial piety).

 

Another common traditional Chinese worldview is Taoism, also referred to as ‘Daoism'. It is rooted in the philosophical teachings of Laozi, a philosopher from China in the 6th century BCE. One of the major underlying ideas in Taoism is that everything that exists is deeply interconnected. The main emphasis is placed on the connection with nature and self-development. Taoist beliefs relate to seeking harmony, while practices include the meditative bodily practice of Tai Chi and the cultivation of ‘virtues’. Many Taoist communities in Malaysia retain their ties with their respective sects in China and Taiwan. For example, many of the Taoist deities celebrated in Malaysia are local deities from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces of China.

 

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 among a number of indigenous groups in Sabah and Sarawak. Among these communities, their traditional or customary religions are often referred to as ‘agama adat’.6 The various local and indigenous worldviews in Malaysia typically do not have a formal institutional structure to administer activities, rituals and teachings. Rather, core beliefs, values and ritual practices are passed down the generations through complex oral traditions.

 

The forms and structures of local and indigenous religious traditions vary in respect to the diversity of indigenous groups in Malaysia. However, generally there is a common concept of a supreme being or god, as well as a pantheon of other deities. The environment and landscapes also feature prominently in Malaysian local and indigenous worldviews. For example, individual groups and tribes often share a close relationship with nature and may consider environmental features of the landscape to be sacred (e.g. mountains, trees, valleys and rivers).

 

_____________________

1 Vickers, 2003
2 Constitution of Malaysia. Article 160, Section 2
3 BBC, 2013
4 Hassan & Bin Basri (eds), 2007
5 Hassan & Bin Basri (eds), 2007
6 Hassan & Bin Basri (eds), 2007
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