Malaysia’s wonderfully diverse cultural make-up is utterly unique and one of the most important aspects of the nation. There are many contrasting religions and denominations living together in the country in relative harmony most of the time.
Malaysia remains an Islamic nation with sharia courts governing over the religious conduct of ethnic Malays and constitutional courts for general legal matters. There are practising Buddhists, Taoists, Jews, Christians and Hindus in Malaysia with each faith split into different sub-categories.
Islam in Malaysia
Malay culture takes much from Islam with many Bahasa Malaysia words originating directly from their Arabic equivalents. Islam has become such as massive part of life in Malaysia that Muslim celebrations are often incorporated into the general social calender and observed by all Malaysians. By law all ethnic Malays must be Muslim and a large number of south Indian immigrants also practice Islam plus a few Chinese converts as well.
Malays are also known as Bumiputras (meaning ’sons of earth’) and any member of this group who decides to renounce his faith will forfeit their constitutional benefits immediately. However, the opposite does not apply and just be converting to Islam will not secure the same privileges enjoyed by Bumiputras. Female Muslims are generally expected to wear a headscarf or ‘hijab’, although this is not prescribed by law. Indeed, many female politicians choose to abstain from this practice as the state opens up to secular influence.
Flirting and displays of public affection for Malay women is strictly prohibited, and so are romantic trysts between Muslims and those of different creeds. In 2007 a Hindu-Muslim couple was forcibly separated by a sharia court despite being together for 21 years and having six children. Ethnic Malays are governed by sharia laws regarding family and religious issues such as divorce or adultery. These do not tend to have any bearing on other ethnic groups in Malaysia except when involving the Bumiputra class.
Malays get an array of benefits over other ethnicities in Malaysia because of Bumiputra status. Affirmative action for entry to higher education establishments and financial incentives when purchasing motor vehicles or real estate are enjoyed by the majority Malays.
Naturally these privileges are a great source of resentment amongst Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian peoples, and Malaysia is somewhat unique amongst supposedly democratic nations in employing such constitutional discrimination.
Buddhism in Malaysia
People originating from China make up around 40 per cent of Malaysia as a whole and many of those label themselves Buddhists. But in reality there are countless subdivisions and denominations of Oriental faiths which are not strictly following Buddhist principles, and many people simply list themselves as such to ease the bureaucratic burden.
Most of Malaysia’s Buddhist community are ethnic Chinese although many Buddhists may not be aware exactly which branch of the faith they follow in particular. This means that both Thai and Chinese Buddhism institutions can have followers from different origins, sometimes simply due to logistical matters such as ease of access. In Malaysia there is also a unique fusion of beliefs which has developed into something quite unique with some Taoism also incorporated.
Buddhists in Malaysia mostly worship at Burmese or Thai temples but there are some Chinese holy places as well. As with many other places in the world, Chinese Buddhist temples follow Mahayana Buddhism whereas Burmese and Thai institutions follow different Theravada Buddhism. Sri Lankan worshippers are also sometimes found at these temples as well.
Chinese Taoism in Malaysia
Chinese Temples in Malaysia are amongst the most ornate outside mainland China and KL’s Petaling Street is home to the capital’s Oriental places of worship. Most of temples were constructed from the 1850s to the outbreak of the Second World War when immigration from China to Malaysia was at its most prevalent. Penang’s first Taoist temple is called Kong Hock Keong (or Kuan Yin Teng). This holy shrine is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy and constructed in reverence to god of sailors Matsu or Ma Chor Po.
Hinduism in Malaysia
Indian Malaysians generally immigrated to the country during the time of British rule to help the fledging colony develop industrially. These early settlers were mainly of Hindu origin although there were a large number of Muslims from the Tamil states and some Sikhs as well. Around 50,000 Baha’is also came to live around Penang where there is a large subcontinental community.
Hindu temples were constructed by Indian labourers and prisoners, and many of these are extremely ornate and impressive buildings. Many Hindu merchants also came to live in Malaysia for trade including Chulias, Chettiars plus a number of Gujaratis and north Indians.
Notable Hindu temples in Malaysia include Penang’s Mahamariamman Temple of Queen Street in Georgetown, Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Temple of Penang Hill and Sri Rama Temple of York Close. Thaipusam is the most important Hindu festival celebrated in Malaysia and the Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur becomes a site of mass pilgrimage during which devotees skewer their skin and parade to the shrine with a silver chariot and statue of Lord Muruga.