The cultural diversity of Malaysia has been a long time in the making. It can trace its origins back to the first century AD, when the Malay archipelago became an important link in the developing trading network between Africa and China. The resulting influx of people began a process that has resulted in a colorful, multicultural society which has experienced hundreds of years of hybridization and heterogeneity.Here are some of the groups that make up the people of Malaysia.
Peninsular Malaysia’s indigenous people are referred to as ‘orang asli’, which in Malay means original people. They make up less than 0.4% of the population and tend to live on the margins of society. There are 18 groups, classified into three main groups – Negrito (oldest people in Malaysia), Senoi (Mongoloids who settled around 2000 BC) and Aboriginal Malay (who arrived around 3,000 years ago).
The Melayu people arrived in the Malay archipelago some 3,000-5,000 years ago from Southern China and Taiwan. In Malaysia, Malay culture and language show strong Javanese, Sumatran, Siamese and especially Indian influence. Linguistically, Malay is Austronesian, but some vocabulary has been absorbed from a slew of other languages including Arabic, Sanskrit, Tamil, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and English. Traditionally, agrarian, the Malay, who make up more than half of Malaysia’s population have been turning towards industrialization and urban living.
Sabah and Sarawak
Commonly referred to as natives of East Malaysia, the people living in the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak are indigenous. Of the 39 groups of indigenous Sabahans, the largest is Kadazandusun, who live in northwestern and central Sabah, mainly in urban areas. The Murut, the ‘hill people’ of northeastern Sabah were purportedly the last group to give up head-hunting. Most of the coastal dwellers are made up from the Bajau and Malayic families, traditionally skillful fishermen and boatmen. Sarawak is home to 29 ethnic groups, the largest of which is the Iban, who migrated from Kalimantan, and so are related to the Bornean Dayaks. The Bidayuh, Melanau, Lun Bawang, Kelabit and the Penan are some other indigenous groups of Sarawak.
Indian traders arrived in northern Kedah in the first century AD, leaving a lasting influence on Malay culture and language. But, today’s Malaysian Indians are descendants of workers imported by South Asia by the British. The majority are Tamil, with small numbers of Sikhs and Sri Lankans. Today, Indians make up Malaysia’ largest number of professionals per capita, notably doctors and lawyers. Many also run their own businesses.
The Chinese community makes up around 24 percent of the country’s population, living mainly in urban areas. Like the Indians, Malaysian Chinese are descendants of workers imported by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries. They make up the majority of the middle and upper income classes. Comprising three main dialect groups, Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka, the Chinese are mainly Taoist/Buddhists or Christian.
Eurasians and other communities
There are small communities of Malaysians of mixed Asian and European ancestry, mainly Portuguese, Dutch and English. Eurasian communities were established in Melaka during the Portuguese colonial period in the 16th-17th centuries. There are many other small communities who make up Malaysia’s labor class, like an Indonesian room cleaner, a German hotel general manager and a Nepali Gurkha security guard.
Note: Photos in this post have been used with written consent from Beehive Communications on behalf of Tourism Malaysia.