Common cultural misconceptions about Malaysia
With neighbours like Singapore and Indonesia, it’s almost too easy to consider Malaysia as solely an exotic holiday destination. But with cosmopolitan cities, a high quality of life index and vibrant cultural legacy, modern Malaysia has much more to offer than just luscious landscape.
Commonly imagined as a giant, green, sweaty jungle, the word ‘modern’ is sadly underused when it comes to Malaysia. A cultural melting pot well-versed in English, modern Malaysia is a centre of business, nightlife and higher education. Thinking of studying abroad in Malaysia? We’ve laid out some commonly held cultural misconceptions about the country, its culture and the Malay way of life to help get you on your way.
Malaysia is officially a Muslim country, with approximately 60% of the population being of Islam faith. This means that the majority of the population doesn’t drink, and holds a set of beliefs regarding social custom that may seem conservative to some foreigners. But, believe it or not, there are cities in Malaysia with clubs, bars and restaurants, some of which are geared to cater for international guests. With about 140 languages in their arsenal in addition to mother tongues, Malaysian citizens are an incredibly diverse bunch. Ethnic Malays comprise the majority of Malaysians, but the city also houses a number of other ethnic groups such as Ethnic Chinese and Indian, as well as playing host to plenty of international professionals and students.
The national centre of finance, insurance, economics, media and arts, Kuala Lumpur boasts a number of multi-national offices and support centres, as well as a thriving tourist industry. Welcoming an average of 8.9 million tourists a year, Kuala Lumpur is the sixth most visited city in the world. These are not statistics of a nation considered ‘boring.’
Whilst it’s true that rural areas comprise a large portion of the country’s land mass, you won’t necessarily need to stock up on malaria tablets when you go to visit. Risks of malaria are high in the peninsula’s central mountain regions and on the island of Borneo, but if precautions are taken then there’s no reason for you not to venture into the wilderness and enjoy Malaysia’s natural beauty. It’s highly unlikely that as a visiting student or businessperson you would find yourself in any of these regions.
Malaysia’s jungles are uniquely stunning and iconic, but should not distract us from its bustling urban life. Malaysia is estimated to be the 41st most populated country in the world, with 59% of citizens living in urban areas in 2002. In 2010, this figure increased to 72.2%, and subsequently saw a decrease in the population of rural areas.
Unfortunately, the idea that Malaysians are arrogant and unaccommodating to foreigners in part stems from negative connotations of the Islam faith as conservative and uncompromising. These conceptions of alternate social customs are narrow-minded, and wrongfully pigeonhole all Malaysians as reserved and rigid in their beliefs. It is also religious discrimination.
The ‘arrogant’ stereotype is also historically owed in part to Indonesia, where the pun of Malaysia as ‘Maling-sia,’ (‘mailing’ means ‘thief’ in Javanese,) refers to the belief that some aspects of Indonesian culture, as well as some Indonesian islands within a disputed region were wrongfully claimed as Malaysian.
The global reach of cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang as well as Malaysia’s booming tourist industry are testament to its diversity, cosmopolitanism and international scope. We should not let stereotypes based on discrimination colour perceptions of a country, its culture or peoples.
Now that you no longer have to worry about contracting an illness, or dying from boredom, start browsing courses in Malaysia now!
Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.