Freedom of religion is guaranteed throughout this mainly Islamic region, although in Brunei the Baha’i faith is banned and you are unlikely to encounter many practising Jews. Hinduism’s roots in the region long predate Islam, and the various Chinese religions are also strongly entrenched. Christianity has a presence, more so in Singapore than Peninsular Malaysia, where it has never been strong. In Malaysian Borneo many of the indigenous people have converted to Christianity, yet others still follow their animist traditions.
The animist religions of Malaysia’s indigenous peoples are as diverse as the peoples themselves. While animism does not have a rigid system of tenets or codified beliefs, it can be said that animists perceive natural phenomena to be animated by various spirits or deities, and a complex system of practices is used to propitiate these spirits.
Ancestor worship is also a common feature of animist societies; departed souls are considered to be intermediaries between this world and the next. Examples of elaborate burial rituals can still be found in some parts of Sarawak, where the remains of monolithic burial markers and funerary objects still dot the jungle around longhouses in the Kelabit Highlands. However, most of these are no longer maintained and they’re being rapidly swallowed up by the fast-growing jungle.
In Malaysian Borneo, Dayak animism is known collectively as Kaharingan. Carvings, totems, tattoos and other objects (including, in earlier times, head-hunting skulls) are used to repel bad spirits, attract good spirits and soothe spirits that may be upset. Totems at entrances to villages and longhouses are markers for the spirits.
The Chinese in the region usually follow a mix of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Buddhism takes care of the afterlife, Confucianism looks after the political and moral aspects of life, and Taoism contributes animistic beliefs to teach people to maintain harmony with the universe. But to say that the Chinese have three religions is too simplistic a view of their traditional religious life. At the first level Chinese religion is animistic, with a belief in the innate vital energy in rocks, trees, rivers and springs. At the second level people from the distant past, both real and mythological, are worshipped as gods. Overlaid on this are popular Taoist, Mahayana Buddhist and Confucian beliefs.
On a day-to-day level most Chinese are much less concerned with the high-minded philosophies and asceticism of the Buddha, Confucius or Lao Zi than they are with the pursuit of worldly success, the appeasement of the dead and the spirits, and seeking knowledge about the future. Chinese religion incorporates elements of what Westerners might call ‘superstition’ – if you want your fortune told, for instance, you go to a temple. The other thing to remember is that Chinese religion is polytheistic. Apart from the Buddha, Lao Zi and Confucius, there are many divinities, such as house gods, and gods and goddesses for particular professions.
Hinduism in the region dates back at least 1500 years and there are Hindu influences in cultural traditions, such as wayang kulit (shadow-puppet theatre) and the wedding ceremony. However, it is only in the last 100 years or so, following the influx of Indian contract labourers and settlers, that it has again become widely practised.
Hinduism has three basic practices: puja (worship), the cremation of the dead, and the rules and regulations of the caste system. Although still very strong in India, the caste system was never significant in Malaysia, mainly because the labourers brought there from India were mostly from the lower classes.
Hinduism has a vast pantheon of deities, although the one omnipresent god usually has three physical representations: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer or reproducer. All three gods are usually shown with four arms, but Brahma has the added advantage of four heads to represent his all-seeing presence.
The most spectacular Hindu festival in Malaysia and Singapore is Thaipusam, a wild parade of confrontingly invasive body piercings. The festival, which originated in Tamil Nadu (but is now banned in India), happens every year in the Hindu month of Thai (January/February) and is celebrated with the most gusto at the Batu Caves, just outside Kuala Lumpur.
The greatest spectacle is the devotees who subject themselves to seemingly masochistic acts as fulfilment for answered prayers. Many carry offerings of milk in paal kudam (milk pots), often connected to the skin by hooks. Even more striking are the vel kavadi – great cages of spikes that pierce the skin of the carrier and are decorated with peacock feathers, pictures of deities, and flowers. Some penitents go as far as piercing their tongues and cheeks with hooks, skewers and tridents.
The festival is the culmination of around a month of prayer, a vegetarian diet and other ritual preparations, such as abstinence from sex, or sleeping on a hard floor. While it looks excruciating, a trance-like state stops participants from feeling pain; later the wounds are treated with lemon juice and holy ash to prevent scarring. As with the practice of firewalking, only the truly faithful should attempt the ritual. It is said that insufficiently prepared devotees keep doctors especially busy over the Thaipusam festival period with skin lacerations, or by collapsing after the strenuous activities.
Thaipusam is also celebrated in Penang at the Nattukottai Chettiar Temple and the Waterfall Hilltop Temple, and in Johor Bahru at the Sri Thandayuthabani Temple. Ipoh attracts a large number of devotees, who follow the procession from the Sri Mariamar Temple in Buntong to the Sri Subramaniar Temple in Gunung Cheroh. In Singapore, Hindus march from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Rd to the Chettiar Hindu Temple.
Islam most likely came to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei in the 14th century with South Indian traders. It absorbed rather than conquered existing beliefs, and was adopted peacefully by the region's coastal trading ports. Islamic sultanates replaced Hindu kingdoms – though the Hindu concept of kings remained – and the Hindu traditions of adat continued despite Islamic law dominating.
Malay ceremonies and beliefs still exhibit pre-Islamic traditions, but most Malays are ardent Muslims – to suggest otherwise would cause great offence. With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the calls to introduce Islamic law and purify the practices of Islam have increased; yet, while the federal government of Malaysia is keen to espouse Muslim ideals, it is wary of religious extremism. In Brunei, Islam is the official religion and practised by nearly 83% of the population; since 2014 aspects of sharia law have been introduced. In Singapore, around 15% of the population is Muslim.
- Ramadan The high point of the Islamic festival calendar, Ramadan is when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. It always occurs in the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and lasts between 29 and 30 days, based on sightings of the moon. The start of Ramadan moves forward 11 days every year, in line with the Muslim lunar calendar – in 2019 it commences on 5 May, on 23 April in 2020 and 12 April 2021.
- Nisfu Night Fifteen days before the start of Ramadan it is believed the souls of the dead visit their homes.
- Laylatul Qadr (Night of Grandeur), during Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the arrival of the Quran on earth, before its revelation by the Prophet Mohammed.
- Hari Raya Aidilfitri Hari Raya marks the end of the month-long fast, with two days of joyful celebration and feasting – this is the major holiday of the Muslim calendar. Starts on 4 June 2019, 23 May 2020 and 12 May 2021.
- Mawlid al-Nabi Celebrating the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. Starts on 9 November 2019, 28 October 2020 and 18 October 2021.
- Hari Raya Haji A two-day festival marking the successful completion of the hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca – and commemorating the willingness of the Prophet Ibrahim (the biblical Abraham) to sacrifice his son. Many shops, offices and tourist attractions close and locals consume large amounts of cakes and sweets. Celebrated on 11 August 2019, 30 July 2020 and 19 July in 2021.
- Awal Muharram The Muslim New Year, the eve of which falls on 31 August in 2019, 19 August, 2020, and 9 August 2021.
Key Beliefs & Practices
Most of the region's Muslims are Sunnis, but all Muslims share a common belief in the Five Pillars of Islam. The first is Shahadah (the declaration of faith): ‘There is no God but Allah; Mohammed is his Prophet.’ The second is salat (prayer), ideally done five times a day; the muezzin (prayer leader) calls the faithful from the minarets of every mosque. Third is zakat (tax), usually taking the form of a charitable donation, and fourth, sawm (fasting), which includes observing the fasting month of Ramadan. The last pillar is hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), which every Muslim aspires to do at least once in their lifetime.
Muslim dietary laws forbid alcohol, pork and all pork-based products. Restaurants where it’s OK for Muslims to dine will be clearly labelled halal; this is a more strict definition than places the label themselves simply ‘pork-free’.
Islamic Conservatism in Malaysia
A radical Islamic movement has not taken serious root in Malaysia but religious conservatism has grown over recent years. For foreign visitors, the most obvious sign of this is the national obsession with propriety, which extends to newspaper polemics on female modesty and raids by the police on ‘immoral’ public establishments, which can include clubs and bars where Muslims may be drinking.
Freedom of Religion in Brunei
Brunei’s constitution allows for the practice of religions other than the official Sunni Islam. However, as Freedom House (www.freedomhouse.org) reports, proselytising by non-Muslims is prohibited and other forms of Islam are actively discouraged. Christianity suffers censorship. Marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is not allowed. With permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Muslims can convert their faith, but in reality conversion is practically impossible.