Culture of Malaysia


The original culture of the Malaysia came from the tribes that lived there long ago as well as Indigenous tribes along with the Malays who later moved there. Much influence comes from Chinese and Indian culture, dating back to when foreign trade began in the area. Other cultures that heavily influenced the culture of Malaysia include Persian, Arabic, and British culture. Due to the political structure of the government, coupled with the social contract theory, there has not been a mixing of cultures of ethnic minorities.

In 1971, the government created a “National Cultural Policy”. This policy defined Malaysian culture, stating that it must be based on the culture of the indigenous peoples of Malaysia; it may have a few nice things from other cultures but states that Islam is an essential part of the Malaysian culture. It also promoted the Malay language above others.

Holidays and festivals

Just like every culture, Malaysians have a number of holidays and festivities throughout the year. Some are public holidays around the country and some are observed by individual states.

Politically oriented holidays are popular; the most observed national holiday is Hari Merdeka (Independence Day) on 31 August, commemorating the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957. Malaysia Day on 16 September commemorates federation in 1963.Other large national holidays are Labour Day (1 May), and the King’s birthday (first week of June).  

Hari Merdeka -Independance Day

The main holiday of each major religious group have been declared a public holiday.

Muslim holidays are prominent as Islam is the state religion; Hari Raya Puasa (also called Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Malay for Eid al-Fitr), Hari Raya Haji (also called Hari Raya Aidiladha, the translation of Eid ul-Adha), Maulidur Rasul (birthday of the Prophet), and others being observed.

 Malaysian Chinese celebrate festivals such as Chinese New Year and others relating to traditional Chinese beliefs.

Hindus in Malaysia celebrate Deepavali the festival of lights, while Thaipusam is a religious rite which sees pilgrims from all over the country converge at the Batu Caves. Malaysia’s Christian community celebrates most of the holidays observed by Christians elsewhere, most notably Christmas and Easter. East Malaysians also celebrate a harvest festival known as Gawai. Despite most of the festivals being identified with a particular ethnic or religious group, all these celebrations are taken part by all Malaysians in a custom known as “open house”.

Social greetings will depend upon the ethnicity of the person you are meeting. In general, most Malays are aware of Western ways so the handshake is normal, but there are a few things that it is beneficial to be aware of.

• Malay women may not shake hands with men. Women can of course shake hands with women. Men may also not shake hands with women and may bow instead while placing their hand on their heart.
• The Chinese handshake is light and may be rather prolonged. Men and women may shake hands, although the woman must extend her hand first. Many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect.

• Indians shake hands with members of the same sex. When being introduced to someone of the opposite sex, nodding the head and smiling is usually sufficient.

Among all cultures, there is a general tendency to introduce the most important person to the lower ranking person, the older person to the younger person and the women to men.

Gift giving to Malaysians:

• If invited to someone’s home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good quality chocolates.
• Never give alcohol.
• Do not give toy dogs or pigs to children.
• Do not give anything made of pigskin.
• Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning.
• Avoid yellow wrapping paper, as it is the color of royalty.
• If you give food, it must be “halal” (meaning permissible for Muslims).
• Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large.
• Gifts are generally not opened when received.

Gift giving to Chinese:

• If invited to someone’s home, bring a small gift of fruit, sweets, or cakes, saying that it is for the children.
• A gift is traditionally refused before it is accepted to demonstrate that the recipient is not greedy.
• Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate a desire to sever the relationship.
• Flowers do not make good gifts as they are given to the sick and are used at funerals.
• Do not wrap gifts in mourning colours – white, blue, or black.
• Wrap the gifts in happy colours – red, pink, or yellow.
• Elaborate gift – wrapping is imperative.
• Never wrap a gift for a baby or decorate the gift in any way with a stork, as birds are the harbinger of death.
• It is best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky.
• Gifts are generally not opened when received.

Gift giving to Indians:

• If you give flowers, avoid frangipani as they are used in funeral wreaths.
• Money should be given in odd numbers.
• Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large.
• Do not wrap gifts in white or black.
• Wrap gifts in red, yellow or green paper or other bright colors as these bring good fortune.
• Do not give leather products to a Hindu.
• Do not give alcohol unless you are certain the recipient drinks.
• Gifts are generally not opened when received.

Harmonious relations are important to Malaysians so they use a lot of facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Such a communication style tends to be subtle, indirect and Malays may hint at a point rather than making a direct statement, since that might cause the other person to lose face. Rather than say “no”, they might say, “I will try”, or “I’ll see what I can do”, so the person making the request and the person turning it down can save face and maintain harmony in their relationship.

Pausing before responding to a question indicates that they have given the question appropriate thought and considered their response carefully. Many Malaysians do not understand the Western need to respond to a question hastily and can consider such behavior thoughtless and rude.


Many cultures from within the country and from surrounding regions have greatly influenced the cuisine. Much of the influence comes from the Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Javanese, and Sumatran cultures, largely due to the country being part of the ancient spice route. The cuisine is very similar to that of Singapore and Brunei, and also compares to Filipino dishes.

Sometimes food not found in its original culture is melded into another; for example, Chinese restaurants in Malaysia often serve Malay dishes. Food from one culture is sometimes also cooked using styles taken from another culture.  


Traditional Malaysian art.

Malaysia has attempted to preserve its traditional art forms despite the influence of the outside world. Mak yong is a traditional form of Malay drama in which the performers sing, dance, and act out heroic tales about sultans and princesses. It’s followed by an orchestra called a ‘ Gamelan’ with every performances consisting mainly of metal percussion instruments including gongs, xylophones, and drums.

Wayang kulit is a traditional theater art-form using puppets and shadow-play to tell the epic tales of the Ramayana.

 Bunga Malai or Garland Making is an integral part of the cultural heritage of Malaysian Indians for religious occasions like weddings, moving house, or welcoming an important guest. Silat – the stylized Malay Art of Self defense combines a sequence of supple movements, which enables a person to defend himself under provocation.


The use of Blow Pipe or Sumpit , used by the tribal people with their magnificent hunting skills, is an integral part of martial art. Crafts such as batik, weaving and silver and brass work are also quite popular.


Traditional art ranges from hand-woven baskets from rural areas to the silverwork of the Malay courts. Common artworks included ornamental kris, which is a wavy ceremonial knife or blade that is usually highly decorated.  beetle nut sets, and woven batik fabrics. Indigenous East Malaysians are known for their wooden masks. Each ethnic group have distinct performing arts, with little overlap between them. However, Malay art does show some North Indian influence due to the historical influence of India

Malaysia has a strong oral tradition that has existed since before the arrival of writing, and continues today. Each of the Malay Sultanates created their own literary tradition, influenced by pre-existing oral stories and by the stories that came with Islam. The first Malay literature was in the Arabic script. The earliest known Malay writing is on the Terengganu stone, made in 1303.

The Terrenganu stone

Chinese and Indian literature became common as the numbers of speakers increased in Malaysia, and locally produced works based in languages from those areas began to be produced in the 19th century. English has also become a common literary language.