Article by Syafiq Khalid (Malaysia)
Blog Correspondent of ASEAN-Korea Centre
One of Malaysia’s unique aspects when placed in comparisons with other countries is its ethnic diversity; unlike most countries with monotonous demographics, Malaysia’s on the other hand consists of 3 primary race; Malay (50.4%), Chinese (23.7%) and Indians (7.0%) with Indigenous Natives forming 11% and Others complementing 7.8% of the population. The degree of racial, ethnic and religious diversity in Malaysia has had a long history, which can be attributed to the formation of City-State Malacca during the start of civilization on Peninsular Malaysia by the Indonesian Traveller, Parameswara. Further to this, the additional number of foreign workers received from the British and Japanese rule added to the diversification of races inhabiting Malaysia.
To begin with, the Malays, as well as the Indigenous Natives (which primarily lives in the state of Sabah & Sarawak) were actually the original inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia and the states of Sabah and Sarawak. During the rise of Malaya in terms of Spice Trading, Tin Mining and Rubber, a large number of workforces were required to run the plantation and mines in which Foreign Owners as well as Local Malaysians owned at the time. In view of this, a large influx of foreign labor was requested by the then ruling British Empire, which primarily came from countries such as India and China to work in local plantations and mines. This was in fact the first turning point in Malaysia in becoming a multi-cultural and diverse country.
The large influx of foreign workers was first received welcomingly by the local Malays however as things progressed over time, differences in terms of language, cultural misunderstandings and the discrepancies in incomes earned by each of the races resulted in a racial riot; in what is called as “The May 13 Incident / Black May” today. Although there were numerous claims that the riots were actually incited by the government to trigger a political unification / revolution, up to today, there has yet to be any solid proof on this matter. The outcome of the riot resulted in a the second major turning point in ethnic reforms in Malaysia; the teaching of Bahasa Malaysia in Schools, as well as the creation of Bumiputra Action Affirmative Policies in the New Economic Model.
In view of protecting racial harmony, one of the things in which the policies in which the government has implemented is the creation of specialized schools. In Malaysia, there are several types of school at both the Elementary and High School level; they are either National Schools (Taught in Bahasa Malaysia), Tamil National Schools (Taught in Tamil), Chinese National Schools (Taught in Mandarin), Islamic and Christian Oriented National Schools (Where additional subjects specializing in Islam and Christianity are taught). The specialization of schools was done to allow each race and religious citizens to freely choose their secular, in accordance to how they wish to bring raise their children.
In terms of Language, there is also a wide variety of language being spoken in Malaysia. The standard language in Television and Government Correspondences will be in Bahasa Malaysia. However, for Malays in general, there exists a different dialect, particularly in the Eastern Coast (Kelantan Dialect), with Sabah and Sarawak having their own dialects which completely differs from the one being spoken in Peninsular Malaysia. In Peninsular Malaysia, mostly being spoken in Kuala Lumpur area is the “Spoken Malay” which on the other hand, is completely different from the Standard Bahasa Malaysia.
As for the Chinese, the Cantonese dialect is spoken mainly in Peninsular Malaysia, whereas in the State of Sarawak, other sub-dialects such as Hokkien, Hakka and Foochow is widely used. As for Indians in Malaysia, most of them speak in Hindu, with a small majority of Tamil. There is a large number of Indigenous People living in the State of Sarawak and Sabah such as Iban, Dayak, Kadazan, Dusut and Bidayuh, with each of them having their own dialects. Despite the large degree of cultural diversity in Malaysia, in general, almost every Malaysian can speak a minimum of two languages; Bahasa Malaysia and English. If you take into an account, that it’s a Malaysian Chinese or Malaysian Indian, the person could speak a minimum of at least three, and some people can even speak more than four! This does not include the further sub-dialects of each the races!
The majority of Malaysians (61.3%) are Muslims (most of the Malays are muslims) whereas the Chinese and Indians practice either Buddhism (19.8%), Chistianity (9.2%), Hinduism (6.3%) with a small population of Atheist. People are allowed to practice their religions freely and each of the citizens as long as it does not obstruct or disturb others. In fact, part of the Malaysia’s National Pillar is “Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan” which translated means “Belief in God” and practicing one’s religion is encouraged as part of the nation’s ideology. The largest mosque in Malaysia is located in Shah Alam, whereas for largest Church will be in Klang, largest Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur and the largest Indian temple is in the state of Perak.
The ethnical diversity in Malaysia has resulted in a wide variety of culture, food, ideologies and languages, which makes Malaysia unique; to a point where Malaysia’s tourism created the slogan “Malaysia : Truly Asia” which represents Malaysia having cultures from all over Asia. Despite initial differences, government policies as well as the will of the people has created a racially harmonious society free from racial riots since 1963. It is expected that as Malaysia moves forward in term of development, the ties and bonds between each race becomes closer and closer, creating a very unique and open atmosphere for any foreigners to come into Malaysia.