Arts, Architecture & Media
Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are not widely known for their arts, even though there is much creativity here, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore. Traditional art forms like wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) and mak yong (dance and music performances) hang on alongside contemporary art, drama and filmmaking. The region's distinctive architecture ranges from Chinese shophouses and stately colonial buildings through to iconic hyper-modern constructions. Local authors and visual artists are also gaining attention in the wider world.
Back in the 1950s, when Malaysia and Singapore were both part of the Federation of Malaya, P Ramlee dominated the silver screen. This Penang-born actor, singer and director started his movie career in Singapore in 1948 and moved back to Malaysia in the mid 1960s. His directorial debut Penarik Becha (The Trishaw Man; 1955) is a classic of Malay cinema and he would act and direct scores more films before his death in 1973, aged just 44.
Like Ramlee, Yasmin Ahmad's movie career was also cut short. Her film Sepet (2005), about a Chinese boy and Malay girl falling in love, cuts across the country’s race and language barriers upsetting many devout Malays, as did her follow up, Gubra (2006), which dared to take a sympathetic approach to prostitutes. Causing less of stir were Mukshin (2007), a romantic tale about Malay village life, and Talentime (2009), about an inter-school performing arts contest, and what would be Yasmin’s final film before her death at 51 from a stroke the same year.
U-Wei Haji Saari was the first Malaysian director to show a film – Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist) - at the prestigious Cannes festival in 1995. His 2014 movie Hanyut (Drifting) is an adventure drama set in Malaya in the 19th century. Directed by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal and with a script in Tamil, Jagat (2016) is a 2015 crime drama set in Malaysia's poor and marginalised Indian community. It won the best film award at that year's Malaysia Film Festival.
Set in Kelantan, Dain Said’s action-drama Bunohan (2012) did well at film festivals around the world, gaining it an international release – rare for a Malaysian movie. Said's 2016 movie Interchange is a noir–style supernatural thriller set in KL.
In 1979 when Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovich headed to Singapore to film Saint Jack, he had to submit a fake shooting script to the authorities so as to avoid having the production shut down. On its release the movie, about an American pimp in 1970s Singapore, was banned on the island state (the ban was lifted in 2006).
Local film makers are in a constant dance with government censors. The first locally made movie to gain international attention was Eric Khoo’s debut feature Mee Pok Man (1995) about the relationship between a fish-ball noodle vendor and a troubled prostitute. Several of Khoo’s subsequent films, including the animated Tatsumi (2011) and prison drama Apprentice (2016), have since featured in competition at Cannes.
Royston Tan’s first feature 15 (2003), about teenage gangsters, fell foul of local censors and had 27 scenes snipped. In response, he produced the hilarious short music video Cut (which can be viewed on YouTube). Less controversial was 881 (2007), a campy musical comedy about the getai (stage singing) aspirations of two friends.
Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013) explores the relationship between a Singaporean family and their Filipino maid, topical given tensions between locals and foreign workers. Among the film's awards is the Camera d’Or from Cannes.
Hollywood was back in Singapore (with full government approval) in 2017 to film Crazy Rich Asians based on Kevin Kwan's best selller. Various locations, including Raffles Hotel, Marina Bay Sands and Newton Food Centre, feature in the movie.
In December 2017 Brunei hosted its first film festival Brunei Film Blitz. Black Cat by Liyana binti Hanif, won the 48-Hour Film Blitz category, Selamat Malam by Visionary Project was on top in the Open category, and Wish You Were Here by Malek Razak received a Special Jury mention. You can view the short movies at https://progresif.com/brunei-film-blitz.
Drama & Dance
Traditional Malay dances include menora, a dance-drama of Thai origin performed by an all-male cast dressed in grotesque masks, and the similar mak yong, in which the participants are female. These performances often take place at Puja Ketek, Buddhist festivals held at temples near the Thai border in Kelantan. There’s also the rodat, a dance from Terengganu, and the joget, an upbeat dance with Portuguese origins, often performed at Malay weddings by professional dancers; in Melaka it’s better known as chakunchak.
The best chances of seeing performances are in Kuala Lumpur, George Town, Melaka and Kota Bharu.
When it comes to contemporary drama and dance, Singapore tends to have the edge. There’s a lot of interesting work by local theatre companies such as Wild Rice, Necessary Stage and Singapore Repertory Theatre. Singapore’s leading dance company, Singapore Dance Theatre, puts on performances ranging from classical ballet to contemporary dance.
In Malaysia and Singapore wayang (Chinese opera) is derived from the Cantonese variety. The performances mix dialogue, music, song and dance, and what they lack in literary nuance, they make up for with garish costumes and the crashing music that follows the action. Scenery and props are minimal; it’s the action that is important, and even for the uninitiated it’s usually easy to get the gist of the plot.
Performances can go for an entire evening. Even though the acting is very stylised, and the music can be discordant to Western ears, they are worth seeing. Free street performances are held in the Chinatown areas of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Melaka and Penang’s George Town during important festivals like Chinese New Year (January/February), the Hungry Ghost Festival (August/September) and the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods (September/October).
Writers W Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward were inspired by the region in the early 20th century. The classic colonial expat experience is recounted by Anthony Burgess in The Malayan Trilogy written in the 1950s.
In recent decades locally born authors have been coming to the fore. Tash Aw’s debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory, set in Malaysia of the 1930s and ’40s, won the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award. His latest work Five Star Billionaire (2013) is about four expat Malaysians trying to make a go of it in contemporary Shanghai. Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel The Gift of Rain, set in Penang prior to WWII, was long-listed for the Man Booker literature prize. His follow up, The Garden of Evening Mists, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, takes the reader deep into the Cameron Highlands and the 1950s era of the Emergency. Evening is the Whole Day (2008) by Preeta Samarasan looks at the experiences of an Indian immigrant family living on the outskirts of Ipoh in the early 1980s.
Brian Gomez's comedy-thriller Devil’s Place (2008) is a fun read and very evocative of its KL setting. Once We Were There (2017) by Bernice Chauly, is set in KL during the era of the reformasi protests from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. It shines a light into the city's darker corners, including the drug trade and babies stolen for adoption or worse.
In the late 1960s Paul Theroux lived in Singapore, which forms the backdrop to his novel Saint Jack (1973) and his short-story collection The Consul’s File (1977). JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip (1978) about the decline of British colonialism in the region in the run up to WWII is considered a classic Singapore novel.
Catherine Lim’s Little Ironies (1978) is a series of keenly observed short stories about Singaporeans from a prolific writer of novels, poetry and political commentary. Hwee Hwee Tan pinpoints the peculiar dilemmas and contradictions facing Singaporean youth in her novels Foreign Bodies (1999) and Mammon Inc (2001). Singapore-born Kevin Kwan's witty satire on the lives of the island state’s megarich in Crazy Rich Asians (2013) has been so successful it has spawned two sequels and a Hollywood movie.
Look out for books from local publisher Epigram Books (www.shop.epigrambooks.sg) – they sponsor a writing prize that has brought to public attention such talented writers as Sebastian Sim, whose The Riot Act was the 2017 winner. This darkly comic satire riffs on the causes of and fallout from the real-life riot in Little India in 2013.
Also short-listed for the Epigram Prize was Jeremy Tiang's outstanding State of Emergency (2017) which went on to win the Singapore Literature Prize in 2018, and Balli Kaur Jaswal for her 2015 novel Sugarbread. Also look out for Jaswal's debut Inheritance (2013) about a dysfunctional Punjabi Sikh family's trials and tribulations between 1970 and 1990. UK-based Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo's debut novel Ponti (2018) is about the relationship between a woman who once starred in cult horror movies, her daughter and her daughter's friend.
Snapping at the high heels of demure Malaysian pop songstress Siti Nurhaliza are Zee Avi, who was signed by the US label Bushfire Records for her eponymous debut CD, is Yuna, who has also cut a US record deal and is one of the talented vocalists and songwriters from the nation's new generation of musicians. Also look out for Najwa whose slickly produced EP Aurora has garnered positive reviews; the MIA-style rapper Arabyrd; and the more retro guitar jingly pop stylings of Noh Salleh.
In 2015, indie rock band Kyoto Protocol, who have been steadily building their reputation since forming in 2008, finally released a full album, Catch These Men, after a series of singles and EPs in the past.
Local artists show up at music festivals in Malaysia such as Urbanscapes and the Rainforest World Music Festival. A great resource for catching up other up-and-coming local bands and singers is The Wknd (www.the-wknd.com).
Singapore’s pop music scene creates only a small blip internationally. On the radar are rapper and hip hop artists Thelioncityboy (www.facebook.com/thelioncityboy) and Shigga Shay (www.shiggashay.com) and singer-songwriters Jasmine Sokko (www.jasminesokko.com) and Inch Chua (www.thisisinch.com).
Visitors should look out for local festivals like the annual Baybeats at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, showcasing alternative singers and bands.
Traditional & Classical
Traditional Malay music is based largely on gendang (drums), but other percussion instruments include the gong and various tribal instruments made from seashells, coconut shells and bamboo. The Indonesian-style gamelan (a traditional orchestra of drums, gongs and wooden xylophones) also crops up on ceremonial occasions. The Malay nobat uses a mixture of percussion and wind instruments to create formal court music.
Islamic and Chinese influences are felt in the music of dondang sayang (Chinese-influenced romantic songs) and hadrah (Islamic chants, sometimes accompanied by dance and music). In Singapore, catch the well-respected Singapore Chinese Orchestra (www.sco.com.sg), which plays not only traditional and symphonic Chinese music but also Indian, Malay and Western pieces.
Latiff Mohidin, who is also a poet, is a Penang-based artist whose work spans several decades and has featured in a major retrospective at the National Visual Arts Gallery; he's considered a national treasure.
Other long-established artists include Hoessein Enas, who was commissioned by Shell Ltd in 1963 to produce a series of portraits celebrating the newly born country, and Amron Omar who has focused throughout his career on silat (a Malay martial art) as a source of inspiration for his paintings.
Among notable contemporary Malaysian artists are Jalaini Abu Hassan (‘Jai’), Wong Hoy Cheong, landscape painter Wong Perng Fey, and multimedia artist Yee I-Lann. Work by Malaysian sculptor Abdul Multhalib Musa has won awards and he created several pieces in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.
In Singapore the visual-arts scene is also vibrant, with painting, sculpture and multimedia the vehicles of choice for dynamic explorations into the tensions between Western art practices and the perceived erosion of traditional values. Highly regarded local artists include Tang Da Wu, Vincent Leow, Jason Lim and Zulkifle Mahmod. The National Gallery Singapore is aiming to be the region’s leading visual arts institution.
Malaysia and Singapore have both made their mark in the world of contemporary architecture with iconic buildings like Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers and the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore. Other interesting skyscrapers and civic buildings in the cities take inspiration from both local culture and the environment, such as the Tabung Haji and Menara Maybank buildings in KL, both designed by Hijjas Kasturi, and the Espalande – Theatres on the Bay in Singapore.
Vividly painted and handsomely proportioned, traditional wooden Malay houses are also perfectly adapted to the hot, humid conditions of the region. Built on stilts, with high, peaked roofs, they take advantage of even the slightest cooling breeze. Further ventilation is achieved by full-length windows, no internal partitions, and latticelike grilles in the walls. The layout of a traditional Malay house reflects Muslim sensibilities. There are separate areas for men and women, as well as distinct areas where guests of either sex may be entertained.
Although their numbers are dwindling, this type of house has not disappeared altogether. The best places to see examples are in the kampung (villages)of Peninsular Malaysia, particularly along the east coast in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. Here you’ll see that roofs are often tiled, showing a Thai and Cambodian influence. In Melaka, the Malay house has a distinctive tiled front stairway leading up to the front verandah – examples can be seen around Kampung Morten.
Few Malay-style houses have survived Singapore’s rapid modernisation – the main place they remain is on Pulau Ubin. Instead, the island state has some truly magnificent examples of Chinese shophouse architecture, particularly in Chinatown, Emerald Hill (off Orchard Rd) and around Katong. There are also the distinctive ‘black and white’ bungalows built during colonial times; find survivors lurking in the residential areas off Orchard Rd.
Despite its oil wealth, there’s little that’s flashy in the architecture of Brunei’s modest capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, where the city’s skyline is dominated by the striking Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. About 3km outside of the capital is the Sultan’s opulent palace Istana Nurul Iman, while at Jerudong is the eye-boggling Empire Hotel.
Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei all leave much to be desired when it comes to freedom of the press. In the Reports without Borders rankings for 2018, the countries placed 145, 151 and 153 respectively out of the 179 nations surveyed. All the countries have stringent publishing laws with the courts frequently used to silence critics and frighten journalists into self-censorship.
Following the 2018 general election, Malaysia's new government led by Pakatan Harapan has committed to allowing greater press freedom in the country. It repealed the previous government's controversial Anti-Fake News Act of 2018 which was used to stop coverage of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal. However, freedom of expression in the country remains problematic as lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri discovered in July 2018 when she wrote a blog article questioning Malaysia's monarchy, describing it as incompatible with democracy. Following complaints she was questioned by the police under the investigation of breaking sections of the Sedition Act and Communication and Multimedia Act.
Singapore's government keeps a tight leash on local media through regulation and censorship. Prominent opposition bloggers such as Roy Ngerng are subject to persistent harassment including law suits and police questioning. A new anti-terrorism law in 2018 gives police special powers during terrorist attacks, including banning journalists and members of the public from reporting on the scene.
All this said, social media increasingly plays a part in Malaysia, Singapore’s and Brunei's mediascape, with local newspapers often quoting bloggers and reporting on issues generated on the internet and social media. Many people also go online to read news they are unlikely to see in print.
Sidebar: Brunei Art Forum
The Brunei Art Forum in Bandar Seri Begawan fosters international links and promotes local contemporary artists (mostly painters) including Zakaria Bin Omar, Haji Padzil Haji Ahmad and Teck Kwang Swee.
Sidebar: Online Arts Resources
- Arts.com.my (www.arts.com.my)
- Malaysia Design Archive (www.malaysiadesignarchive.org)
- National Arts Council Singapore (www.nac.gov.sg)
- Bruneions (www.bruneions.com)
- Arts Equator (www.artsequator.com)
Sidebar: Singapore Writers Festival
In an effort to support a new generation of writers, the National Arts Council of Singapore sponsors competitions and events such as the annual Singapore Writers Festival (www.singaporewritersfestival.com).
BooksActually (www.booksactuallyshop.com), an independent book store in Singapore, publishes up-and-coming authors via its Maths Paper Press imprint.
Sidebar: HDB Flats
Around 85% of Singaporeans live in the tower block flats built by the Housing Development Board (HDB). These high-density developments have markets, schools, playgrounds, shops and hawker centres hardwired into them.
Sidebar: Classical Orchestras
The standard bearers for Western-style classical music in the region are the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Both ensembles include world-class performers.
Sidebar: Singaporean National Anthem
Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore), the Singaporean national anthem, was composed by Zubir Said in 1958. Its lyrics are in Bahasa Malaysia, even though English is now the national language.
Many visitors come to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei to experience first hand the region’s amazing natural environment. However, these countries, like others the world over, are grappling with the sometimes conflicting demands of economic development and environmental conservation. Items on the local sustainability agenda include deforestation, a result of the rampant growth of palm-oil plantations in Malaysia; protection of endangered wildlife; cleaning up polluted waterways; and cutting the region’s carbon footprint through innovative energy-efficiency projects.
Large parts of Peninsular Malaysia (132,090 sq km) are covered by dense jungle, particularly its mountainous, thinly populated northern half, although it's dominated by palm oil and rubber plantations. On the western side of the peninsula there is a long, fertile plain running down to the sea, while on the eastern side the mountains descend more steeply and the coast is fringed with sandy beaches. Jungle features heavily in Malaysian Borneo, along with many large river systems, particularly in Sarawak. Mt Kinabalu (4095m) in Sabah is Malaysia’s highest mountain.
Singapore, consisting of the main, low-lying Singapore island and 63 much smaller islands within its territorial waters, is a mere 137km north of the equator. The central area is an igneous outcrop, containing most of Singapore’s remaining forest and open areas. The western part of the island is a sedimentary area of low-lying hills and valleys, while the southeast is mostly flat and sandy. The undeveloped northern coast and the offshore islands are home to some mangrove forest.
The sultanate of Brunei covers just 5765 sq km (the Brunei government-owned cattle farm in Australia is larger than this!). The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, overlooks the estuary of the mangrove-fringed Sungai Brunei (Brunei River), which opens onto Brunei Bay and the separate, eastern part of the country, Temburong, a sparsely populated area of largely unspoilt rainforest. Approximately 75% of Brunei retains its original forest cover.
There’s a disparity between government figures and those of environmental groups, but it’s probable that up to 80% of Malaysia’s rainforests have been logged. There have also been huge environmental consequences as vast swathes of land have been razed and planted with trees that yield lucrative palm oil; Malaysia accounts for over 40% of global production of palm oil.
The crown of eco and social irresponsibility goes to Bakun Dam in Sarawak, which flooded some 690 sq km (the size of Singapore) of some of the world’s most diverse rainforest in late 2010 and forced up to 10,000 indigenous peoples from their homes. The dam has been criticised as being corrupt, ill-planned and unnecessary, but the state has plans to build more dams in the region.
Responsible ecotourism is the traveller’s best antidote to these trends.
Green, Clean Singapore
Singapore’s reputation as an efficiently run, squeaky clean place is well justified. The country has a vision of becoming a ‘City in a Garden,’ a cutting-edge role model of urban sustainability and biodiversity. A planned 35% improvement in energy efficiency between 2005 and 2030 led the government to introduce a sustainability rating system for buildings – the so-called Green Mark. Since 2008, all construction projects greater than 2000 sq metres (both new and retrofitted) are obliged to meet the Green Mark’s minimum standards.
Singapore is steamrolling towards its target of 80% of buildings achieving Green Mark standards by 2030, with over 36% ticked off in 2018. Generous incentive schemes have encouraged an ever-growing number of buildings to incorporate sustainable design features, among them sun-shading exteriors, efficient water systems and carbon-emission-monitoring computers.
Singapore’s incinerated waste is shipped off to Pulau Semakau, an island 8km south of the mainland. The 3.5 sq km landfill here is projected to meet the country’s waste needs until 2045. More interestingly, the island itself has been much promoted by the government as an ‘eco’ hot spot. Rehabilitated mangrove swamps sit next to a coral nursery. In 2005, the island was also opened for recreation activities such as nature walks and fishing.
Though little of Singapore’s original wilderness is left, growing interest in ecology has seen bird sanctuaries and parkland areas created, with new parks in the Marina Bay development as well as a series of connectors that link up numerous existing parks and gardens around the island.
- Tread lightly and buy locally, avoiding (and reporting) instances where you see parts of or products made from endangered species for sale. In Malaysia call the 24-hour Wildlife Crime Hotline (019-356 4194) to report illegal activities.
- Visit nature sites, hire local trekking guides and provide custom for ecotourism initiatives. By doing so you’re putting cash in local pockets and casting a vote for the economic (as opposed to the purely ecological) value of sustainability and habitat conservation.
- Sign up to be a voluntary forest monitor at Forest Watch (www.timalaysia-forestwatch.org.my), a Transparency International Malaysia project.
- Check out projects sponsored and promoted by the Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (www.ecomy.org), Wild Asia (www.wildasia.org) to learn more about responsible tourism in the region.
- Keep abreast of and support local campaigns by checking out the websites of organisations like WWF Malaysia (www.wwf.org.my), the Malaysian Nature Society (www.mns.my), EcoKnights (www.ecoknights.org.my), ECO Singapore (www.eco-singapore.org) and Green Brunei (www.green-brunei.com).
- Carbon-cutting overland travel to Peninsular Malaysia from Europe and most parts of Asia is possible as long as you’re not in a hurry. See Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com/malaysia.htm) for how to reach Kuala Lumpur from London by a combination of trains and buses in 3½ weeks.
Sidebar: Online Resources
- Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM; www.foe-malaysia.org)
- Orangutan Foundation (www.orangutan.org.uk)
- Wild Singapore (www.wildsingapore.com)
- Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT; www.mycat.my)
Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are the most traded species even though they are protected under Malaysian law. Their scales, believed to have medicinal properties, can fetch up to RM800 per kg.
Sidebar: Fatimah's Kampung
Ian Buchanan spent eight years creating the exquisite illustrations and text for Fatimah’s Kampung, a parable about how Malaysia is in the process of sacrificing nature and traditional values for economic development.
People, Culture & Politics
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.
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.
Feature: Talking the Talk: The Region’s Many Languages
English is widely spoken in the region, but linguists will be pleased to tackle a multitude of other languages spoken here. The national language of Malaysia and Brunei is Bahasa Malaysia. This is often a cause of confusion for travellers, who logically give a literal translation to the two words and call it the ‘Malaysian language’. In fact you cannot speak ‘Malaysian’; the language is Malay.
Other languages commonly spoken in the region include Tamil, Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin, but there are also Chinese dialects, various other Indian and Orang Asli languages and even, in Melaka, a form of 16th-century Portuguese known as Kristang. All Malaysians speak Malay, and many are fluent in at least two other languages.
Even if you stick to English, you’ll have to get used to the local patois – Manglish in Malaysia and Brunei and Singlish in Singapore – which includes plenty of Mandarin, Cantonese and Tamil words and phrases. Many words are used solely to add emphasis and have no formal meaning, which can make things a little confusing. Used incorrectly, Manglish and Singlish can come across as quite rude, so listen carefully and take local advice before trying it out in polite company.
The Region's Peoples
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Indigenous non-Malays, mainly Iban, Dusun and Melanau, account for around 6% of Brunei’s population.
The Region's Political Systems
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 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). The Sultan of Kelantan was king from December 2016 until unexpectedly abdicating in January 2019. The deputy king assumed official king duties until a new king is elected.
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 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.
Kiasu, a Hokkien word describing Singaporeans, literally means ‘afraid to lose’, but embraces a range of selfish and pushy behaviour in which the individual must not lose out at all cost.
Sidebar: Famous Singaporean Peranakans
Famous Singaporeans of Peranakan descent include Lee Kuan Yew (the first prime minister of Singapore), Dick Lee (singer, composer) and Goh Keng Swee (Singapore’s deputy prime minister, 1973–1984).
Sidebar: Singaporean Birth Control
To stem a booming population, Singapore’s government encouraged birth control in the 1970s and 1980s. That plan worked so well that it now provides much encouragement, financial and otherwise, for its citizens to have more children.
Sidebar: In a Name
The Malay surname is the child’s father’s first name. This is why Malaysians will use your given name after the Mr or Miss; to use your surname would be to address your father.
Malaysian politicians have been known to call in a bomoh (spiritual healer) during election campaigns to assist in their strategy and provide some foresight, or to scare away malicious spirits and bad weather before important events.
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.
Sidebar: Singapore Thaipusam
In Singapore, Hindus march from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Rd to the Chettiar Hindu Temple to celebrate Thaipusam.
Sidebar: Islam in Malaysia
Islam in Malaysia: Perceptions & Facts by Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the former Mufti of Perlis, is a collection of articles on aspects of the faith as practised in Malaysia.
Sidebar: Sisters in Islam
Sisters in Islam (www.sistersinislam.org.my) is an organisation run by and for Malaysian Muslim women who refuse to be bullied by patriarchal interpretations of Islam.
Sidebar: Chinese Gods
The most popular Chinese gods and local deities, or shen, are Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy; Kuan Ti, the god of war and wealth; and Toh Peh Kong, a local deity representing the spirit of the pioneers and found only outside China.
Sidebar: Singapore Jews
The Jewish Welfare Board (www.singaporejews.com) contains information about the history of Jews in Singapore as well as details about the current community and its events.
The Mega-Diversity Region
Home to thousands of natural species (with more being discovered all the time), Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are a dream come true for budding David Attenboroughs. Tropical flora and fauna is so abundant that this region is a ‘mega-diversity’ hot spot. You don’t need to venture deep into the jungle to see wildlife either.
In the region’s rivers, lakes and and oceans, you’ll find a mind-boggling variety of corals, fish and aquatic life. The seas around islands and atolls, including Sipadan, the Perhentians, Tioman and specks off the northeast coast of Sabah, offer some of the finest diving in the world.
Amid thriving coral – sea fans can grow to 3km – and a wealth of sponges, divers often encounter shimmering schools of jacks, bumphead parrotfish and barracudas, and find themselves making the acquaintance of green turtles, dolphins, manta rays and several species of shark.
Know Your Turtle
Of the world’s seven species of turtle, four are native to Malaysia. The hawksbill and the green turtle both have nesting areas within Sabah’s Turtle Islands National Park. Both these species, along with the olive ridley and giant leatherback, also swim in the waters off Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast. Here there are beaches which are established turtle rookeries where you may chance upon expectant mother turtles dragging themselves above the high-tide line to bury their eggs.
Top Dive Sites
- Sipadan Legendary for its deep wall dives, Sipadan is a favoured hangout of turtles, sharks and open-ocean fish.
- Layang Layang A deep-ocean island famed for its pristine coral and 2000m drop-off.
- Pulau Perhentian Coral reefs surround both main islands and some you can even wade out to.
- Pulau Redang Corals, green and hawksbill turtles and a rainbow of tropical fish.
- Pulau Tioman One of the few places where you stand a good chance of seeing pods of dolphins.
The region’s lush natural habitats, from steamy rainforests to tidal mangroves, teem with mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects, many of them found nowhere else on earth. Although vast areas of old growth forest have been cleared, a few magnificent stands remain, mostly protected within reserves and parks.
Birds & Bats
Well over a 1000 species of birds can be spotted in this part of the world. The most easily recognisable species in Malaysia are the various types of hornbill, of which the rhinoceros hornbill is the most flashy. Other birds that easily catch the eye include the brightly coloured kingfishers, pitas and trogons as well as the spectacularly named racket-tailed drongo.
The region has more than 100 species of bat, most of which are tiny, insectivorous species that live in caves and under eaves and bark. Fruit bats (flying foxes) are only distantly related to insectivorous bats; unlike them they have well-developed eyes and do not navigate by echolocation.
Apes & Monkeys
Orangutans, Asia’s only great apes, are at the top of many visitors’ lists. Researchers estimate that the number of orangutans left on Borneo stands at between 70,000 and 100,000, a population that has declined by 50% since 1999. Captive orangutans can be viewed at Sabah’s Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Sarawak, and Singapore Zoo.
The male proboscis monkey is an improbable-looking creature with a pendulous nose and bulbous belly; females and youngsters are more daintily built, with quaint, upturned noses. A beautiful langur (leaf monkey) is the silvered leaf monkey, whose fur is frosted with grey tips. Macaques are the stocky, aggressive monkeys that solicit snacks from tourists at temples and nature reserves. If you are carrying food, watch out for daring raids and be wary of bites – remember these are wild animals and rabies is a potential hazard.
Tailless and shy gibbons live in the trees, where they feed on fruits such as figs. Their raucous hooting – one of the most distinctive sounds of the Malaysian jungle – helps them establish territories and find mates.
Species of leopard including the black panther and the rare clouded leopard are found in Malaysia, as well as smaller species of wild cats, including the bay cat, a specialised fish-eater, and the leopard cat, which is a bit larger than a domestic cat but with spotted fur.
The exact population of Malayan tigers is unknown but considered by WWF to be no more than 340, the vast majority of which are found in the jungles of Pahang, Perak, Terengganu and Kelantan.
Elephants, Rhinos & Tapirs
Around 1500 pygmy elephants live in northeastern Borneo, the largest population roaming the forests around Sungai Kinabatangan. It’s thought they’ve lived on the island for at least 18,000 years.
If you’re very lucky you may spot wild Asian elephants in Taman Negara. The animal is endangered with WWF reckoning the population across the region of being between 38,000 to 51,000.
Sadly, according a Danish study published in 2015, the Sumatran rhinoceroses, which previously had been found in isolated areas of Sabah and Endau-Rompin National Park on the peninsula, is now considered extinct in the wild in Malaysia. None have been sighted since 2007.
Similarly under threat from habitat loss is the Malayan tapir, a long-nosed creature with black and white body hair. They can also be found living in Taman Negara.
Record-breaking plants, geological gems and remarkable creatures big and small are among the multiple natural wonders within the mega diversity region of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
A parasite that lacks roots, stems and leaves, this botanical wonder grows up to 1m in diameter. Rafflesias bloom for just three to five days before turning into a ring of black slime. Taman Negara, Cameron Highlands, Royal Belum State Park and the parks of Malaysian Borneo are the places to view these extraordinary specimens.
Found in Gunung Mulu National Park, the world’s largest cave passage open to the public is over 2km in length and 174m in height. It’s home to anything between two and three million bats belonging to more than 12 species who cling to the roof in a seething black mass as they gear up for the evening prowl.
Rajab Brooke's Birdwing
Malaysia’s national butterfly was discovered on Borneo in 1855 by the explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. He named this black and iridescent-green winged beauty after James Brooke, the White Raja of Sarawak at the time. It can be found also on Peninsular Malaysia at below altitudes of 800m and often around hot-spring areas.
Rediscovered in the jungles of western Sarawak in 2011, after having been thought extinct for almost 90 years, the Sambas stream toad or Bornean rainbow toad, has long limbs and a pebbly back covered with bright red, green, yellow and purple warts. Also endemic of Borneo is the Microhyla nepenthicola, the world’s tiniest frog no bigger than the size of a pea.
Dense tropical jungle is not the only type of natural habitat you’ll encounter in the region. Head to the mountains and coastal regions to see different types of flora and fauna.
These remarkable coastal trees have developed extraordinary ways to deal with an ever-changing mix of salt and fresh water. Uncounted marine organisms and nearly every commercially important seafood species find sanctuary and nursery sites among the mangrove’s muddy roots. They also fix loose coastal soil, protecting against erosion and tsunamis. You’ll see them on Pulau Langkawi, Bako National Park, Kuching Wetland National Park and Brunei’s Temburong District.
A huge granite dome that formed some nine million years ago, Malaysia’s highest mountain is botanical paradise. Over half of the species growing above 900m are unique to the area and include oaks, laurels, chestnuts and a dense rhododendron forest. Elsewhere in the park are many varieties of orchids and insect-eating pitcher plants.
These heath forests, whose name in Iban means ‘land that cannot grow rice,’ are composed of small, densely packed trees. They also support the world’s greatest variety of pitcher plants (nepenthes), which trap insects in chambers full of enzyme-rich fluid and then digest them. There are patches in Sarawak’s Bako National Park and Sabah’s Maliau Basin Conservation Area.