Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy of 30 million people — multi-ethnic and multicultural, a key factor in guiding policy. The country has an array of historical cultural influences: once the Malay kingdom, successively colonised by the Portuguese (450 years), the Dutch (130 years), and the British Empire (130 years — minus 4 years of Japanese wartime occupation, 1941-45), independent since 1957. Modern Malaysia consists of 3 primary ethnic groups — Malays + indigenous (collectively called bumiputera) who constitute 62%, followed by Chinese (21%), and Indian (6%) — plus 62 other local ethnic groups, and nearly 10% foreign residents. Social cohesion has long been a primary focus of this nation.
While Portuguese and Dutch historic influences cannot be disregarded, the British era is the most recent — and remains a factor in Malaysia’s cultural matrix to this day. Elements of this legacy include English proficiency in more than 60% of the population, educational reforms, development of rubber, tin, and tea industries, political structures — and the very multicultural nature of Malaysia, as migrant workers from China, India and elsewhere came in large numbers during the British era. Above all — while never extolling the nature of colonialism — Malaysian culture today has a high degree of openness to the global community as a result of this history.
Malaysia is a Muslim-majority culture, with more than 61% of the population adhering to same; while religious freedom is constitutionally protected, Islam is identified as the nation’s official religion in that same governing document — and as such is a key cultural factor. There is a high degree of religious tolerance, if not integration; the three primary ethnic groups generally practice different religions and on this basis, alongside other cultural features, tend to remain socially segregated.
Owing to the significant Chinese population, Buddhism is the second largest religion at 20%, while Taoism and other indigenous beliefs also factor highly in Chinese Malays culture; most of the Indian culture is Hindu, though some are Muslim, and Christianity, Bah’ai, Sikhism, as well as animistic and folk religions are also present. Malaysia has been criticised by human rights groups not for religious intolerance but for the persecution of the nonreligious — as atheism is culturally and even legally unacceptable.
The market economy of Malaysia is considered one of the “ASEAN-6” — a top emerging economy alongside those of neighboring Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and also Philippines. Open and industrialised, theirs was considered one of the most competitive in Asia for 2014-15: 6th in Asia and 20th globally. Vision 2020, a development policy launched in 1991, aims for Malaysia to be a self-sufficient, fully industrialised nation by this year. A centre of Islamic banking, the country boasts the highest number of female workers in that industry.
Malaysian women have a relatively high status among Muslim-majority countries, though average for East Asia; participation in the labour force is 53.5% compared to 77.7% males (2017), while education status is one of the highest globally: 48% females in tertiary education compared to 38% of males, girls consistently outperforming boys in achievement testing, girls encouraged to enter STEM fields, and nearly 50% of researchers are female. While a recent change in government — the first of its kind since independence in 1957 — promised a minimum 30% participation of women, however, this has yet to be achieved.
Three key areas of concern among Malaysians (2017 survey) are: governance, unemployment, and immigration. Social issues focus primarily on adolescents: teen pregnancy and abortion, alcohol and substance abuse, and suicide, while teens themselves identify post-graduate unemployment and lack of future prospects as a key concern. Other concerns, especially in East Malaysia, are income disparity, social inequality, and lack of political representation. Undoubtedly, these concerns have sparked the recent ‘shock election’ that signifies a major political shift; community initiatives to address social concerns at the civic level have also skyrocketed.
Malaysian culture, then, is a rich milieu of 3 dominant ethnicities, numerous smaller indigenous groups, historical foreign influences — and attempts both social and political toward social cohesion and some measure of integration, while celebrating this multi-ethnic and multicultural nature. A 1971 “National Culture Policy” first attempted to define Malaysian culture from a legal standpoint, though it is a continually evolving process.