Ethnic GroupsSee also: Demographics of Malaysia
Malaysia is a multi–ethnic, multicultural, and multilingual society, and the many ethnic groups in Malaysia maintain separate cultural identities. The society of Malaysia has been described as "Asia in miniature". The original culture of the area stemmed from its indigenous tribes, along with the Malays who moved there in ancient times. Substantial influence exists from the Chinese and Indian cultures, dating back to when trade with those countries began in the area. Other cultures that heavily influenced that of Malaysia include Persian, Arabic, and British. The structure of the government, along with the racial balance of power caused by the idea of a social contract, has resulted in little incentive for the cultural assimilation of ethnic minorities in Malaya and Malaysia. The government has historically made little distinction between "Malay culture" and "Malaysian culture".
The Malays, who account for over half the Malaysian population, play a dominant role politically and are included in a grouping identified as bumiputra. Their native language, Bahasa Malaysia, is the national language of the country. By definition of the Malaysian constitution, all Malays are Muslims. The Orang Asal, the earliest inhabitants of Malaya, formed only 0.5 percent of the total population in Malaysia in 2000, but represented a majority in East Malaysia. In Sarawak, most of the non-Muslim indigenous groups are classified as Dayaks, and they constitute about 40 percent of the population in the state. Many tribes have converted to Christianity. The 140,000 Orang Asli, or aboriginal peoples, comprise a number of different ethnic communities living in peninsular Malaysia.
The Chinese have been settling in Malaysia for many centuries, and form the second-largest ethnic group. The first Chinese to settle in the Straits Settlements, primarily in and around Malacca, gradually adopted elements of Malaysian culture and intermarried with the Malaysian community and with this, a new ethnic group called emerged, the Peranakan ("Straits Chinese"). These Chinese have adopted Malay traditions while maintaining elements of Chinese culture such as their largely Buddhist and Taoist religion. The more common dialects of Chinese spoken in Peninsular Malaysia are Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese, and Foochow.
The Indian community in Malaysia is the smallest of the three main ethnic groups, accounting for about 10 percent of the country's population. They speak a variety of South Asian languages. Tamils, Malayalees, and Telugu people make up over 85 percent of the people of Indian origin in the country. Indian immigrants to Malaysia brought with them the Hindu and Sikh cultures. This included temples and Gurdwaras, cuisine, and clothing. Hindu tradition remains strong in the Indian community of Malaysia. A community of Indians who have adopted Malay cultural practices also exists in Malacca. Though they remain Hindu, the Chitties speak Bahasa Malaysia and dress and act as Malays.
Some Eurasians of mixed European and Malay descent live in Malaysia. A small community in Malacca are descendants of former Portuguese colonists who married Malay women. While they have adopted Malay culture, they speak their own language and are Catholics.
Each ethnic group has its own underlying culture that separates it from the others, and they have achieved different levels of integration. The Chinese have integrated with Malay culture in a number of areas, including parts of Terrenganu, and they form Malayanised groups such as the Baba Chinese in Malacca and the Sino-Kadazan of Sabah. Their years under combined British rule brought some joint sense of identity to all the ethnic groups, with English ideas and ideals providing some unifying features. A joint Malaysian culture can be seen in the symbiosis of the cultures of the people within it.
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