Malaysia: History & People                                      

  • Cultures have been meeting and mixing in Malaysia since the very beginning of its history. More than fifteen hundred years ago a Malay kingdom in Bujang Valley welcomed traders from China and India.


  • With the arrival of gold and silks, Buddhism and Hinduism also came to Malaysia.


  • A thousand years later, Arab traders arrived in Malacca and brought with them the principles and practices of Islam.


  • By the time the Portuguese arrived in Malaysia, the empire that they encountered was more cosmopolitan than their own. 


  • Malaysia's cultural mosaic is marked by many different cultures, but several in particular have had especially lasting influence on the country. Chief among these is the ancient Malay culture as well as the cultures of Malaysia's two most prominent trading partners throughout history—the Chinese and the Indians. These three groups are joined by a dizzying array of indigenous tribes—many of which live in the forests and coastal areas of Borneo. Although each of these cultures has vigorously maintained their traditions and community structures, they have also blended together to create contemporary Malaysia's uniquely diverse heritage.


  • The Malay are Malaysia's largest ethnic group—accounting for over half the population and the national language. With the oldest indigenous peoples, they form a group called bumiputera, which translates as “sons” or “princes of the soil.” Almost all Malays are Muslims, though Islam in Malaysia is generally less rigid than in the Middle East. Traditional Malay culture centers around the kampung, or village, though today one is just as likely to find Malays in the cities.


  • The Chinese traded with Malaysia for centuries, then settled in number during the 19th century when word of riches in the Nanyang, or “South Seas,” spread across China. The Chinese are often regarded as Malaysia's businessmen—having succeeded in many industries. When they first arrived, however, Chinese often worked the most grueling jobs like tin mining and railway construction. Most Chinese are Tao Buddhist and retain strong ties to their ancestral homeland.


  • Indians had been visiting Malaysia for over 2,000 years, but did not settle en masse until the 19th century. Most came from South India, fleeing a poor economy. Arriving in Malaysia, many worked as rubber tappers, while others built the infrastructure or worked as administrators and small businessmen. Indian culture—with its exquisite Hindu temples, cuisine and colorful garments—is visible throughout the land.


  • Along the shores of the rivers that carve through the rain forests of Borneo, tribal peoples have been living in longhouses for thousands of years.


  • A typical longhouse looks exactly like its name implies. It is a long, one-story dwelling, covered by single roof usually woven of fronds from the sago palm. It can stretch as long as a city block and have five hundred people living in it, or it can house a community as small as a few dozen. The families live in large rooms located off a main hall—a kind of social center that stretches the length of the entire building.


  • The most accessible longhouses belong to Sarawak's Iban tribe (also called the Sea Dyaks) and are situated off the Skrang, Lemanak, Batang Ai and Rejang River areas. Because of Borneo's impenetrable rain-forest, getting to them almost inevitably involves a river ride in a long, pencil-thin boat called a perahu—the workhorse of the Sarawakian waterways.

  • During the day, when many of the residents are out working in the fields or forest, the main hall is mostly empty. If you stand on one end and look all the way down, you might see young children playing on intricately woven mats, while being watched over by an older member of the community.


  • At night, just after dinner, the main hall livens up. Families come out to socialize and guests gather in front of the chief's room.