The People of Malaysia

Visitors to Malaysia will be fascinated by the multi-culturalism of the country, composing of Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians, and as well as tribal communities in the likes of the Kadazandusuns of Sabah and the Iban of Sarawak. Sabah and Sarawak are two of the thirteen Malaysia states and are referred to as East Malaysia.

Based on population statistics, Malaysia’s population stands at around 23 million today, with about 85% living in Peninsular Malaysia, and about 15% in both Sabah and Sarawak.

Due to its richness in natural resources and strategic location, close to the Straits of Malacca, it attracted the Indians, Chinese and Europeans.Malaysia was under the colony of the British until it gained independence on 31st August 1957.

Orang Asli

This is a Malay term which means “original people” and encompass all the aborigines of the nation, which are many and varied, depending on the area of Malaysia. For example, the Senoi can be found predominantly in Cameron Highlands. Lately with government aid, many orang asli have left the forest and sought education and jobs in the city.


They are the majority race in Malaysia, comprising of 50-55% of Malaysia’s population. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was set up somewhere in the late 60s early 70s in an attempt to address the economic imbalances between Malays and the Chinese (second biggest racial population in Malaysia), who were perceived as wealthier as a whole race than the Malays. For the purposes of providing economic advantages to the Malays, Malays were specifically defined as Muslim, born of a Malay father and knowing of at least some rudimentary Malay language. The NEP also provides economic advantages to other natives of Malaysia, such as orang asli and Muslim peranakan, under the concept of bumiputra (literally translated as “princely earth” but meaning native).

The British colonial rulers considered Malay men the closest thing to gentlemen outside of their own country, due to their warmth, dignity and politeness. However, they also warned of Malay pirates, who acted like gentlemen on land, and never hesitated to kill you on the seas.

There are many conflicting hypotheses on the origins of Malays. Some have said that centuries of Chinese and Indians trading in the mid-way point of the Malay archipelago had blended into the Malays. Malays actually come from the Malay archipelago. There are Malays in Indonesia and Philippines but the majority are in Malaysia which, prior to the British colonisation was called Tanah Melayu (Malay Land). Malays did not come from China as some people want to believe. For starters there are no Chinese words in the Malay language except the words for food brought in by the Chinese immigrants which the British brought in by the boatloads to displace the native population.

Malays have been found as far as Cape, Africa but these are Malays from Malaysia (Malaya previously) who had settled there. There also Malays in Sri Lanka..


Penang had been a trading post even before the British colonised it, hence the local Malay population have mixed Arab or Indian blood. The Malays who have some Indian blood, being born of Malay mothers married to an Indian Muslim trader, are called Jawi Peranakan. They also call themselves “Mamak” and are different from the Indian Muslim community who don’t use Malay as their mother tongue. During British colony, many non-Muslim Indians came in great numbers probably as indentured labourers and employed as rubber tappers and plantations labourers. Most came from south India or Sri Lanka, of Tamil, and small numbers of Sikh, Parsi, Telugu, Bengali and Keralan.

Known for their tenacity for hard work and preseverance and their frugal lifestyle, they are now well represented in various professions, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers.

A subset of this race are the Indian muslims, known as “mamaks”, who emigrated to Malaysia mainly from north India and were of the merchant class. Some opened restaurants, which thrive these days, with their ever popular: “roti canai and teh tarik.” Some have also married Malay women and their descendants have been given bumiputra status.


Sir Francis Light commented that the Chinese constitute the most valuable part of the inhabitants in Malaysia as his opinion was that they could raise revenue “without expense and extraordinary efforts of government.” (Light, Sir Francis. 25 January 1794 as quoted in Purcell. p 40).

Many Chinese emigrants came to Malaysia during the rife of Manchu dynasty in 19th-century China. They originally came to work the tin mines (which boomed in the states of Selangor and Perak) and road and railway constructions.

Today, they still contribute to a significant portion of Malaysia’s economy. Among the most famous of the Malaysian Chinese would be Mr. Lim Goh Tong who developed Malaysia’s only casino in Genting and all its attached hotels and other entertainments.


The Chinese Peranakans were first established when Chinese trade missions established port in Malacca in the early 1400s.

Inter-cultural relationships and marriages were forged between these traders and local Malay women. Most historically memorable was of course a Sultan of Malacca marrying Ming Princess Hang Li Poh. With her, she brought an entourage that settled around what is known in Malacca these days as Bukit China.

Following this, subsequent generations of Chinese-Malays were known as Straits Chinese, or Peranakan (means “born here” in Malay). Those who embraced the Muslim faith are also classified as bumiputras. Today, though Malacca was the Peranakan centre, large communities also flourish in Singapore and Penang.

The man is referred to as “baba,” whilst the lady is referred to as “nyonya.” The combined phrase of “babanyonya” is used commonly to refer to these folks and their food, combining the best of Malay and Chinese favourites amongst many locals and visitors alike.


When Malacca fell to the hands of the Portugese, in the year 1511, in order to gain control, marriage of Portugese soldiers with local women was encouraged.

Descendants of the cross-cultural marriages in the 19th and 20th century are equally reminiscent of their English or Dutch heritage. Malacca was at one time a Dutch colony also.

During British colonial rule, many bright students were handpicked and given scholarships (e.g. Rhodes) for tertiary education in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia, and when returning to serve the government, brought back more than just education, they brought back their British, European, Australian life partners, giving rise to mixed parentage children later on in Malaysia.

Today, the topic of race is highly politicized, largely in part to the existence of the NEP. The media, battling fears of sales loss due to online news sources, sensationalize the topic even further. Nonetheless, most of the ordinary citizens of Malaysia live their day-to-day activities in racial harmony, a characteristic that most of them take pride in.

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