Malaysian traditions and customs

What traditions and customs are there in Malaysia?

We break down the customs and traditions of Malaysia.


Food in daily life

Malaysia’s diversity has blessed the country with some of the most exquisite cuisine in the world, and elements of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine are distinct and blend with each other. Rice and noodles are common to the entire kitchen; spicy dishes are also favorites.

Tropical fruits grow in abundance, and a local favorite is the durian, known for its spiky skin and fermented flesh, whose pungent aroma and flavor often separate locals from foreigners.

Malaysia’s wealth means that more and more meat and processed foods are supplementing the country’s diet, and the press is very concerned about the health risks of its high fat content.

This increase in wealth also allows Malaysians to eat out more often; small street stalls offer prepared food twenty-four hours a day in urban areas.

Malaysia’s ethnic diversity is evident in food prohibitions: Muslims are prohibited from eating pork, which is a favorite of the Chinese population; Hindus don’t eat beef; some Buddhists are vegetarians. Alcohol consumption also separates non-Muslims from Muslims.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

When Malays have guests, they tend to be very picky about hospitality, and an offering of food is a critical etiquette requirement. Tea or coffee is usually prepared along with small snacks for visitors.

These refreshments sit in front of the guest until instructed by the host to eat them. As a sign of acceptance of the hospitality of the host, the guest must, at a minimum, take a sip of the drink and taste the food offered.

These dynamics occur on a larger scale during an open house at the holidays. At celebrations marking important ethnic and religious holidays, many Malaysian families welcome friends and neighbors to visit and eat holiday delicacies. Visits by people from other ethnic groups and religions on these occasions are taken as evidence of Malaysia’s national friendship.


Even with significant changes in marriage practices, weddings reveal the stark differences in Malay society. There are two ways to get married: register the union with the government; and join in marriage before a religious authority.

Christian Malays may marry Buddhists or Hindus who answer only to their families and beliefs; Muslim Malays who marry non-Muslims risk government sanctions unless their partner converts to Islam.

Marriage practices emphasize the separate ethnic customs of Malaysia. The Indians and the Chinese undertake divination rites in search of compatibility and auspicious dates, while the Malays have elaborate gift exchanges.

Malaysian weddings are often held at home, and feature a large multi-course banquet eaten over rice prepared in oil (to say that one is going to eat rice in oil means that a wedding is imminent). Many Chinese weddings include a multi-course meal in a restaurant or public hall, and most Indian ceremonies include intricate rituals.

Since married couples join families as well as individuals, the meeting between the future in-laws is crucial to the success of the union. For most Malaysians, marriage is a crucial step towards adulthood.

Although the average age of marriage continues to rise, being single in your 30s raises concerns for families and individuals alike. The social importance of the institution makes interethnic marriage a subject of considerable tension.


Malaysian society is notable for its openness to diversity. Mistakes of an outsider are tolerated, a charming dividend from Malaysia’s cosmopolitan heritage. However, this same diversity can present challenges for Malaysians when interacting in public.

As there is no single dominant cultural paradigm, social sanctions for transgressing the rights of others are reduced. The maintenance of public facilities is a source of ongoing public concern, as is the proper etiquette for operating a motor vehicle.

Malay sociability, on the other hand, works through the search for connection points. When Malays meet strangers, they try to rank them through guesswork about their religion (Muslims use the familiar Arabic greetings only to other Muslims); inquiries about your organization (as an initial question many Malaysians will ask, “who are you attached to?”); and age estimates (unknown older men are addressed by the honorific “uncle,” women as “aunt” in the appropriate language).

Strangers shake hands, and the handshake continues after the first meeting (Malays often raise their hand to their heart after the handshake), although it is sometimes frowned upon between men and women.

Greetings are always expressed with the right hand, which is the dominant hand in Malaysian life. Because the left hand is used to cleanse the body, it is considered inappropriate for receiving gifts, giving money, pointing directions, or passing objects.


Religious beliefs

Almost all world religions including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity are present in Malaysia. Religion correlates strongly with ethnicity, with most Malay Muslims, most Indian Hindus, and most Chinese Buddhists.

The presence of such diversity increases the importance of religious identity, and most Malays have a strong sense of how their religious practice differs from that of others (hence a Malay Christian also identifies as non-Muslim).

Religious festivals, especially those celebrated with open doors, further mix the interfaith experience of the population. The tension between religious communities is modest. The government is more concerned about the practices of the Muslim majority, since Islam is the official religion (60 percent of the population is Muslim).

In most cases, debates focus on the government’s role in religious life, for example, whether the state should further promote Islam and Muslim practices (limits on gambling, pig farming, availability of alcohol and the use of state funds to build mosques) or whether greater religious expression should be allowed for non-Muslims.

Religious professionals

The government regulates religious policy for Muslims in Malaysia, while the local mosque organizes opportunities for religious instruction and expression. Outside of these institutions, Islam plays an important role in electoral politics, as Malay parties promote their Muslim credentials.

Hindu, Christian and Buddhist clergy often have a presence in Malaysian life through cooperative ventures, and working together helps improve their minority status. Religious missionaries work freely proselytizing non-Muslims, but evangelists interested in converting Muslims are strictly prohibited by the state.

Rituals and sacred places

The most prominent holy site in Malaysia is the National Mosque, built in the heart of Kuala Lumpur in 1965. Its strategic position emphasizes the country’s Islamic identity. Throughout the country, the daily call to prayer from mosques amplifies the rhythm of Islamic rituals in the country, as does the procession of the faithful to fulfill their prayers.

Reminders of prayer times are included in television programs and the centrality of Islam in Malaysia is further highlighted. Among the most important holidays are the birth of the Prophet and the pilgrimage to Mecca, which feature prominently in the media.

The fasting month, Ramadan, includes acts of piety beyond the usual, refraining from eating and drinking during daylight hours and is followed by a great celebration. Non-Muslim religious buildings, practices and holidays have a smaller public life in Malaysia.

This is due in part to the declining number of believers in the country and in part to public policy that limits the construction of churches and temples, as well as the spread of non-Muslim religious services. The major non-Muslim holidays are Christmas, Deepavali (the Hindu festival of light), and Wesak (which celebrates the life of the Buddha).

The Hindu festival of Thaipussam deserves special attention, as devotees undergo spectacular rites of penance before large numbers of spectators, especially in the famous Batu Caves, situated on the cliffs outside Kuala Lumpur.

Death and the afterlife

Malaysians have a keen interest in the metaphysical, and stories about spirits and ghosts, whether told in conversation, read in books or seen on television, attract attention. Many of these stories maintain a relationship with people who have passed away, either as a form of comfort or fear.

The cemeteries, which include vast fields of Chinese graves marked with familiar characters and Muslim graves with the distinctive twin stones, are places of mystery. The surrounding real estate is modestly priced due to the supposed dangers of living nearby.

Muslim funerals tend to be community events, and an entire neighborhood will gather at the home of the deceased to prepare the body for burial and say any necessary prayers. Corpses are buried shortly after death, following Muslim custom, and mourners show a modicum of emotion so as not to appear to reject the divine decision.

Ancestor monuments maintained by Chinese clans are commonplace in Malaysia, and small red family shrines containing offerings of oranges and joseph sticks appear on neighborhood street corners and in the backs of shops. Chinese owned.

Faith in the efficacy of life after death generates considerable public respect for religious tombs and shrines, even by non-adherents.

Secular celebrations

Given the large number of local and religious holidays observed in Malaysia, few secular national celebrations fit into the calendar. Two important ones are the king’s birthday and the country’s independence day, on August 31. Malaysia’s keen interest in the sport makes the national team’s victories, especially in badminton, cause for rejoicing.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

Public support for the arts is scant. Over the past century, Malaysian society has become so oriented towards economic development that the arts have suffered, with many practitioners of Malaysia’s aesthetic traditions lamenting the lack of apprentices to carry them out. There is the possibility of a revival of Malay arts amid the country’s growing wealth.


Pre-colonial Malay rulers supported a rich variety of literary figures who produced court chronicles, fables and legends that form a prominent part of the contemporary Malay cultural imagination.

The development of a more contemporary national literature has been a struggle over language, with controversies over whether Malaysian fiction should be composed solely in Malay or in other languages ​​as well.

Although adult literacy is nearly 90 percent, the most widely read newspapers lament that the national belief in the importance of reading is stronger than the practice.

Graphic arts

A small but vibrant group of graphic artists are productive in Malaysia. Practitioners of batik, the art of painting textiles with wax followed by dying to highlight the pattern, still work in northern Peninsular Malaysia.

Batik-inspired designs are often produced in factories on shirts, sarongs, tablecloths or dresses that form an iconic Malaysian aesthetic.

Performing arts

Artistic performance in Malaysia is limited by state controls on assemblage and public expression. The requirement that the government approve all scripts effectively limits what can be said in plays, movies, and television.

The genre of choice in Malaysia is popular music, and concerts by top Malay pop singers have huge followings in person and on television.

Music stars from Mumbai and Hong Kong also have a sizable number of highly engaged fans, whose devotion makes Malaysia an overseas stop on many artists’ tours.

Malaysia’s favorite form of entertainment is television, as most households have televisions. Malaysians watch a variety of shows: standard export American food, Japanese animation, Hong Kong martial arts, Hindi musicals, and Malay theatre.

The advent of video cassette and the Internet was made for Malaysia’s diverse society, allowing Malaysians to make expressive choices that often defeat state censorship.

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