Malaysian americans

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by Karl Heil


The country of Malaysia is composed of 13 states. It is located in Southeast Asia on the Malay Peninsula, which divides the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, as well as the northern corner of the island of Borneo. The peninsular portion of the country, which lies between Thailand to the north and Singapore to the south, is referred to as Western Malaysia, and the northern portion of Borneo as Eastern Malaysia. About 400 miles (644 kilometers) of the South China Sea separates East and West Malaysia. Malaysia has a combined area of 127,320 square miles (329,758 square kilometers), slightly larger than the state of New Mexico. The country's capital was Kuala Lumpur since it gained independence beginning in 1957. However, in June of 1999, the country planned to move its capital 20 miles (32 kilometers) south to Putrajaya. Putrajaya was designed as a high-tech capital featuring buildings linked with fiber-optic cable and a "paperless" office environment for banks and government buildings. The capital also is slated to have a floating mosque in the city's lake.

The country's population is composed of ethnic Malays and other aboriginal people, who represent 62 percent of the country's population; ethnic Chinese (26 percent) and ethnic Indians (7 percent) make up the country's largest minorities. Other groups include Arabs, Armenians, and Eurasians. The country's indigenous population includes the orang asli, which is commonly divided into the Negritos (a nomadic hunting people), the Senoi (an agrarian people), and the Jakun (an agrarian people). These three groups number around one million people. Overall, Malaysia has a population of more than 20 million people, with most residing in Western Malaysia. In addition, Islam is the religion of more than 50 percent of the population, and the official language is Bahasa Malaysia, which is derived from the indigenous Malay language. The country includes two federal territories, Kuala Lumpur and Lubuan, and 13 states, Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Penang, Selangor, Terengganu, Sabah, and Sarawak.

The Malaysian economy, once based mostly on the extraction of raw materials such as rubber and tin, has shifted to manufacturing, tourism, and technology. About 15 percent of the country's land is devoted to agriculture, and rice is the country's leading crop. Furthermore, Malaysia is the world's leader in palm oil production. Production of natural gas and petroleum also constitute significant industries in Malaysia. Malaysia's currency unit is the ringgit, which is also called the Malaysian dollar. The Malaysian flag contains horizontal red and white stripes as well as a blue square in the upper left corner that includes a crescent moon and the sun.


Because of a scarcity of information on Malaysia's history prior to the fifteenth century, historians have been unable to construct with any certainty a picture of Malaysia for this earlier era. Around 1400, however, a major trading port developed in Melaka on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, and after its rise the area became known to other countries around the world. Nevertheless, some Chinese, Indian, and Arab documents prior to 1400 contain references to the area that is now Malaysia. These sources suggest that the Chinese, Indians, and Arabs made contact with the Malay people before 1400. In addition, archaeological evidence indicates that the original human inhabitants came to the Malay Peninsula in spurts beginning about 35,000 years ago. The original inhabitants apparently came from South China, migrating southward to Malay, Indonesia, and Australia. Somewhat later, immigrants from India traveled to the Malay Peninsula around the beginning of the common era, bringing with them an alphabet, laws, literature, and the Hindu and Buddhist religions. The Indians set up trade centers along the peninsula and retained influence over them until around the thirteenth century, when China began to expand its trade substantially in the region. China's influence over the Malay Peninsula lasted through the fifteenth century.

In the fifteen century, Islamic sultans arrived in Malay and founded the state or sultanate of Melaka (also spelled Malacca). This port city became a nexus for trade, the spread of Islam, and the dissemination of the Malay language to other parts of the island chain (including what are now Indonesia and Singapore). Paramesvara became the sultanate's first ruler, and he received recognition as such by the Chinese around 1405. During this period, a few significant changes took place that helped form aspects of contemporary Malaysia. First, Islam supplanted Hinduism as the dominant religion. Second, the country's sultanate structure of different states ruled by an Islamic leader developed along with its Islamic aristocracy, which remains today in that Malaysia's Muslims are afforded certain privileges because of their religion. Furthermore, Melaka became one of the greatest powers in the region during this period and eventually included all of Malaya, a federation of nine Malay states (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor, and Terengganu). With its good harbor and fleet, Melaka became a major center for international trade and the source of spices in the region. The burgeoning wealth of Melaka during this period because of its spice trade and its key location between China and India piqued the interest of Europeans. The Portuguese first seized the state from the Sultans Mahmud Shah and Ahmad Shah in 1511. Although they defeated the sultans and their followers, the Portuguese faced frequent attacks from the sultans' followers as well as from Siam, China, and Japan. However, the Portuguese retained control of Melaka for until 1641, when the Dutch conquered the state and became the region's dominant European trader.

Under Dutch rule, Maleka's importance and size diminished. The Dutch tried to exploit trade in Malay, especially trade of gold, tin, and pepper. To do so, they exacted high duties from merchant vessels passing through Maleka. Hence, many ships navigated around Dutch controlled territories to avoid paying these duties. However, the Dutch efforts proved successful overall and Malay remained under Dutch rule for over two centuries. Nevertheless, Britain eventually came to control sizable interests in the area, too. In 1786, the British East India Company established a port to the north, on the island of Penang, and competed with the Dutchheld ports. The British took over control of Maleka in 1795 under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty. To facilitate governing Penang, Maleka, and Singapore, Britain combined them to form the Straits Settlements Presidency in 1867. This designation allowed the British to control Malay and neighboring territories without direct rule. Because British interest was exclusively in trade, the British established a policy of non-interference with the occurrences in Malay states. Social upheaval in the region eventually forced Britain to play a greater role in the governing of Malaya and nearby British-controlled states, however. Beginning in 1895, Britain formed a variety of federations of Malay states to help restore peace and stability. These federations involved both Malay and British governors, although the British had the ultimate control. British rule became increasingly centralized in the region, until Japan seized Malaya, Sarawak, and North Borneo during World War II and occupied them until the war ended in 1945. In the postwar period, a complicated independence movement began.


The independence movement had to overcome the differences among the various ethnic groups in the peninsula, especially those of the Malays, the Chinese, and the Indians. Around 1950, the Alliance party emerged as a voice for independence representing the country's three major ethnic groups. The party came to power in 1955 after the country's first national elections. Tunku Abdul Rahman became the country's first prime minister. The Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1957, and nine Malay states, along with Penang and Melaka, became a country independent of British rule. Before achieving independence, a Communist guerrilla movement fought for independence from British control. In 1963, the Borneo states Sabah and Sarawak joined the states of the Malay Peninsula as part of the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore entered the federation in 1963, too, but defected in 1965 because of disputes with the Malaysian leadership.

During its infancy, Malaysia faced resistance from Indonesia, which attacked Malaysian states in an effort to break up the fledgling country. Indonesia saw Malaysia as a throwback to the colonial era with its dependence on British military assistance. In addition, Communist guerrilla attacks continued in the Borneo states through the early 1970s. The country also saw growing conflict between its Malay and ethnic Chinese citizens, which prompted the New Economic Policy of 1970. This policy was designed to reduce the economic inequality between the rural Malays and urban Chinese.

The economic changes ultimately proved successful to a large extent and helped rural Malays move into urban areas and reap a greater share of the country's economic benefits. Consequently, the country has enjoyed relative prosperity and stability since the early 1970s, and relations with its neighbors also have been positive during this period. In addition, the country's economic policies are still based on the New Economic Policy, although it is now called the National Development Policy. Malaysia's economic policies of the late 1990s included the expansion of the country's technology industries, promotion of entrepreneurship, and maintenance of harmony among different ethnic groups.

Acculturation and Assimilation


The cuisine of Malaysian Americans depends on the particulars of ethnicity, although rice is common across all groups. Traditional Malay food features hot chilies, coconut milk, shallots, garlic, ginger, which go into Malay curries and belacan, a fermented shrimp cake. Since the Malays are Islamic, they do not eat pork; they instead rely on beef and seafood for their dishes. One of the most popular Malay dishes is the satay, or barbecue meat and vegetables on wooden skewers. In addition, peanut sauces are a prominent ingredient of many a Malay dish.

Ethnic Chinese Malaysians developed their own brand of Chinese cuisine, which varies from the food of mainland China, after spending centuries on the Malay Peninsula. This cuisine is often regional, and its ingredients and methods depend on the specific areas in which the Chinese Malaysians reside. Consequently, specific dishes come from specific cities. For example, nasi ayam, or chicken rice, comes from the city of Ipoh and consists of chicken, rice, and bean sprouts. Chinese Malaysian cuisine includes many of the spices that Malay food does—shallots, ginger, garlic, and even chilies—but it generally lacks the spiciness of Malay or Indian Malaysian cuisine.

Indian Malaysian food varies based on religion: those who are Hindus do not eat beef and those who are Islamic do not eat pork. Nevertheless, the cuisine of all Indian Malaysians tends to reflect the cooking of South India, from where most Indians emigrated. Hence, spicy Indian-style curries are popular; they include meat, seafood, and vegetarian curries served with rice. Although all Indian Malaysian food tends to be spicy, those who are Islamic often prefer even spicier food.


Since Malaysia is an Islamic country, the traditional clothing of Malaysia reflects Islamic beliefs in

This elaborate Malaysian American float was created for the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.
This elaborate Malaysian American float was created for the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.
modesty—that is, keeping the body covered, especially among women. Nevertheless, Malaysian clothing tends to be colorful with abstract and floral patterns and embroidery. Indian and Chinese Malaysians sometimes retain their respective attire in Malaysia.


Malaysian Americans may celebrate a variety of standard Malaysian holidays such as Worker's Day or Labor Day on May 1, National Day or Independence Day on August 31, and Christmas on December 25 (celebrated by Christian Malaysian Americans, who also celebrate Easter and other Christian holidays). In addition, Malaysian Americans may observe a number of other holidays, depending on their ethnicity. Since Islamic, Chinese, and Hindu calendars are all lunar calendars, these holidays do not set have dates and change from year to year. Islamic Malaysian Americans, for example, may observe Hari Raya Puasa (sometimes shortened to Hari Raya ), which comes at the end of Ramadan (called Puasa in Mala). This holiday involves special prayers at the mosque and gatherings of families and friends. For the occasion, houses are usually decorated with lights, and people dress formally.

Ethnic Chinese Malaysian Americans, on the other hand, might celebrate China's three important holidays: the Chinese New Year, the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts, and the Moon Cake Festival. The Chinese New Year usually falls in January or February, and its traditional Malaysian celebration involves the closing of businesses for two days, parades, and dances. In addition, the holiday brings families and friends together, usually for dinner and celebration. The Hungry Ghosts Festival usually is held between July and August when it is believed that the spirits of the dead circulate on earth and hence need to be fed. When celebrating this holiday, Malaysian Americans may offer food to the spirits and hold feasts for themselves. Finally, the Moon Cake Festival, which is held in September around the autumn moon, commemorates the defeat of the Mongols in ancient China. The celebration includes the preparation and eating of pastries shaped like the moon.

Hindu Malaysian Americans may celebrate the major Hindu holidays. The most popular of these holidays is Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, which usually takes place in October or November. For the holiday, family and friends gather to celebrate the stories of good overcoming evil. Families usually have open houses for the holiday and decorate their homes with colored lights, lamps, fruit, flowers, and other kinds of decorations. Another important Hindu holiday is Thaipusam, which usually takes place in January or February. The holiday honors Lord Subramaniam, and it is day of giving thanks for answered prayers and courage. Traditionally, the holiday includes more elaborate celebration such as parades and processions.


Bahasa Malaysia simply means the "Malaysian language" and is a standardized version of Malay. Not only is it the official language of Malaysia but also of Brunei, Indonesia, and even Singapore. Malay began as a trade language and adopted words from its trading partners, the Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, and English. While the traditional Malay alphabet Jawi is based on Arabic, Malay script has been converted to roman characters.

The pronunciation of Malay is similar to English and other European languages. However, there are some important differences. The letter c is pronounced "ch" as in "church." Hence, the Malay word cat is pronounced "chat" and means "paint." The letter g also has the hard consonantal sound as in "grade," and so a word such as garam ("salt") will have the hard sound. H has a soft sound or is not pronounced at all, and kh is always hard, as in "kill." Ng has the soft sound, as in "song," whereas ngg has the hard sound, as in "mango." Sy is pronounced like "sh," and r rolled as in Spanish. Malay has five vowels as English does: a, e, i, o, and u. The vowels i, o, and u are long, while a is short. Finally, e can be unstressed, as in u in "put" or stressed, as in "bench." The diphthongs au and ai are pronounced like those in "cow" and "sky," respectively.


Some Malay greetings and salutations include: selamat datang ("welcome"), selamat pagi ("good morning"), selamat petang ("good afternoon"), selamat malam ("good evening"), selamat tidur ("good night"), selamat jalan ("goodbye"). Basic Malay phrases and expression include: Apa khabar? ("How are you?"), Khabar baik ("I'm fine"), Siapa nama kamu? ("What's your name?"), Nama saya . . . (My name is . . .") Dimana . . . ? ("Where is . . ."), Ma'af ("Excuse me" or "Sorry"), bari ini ("Today"), besok ("tomorrow"), semalam ("yesterday"), tidak ("no," "not"), ya ("yes"), lelaki ("man"), perempuan ("woman"), orang ("person"), Terima kasih ("Thank you"), tolong ("please" in a request for help), minta ("please" in a request for something), makan ("to eat"), minum ("to drink"), saya mau ("I would like"), beli ("to buy"), saya tidak mengerti ("I don't understand").

Family and Community Dynamics


Malaysian weddings are colorful ceremonies, traditionally held in the home of the bride. The groom and his entourage enter the bride's home in procession, accompanied by musicians and singers and bringing gifts. While customs may vary depending on which region Malaysian Americans come from, the bride and the groom both typically wear profusely decorated garments. The bride's costume is decorated with the Malay colors, gold and silver. The ceremony features a lavish feast for the guests as well as the bersanding, in which the bride and groom sit together on ornate chairs while the guests come forth individually to offer their congratulations and blessings. The ceremony also may involve the tepong tawar, a ritual performed by guests of honor who anoint the groom's forehead with a gold ring, apply rice flour or sandalwood to it, and dapple the groom's head and hands with flowers or rice grains.


Like other aspects of Malaysian American culture, religion also depends on ethnic background. In Malaysia, most Malays and a smaller percentage of Chinese and Indian Malaysians are Muslims. Consequently, more than 50 percent of the population is Islamic, and Islam is the country's official religion. Nonetheless, the government ensures freedom of religion. Most of the Chinese Malaysians follow Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and the majority of the Indian Malaysians are Hindus or Sikhs—although some are Muslims. In addition, Malaysia has a small Christian segment located mostly in the states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Islamic Malaysians are Sunni Muslims from the Shafi denomination of Islam. The beliefs and obligations of Malaysian Muslims are epitomized in the Five Pillars of Islam: the belief in the omnipotence of Allah and in the Prophet Muhammad, the divine messenger; participation in ritual prayers and purification; the giving of alms; fasting during Ramadan; and at least one pilgrimage to Mecca during one's lifetime.

Since Malaysian Sunnis believe that the prayers and language of Islam came from Allah through Muhammad, they consider the very words powerful in and of themselves. Hence, their religious practices involve chants and readings of the holy words and prayers of Islam.

The Chinese Malaysians tend to believe or follow part of the three main religions of this ethnic group: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Depending on where they came from in China, Chinese Malaysians may emphasize particular aspects of one of these religions. Unlike Islam and other religions, these three are largely philosophical and ethical systems, not organized theologies. Buddhism and Taoism, however, have temples and monasteries. The doctrines of Confucianism call for strong family ties; Taoist beliefs emphasize spiritual and mystical life over materialism; and Buddhism holds that there is salvation and reincarnation and that people must venerate their ancestors.

Most Malaysian Indians are Hindus, and they worship a pantheon of gods. They also try to live up to a variety of ideals and practice a range of rituals. The beliefs of the Hindus emphasize family welfare, land cultivation, and veneration of the family home. Hindu temples are designed as homes for the gods rather than for communal worship. Hindus go to temples to give offerings and receive blessings. Hindu priests tend to the temples, maintaining shrines, accepting offerings, and serving as intermediaries between humans and gods; however, overall there are not that many Hindu priests in Malaysia.

Organizations and Associations

Harvard Club of Malaysia.

This organization serves Malaysian and Malaysian American students and alumni and seeks to build ongoing friendships among its members.

Address : Harvard Club of Malaysia c/o Proven Resources Sdn. Bhd. Suite 15.03, Level 15 Menara IMC No. 8, Jalan Sultan Ismail 50250 Kuala Lumpur.

Fax: (603) 201-9934.

The Malaysian American Society (MAS).

MAS was founded in 1967 to promote cultural exchanges between the Malaysia and the United States. The organization has a registered membership of 200 Malaysians and Malaysian Americans.

Address: 48B, Jalan SS 22/21, Damansara Jaya, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

Telephone: (603) 716-4848.

Fax: (603) 716-6048.

Malaysian Students Association at the University of Michigan (U.M.I.M.S.A.).

U.M.I.M.S.A. has some 50 members who are Malaysian Americans or Malaysians studying in the United States and serves to foster friendships and camaraderie among Malaysian students.

Contact: Nasir Sobri.

Address: Malaysian Students Association at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI 48107-7054.

Malaysia Student Association of St. Louis, Missouri (MASA).

Established in the 1980s by Malaysian students, MASA has about 100 members and serves students from five different universities in the St. Louis area. The objective of the association is to maintain close relationships among the students after their graduation.

Contact: Abdul Shukor Ali.

Address: The New Straits Times Press, (M) Berhad Balai Berita, 31 Jalan Riong 59100 Kuala Lumpur.

Telephone: (603) 282-3131 ext. 847.

University of California-Berkeley Alumni Club of Malaysia.

The UC–Berkeley Alumni Club of Malaysia strives to promote congenial relations among members in Malaysia and throughout Southeast Asia and to foster an ongoing and mutually enriching exchange between UC–Berkeley and Malaysia in the areas of professional discourse and cultural understanding. Founded in 1996, the club has a membership of about 40.

Contact: Mr. Victor Kong, President.

Address: 6, USJ 4/1G, 47600 UEP, Subang Jaya, Selangor.

Telephone: (603) 202-8330.

Sources for Additional Study

Andaya, Barbara Watson, and Leonard Y. Andaya. A History of Malaysia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

King, Victor. The Simple Guide to Malaysia: Customs and Etiquette. Kent, England: Global Books, Ltd., 1998.

User Contributions:

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Jan 15, 2011 @ 10:10 am
As a Malaysian-American, I found it surprising to find an article on us online. I was hoping to read more about Malaysia-Americans but it looks like just a run-down on Malaysian culture. Good attempt though.

If you need an additional source, I suggest "Owen, N. G. (2005). The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press." It's a great book and helped me understand Malaysia in a socioeconomic context throughout it's history.
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Nov 28, 2012 @ 6:06 am
Hi, is the UC Berkeley Alumni group still active in Kuala Lumpur and is Victor still president? The number displayed here does not work. Please let me know if there is an updated version? Rgds

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