Malaysia has a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society. The country’s original culture comes from the indigenous tribes that inhabited it, along with the Malays who moved there later. There is a significant influence of Chinese and Indian culture dating back to the beginning of foreign trade. Other cultural influences include Persian, Arab and British culture. Due to the structure of government and the social contract theory, there has been minimal cultural assimilation of ethnic minorities.
In 1971, the government created a “National Cultural Policy” that defined Malaysian culture. This stated that Malaysian culture must be based on the culture of the indigenous peoples of Malaysia, that it may contain appropriate elements from other cultures, and that Islam must play a role. It also promoted the Malay language above others. This government interference in culture has led to resentment among non-Malays who feel their cultural freedom has been curtailed. Both Chinese and Indian associations have submitted memoranda to the government accusing it of formulating undemocratic cultural policies.
There are some cultural disputes between Malaysia and neighbouring countries, especially Indonesia. The two countries have a similar cultural heritage and share many traditions and objects. Yet disputes have arisen over everything from culinary dishes to Malaysia’s national anthem. In Indonesia, there are strong feelings about protecting national heritage. The Malaysian and Indonesian governments have met to defuse some of the tensions resulting from cultural overlap. In Malaysia, feelings are not as strong as most recognise that many cultural values are shared.
Traditional Malaysian art focused mainly on carving, weaving and silversmithing. Traditional art ranges from hand-woven baskets from rural areas to the silverwork of Malay courts. Common artworks include ornamental kris, beetle nut sets and woven batik and songket fabrics. The indigenous East Malays are known for their wooden masks. Each ethnic group has its own performing arts, with little overlap between them. However, Malay art shows some North Indian influences due to the historical influence of India.
Traditional Malay music and performing arts seem to have their origins in the Kelantan-Pattani region, with influences from India, China, Thailand and Indonesia. The music is based on percussion instruments, of which the gendang (drum) is the most important. There are at least 14 types of traditional drums. Drums and other traditional percussion instruments are often made from natural materials. Music is traditionally used for storytelling, celebrating life cycle events and occasions such as a harvest. In the past, it was also used as a form of long-distance communication. In East Malaysia, gong-based music ensembles such as agung and kulintang are often used in ceremonies such as funerals and weddings. These ensembles are also common in neighbouring regions such as Mindanao in the Philippines, Kalimantan in Indonesia and Brunei.
Malaysia has a strong oral tradition that existed before the arrival of writing and continues to this day. Each of the Malay Sultanates created its own literary tradition, influenced by pre-existing oral histories and by the stories that came with Islam. The first Malay literature was written in Arabic script. The earliest known Malay script is on the Terengganu Stone, dating back to 1303. Chinese and Indian literature spread as the number of speakers in Malaysia increased, and locally produced works based on languages from these areas began to appear in the 19th century. English also became a common literary language. In 1971, the government took the step of defining the literature of the different languages. Literature written in Malay was referred to as ‘National Literature of Malaysia’, literature written in other Bumiputera languages was referred to as ‘Regional Literature’, while literature written in other languages was referred to as ‘Sectional Literature’.Malay poetry is highly developed and uses many forms. The hikayat form is popular, and pantun has spread from Malay into other languages.
Malaysia’s cuisine reflects the multi-ethnic composition of the population. Many cultures from within the country and from surrounding regions have greatly influenced the cuisine. Much of the influence comes from Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Javanese and Sumatran cultures, largely due to the country being part of the ancient spice route. The cuisine is very similar to that of Singapore and Brunei, and also has similarities with Filipino cuisine. The different states have different dishes, and often the food in Malaysia is different from the original dishes.
Sometimes foods not found in the original culture are assimilated into another; for example, Chinese restaurants in Malaysia often serve Malay dishes. Food from one culture is also sometimes cooked with styles adopted from another culture. For example, sambal belacan (shrimp paste) is often used by Chinese restaurants as ingredients in stir-fried water spinach (kangkung belacan). This means that many Malaysian dishes, while harking back to a particular culture, have their own identity. Rice is popular in many dishes. Chilli is common in local cuisine, although this does not necessarily make it spicy.
Malaysia’s main newspapers are owned by the government and the ruling coalition political parties, although some major opposition parties also have their own, which are openly sold alongside the regular newspapers. There is a divide between the media in the two halves of the country. The peninsula-based media give low priority to news from the east and often treat the eastern states as colonies of the peninsula. The media is accused of raising tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia and giving Malaysians a bad image of Indonesians. The country has Malaysian, English, Chinese and Tamil dailies.
Freedom of the press is restricted, there are numerous restrictions on the right to publish and disseminate information. The government has previously tried to crack down on opposition newspapers before elections. In 2007, a government agency issued a directive to all private television and radio stations not to broadcast speeches by opposition leaders, a move condemned by politicians from the opposition Democratic Action Party. Sabah, where all but one tabloid is independent of the government, has the freest press in Malaysia. Laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act have also been cited as restricting freedom of expression.