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People & Culture
  • People & Culture
  • Malay
  • Chinese
  • Indian
  • Other Ethnic Groups
Having had an interesting past and being a part of the international spice route many hundreds of years ago, Malaysia has turned into a mosaic of cultures. Everything from its people to its architecture reflect a colourful heritage and an amalgamated culture. To understand Malaysian culture, you must first get to know its people.

Malays, Chinese, Indians and many other ethnic groups have lived together in Malaysia for generations. All these cultures have influenced each other, creating a truly Malaysian culture.

The largest ethnic groups in Malaysia are the Malays, Chinese and Indians. In Sabah and Sarawak, there are a myriad of indigenous ethnic groups with their own unique culture and heritage.

Today, the Malays, Malaysia's largest ethnic group, make up more than 50% of the population. In Malaysia, the term Malay refers to a person who practices Islam and Malay traditions, speaks the Malaysian language and whose ancestors are Malays.

With the oldest indigenous people they form a group called bumiputra, which translates as "sons" or "princes of the soil." Their conversion to Islam from Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism began in the 1400s, largely influenced by the decision of the royal court of Melaka. Traditional Malay culture centers around the kampung, or village, though today one is just as likely to find Malays in the cities.

The Malays are known for their gentle mannerisms and rich arts heritage.

The second largest ethnic group, the Malaysian Chinese form about 25% of the population. The Chinese traded with Malaysia for centuries, then settled in number during the 19th century when word of riches in the Nanyang, or "South Seas," spread across China. The Chinese are known for their diligence and keen business sense. When they first arrived, however, Chinese often worked the most grueling jobs like tin mining and railway construction. Most of the Chinese are Tao Buddhist and retain strong ties to their ancestral homeland.

The three sub-groups who speak a different dialect of the Chinese language are the Hokkien who live predominantly on the northern island of Penang; the Cantonese who live predominantly in the capital city Kuala Lumpur; and the Mandarin-speaking group who live predominantly in the southern state of Johor.

The smallest of three main ethnic groups, the Malaysian Indians form about 10% of the population. Most are descendants of Tamil-speaking South Indian immigrants who came to the country during the British colonial rule. Lured by the prospect of breaking out of the Indian caste system, they came to Malaysia to build a better life. Arriving in Malaysia, many worked as rubber tappers, while others built the infrastructure or worked as administrators and small businessmen.

Predominantly Hindus, they brought with them their colourful culture such as ornate temples, spicy cuisine and exquisite Sarees.

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