There’s a strong sense of shared experience and national identity in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Malays, Chinese and Indians live side by side with Peranakan (Straits Chinese) and other mixed race communities as well as the aboriginal nations – the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo’s indigenous community. Ethnic diversity and harmony are touted as a regional strength, but none of these multicultural nations is the perfect melting pot. Religious and ethnic tensions remain a fact of life, particularly in Malaysia.

Multiculturalism

From the ashes of Malaysia’s interracial riots of 1969, when distrust between the Malays and Chinese peaked, the country has managed to forge a more tolerant multicultural society. The government’s bumiputra policy, which promotes positive discrimination to improve the economic status of indigenous Malays, has increased Malay involvement in the economy, albeit largely for an elite. This has helped defuse Malay fears and resentment of Chinese economic dominance, but at the expense of Chinese or Indian Malaysians being discriminated against by government policy.

A single ‘Malaysian’ identity continues to be a much-discussed and lauded concept. However, the reality is that Malaysia’s different ethnic communities mostly coexist rather than mingle, intermarriage being rare. Education and politics are still largely split along ethnic lines.

Singaporean government policy has always promoted Singapore as a multicultural nation in which Chinese, Indians and Malays can live in equality and harmony while maintaining their distinct cultural identities. For example, each Housing Development Board (HDB) public housing complex is subject to ethnic-based quotas that reflect Singapore’s demographic mix – one way to prevent the formation of ‘ethnic enclaves’.

Imbalances in the distribution of wealth and power among Singapore's racial groups do exist, and tensions have boiled over on a couple of occasions: riots in 1969 when over 500 people were injured and 36 died in the clashes between Chinese and Malays; and in December 2013 when around 300 migrant labourers from the Indian subcontinent were involved in a riot in Little India following a fatal road accident in which a construction worker from Tamil Nadu was knocked down by a local bus driver. On the whole multiculturalism seems to work much better in small-scale Singapore than it does in Malaysia.

Similarly Brunei’s small scale (not to mention great wealth) has allowed all its citizens, 33% of whom are not Muslim, to find common goals and live together harmoniously in a state run according to Islamic laws.

The Region's Peoples

The Chinese

In Malaysia and Brunei, the Chinese represent the second-largest ethnic group after the Malays. In Singapore they are the largest. The Chinese immigrants are mainly, in order of largest dialect group, Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and Wu. They are also predominantly Buddhist but also observe Confuncianism and Taosim, with a smaller number being Christian.

When Chinese people first began to arrive in the region in early 15th century they came mostly from the southern Chinese province of Fujian and eventually formed one half of the group known as Peranakans. They developed their own distinct hybrid culture whereas later settlers, from Guangdong and Hainan provinces, stuck more closely to the culture of their homelands, including keeping their dialects.

The Indians

Like the Chinese settler, Indians in the region hail from many parts of the subcontinent and have different cultures depending on their religions – mainly Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity. Most are Tamils, originally coming from the area now known as Tamil Nadu in South India where Hindu traditions are strong. Later, Muslim Indians from northern India followed along with Sikhs. These religious affiliations dictate many of the home life customs and practices of the region's Indians, although one celebration that all Hindus and much of the rest of the region takes part in is Deepavali.

A small, English-educated Indian elite has always played a prominent role in Malaysian and Singaporean society, and a significant merchant class exists. However, a large percentage of Indians – imported as indentured labourers by the British – remain a poor working class in both countries. There’s a small population of Indians living in Brunei.

The Malays

All Malays who are Muslims by birth are supposed to follow Islam, but many also adhere to older spiritual beliefs and adat (Malay customary law). With its roots in the Hindu period, adat places great emphasis on collective responsibility and maintaining harmony within the community – almost certainly a factor in the general goodwill between the different ethnic groups across the region.

The enduring appeal of the communal kampung (village) spirit shouldn’t be underestimated – many an urban Malay hankers after it, despite the affluent Western-style living conditions they enjoy at home. In principle, villagers are of equal status, though a headman is appointed on the basis of his wealth, greater experience or spiritual knowledge. Traditionally the founder of the village was appointed village leader (penghulu or ketua kampung) and often members of the same family would also become leaders. A penghulu is usually a haji, one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Muslim religious leader, the imam, holds a position of great importance in the community as the keeper of Islamic knowledge and the leader of prayer, but even educated urban Malaysians periodically turn to pawang (shamans who possess a supernatural knowledge of harvests and nature) or bomoh (spiritual healers with knowledge of curative plants and the ability to harness the power of the spirit world), for advice before making any life-changing decisions.

The Orang Asli

The indigenous people of Malaysia – known collectively as Orang Asli (Original People) – played an important role in early trade, teaching the colonialists about forest products and guiding prospectors to outcrops of tin and precious metals. They also acted as scouts and guides for anti-insurgent forces during the Emergency in the 1950s.

Despite this, the Orang Asli remain marginalised in Malaysia. In 2015, government figures put the population of Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia at just over 0.6% of the total population, or 178,197 people. The vast majority live below the poverty line. The tribes are generally classified into three groups: the Negrito; the Senoi; and the Proto-Malays, who are subdivided into 18 tribes, the smallest being the Orang Kanak, with just 238 accounted for in the 2010 census. There are dozens of different tribal languages and most Orang Asli follow animist beliefs, though there are vigorous attempts to convert them to Islam.

Since 1939 Orang Asli concerns have been represented and managed by a succession of government departments, the latest iteration being JAKOA (www.jakoa.gov.my), an acronym for Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (Orang Asli Development Department), which came into being in 2011. The main goals of JAKOA are to provide protection to the Orang Asli and their way of life from exploitation by external parties and ensure there are adequate facilities and assistance for education, health and socio-economic development.

In the past, Orang Asli land rights have often not been recognised, and when logging, agricultural or infrastructure projects require their land, their claims are generally regarded as illegal. Between 2010 and 2012 the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM; www.suhakam.org.my) conducted a national enquiry into the Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples and made various recommendations. This was followed up by government task force to study the finding and look at implementing the recommendations. The report was presented to government in September 2014, but has yet to be acted on.

The Peranakans

Peranakan means ‘half-caste’ in Malay, which is exactly what the Peranakans are: descendants of Chinese immigrants who from the 16th century onwards principally settled in Singapore, Melaka and Penang and married Malay women.

The culture and language of the Peranakans is a fascinating melange of Chinese and Malay traditions. The Peranakans took the name and religion of their Chinese fathers, but the customs, language and dress of their Malay mothers. They also used the terms Straits-born or Straits Chinese to distinguish themselves from later arrivals from China.

The Peranakans were often wealthy traders who could afford to indulge their passion for sumptuous furnishings, jewellery and brocades. Their terrace houses were brightly painted, with patterned tiles embedded in the walls for extra decoration. When it came to the interior, Peranakan tastes favoured heavily carved and inlaid furniture.

Peranakan dress was similarly ornate. Women wore fabulously embroidered kasot manek (beaded slippers) and kebaya (blouses worn over a sarong), tied with beautiful kerasong (brooches), usually of fine filigree gold or silver. Men – who assumed Western dress in the 19th century, reflecting their wealth and contacts with the British – saved their finery for important occasions such as the wedding ceremony, a highly stylised and intricate ritual dictated by adat.

The Peranakan patois is a Malay dialect but one containing many Hokkien words – so much so that it is largely unintelligible to a Malay speaker. The Peranakans also included words and expressions of English and French, and occasionally practised a form of backward Malay by reversing the syllables. The language is very little used these days, but there are efforts to keep it alive via groups such as Singapore's Gunong Sayang Association, a cultural group which has staged productions in the patois since 1984.

Eurasians

If you meet a Malaysian or Singaporean whose surname is Clarke, de Souza or Hendricks, chances are they are Eurasian, a term used to describe people of mixed Asian and European descent. In the early colonial days, the majority of Eurasian migrants arrived from the Malaysian trading port of Melaka, which alongside Goa, Macau and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) claimed notable mixed-race communities, a legacy of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisers marrying local women.

Shared Christian beliefs and shared cultural traditions created a firm bond between Singapore’s British ruling class and the island’s Eurasian community, and many Eurasians enjoyed privileged posts in the civil service. The bond would erode after the opening of the Suez Canal, when an increase in European arrivals saw the ‘half Europeans’ sidelined.

These days, the vast majority of Eurasians in Malaysia are found in Melaka. Here live around 37,000 Kristang, a group of people with predominantly mixed Portuguese and Malay blood, although a lot of other ethnic heritages are in there due to intermarriages down the generations.

In Singapore the Eurasian community is around 16,900 with many featuring prominently in the media and entertainment industries; they even have their own association (www.eurasians.org.sg). The Eurasians’ mixed-race appearance is especially appealing to advertisers, who see it as conveniently encompassing Singapore’s multiracial make-up. The majority of modern Singaporean Eurasians are of British descent, with English as their first language.

The Dayaks & Peoples of Borneo

The term ‘Dayak’ was first used by colonial authorities in about 1840; it means upriver or interior in some local languages, human being in others. Not all of Borneo’s indigenous tribes refer to themselves as Dayaks but the term usefully groups together peoples who have a great deal in common – and not just from an outsider’s point of view.

Longhouse Life

One of the most distinctive features of Dayak life is the longhouse (rumah batang or rumah panjai), which is essentially an entire village under one seemingly interminable roof. Longhouses take a variety of shapes and styles, but all are raised above the damp jungle floor on hardwood stilts and most are built on or near river banks.

The focus of longhouse life is the covered verandah, known as a ruai to the Iban, an awah to the Bidayuh, and a dapur to the Kelabits; other groups use other terms. Residents use this communal space to socialise, engage in economic activities, cook and eat meals and hold communal celebrations.

One wall of the verandah, which can be up to 250m long, is pierced by doors to individual families’ bilik (apartments), where there’s space for sleeping and storage. If you ask about the size of a longhouse, you will usually be told how many doors – eg family units – it has.

Like the rest of us, Dayaks love their mod-cons, so longhouses where people actually live fuse age-old forms with contemporary conveniences. The resulting mash-up can see traditional bamboo slat floors mixed with corrugated iron, linoleum, satellite dishes, and a car park out the front.

Most young Dayaks move away from the longhouse to seek higher education and jobs in the cities, but almost all keep close ties with home, returning for major family and community celebrations.

Sabah

None of Sabah’s 30-odd indigenous ethnicities are particularly keen on the term Dayak. The state’s largest ethnic group, the Kadazan-Dusun, make up 18% of the population. Mainly Roman Catholic, the Kadazan and the Dusun share a common language and have similar customs; the former originally lived mainly in the state’s western coastal areas and river deltas, while the latter inhabited the interior highlands.

The Murut (3.2% of the population) traditionally lived in the southwestern hills bordering Kalimantan and Brunei, growing hill-rice and hunting with spears and blowpipes. They were soldiers for Brunei’s sultans, and the last group in Sabah to abandon head-hunting.

Sarawak

Dayak culture and lifestyles are probably easiest to observe and experience in Sarawak, where Dayaks make up about 48% of the population.

About 29% of Sarawakians are Iban, a group that migrated from West Kalimantan’s Kapuas River starting five to eight centuries ago. Also known as Sea Dayaks for their exploits as pirates, the Iban are traditionally rice growers and longhouse dwellers. A reluctance to renounce head-hunting enhanced the Iban’s ferocious reputation.

The Bidayuh (8% of the population), many of whom also trace their roots to what is now West Kalimantan, are concentrated in the hills south and southwest of Kuching. Few Bidayuh still live in longhouses and adjacent villages sometimes speak different dialects.

Upland groups such as the Kelabit, Kayan and Kenyah (ie everyone except the Bidayuh, Iban and coastal-dwelling Melenau) are often grouped under the term Orang Ulu (‘upriver people’). There are also the Penan, originally a nomadic hunter-gatherer group living in northern Sarawak.

Brunei

Indigenous non-Malays, mainly Iban, Dusun and Melanau, account for around 6% of Brunei’s population.

The Region's Political Systems

Brunei

Although internationally classified as a constitutional monarchy, Brunei officially deems itself a Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB; Malay Islamic Monarchy) and is, in many ways, an absolute monarchy. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has been in power since 1967; he appoints his advisory cabinet, privy council and council of succession. There is a 33-member legislative council, but those members are also appointed by and include the sultan; in 2004 there was talk of holding elections for 15 more seats, but those elections have never materialised.

Malaysia

Malaysia is made up of 13 states and three federal territories (Kuala Lumpur, Pulau Labuan and Putrajaya). Each state has an assembly and government headed by a menteri besar (chief minister). Nine states have hereditary rulers (sultans), while the remaining four have government-appointed governors, as do the federal territories. In a pre-established order, every five years one of the sultans takes his turn in the ceremonial position of Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king) – since December 2016 this has been the Sultan of Kelantan.

Malaysia has a two-house parliament: a 222-member House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat) elected from single-member districts; and a 70-member Senate (Dewan Negara) with 26 members elected by the 13 state assemblies and 44 members appointed by the king on the prime minister’s recommendation. National and state elections are held every five years. The current prime minister is Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who heads the coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH).

Singapore

Singapore is a parliamentary republic modelled on the UK’s Westminster System. There are numerous political parties in Singapore, but one party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has dominated the political landscape since independence.

The President of Singapore (since 2017, Halimah Yacob) is the democratically elected head of state, a traditionally ceremonial role that has since 1991 included powers to veto a small number of decisions, largely related to security and the armed service. The president, who serves a six-year term, appoints a prime minister (currently Lee Hsien Loong) as the head of government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Parliament of Singapore.

Some critics say the electoral system makes it difficult for opposition parties to gain seats, entrenching the dominance of the PAP. This position is backed up by the strict (by Western standards) controls the government places on political assembly, freedom of expression and behaviours deemed antisocial. This said, the 2015 election, in which the PAP increased its share of the vote by nearly 10% over the 2011 poll, was the first in which opposition candidates were fielded in all constituencies. The election was a landslide win for the PAP, who gained 70% of the votes.

Women In Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei

Women had great influence in pre-Islamic Malay society; there were female leaders and the descendants of the Sumatran Minangkabau in Malaysia’s Negeri Sembilan still have a matriarchal society. The arrival of Islam weakened the position of women in the region. Nonetheless, women were not cloistered or forced to wear full purdah as in the Middle East, and today Malay women still enjoy more freedom than their counterparts in many other Muslim societies.

As you travel throughout the region you’ll see women taking part in all aspects of society: politics, big business, academia and family life. However, Malaysia’s Islamic family law makes it easier for Muslim men to take multiple wives, to divorce them and to take a share of their wives’ property (similar laws exist in Brunei, where the Sultan has two wives). Around 40% of women over the age of 15 have been beaten by their partners in Malaysia. While the Domestic Violence Act does provide legal protection for abused women, it does not consider marital rape a crime.

In Chinese-dominated Singapore women traditionally played a small role in public life. In recent years women have started to take up key positions in government and industry – the current Singapore president is a woman, Halimah Yacob. However, as in Malaysia, women make up a tiny percentage of the numbers of members of parliament and top positions in companies.

In Islamic Brunei more women wear the tudong (headscarf) than in Malaysia. Many work and there are even one or two female politicians. Since 2002 female Bruneians have been able to legally transfer their nationality to their children if the father is not Bruneian.