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Geography & Topography

Capital: Kuala Lumpur

Population: 28 859 154

Area: 329,847 km2

Language: Bahasa Melayu, English, Chinese dialects, other regional dialects and indigenous languages

Religion: Muslim, Buddhist, Daoist, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Shamanist

Currency: Ringgit


Situated in the heart of Southeast Asia at one of the world’s major crossroads, Malaysia has always been pivotal to trade routes from Europe, the Orient, India and China. Its warm tropical climate and abundant natural blessings made it a congenial destination for immigrants as early as 5,000 years ago when the ancestors of the Orang Asli, the indigenous peoples of Peninsular Malaysia, settle here, probably the pioneers of a general movement from China and Tibet. They were followed by the Malays, who brought with them skills in farming and the use of metals. Around the first century BC, strong trading links were established with China and India, and these had a major impact on the culture, language and social customs of the country. Evidence of a Hindu-Buddhist period in the history of Malaysia can today be found in the temple sites of the Bujang Valley and Merbok Estuary in Kedah in the north west of Peninsular Malaysia, near the Thai border. The spread of Islam, introduced by Arab and Indian traders, brought the Hindu-Buddhist era to an end by the 13th century. With the conversion of the Malay-Hindu rulers of the Melaka Sultanate (the Malay kingdom which ruled both side of the Straits of Malaka for over a hundred years),, Islam was established as the religion of the Malays, and had profound effect on Malay society.

The arrival of Europeans in Malaysia brought a dramatic change to the country. In 1511, the Portuguese captured Melaka and the rulers of the Melaka Sultanate fled south to Johor where they tried to establish a new kingdom. They were resisted not only by the Europeans but by the Acehnese, Minangkabau and the Bugis, resulting in the sovereign units of the present-day states of Peninsular Malaysia. The Portuguese were in turn defeated in 1641 by the Dutch, who colonized Melaka until the advent of the British in the Dutch exerted any profound influence on Malay society. The British acquired Melaka from the Dutch in 1824 in exchange for Bencoolen in Sumatra. From their new bases in Malaka, Penang and Singapore, collectively known as the Straits settlements, the British, through their influence and power, began the process of political intergration of the Malay states of Peninsular Malaysia.

After World War II and the Japanese occupation from 1941-45, the British created the Malayan Union 1946.This was abandoned in 1948 and the Federation of Malaya emerged in its place. The Federation gained its independence from Britain on 31 August 1957. In September 1963, Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah, and initially Singapore united to form Malaysia, a country whose potpourri of society and customs derives from its rich heritage from four of the world’s major cultures – Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Western.

Performing Arts


In general, music of Malaysia may be categorized as classical, folk, syncretic (or acculturated music), popular and contemporary art music. Classical and folk music emerged during the pre-colonial period and exists in the form of vocal, dance and theatrical music such as Nobat, Mak Yong, Mak Inang, Dikir barat, Ulek mayang and Menora. The syncretic music developed during the post-Portuguese period (16th century) and contains elements from both local music and foreign elements of Arabian, Persian, Indian, Chinese and Western musical and theatrical sources. Among genres of this music are Zapin, Ghazal, Dondang sayang, Joget, Jikey, Boria, Keroncong and Bangsawan.

The musical instruments of Peninsula Malaysia can be classified into four categories, namely, wind instruments, stringed instruments which are either plucked or bowed, percussive instruments which are struck or shaken and drums, the largest category group.

The most recognisable instruments in traditional Malaysian music are:

A musician from Sabah strumming a gambus during a festival

Gambus: Closely related to the qanbus of Yemen, the gambus has four doubled gut strings, a solid body carved from a single piece of wood, and a skin top. The head of the gambus is often ornately carved such as with the instrument below that has a body of a bird with glass beads for eyes. Unfortunately, the gambus is now almost extinct on the Malaysian mainland, being replaced by the oud, although still referred to as a gambus. There are still a few players of the traditional Malaysian gambus in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.

Rebab: The rebab is a three-stringed instrument which is bowed.  The hand-carved and highly ornamented rebab gets its resonance from a membrane or skin which is stretched tightly across the instrument’s body.  The bow is slack until the player creates tension by pulling the hairs tight.  The rebab is held vertically when played.  Both the sound and playing style of the rebab borrow from the Chinese erhu, or two-stringed “violin.”


A musician playing the rebab during a performance

Serunai: The serunai is a reed wind instrument.  The instrument is hand-carved, and is usually highly ornamented with intricate detailing and painting.  Much like western reed instruments, the serunai is made in varying lengths which affect its register.  In western musical terminology, these might be called “soprano,” “tenor,” or “alto.”  In Malay, the instrument is referred to as anak (i.e. small or child), or ibu (i.e. large or parent).  The design of the serunai reed is similar to the bassoon or English horn.  The serunai is played using a technique known a “circle breathing” or “cycle breathing.”  In this technique air is drawn in through the nose as it is simultaneously blown through the instrument.  The resulting sound is constant note or drone.


Dance forms in Malaysia are also diverse like the music of country. The country boasts of numerous traditional dance forms. Some of the popular traditional dance forms are Joget, Inang, Silat, Shadow Plays and Datun Julud. Joget is a traditional dance form that is generally accompanied by flute and dance, Inang is a Malay folk dance performed in front of royal guests. Other performing arts include Shadow Plays performed to commemorate special occasions like marriage and birth. Silat is a form of martial art but then, it is also considered as a performing art since it is accompanied by drums and gongs and performed during weddings and other noteworthy occasions. The Datun Julud is another traditional dance form, which enjoys popularity in Sarawak. This form of dance exemplifies the age-old tradition of storytelling in dance and narrates the story of the happiness of a prince when blessed with a grandson.

Examples of traditional Malaysian dances are:



Joget: The Joget is the most popular traditional dance throughout Malaysia.It is performed at cultural festivals, wedding celebrations and other social functions. Joget’s origin has been traced back and associated with a Portuguese for dance which was introduced to Malacca during the era of the spice trade. It is a couple dance and the tempo is fairly quick with the a feeling of teasing and playing between the partners.



Silat: Silat is actually the Malay art of self-defense, which has many forms, styles or branches. It is a series of movements in which two exponents demonstrate gracefully how to fence and defend themselves. While not in the strict sense, a dance, it has nonetheless been included here as the movements are often choreographed into a dance sequence. Silat has emerged as a popular demonstration of Malay strength and bravery especially during auspicious occasions such as weddings. The performance was traditionally done by males only but it can also be performed by female dancers. The dancers wear complete but simple Malay costumes, usually black in colour with a band of cloth tied around their heads.



Some interesting facts:

  • Malaysia is home to 14,500 species of flowering plants and trees, more than 200 species of mammals, 600 species of bids, 140 species of snakes and 60 species of lizards.
  • At 421 metres high, the Kuala Lumpur Tower is the fourth tallest in the world and tallest in Southeast Asia.
  • The largest cave chamber in the world is the Sarawak Chamber in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, which can easily accommodate a Boeing 747-200.
  • The word ringgit means “jagged” in Malay, and originally referred to the separated edges of Spanish silver dollars widely circulated in the region.

Malaysian Community in Australia:

More information on the Malaysian community: