To know Malaysia is to love Malaysia – a bubbling, bustling melting-pot of races and religions where Malays, Indians, Chinese and many other ethnic groups live together in peace and harmony. Our multiculturalism has made Malaysia a gastronomical paradise and home to hundreds of colourful festivals. It’s no wonder that we love celebrating and socialising. As a people, Malaysians are very relaxed, warm and friendly.
Geographically, Malaysia is almost as diverse as its culture. 11 states and 2 federal territories (Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya) form Peninsular Malaysia which is separated by the South China Sea from East Malaysia which includes the 2 states (Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo) and a third federal territory, the island of Labuan.
One of Malaysia’s key attractions is its extreme contrasts which further add to this theme of ‘diversity’. Towering skyscrapers look down upon wooden houses built on stilts while five-star hotels sit just metres away from ancient reefs.
Rugged mountains reach dramatically for the sky while their rainforest-clad slopes sweep down to floodplains teeming with forest life. Cool highland hideaways roll down to warm, sandy beaches and rich, humid mangroves.
For the perfect holiday full of surprises, the time is now, the place is Malaysia.
*Further information on the country can also be obtained from the Malaysian government’s official portal, www.malaysia.gov.my.
The Federation of Malaysia comprises of Peninsular Malaysia, and the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
Situated between 2º and 7º to the North of the Equator line, Peninsular Malaysia is separated from Sabah and Sarawak by the South China Sea.
In the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia lies Thailand, and in the south, neighbouring Singapore. Sabah and Sarawak are bounded by Indonesia while Sarawak also shares borders with Brunei.
Area : 329,758 square km
Population: 29.95 million
Capital city: Kuala Lumpur
Visitors to Malaysia must hold a valid passport or travel document with a minimum validity of six months beyond the intended visiting period. Immigration and customs checkpoints are situated at all air, sea, road and rail entry points.
Every visitor to Malaysia has to fill in a Disembarkation Card (IMM. 26). The card has to be handed over to the Immigration Officer on arrival together with the national passport or other internationally recognized travel document endorsed for travel into Malaysia. A passport/travel document is also necessary for travel between Sabah and Sarawak.
Visitor passes issued for entry into Peninsular Malaysia are not valid for entry into Sarawak.
Fresh visit passes must be obtained on arrival at the point of entry in Sarawak. However, subject to conditions stipulated, visit passes issued by the Immigration Authorities in Sabah and Sarawak are valid for any part of Malaysia.
Commonwealth Citizens (except Bangladesh/India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), British Protected Persons or Citizens of the Republic of Ireland and Citizens of Switzerland, Netherlands, San Marino and Liechtenstein.
Free Visa For Social & Business Visit Not Exceeding Three Months
Citizens of Albania, Austria, Algeria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Republic of Slovakia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Italy, United States of America, Bahrin, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, North Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia,Qatar United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Tunisia
One Month Nationals Of Asean Countries
14 DAYS Citizens of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, South Yemen
1 WEEK Citizens of Bulgaria, Romania and Russia
Visit the Malaysian Immigration Department or Ministry of Foreign Affairs for more info.
Having had an interesting past and being a part of the international spice route many hundreds of years ago, Malaysia has turned into a mosaic of cultures. Everything from its people to its architecture reflect a colourful heritage and an amalgamated culture. To understand Malaysian culture, you must first get to know its people.
Discover a Land of Intriguing Diversity
Malays, Chinese, Indians and many other ethnic groups have lived together in Malaysia for generations. All these cultures have influenced each other, creating a truly Malaysian culture.
The largest ethnic groups in Malaysia are the Malays, Chinese and Indians. In Sabah and Sarawak, there are a myriad of indigenous ethnic groups with their own unique culture and heritage.
Today, the Malays, Malaysia’s largest ethnic group, make up more than 50% of the population, although this drops to less than 25% in East Malaysia. In Malaysia, the term Malay refers to a person who practices Islam and Malay traditions, speaks the Malay language and whose ancestors are Malays. Their conversion to Islam from Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism began in the 1400s, largely influenced by the decision of the royal court of Melaka. The Malays are known for their gentle mannerisms and rich arts heritage.
The second largest ethnic group, the Malaysian Chinese form about 25% of the population. Mostly descendants of Chinese immigrants during the 19th century, the Chinese are known for their diligence and keen business sense. The three sub-groups who speak a different dialect of the Chinese language are the Hokkien who live predominantly on the northern island of Penang; the Cantonese who live predominantly in the capital city Kuala Lumpur; and the Mandarin-speaking group who live predominantly in the southern state of Johor.
In Sarawak this 25% is made up of a mix of dialect groups including Foochow, Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Puxian Min while in Sabah the population of Chinese drops to around 10% who predominantly speak the Hakka language.
The smallest of three main ethnic groups, the Malaysian Indians form about 10% of the population. Most are descendants of Tamil-speaking South Indian immigrants who came to the country during the British colonial rule. Lured by the prospect of breaking out of the Indian caste system, they came to Malaysia to build a better life. Predominantly Hindus, they brought with them their colourful culture such as ornate temples, spicy cuisine and exquisite sarees.
Indigenous Ethnic Groups
The general term used for any of the indigenous groups that are found in Peninsular Malaysia is ‘Orang Asli’ which literally translates as the ‘original people’. They are divided into three main tribal groups: Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay. The Negrito usually live in the north, the Senoi in the middle and the Proto-Malay in the south. Each group or sub-group has its own language and culture. Some are fishermen, some farmers and some are semi-nomadic.
The largest indigenous ethnic groups of Sabah’s population are the Kadazan Dusun, the Bajau and the Murut.
The largest ethnic group of Sabah, the Kadazan Dusuns form about 30% of the state’s population. Actually consisting of two tribes; the Kadazan and the Dusun, they were grouped together as they both share the same language and culture. However, the Kadazan are mainly inhabitants of flat valley deltas, which are conducive to paddy field farming, while the Dusun traditionally lived in the hilly and mountainous regions of interior Sabah.
The second largest ethnic group in Sabah, the Bajaus make up about 15% of the state’s population. Historically a nomadic sea-faring people that worshipped the Omboh Dilaut or God of the Sea, they are sometimes referred to as the Sea Gypsies. Those who chose to leave their sea-faring ways became farmers and cattle-breeders. These land Bajaus are nicknamed ‘Cowboys of the East’ in tribute to their impressive equestrian skills, which are publicly displayed in the annual Tamu Besar festival at Kota Belud.
The third largest ethnic group in Sabah the Muruts make up about 3% of the state’s population. Traditionally inhabiting the northern inland regions of Borneo, they were the last of Sabah’s ethnic groups to renounce headhunting. Now, they are mostly shifting cultivators of hill paddy and tapioca, supplementing their diet with blowpipe hunting and fishing. Like most indigenous tribes in Sabah, their traditional clothing is decorated with distinctive beadwork.
Collectively known as Dayaks, the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu are the major ethnic groups in the state of Sarawak. Typically, they live in longhouses, traditional community homes that can house 20 to 100 families.
The largest of Sarawak’s ethnic groups, the Ibans form 30% of the State’s population of 2.5 million. Sometimes erroneously referred to as the Sea Dayaks because of their skill with boats, they are actually an upriver tribe from the heart of Kalimantan. In the past, they were a fearsome warrior race renowned for headhunting and piracy. Traditionally, they worship a triumvirate of gods under the authority of Singalang Burung, the bird-god of war. Although now mostly Christians, many traditional customs are still practised.
Peace-loving and easy-going, the gentle Bidayuh are famous for their hospitality and tuak or rice wine. Making their homes in Sarawak’s southern regions, they are mostly farmers and hunters. In their past headhunting days their prized skulls were stored in a ‘baruk‘, a roundhouse that rises about 1.5 metres above the ground. Originally animists, now most of the 200,000 strong population have converted to Christianity.
Some 130,000 or 6% of the population of Sarawak are Melanau, believed to be among the original people to settle in Sarawak. Their language has different origins to the other ethnic groups of the state and today they are found mainly along the rivers and coastal plains of central Sarawak. Originally animists most have converted to Islam although some of the inland communities are Christian.
27 of the inland tribal groups of Sarawak are collectively called Orang Ulu or upriver people. A total estimated population of around 100,000 people belong to tribes varied in size from 300 to 25,000 individuals.
Arguably Borneo’s most artistic people, their large longhouses are ornately decorated with murals and superb woodcarvings; their utensils are embellished with intricate beadwork. Traditional tattoos are a very important part of their culture; aristocratic Orang Ulu ladies also cover their arms and legs with finely detailed tattoos.
The aboriginal Penan people are also included as Orang Ulu by government census but the Penan are traditionally nomadic people living in small family groups constantly moving from place to place within the rainforest. Today most of the estimated 16,000 Penan people have settled in longhouse communities where their children have the chance to go to school. Like the Iban and Bidayuh, most of the Orang Ulu have converted from animism to Christianity or Islam.
Traditional Malay architecture employs sophisticated architectural processes ideally suited to tropical conditions such as structures built on stilts, which allow cross-ventilating breeze beneath the dwelling to cool the house whilst mitigating the effects of the occasional flood. High-pitched roofs and large windows not only allow cross-ventilation but are also carved with intricate organic designs.
Traditional houses in Negeri Sembilan were built of hardwood and entirely free of nails. They are built using beams, which are held together by wedges. A beautiful example of this type of architecture can be seen in the Old Palace of Seri Menanti in Negeri Sembilan, which was built around 1905.
Today, many Malay or Islamic buildings incorporate Moorish design elements as can be seen in the Islamic Arts Museum and a number of buildings in Putrajaya – the new administrative capital, and many mosques throughout the country.
In Malaysia, Chinese architecture is of two broad types: traditional and Baba-Nyonya. Examples of traditional architecture include Chinese temples found throughout the country such as the Cheng Hoon Teng that dates back to 1646.
Many old houses especially those in Melaka and Penang are of Baba-Nyonya heritage, built with indoor courtyards and beautiful, colourful tiles.
A rare architectural combination of Chinese and Western elements is displayed by Melaka’s Terengkera mosque. Its pagoda-like appearance is a fine example of Chinese-influenced roof form, combined with Western detailing in its balustrades and railings.
With most of Malaysian Hindus originally from Southern India, local Hindu temples exhibit the colourful architecture of that region.
Built in the late nineteenth century, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in Kuala Lumpur is one of the most ornate and elaborate Hindu temples in the country. The detailed decorative scheme for the temple incorporates intricate carvings, gold embellishments, hand-painted motifs and exquisite tiles from Italy and Spain.
The Sikhs, although a small minority, also have their temples of more staid design in many parts of the country.
Indigenous Peoples of Sabah & Sarawak
Two unique architectural highlights of the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak are longhouses and water villages.
Homes to interior riverine tribes, longhouses are traditional community homes. These elongated and stilted structures, often built of axe-hewn timber, tied with creeper fibre and roofed with woven atap or thatched leaves, can house between 20 to 100 families.
Rustic water villages built on stilts are also commonly found along riverbanks and seafronts. Houses are linked by plank walkways with boats anchored on the sides. Transport around the village is usually by sampan or canoe.
Colonial Period Styles
The architectural styles of the different colonial powers are used in many buildings built between 1511 and 1957.
The most notable example of Portuguese architecture in Malaysia is the A’Famosa fort in Melaka, which was built by Alfonso d’Albuquerque in 1511. Nearly annihilated by the Dutch, only a small part of the fortification is still on the hill overlooking the Melaka town, old port and the Straits of Melaka.
Located in Melaka Town, the Stadthuys with its heavy wooden doors, thick red walls and wrought-iron hinges is the most imposing relic of the Dutch period in Melaka. It is a fine example of Dutch masonry and woodworking skills. Built between 1641 and 1660 it is believed to be the oldest building in the East.
Among the most significant landmarks built by the British is theSultan Abdul Samad Building, which grandly overlooks the Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur. This Moorish beauty, completed in 1897, served as the Colonial Secretariat offices during the British administration.
Pre-Merdeka or pre-independence shophouses still emanate the characteristic charm of their earlier days. A display of English ingenuity is the ‘five-foot-way’ or covered sidewalk designed to shield pedestrians from the heat and rain.
The best of the best!
Melaka and George Town have developed over 500 years of trading and cultural exchanges between East and West in the Straits of Malacca.
The influences of Asia and Europe have endowed these towns with a specific multicultural heritage; of government buildings, churches, squares and fortifications. Melaka demonstrates the early stages of this history originating in the 15th-century Malay sultanate and the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century while the residential and commercial buildings of George Town represents the British era from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century.
Together they constitute a unique architectural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia and have been recognised as the World Heritage listed, ‘Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca.’
Games and Pastimes
Experience the Expressions of Community
Malaysians’ strong sense of community is reflected in many of their traditional games and pastimes. These activities are still played by local children on cool afternoons and are also a communal activity during festivities such as before or after the rice harvest season and weddings.
This fascinating Malay martial arts is also an international sport and traditional dance form. Existing in the Malay Archipelago for centuries, it has mesmerising fluid movements that are used to dazzle opponents. It is believed that practising silat will increase one’s spiritual strength in accordance with Islamic tenets. Accompanied by drums and gongs, this ancient art is popularly performed at Malay weddings and cultural festivals.
Also known as sepak raga, it is a traditional ball game in which a ball, made by weaving strips of buluh or bamboo, is passed about using any part of the body except the lower arms and hands. There are two main types of sepak takraw: bulatan (circle) and jaring (net). Sepak raga bulatan is the original form in which players form a circle and try to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible. Sepak takraw jaring is the modern version in which the ball is passed across a court over a high net.
A wau is a traditional kite that is especially popular in the state of Kelantan, on the East Coast of Malaysia. Traditionally flown after the rice harvest season, these giant kites are often as big as a man – measuring about 3.5 metres from head to tail. It is called wau because its shape is similar to the Arabic letter that is pronounced as ‘wow’. With vibrant colours and patterns based on local floral and fauna, these kites are truly splendid sights.
A gasing is a giant spinning top that weighs approximately 5kg or 10lbs and may be as large as a dinner plate. Traditionally played before the rice harvest season, this game requires strength, co-ordination and skill. The top is set spinning by unfurling a rope that has been wound around it. Then it is scooped off the ground, whilst still spinning, using a wooden bat with a centre slit and transferred onto a low post with a metal receptacle. If expertly hurled, it can spin for up to 2 hours.
Wayang kulit is a traditional theatre form that brings together the playfulness of a puppet show, and the elusive quality and charming simplicity of a shadow play. The flat two-dimensional puppets are intricately carved, then painted by hand. It is either made of cow or buffalo hide. Each puppet, a stylised exaggeration of the human shape, is given a distinctive appearance and not unlike its string puppet cousins, has jointed “arms”. Conducted by a singular master storyteller called Tok Dalang, wayang kulit usually dramatises ancient Indian epics.
Congkak is a game of mathematics played by womenfolk in ancient times that only required dug out holes in the earth and tamarind seeds. Today, it is an oval solid wood block with two rows of five, seven, or nine holes and two large holes at both ends called “home”. Congkak, played with shells, marbles, pebbles or tamarind seeds, requires two players.
Sepak manggis is a unique outdoor game played by the Bajau and Iranun men of Sabah. Forming a circle and facing each other, players aim to strike the bunga manggis floral carrier that dangles from a 10-metre high pole. The winner will be rewarded with money, gifts or edibles, which are in the carrier.
Fascinating Handicrafts Galore
Malaysia boasts a delightful variety of traditional handicrafts. Choices range from priceless authentic antiques to exquisite modern hand-made crafts.
As most artisans are Muslims, Malaysian handicraft designs are heavily influenced by Islam. The religion prohibits the depiction of the human form in art. Hence, most designs are based on natural elements such as the interlacing of leaves or vines, flowers and animals.
Popular items of traditional design include Perak’s labu sayong, geluk, belanga, Chinese dragon kiln ceramics and Sarawakian tribal motif pottery. Contemporary items include vases, flower pots, decorative pottery, sculpture and kitchenware.
Labu Sayong is a black-coloured gourd-shaped clay jar typically used to store and cool water. The state of Perak is renowned for this type of pottery.
Found in many rural Malaysian homes, the belanga is often characterised by a round base and wide rim. It is often used to cook curries, as it is believed that its round base allows heat to be distributed more evenly.
This angular-shaped jar is popularly used for storing water in the states of Pahang and Terengganu. It has a concave neck and a convex body.
Blessed with an abundance of timber in boundless tropical forests, Malaysia is renowned for an assortment of distinctive wood crafts. Traditionally, whole houses were built from elaborate hand-carved timber. Today, antique Malay-styled engraved panels, keris dagger handles, Chinese containers, unique Orang Asli spirit sculptures, intricate walking sticks, kitchen utensils and carved scented woods are among the wide range of exotic decorative items found in Malaysia.
Popular since the early days, traditional brass casting and bronze working are still used to make an array of utensils. More recently in the 19th century, with the discovery of tin in Malaysia, pewter has become increasingly popular. Metal craft products include modern decorative items, kitchen ware and traditional artifacts like tepak sireh sets, rose-water instruments and keris blades.
Marvel at the creative hand-woven crafts of Malaysia. Local plant fibres and parts from bamboo, rattan, pandan and mengkuang leaves are coiled, plaited, twined and woven to produce items such as bags, baskets, mats, hats, tudung saji and sepak raga balls.
Colourful and captivating, Malaysia’s traditional textiles are much sought after worldwide. Varieties include batik, songket, pua kumbuand tekat. These textiles are made into all sorts of decorative items, from haute couture clothes to shoes, colourful curtains and delicate bed linen.
Referring to the process of dyeing fabric by making use of a resistant technique; covering areas of cloth with wax to prevent it absorbing colours. The colours in batik are much more resistant to wear than those of painted or printed fabrics because the cloth is completely immersed in dye.
Utilising an intricate supplementary weft technique where gold threads are woven in between the longitudinal silk threads of the background cloth. In the past, this rich and luxurious fabric demonstrated the social status of the Malay elite.
Made from individually dyed threads on a back strap loom. Its supernatural motifs are inspired by dreams and ancient animist beliefs. The patterns that emerge are a fusion of the real and surreal. And each weave is distinctive of its maker’s hand.
The art of embroidering golden thread onto a base material, generally velvet, was traditionally used to decorate traditional Malay weddings regalia.
Jewellery & Costume Accessories
Enticing hand-crafted accessories abound in Malaysia. Choose from leather-crafted goods, beadwork necklaces from Borneo or finely made gold and silver jewellery adorned with gems.
A three-piece brooch set traditionally used to pin the lapels of the baju kebaya together. Kerongsang usually comes in sets of three. The typical three-piece set comprises of a kerongsang ibu (mother piece) which is larger and heavier. The other two are called the kerongsang anak (child pieces) and are worn below the kerongsang ibu.
A traditional hairpin used to secure hair in a bun at the back of women’s heads. Typically made of gold or silver, these hairpins are normally worn in graduated sets of three, five or seven by brides and traditional dancers.
A large, intricately ornamented belt buckle worn around the sampin, a skirt-like cloth worn by men, to complement their baju melayu, the traditional attire for men. Traditionally, the pending is a sign of wealth and status for men.
A Dazzling Tapestry of Asian Traditions
From magnificent tribal head-feathers with bark body-covers to antique gold-woven royal songket fabric, the array of Malaysia’s traditional costumes and textiles are stunningly diverse and colourful.
In the early days, the aboriginal tribes wore native bark costumes and beads. With the advent of the ancient kingdoms, hand-loomed fine textiles and intricate Malay batik were used by the Malay royalty. As foreign trade flourished, costumes and textiles such as Chinese silk, the Indian pulicat or plaid sarong and the Arabian jubbah a robe with wide sleeves were introduced to the country.
Today, traditional attire such as the Malay baju kebaya, Indian saree and Chinese cheongsam are still widely worn.
Before the 20th century, Malay women still wore kemban, just sarongs tied above the chest, in public. As Islam became more widely embraced, they started wearing the more modest yet elegant baju kurung. The baju kurung is a knee-length loose-fitting blouse that is usually worn over a long skirt with pleats at the side. It can also be matched with traditional fabrics such as songket or batik. Typically, these traditional outfits are completed with a selendang or shawl or tudung or headscarf.
The traditional attire for Malay men is the baju melayu. The baju melayu is a loose tunic worn over trousers. It is usually complemented with a sampin – a short sarong wrapped around the hips.
Comfortable and elegant, the traditional cheongsam or ‘long dress’ is also a popular contemporary fashion choice for ladies. Usually, it has a high collar, buttons or frog closures near the shoulder, a snug fit at the waist and slits on either one or both sides. It is often made of shimmering silk, embroidered satin or other sensual fabrics.
The saree is the world-renowned traditional Indian garment. A length of cloth usually 5-6 yards in width, the saree is worn with a petticoat of similar shade and a matching or contrasting choli or blouse. Typically, it is wrapped around the body such that the pallau – its extensively embroidered or printed end – is draped over the left shoulder. The petticoat is worn just above or below the bellybutton and functions as a support garment to hold the saree. Made from a myriad of materials, textures and designs, the saree is truly exquisite.
Popular with northern Indian ladies is the salwar kameez or Punjabi suit; a long tunic worn over trousers with a matching shawl.
The kurta is the traditional attire for men on formal occasions. It is a long knee-length shirt that is typically made from cotton or linen cloth.
Chinese immigrants who married Malay partners wore the elegant kebaya that can be described as traditional haute couture.
Hand-made with great skill using sheer material, its intricate embroidery is equivalent to the best Venetian lacework. The pièce de résistance is a delicate needlework technique called tebuk lubang – literally to punch holes. This involves sewing the outlines of a floral motif on the fabric and cutting away the insides. When done correctly, the end result is fine lace-like embroidery on the collar, lapels, cuffs, hem and the two triangular front panels, which drape over the hips, known as the lapik.
Descended from Portuguese settlers of the 16th century, Melakan Portuguese-Eurasian’s traditional attire reflect their heritage. Dominated by the colours black and red, men wear jackets and trousers with waist sashes whilst ladies wear broad front-layered skirts.
With its diverse ethnic groups, Malaysia’s largest state, Sarawak, has a plethora of unique tribal costumes. Using a variety of designs and native motifs, common materials for the Orang Ulu or upriver tribes are hand-loomed cloths, tree bark fabrics, feathers and beads. Sarawak is known for the woven pua kumbu of the Iban tribe, songket of the Sarawak Malay, colourful beaded accessories, traditional jewellery and head adornments.
Like Sarawak, Sabah is also blessed with a rich mix of ethnic groups. Each group adorns attire, headgears and personal ornaments with distinctive forms, motifs and colour schemes characteristic of their respective tribe and district. However, culturally different groups who live in close proximity may have similarities in their traditional attire. Notable hats and headdresses include the Kadazan Dusun ladies’ straw hats, the Bajau woven dastar and the headdress of the Lotud man, which indicate the number of wives he has by the number of fold points.
Traditionally living in the deep jungles of Malaysia, the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia wore clothing made from natural materials such as tree barks like the terap, and grass skirts. Ornaments include skillfully woven headbands with intricate patterns that are made from leaf fronds.
Music and Dance
An Exotic Ensemble of Enchanting Experiences
Malaysia’s multi-cultural and multi-racial heritage is most prominently exhibited in its diverse music and dance forms. The dances of the indigenous Malay, Orang Asli and different ethnic peoples of Sabah and Sarawak are truly exotic and enchanting. As the Chinese, Indians and Portuguese settled in Malaysia, the traditional dances of their homelands became a part of Malaysia’s culture and heritage.
Malaysia has two traditional orchestras: the gamelan and the nobat. Originally from Indonesia, the gamelan is a traditional orchestra that plays ethereal lilting melodies using an ensemble of gongpercussion and stringed instruments. The nobat is a royal orchestra that plays more solemn music for the courts using serunai and nafiriwind instruments.
In the days of the ancient Malay kingdoms, the resounding rhythmic beats of the giant rebana ubi drums conveyed various messages from warnings of danger to wedding announcements. Later, they were used as musical instruments in an assortment of social performances.
Arguably the most popular Malay traditional instrument, the kompangis widely used in a variety of social occasions such as the National Day parades, official functions and weddings. Similar to the tambourine but without the jingling metal discs, this hand drum is most commonly played in large ensembles, where various rhythmic composite patterns are produced by overlapping multiple layers of different rhythms.
Brought to Malaysia by Persian and Middle Eastern traders, thegambus or Arabian oud is played in a variety of styles in Malay folk music, primarily as the lead instrument in Ghazal music. Carefully crafted with combinations of different woods, this instrument produces a gentle tone that is similar to that of the harpsichord.
The sape is the traditional flute of the Orang Ulu community or upriver people of Sarawak. A woodcarving masterpiece with colourful motifs, the sape is made by hollowing a length of wood. Once played solely during healing ceremonies within longhouses, it gradually became a social instrument of entertainment. Typically, its thematic music is used to accompany dances such as the Ngajat and Datun Julud.
Malay Mak Yong
Originating from Patani in Southern Thailand, Mak Yong was conceived to entertain female royalty, queens and princesses, when their men were away at war. Combining romantic drama, dance and operatic singing, tales of the golden age of the Malay kingdoms are dramatised in enchanting performances.
Kuda Kepang is a traditional dance brought to the state of Johor by Javanese immigrants. Dramatising the tales of victorious Islamic holy wars, dancers sit astride mock horses moving to the hypnotic beats of a percussion ensemble usually consisting of drums, gongs and angklungs.
Islamic influence on Malaysian traditional dance is perhaps most evident in Zapin, a popular dance in the state of Johor. Introduced by Muslim missionaries from the Middle East, the original dance was performed to Islamic devotional chanting to spread knowledge about the history of the Islamic civilisation.
Malaysia’s most popular traditional dance, is a lively dance with an upbeat tempo. Performed by couples who combine fast, graceful movements with playful humour, the Joget has its origins in Portuguese folk dance, which was introduced to Melaka during the era of the spice trade.
Also known as Candle Dance, it is performed by women who do a delicate dance while balancing candles in small dishes.
One of the oldest Malay traditions and a deadly martial art, Silat is also a danceable art form. With its flowery body movements, a Silat performance is spellbinding and intriguing.
Chinese Lion Dance
Usually performed during the Chinese New Year festival, Lion Dance is energetic and entertaining. According to the legend, in ancient times, the lion was the only animal that could ward off a mythological creature known as Nian that terrorised China and devoured people on the eve of the New Year. Usually requiring perfect co-ordination, elegance and nerves of steel, the dance is almost always performed to the beat of the tagu, the Chinese drum, and the clanging of cymbals.
The dragon is a mythical creature that represents supernatural power, goodness, fertility, vigilance and dignity in Chinese culture. Typically performed to usher in the Chinese New Year, the Dragon Dance is said to bring good luck and prosperity for the year to come. Usually requiring a team of over 60 people, this fantastic performance is a dazzling display of perfect co-ordination, skill and grace.
Indian Bharata Natyam
This classical Indian dance is poetry in motion. Based on ancient Indian epics, this highly intense and dramatic dance form uses over 100 dance steps and gestures. As mastery requires many years of practice, some children begin learning the dance form at the age of five.
Bhangra is a lively folk music and dance form of the Sikh community. Originally a harvest dance, it is now part of many social celebrations such as weddings and New Year festivities. Typically centred around romantic themes with singing and dancing driven by heavy beats of the dhol, a double-barreled drum, the bhangra is engagingly entertaining.
Sabah & Sarawak Ngajat
The Warrior Dance is a traditional dance of Sarawak’s Iban people. This dance is usually performed during Gawai Kenyalang or ‘Hornbill Festival’. Reputedly the most fearsome of Sarawak’s headhunters, the tribe’s victorious warriors were traditionally celebrated in this elaborate festival. Wearing an elaborate headdress and holding an ornate long shield, the male warrior dancer performs dramatic jumps throughout this spellbinding dance.
The Hornbill Dance is a traditional dance of Sarawak’s Kenyah women. Created by a Kenyah prince called Nyik Selong to symbolise happiness and gratitude, it was once performed during communal celebrations that greeted warriors returning from headhunting raids or during the annual celebrations that marked the end of each rice harvest season. Performed by a solo woman dancer to the sounds of the sape, beautiful fans made out of hornbill feathers are used to represent the wings of the sacred bird.
Sumazau is a traditional dance of Sabah’s Kadazan people. Usually performed at religious ceremonies and social events, it is traditionally used to honour spirits for bountiful paddy harvests, ward off evil spirits and cure illnesses. Male and female dancers perform this steady hypnotic dance with soft and slow movements imitating birds in flight.
Another highly popular and entertaining traditional dance is Bamboo Dance. Two long bamboo poles are held horizontally above the ground at ankle-height. They are clapped together to a high-tempo drumbeat. Requiring great agility, dancers are required to jump over or between the poles without getting their feet caught.
The traditional dances of the Peninsular Malaysia’s Orang Asli are strongly rooted in their spiritual beliefs. Dances are commonly used by witch-doctors as rituals to communicate with the spirit world. Such dances include Genggulang of the Mahmeri tribe, Berjerom of the Jah-Hut tribe and the Sewang of the Semai and Temiar tribes.
The Portuguese of Melaka Farapeira
The Farapeira is a fast, cheerful dance usually accompanied by guitars and tambourines, performed by couples dressed in traditional Portuguese costumes.
Favoured mainly by the older Portuguese generation, compared to the Farapeira the Branyo is a more staid dance. Male dancers dressed in cowboy-like costumes and female dancers dressed in traditional baju kebayas with batik sarongs sway to the steady rhythm of drums and violins.