Multicultural Malaysia

Cockles, fish cake and noodle soup – Tapah, Malaysia

About a month ago my brother and I went to Malaysia for a holiday. I didn’t know much about Malaysia before we went, so wasn’t sure what to expect.

One of the things I found fascinating about Malaysia is the incredible mixing pot of cultures you find there. Trusty Wikipedia describes Malaysia as:

“a multiethnic country, with Malays making up the majority, close to 52% of the population. About 24.6% of the population are Malaysians of Chinese descent. Malaysians of Indian descent comprise about 7% of the population. The remaining 10% comprises:

  • Native East Malaysians, namely Bajau, Bidayuh, Dusun, Iban, Kadazan, Melanau, Orang Ulu, Sarawakian Malays, etc.
  • Other native tribes of Peninsular Malaysia, such as the Orang Asli and Siamese people, and
  • Non-native tribes of Peninsular Malaysia such as the Chettiars, the Peranakan and the Portuguese.”

I think a lot of countries (like Australia) like to throw around the term ‘multiculturalism’. (Yet, Wiki suggests that approximately 90% of Australians identify as having Anglo-Australian descent.) And we certainly like to pat ourselves on the back for being such a fantastically ‘multicultural society’. But I think we could learn a thing or two about multiculturalism from Malaysia.

To me, there is a big difference in being tolerant (teetering on the edge of intolerance) and accepting (you know the sort, where difference really doesn’t make a difference). Well I think Malaysia is the latter. It celebrates times of cultural significance (of its majority groups) with equal fervour. Its various places of worship can often be found next to each other, or across the street. Road signs are written in numerous different languages. People are curious and knowledgeable about religions and cultures that aren’t their own.

Nowhere is this amazing cultural fusion more evident than in the food. We sampled loads of food from street stalls and restaurants. Most was a fascinating mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, European or any combination of these. To see some of my pictures of Malaysian street food, click here.

17 responses to “Multicultural Malaysia

  1. Nice blog. Not sure I fully agree with you re Malaysia’s idyllic multiculturalism. They have a fair few racial problems between the majority Malays and the more economically prosperous Chinese. photos are lovely though. Made my mouth start watering!

    • Hi Stuart,

      Thanks for your comment! Man, that’s a heart-breaker. Obviously I’ve only been there as a tourist, so haven’t scratched the surface about the Malay/Chinese Malay problems. What are some of the racial problems you mean? (I suppose I could resort to trusty Wiki again, but it’s be good to get the perspective of someone whose spent a good deal of time there).

      How do you reckon it compares with Australia’s multiculturalism?
      P.s. congrats on the mountain bike today!

      • Since I seem to be buying into this discussion, how about the text below (from Wikipedia). Or look up “Malaysian New Economic Policy”. Essentially in Malaysia the Chinese have a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth and educated middle and upper class, but face laws that seek to limit this disparity by limiting business ownership (must be in partnership with a Malay) and political representation. The troubles that Anwar Ibrahim has faced over the past decade are related to this issue: he was in favour of strengthening these laws to further disadvantage the Chinese, but lost the power struggle in his own party and was accused of some trumped-up charges to try and get rid of him (didn’t really work).

        “Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia grants the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King of Malaysia) responsibility for “safeguard[ing] the special position of the ‘Malays’and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities” and goes on to specify ways to do this, such as establishing quotas for entry into the civil service, public scholarships and public education.

        “Partly in line with the constitution, Malaysia has devised a long-standing policy of providing affirmative action to Bumiputeras (ethnic Malays and indigenous people of East Malaysia) which spans over four decades. Affirmative action is provided in the form of the Malaysian New Economic Policy or what is now known as the National Development Policy [97] Under such affirmative action, various concessions are made to Bumiputeras. Amongst many other concessions, 70% of seats in public universities are to be allocated to Bumiputeras, all initial public offerings (IPOs) must set aside a 30% share for Bumiputera investors and monetary support were provided to Bumiputeras for entrepreneurial development.”

      • Hey Stuart,
        Wow. That’s an awesome post. Well not in content, but in size. The content makes me rather sad! As we chatted about at work today – I reckon I’ll do some research into the beginnings of the ‘Malaysian New Economic Policy’ (maybe when I have a day off next week). It just seems so blatantly discriminatory, that I’m curious about how the government justified it.
        Anyway, given any more thought to what the idyllic multicultural society looks like yet?

  2. Interesting post Kat, thanks for sharing. What is the drink in the picture at the top? I reckon food (& sharing of traditional foods) is a great way to bring cultures together. At least, I know that food is the way to my heart <3. Hehehe 😀

    • Hey Dave,
      No worries :). The drink is iced tea. It might have had lemon in it too. Yum. If only we could be drinking it right now! (pity Hobart is super cold today).
      I think most people underestimate the power of food to cross cultural boundaries. Remember that refugee day we went to in Brisbane where the line for food was the busiest place?! It’s such a great conversation starter.

  3. Interesting thoughts, Kathleen. I think we in Australia have a lot to learn about what real multiculturalism means. We could probably learn a lot from the people of Malaysia.

    • Hi Sheryl,

      Thanks for your comment. I certainly agree that we have a lot to learn.

      Sometimes I wonder what true multiculturalism would look like. Would it mean celebrating difference and everyone participating in each other’s cultural celebrations? Or would people just go about their own lives and treat difference as if it truly doesn’t make a difference?

      What do you think?

  4. Maybe a combination of both – that’s the sort of multicultural experience I’d love to see in this country. And a celebration that we’re all creatures of planet Earth.

  5. Hello there 😃

    Was thinking of furthering my studies in anthropology. What’s it really like to be one?

    I’m an amateur and serial culture freak. So I guess I wanna try something new.

    • Hi Ken,
      I’m all for furthering studies! Have you done your Bachelors or Undergraduate Degree in KL? If not, that would be a great place to start. If you have, there are all sorts of Masters programs you could investigate.
      I just checked out your blog; it’s awesome! It sounds like your interest lies in digital media and visual anthropology and there are specific courses tailored for this.
      I couldn’t really tell you what your experience as an anthropologist would be in KL. In Australia, it can be awesome and then there can be not much work, it can depend on where you live and what the broader employment situation is like etc, like any job. My work has been disrupted in the past few years, because I’ve been moving around quite a bit. But if you have the skill set, and can figure out ways to apply it to various jobs, then you shouldn’t have a problem getting all kinds of fun jobs. 🙂

      • Hey there. thanks! Love your blog too😃.

        I only completed a diploma in culinary arts. Been working as a chef for a few years but the anthro thing bit me a few years back. Interested to do anthro research in Borneo actually since that’s where I’m from, specifically ethnography. We don’t have many of them since it doesn’t pay well or awareness about it being a career choice(never knew much about it till I started digging around).

        Btw, what exactly is visual anthropology?

        Thx for the advice!

      • Hey Ken,

        Culinary arts sounds awesome. Did you know there is a discipline within anthropology dedicated to studying the anthropology of food? There are actually people whose job it is to travel around and study food and culture. If you’re interested, I just typed food and anthropology in Google and it came up with a whole list of universities offering foodie programs – here are two: and Amazing right?

        I just got this from Wiki about Visual Anthropology. It is a “subfield of social anthropology that is concerned, in part, with the study and production of ethnographic photography, film and, since the mid-1990s, new media. While the term is sometimes used interchangeably with ethnographic film, visual anthropology also encompasses the anthropological study of visual representation, including areas such as performance, museums, art, and the production and reception of mass media. Visual representations from all cultures, such as sandpaintings, tattoos, sculptures and reliefs, cave paintings, scrimshaw, jewelry, hieroglyphics, paintings and photographs are included in the focus of visual anthropology”.

        So basically – it’s a pretty broad subfield within anthro, but if you are into photography (like me), blogging or (as you said on your blog) getting information about different cultures spread around the world by using the internet – it might be for you.

        I think the very best thing about further study, is that it shows you the possibilities for your future. I wouldn’t have known about studying ‘the anthropology of food’ or ‘visual anthropology’ unless my lecturers mentioned it.

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