The People

Malaysia is a multi racial country consisting of Malays, Chinese, Indians and numerous indigenous people. With this, comes a myriad of religion, festivals, food and customs.



Today, the Malays, make up Malaysia's largest ethnic group, which is more than 50% of the population. In Malaysia, the term Malay refers to a person who practices Islam and Malay traditions and speaks the Malay language. Their conversion to Islam from Hinduism and Buddhism began when the Sultan of Melaka embraced it in the 14th Century. They are known for their good mannerisms.





The second largest ethnic group, the Malaysian Chinese form 25% of the population. Mostly descendents of Chinese immigrants during the 19th century, different dialects are spoken. Hokkien is spoken mainly in the North, in Penang and Cantonese in Kuala Lumpur. There are other dialects like Teochew and Hakka and other smaller dialects such as Foochow, Henghua, Kwongsai, Hokchia and Hokchui. Mandarin is widely spoken in the southern states. The Chinese are known for their diligence and keen business sense.


Indians & Sikhs

The Indians constitute 10% of the Malaysian population and is the third and smallest of the three main ethic groups. Most are from Tamil Speaking South India who immigrated to Malaysia during British colonial times. Mainly Hindus, they brought their colourful cultures such as ornate temples, spicy cuisine and exquisite sarees. The Punjabi speaking Sikh community in Malaysia owes its beginnings in the country to the British connection and in particular with the recruitment of Sikhs for the paramilitary and police units in the 1870s and onwards.


Peranakan, Baba-Nyonya

Peranakan, Baba-Nyonya and Straits Chinese are terms used for the descendants of the very early Chinese immigrants(15th century) to the Nusantara region, including both the British Straits Settlements of Malaya and the Dutch-controlled island of Java among other places, who have partially adopted Malay customs in an effort to be assimilated into the local communities. The spoken language is Baba Malay, which is Malay language with Chinese Hokkien mix. However it is a dying language that only the older generation speaks. Peranakans are found mainly in Melaka and Penang, although there is a lesser known 300 year old Peranakan community in Kelantan.



The Chitty are a distinctive group of Tamil people found mainly in Malacca, who are also known as the Indian Peranakans. Historical records stated that the Tamil traders from Panai in Tamil Nadu settled down in Malacca during the sovereignty of the Sultanate of Malacca. Like the Peranakans, they later freely intermingled with the local Malays and Chinese settlers. However, with the fall of the Malacca Sultanate after 1511, the Chitty eventually lost touch with their native land. Like the Peranakans, the Chitty speak a Malay patois, which is mixed with many Tamil loan words. Many of the Chitty are unable to communicate in Tamil fluently. The Chitty population is around 2000 and the traditional Chitty settlement is located at Kampung Tujuh along Jalan Gajah Barang, Melaka.


Portuguese Descendants

Known also as Eurasians, they are the descendants of the Portuguese who arrived in Melaka in 1511, coming from Goa, India. Upon arrival from Goa, they built settlements and married the locals. Their spoken language is Christang, which is an old form of Portuguese. The Eurasians are predominantly Catholic. Numbering around 2000, they live in a settlement in Ujong Pasir, Melaka.


Orang Asli

Orang Asli means Original People. These indigenous ethnic groups are found in both East and West Malaysia.


West Malaysia

In West Malaysia, they are divided into three main tribal groups Semang(Negrito) from the North, Senoi in the middle and Proto Malay in the south. The Semang from the North, which consist of Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Jahai, Mandriq, and Batiq. The Senoi from the middle includes Temiar, Semai, Semoq Beri, Jahut, Mah Meri, and Che Wong and the Proto Malay in the south consist of Temuan, Semelai, Temoq, Jakun, Kanaq, Kuala, and Seletar.


Temiar- Temer

The Temers of Kelantan might be called the ‘dream people’. As soon as they wake they tell one another their dreams, and in whatever action they do-whether hunting, fishing or planting tapioca-they allow themselves to be guided by spirits talking to them in their sleep. By speaking out their dreams, their guilt feelings of the previous day are brought to the surface as in confession, and dissipate in the morning mists and sun.


Temers never argue. By the time they become adults, Temiars have learnt to feel anxious that their actions might cause someone else harm. If they are embarrassed by a questioner, they avoid conflict by quietly leaving. Their code of behaviour is strict: ‘Never talk to your mother-in-law; never shoot poison darts at humans; and don’t laugh at butterflies!’










East Malaysia

In East Malaysia, the indigenous people of Sarawak are known as the Dayaks, the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu. The largest indigenous ethnic groups of Sabah's population are the Kadazan Dusun, the Bajau and the Murut.

  • Sarawak


Dayak means upstream or inland. Typically, they live in longhouses traditional community homes that can house 20 to 100 families.



Iban is the largest of Sarawak's ethnic groups with over 30% of the state's population. In the past, they were a fearsome warrior race known for headhunting and piracy. Sometimes wrongly called Sea Dayaks for their boating skills, they live in the heart of Kalimantan.



The Bidayuh are peace loving and easy going but ironically have a history of headhunting. Their roundhouses are mainly located in Sarawak's mountainous regions.


Orang Ulu

Orang Ulu are the upriver tribes of Sarawak. Artistically inclined, their longhouses are ornately decorated with woodcarvings and murals. Their utensils are embellished with intricate beadwork; and aristocratic ladies cover their body with finely detailed tattoos.


  • Sabah

Sabah’s indigenous people include Kadazan-Dusun, Kwijau, Murut, Bajau, Illanun, Lotud, Rungus, Tambanuo, Dumpas, Mangka’ak, Suluk, Illocano, Orang Sungai, Brunei, Kedayan, Tagalog, Bisaya, Tidong, Indonesian, Maragang, Orang Cocos, Paitan, Ida’an, Minoko, Rumanau, Serani, Chinese of mixed bumibutra parentage and Filipino of mixed bumiputra parentage.


Kadazan Dusun

The largest ethnic group of Sabah, the Kadazan Dusuns form about 30% of the state's population. Actually consisting of two tribes; the Kadazan and the Dusun, they were grouped together as they both share the same language and culture. However, the Kadazan are mainly inhabitants of flat valley deltas, which are conducive to paddy field farming, while the Dusun traditionally lived in the hilly and mountainous regions of interior Sabah.



The second largest ethnic group in Sabah, the Bajaus make up about 15% of the state's population. Historically, a nomadic sea-faring people that worshipped the Omboh Dilaut of God of the Sea, they are sometimes referred to as the Sea Gypsies. Those who chose to leave their sea-faring ways become farmers and cattle breeders. These land Bajaus are nicknamed 'Cowboys of the East' in tribute to their impressive equestrian skills, which are publicly displayed in the annual Tamu Besar festival at Kota Belud.



Murut means ‘Men of the Hills’ and they are the third largest ethnic group in Sabah, making up about 3% of the state's population. Traditionally inhabiting the northern inland regions of Borneo, they were the last of Sabah's ethnic groups to renounce headhunting. Now, they are mostly shifting cultivators of hill paddy and tapioca, supplementing their diet with blowpipe hunting and fishing. Like most indigenous tribes in Sabah, their traditional clothing is decorated with distinctive beadwork. ‘Kaansayan Minatong’ means welcome in Murut language.



homepage > The People