Facts about Malaysia

Surface area: 329,758 km2

Capital: Kuala Lumpur

Population: 31 million

Ethnic structure: Malay people 58%, Chinese 27%, South Indians 7%, and several smaller ethnic groups

Languages: Altogether some 130, of which the dominant is Bahasa Malaysia, others include English, several Chinese dialects, and Tamil

Religions: Predominantly Islam, but also Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity

Malaysia did not exist as a unified state until 1963. Previously, a set of colonies was established by the United Kingdom from the late 18th century, and the western part of today’s Malaysia was composed of several separate sultanates. This group of colonies was known as British Malaya until its dissolution in 1946, when it became the Malayan Union. Owing to general opposition, it was reorganized again as the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and later gained independence in 1957. Singapore, Sarawak, British North Borneo and the Federation of Malaya were united to form Malaysia on 16 September 1963. The early years of the new union were marred by a conflict with Indonesia and the expulsion of Singapore in 1965.

A Crossroads of Influences

The Malay Peninsula is the cradle of the tradition of Malay culture, which extends to prehistoric stone monuments. The Malays have been active mariners for over two millennia, which explains the expansion of the Malay culture to various parts of Southeast Asia. Because of its geographical location, the Malay Peninsula has served as a kind of bridge between mainland and archipelagic Southeast Asia, which has shaped Malaysia’s multi-ethnic culture greatly.

The Strait of Malacca was, for a long period, an important junction of sea routes connecting Southeast Asia to India, China, and later also to the Arab world. It was precisely the flourishing sea trade that made the region later attractive for the Western colonial powers, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British.

Malaysia combines a variety of ethnic and cultural elements: indigenous Malay, Javanese, Sumatran, Thai, Arab, Indian, Chinese, etc. The Indianised court culture, so dominant in the early kingdoms of Southeast Asia, was probably adopted from Java and Sumatra. Before the Malays adopted Islam in the 13th and 14th centuries the Indian influence had been dominant since the early centuries AD.

The Indianised Kingdom

In a similar way as in the neighbouring areas, both on the Southeast Asian mainland as well as in the archipelago, there also existed an early Indian-influenced kingdom in the regions of present-day Malaysia. Although mentioned in both Chinese and Indian sources, the history of the kingdom of Langkasuka, situated in the northeast coast of the peninsula, is not known in detail.

Many of the still extant indigenous theatre and dance traditions of Malaysia, in fact, originate from the regions of ancient Langkasuka, thus confirming the continuation of the region’s Hindu-Buddhist culture. This region, Pattani, has belonged from time to time to the Thai kingdoms, which explains the close relation of the performing traditions of northeastern Malaysia and southernmost Thailand.

The Arrival of Islam

Malacca, a strategically well-located kingdom controlling the trade in the Strait of Malacca, was converted to Islam in 1402. Thus, through the sea routes new cultural ties were established, this time with Islamic West India and the Arab world. This resulted in a new kind of syncretism combining elements from Islam as well as from the earlier animistic and Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

The ruling class of the sultanate had close ties with Islamic India, from where some of the sultans or their forefathers had arrived. Javanese influences continued to be felt, even during the period of Malaccan hegemony, as the sultan had huge retinues of Javanese workers and servants. The Sultanate of Malacca thus laid the basis not only for the Islamisation of the peninsula but also for its ethnic diversity, which was gradually also enriched by Chinese immigrants.

The Western Influence

The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511, heralding a long period of Western domination in the area of present-day Malaysia. The centre of Islamic culture moved to the sultanates of the east coast of the Malay Peninsula. Dominant factors in their culture were and still are the almost deified sultan, his palace (istana) and, of course, the mosque.

The Literature

The literary tradition of Malaysia bears clear marks of the country’s many-layered history. The Hindu stratum is represented by localised versions of the originally Indian epic, Ramayana. Originally it was known in the Sultanate of Malacca in a Javanese version, but later, during the Islamic period, it was rewritten as Hikayat Seri Rama, in which the main heroes are Muslims. However, in the border regions of Thailand still another version is known, related to the Thai Ramakien.

Of the history chronicles the most important is the Sejarah Melayu, the history of the Malaccan Sultanate. Through international contacts several literary works and stories were adopted and adapted from India and the Arab world.

The Straits Chinese

From the 15th century Chinese traders began to settle in both Insular and Peninsular Southeast Asia. In the regions of the Malay Peninsula, Chinese communities started to emerge, especially along the west coast, in what was to become known during the British colonial period as the Straits Settlements: Penang, Malacca and Singapore.

These “Straits Chinese” adapted to local conditions and developed a unique eclectic culture of their own. It includes eclectic architecture, and Chinese-influenced crafts. To a lesser degree they also maintain their, originally Chinese, forms of puppetry and opera, thus adding one more aspect to Malaysia’s heterogeneous theatrical tradition.

In this historical context it is only natural that the Malaysian theatrical tradition became diverse in nature. The various ethnic groups had their own drama traditions, none of which ever rose to the status of a national or classical form. In the late 20th century, when fundamentalist Islam gained power, the central government has, if not completely banned, at least restricted many of the traditional performing arts traditions.