Retirement in Malaysia, Part 9: Culture & People

Gorgeous example of Malaysian culture: Hainan Temple in George Town, Penang [© Hajotthu (Own work), via WikiMedia Commons]
Gorgeous example of Malaysian culture: Hainan Temple in George Town, Penang [© Hajotthu (Own work), via WikiMedia Commons]
By Jim Veinot

If you ever wanted to not just watch, but be part of religious festivals across various faiths, Malaysia is THE country for you.And with 14 national public holidays, plus a few more on regional level, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to do so.

Malaysia is a nation which publicly allows all forms of religion; it also quietly exerts subtle Islamic influence on the direction of the nation.

Separation of church and state is the overt stance, but the reality is often different.

As an expat, retiree or otherwise, you need to be aware of the mores of acceptable behavior and stay within those guidelines to have a pleasant life in Malaysia. Dress conservatively, act respectfully and with modesty.

Retirement in Malaysia: People and History

The people of Malaysia are a mix of three main races: Malays (mostly Muslims), Chinese (mostly Buddhists) and Indians (mostly Hindus). Add in Eurasians and more than 50 indigenous groups from Sabah and Sarawak, and you’ll have that multi-racial society that contributes to Malaysia’s diverse culture and lifestyles.

Here’s a high-level historic overview to give you an idea of the variety of peoples and their cultures in Malaysia:

  • Indigenous tribes make up about 11% of the population. They are known as Orang Asal or “original people” and awarded special status, which seems to be in name only, as they are often treated as second class citizens.
  • People from the Malayu Kingdom of Southeast Asia settled in current day Malaysia, Borneo and Eastern Sumatra around the 7th century.
  • Migrants from China and India following the spice trade arrived around 1300 and this area became a major trading center. They brought with them Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and  Taoist religions.
  • The Arabs and the Persians took control of the spice trade and settled here. They brought Islam with them.
  • Europeans looking to trade for spice arrived from Portugal and Great Britain. They brought Christianity with them. The British dominated and took control of the area and Malay became a British protectorate.
  • Nationhood arrived just after the middle of the 20th century in three stages, with and without Singapore and Eastern Borneo.

Thus Malaysia became a miniature version of Asia with British overtones. As an aside, during the centuries of nationhood creation, a competitive and aggressive relationship with Indonesia developed and still exists.

Some of the issues include which nation has the right to a song or a dance and other serious matters.

Retirement  in Malaysia: Arts & Traditional Crafts

In this section I’m going to briefly touch on some aspects of artistic expression in Malaysia, in its many forms and origins. You could truly spend years to come to know all about art in this country.

The Arts of Malaysia are based on the traditions of carving, weaving, and silversmithing.

One form of carving that Malaysia is well-known for is the carving of wooden masks, then decorated with paint, sometimes fiercely! Wood is used extensively in Malaysia for construction of homes, but the carving remains an art, not an industry.

Weaving includes the crafting of batik material, often decorated with embroidery. A long shirt of this material, well decorated and worn with dress trousers and shoes would be acceptable at a formal wedding. (That’s what I wore, anyway!)

Silversmithing might include the production of such items as Krils (curvy knives in a sheath) and betel nut cutters. Originally the cutting allowed easy access to the contents of this psychoactive plant.

It wasn’t until the mid fifties that Sharia law relaxed enough to allow depiction of people and animals in art.

Earthenware is crafted extensively in Malaysia, and decorated in brilliant colors and patterns. The designs of the vessels were originally utilitarian, but have become an art form.

The Central Market, located next to KL’s Chinatown, is said to be a treasure trove for traditional Malay and Asian arts and crafts, such as described above.

Don’t forget to bargain – especially towards 10 pm, when the market closes, sellers might be willing to cut off as much as half of the original price.

The Central Market in Kuala Lumpur, a treasure trove for Malaysian arts and crafts [© Jordiferrer (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons]

Malaysian Architecture, Music and Literature

Architecture is a combination of many styles, all brought to Malaysia by the waves of invaders/settlers/immigrants (depending on perspective!) and include Indian, Chinese, Islamic and British.

Traditional homes in the North, made of wood, bamboo and leaves, with no nails, resemble those of Thailand. In the south such homes resemble those of Java.

Music in Malaysia is a reflection of the various components of the population, with influence from India, China, Thailand, Indonesia and the ever-present Islamic influence. Most music is created by percussion instruments and played at weddings and funerals.

There is a professional symphony in KL, as well as a performance hall. Rap and heavy metal is frowned upon for popular music, and visiting artists must submit tapes of their presentation to gain permission to visit and play.

Dance, combined with drama is very popular in Malaysia, with variations depending on the coast and then the location. These arts were used to compliment storytelling, a living history of the people.

Literature was primarily in the oral tradition of storytelling. There was heavy influence from India and China in these tales. The first written words were in Arabic script.

Poetry is revered and popular in Malaysia, with ancient and more current forms. Over the centuries the ruling class influenced the direction of literature and other art forms. Much work today is written in English.

During weekends, you can enjoy cultural performances, such as Bangsawan (traditional Malay theater), Nadagam (traditional Indian theater), Chinese opera or the famous Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet play) for free at the riverside amphitheater outside of Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market.

Retirement in Malaysia: Cuisine & Clothing

The Malaysian Cuisine reflects the multicultural makeup of Malaysia and you will find foods different in every province, based on spices used and origins of the recipes. Rice and noodles are found in all areas, and pork in none.

Clothing is often Western or Asian with the exception that many Malay women wear the tudung, a veil or headscarf similar to the hijab used in other Muslim countries. The usage of the tudung sharply rose after the 1970s, as religious conservatism among Malay people in both Malaysia and Singapore increased.

In fact, the tudung has produced an industry for their production, with various decorations and designs.

A fashion shop in the Sinsuran Complex, Sabah, displaying the latest Tudungs [© CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, via Wikimedia Commons]
A fashion shop in the Sinsuran Complex, Sabah, displaying the latest Tudungs [© CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, via Wikimedia Commons]

Retirement in Malaysia: Outdoor Activities

What about outdoor activities for your retirement in Malaysia? You could participate in kite-flying competitions, or learn to play ‘Sepak Takraw’, a popular sport in Malaysia, resembling volleyball, only that it uses a rattan ball and allows players to only use their head, chest, feet and knee to touch the ball.

Or you could become a spelunker and explore Malaysia’s many caves with their unique flora and fauna. The Gunung Mulu National Park caves in Sarawak are not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also feature the world’s largest single cave chamber.

Sports are a big part of Malaysian life and this country excels in sports such as Badminton and Squash. There is a great deal of football (soccer) and field hockey played there as well.

Western Style Entertainment

If there’s certain activities that bring you pleasure at home, you’ll find them here. Whether it’s a day at the beach, shopping in air-conditioned malls with 200 stores, going to the market to wander and bargain, off to a pub for a pint and a bite, elegant dining and fine wine, theater, cinema or concert, you’ll find it all in Kuala Lumpur.