Best described as a bustling and diverse melting pot of different races, Malaysia is one of the most multicultural nations that you will ever see. Its local population comprises Malay (50%), Chinese (22.6%), Indigenous (11.8%), Indian (6.7%) and other people. More than 8% of the residents are foreigners. The country is home to a huge expat population mainly from Europe, North America and Australia.While the official religion of this state is Islam, other faiths like Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism are given a lot of importance too. The locals are very religious, but at the same time, extremely tolerant and respectful of other people’s beliefs and sentiments. Similarly, though Bahasa Malaysia is the official language you will people speaking English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi and Thai all over the place.
Celebrations are an integral part of any culture and Malaysians of different faiths come together to observe almost all types of festivals with a lot of enthusiasm and reverence. Several religious and cultural events are followed all over the country. Some of these occasions, like Christmas, fall on a fixed date each year whereas the others could be moving holidays because they follow a different calendar.
As an expat, you may get the opportunity to participate in some of the festivities too, since in general the locals are very hospitable and welcoming. It is therefore important for you to familiarize yourself with the major occasions and their significance. Below is a short guide to the religious and cultural festivals you will see in this country.
Hari Raya Aidil Fitri
More commonly known as Eid around the world, Hari Raya Aidil Fitri is the most important and joyful occasion, celebrated by Muslims to mark the end of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic Calendar. This is a moving holiday and usually occurs around two weeks earlier each year. The Holy Month can be described as an auspicious time of worship, fasting, sacrifice, charity, patience, steadfastness and community service for Muslims around the world. They cleanse themselves of impurities and undesirable emotions by abstaining from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activities from dusk to dawn for a period of 30 days.
Literally translated, the term Hari Raya means Celebration Day. Greet the locals by saying “Selamat Hari Raya” when you meet them. People usually spend these days with their families and friends, praying, asking for forgiveness, visiting the graves of their ancestors and seeking blessings from the elders. Children and youngsters receive gifts, sweets or money from the older relatives. Hari Raya Aidil Fitri is not complete without a lavish spread that usually includes traditional Malaysian delicacies such as Satay, Rendang, Lemang, Kari and Ketupat. Mosques, houses, shops, malls and most other places are decorated with oil lamps and colorful lights.
Almost all schools, colleges, shops, offices and other types of commercial establishments remain closed for a couple of days, as the locals go home to their villages and provinces, in order to visit their family members.
Hari Raya Aidil Adha
The Feast of Sacrifice, also known as Hari Raya Aidil Adha, Hari Raya Korban or Hari Raya Haji, this is another highly significant religious occasion for Muslims. It is celebrated to commemorate the end of the Annual Pilgrimage called Haj. According to the 5 pillars of Islam, the able-bodied followers should make a religious visit to the Holy City of Mecca at least once in their lifetime. On this day, Muslims recall the Almost Sacrifice by Ibrahim on Mount Moriah in the vicinity of Mecca. Hari Raya Haji begins on the 10th day of Dhul-hijja, the final month in the Islamic Calendar and is a moving holiday.
Like most other religious festivals, Malaysians celebrate this one by waking up early to pray and go to the Mosque. A goat or sheep is sacrificed and a large portion of its meat (or an equivalent sum of money) is given to the poor as charity so that they can enjoy the occasion too. The rest of the meat is used to prepare a huge feast, to which everyone is invited, regardless of their faith and nationality. The people don new clothes and spend the day visiting their loved ones and exchanging gifts. The whole place is decorated with bright lights and some people also set off firecrackers at night.
While the rejoicing goes on for almost 4 days, most establishments remain closed for the first day of Hari Raya Aidil Adha. However, it is possible for several shops and offices to stay shut for up to 3 days too.
Malaysia’s Mardi Gras, Thaipusam, is one of the most colorful festivals, mainly celebrated by the Tamil population in the honor of their deity, Lord Muruga. It is observed on the full moon day during the month of Thai (usually in January or February). Legend has it that on this day, the stars, Brihaspati and Pusan become one. According to Hindu beliefs, all those who observe this occasion are cleansed from all sins. Before the actual day arrives, Hindus prepare themselves by fasting, following a specific diet and maintaining a lot of self-discipline for a period of 48 days.
This holiday is celebrated on a grand scale at the Waterfall Temple in Penang as well as the Batu Caves in Selangor, attracting millions of devotees and thousands of tourists. Since Lord Muruga’s adobe is traditionally the hills, the festivities are mainly held in the hilly area of the country. On the eve of Thaipusam, an image of the Lord is carried in a silver chariot to a particular spot with a grand procession following. Holy water is sprinkled and coconuts are smashed along the route, symbolic of the washing away of sins. On the actual day of the Festival, people walk barefoot to the Caves or Temple in order to fulfill their vows. Some of them carry the Kavadi (an ornate frame) and large pots of milk.
Gong Xi Fa Chai
A major cultural festival observed by the Chinese to mark the start of their New Year, this is a big occasion in Malaysia too. Throughout the world, celebrations for the start of the New Lunar Year go on for 15 days. The first day, Gong Xi Fa Chai, signifies that start of the holiday and the 15th day, Chap Goh Mei, symbolizes the end of the festivities.
A week before the New Year, houses are cleaned thoroughly as the Chinese can’t sweep floors during the joyous occasion. In fact, they keep their brooms stored away for those days. According to their beliefs, sweeping the floor during the New Year celebration drives away their good luck. Offerings are made to God and the spirits are appeased at the start of the Lunar year. On the eve of the New Year people have a traditional reunion dinner, which is attended by every member of the family. They begin the first day of the year with a visit to the temple to seek blessings from the God of Prosperity. Adults give Ang Pow – red packets containing money – to children. Mandarin oranges, a symbol of prosperity and good luck, are given by well-wishers. The whole place is decorated in red.
In Malaysia, people hold open houses during the joyful occasion and lion dances are performed as well. In Kuala Lumpur, there are two huge open houses held by the main political Chinese parties.
Most of the establishments owned and run by the Chinese remain closed for several days (a week or maybe even two). Many Chinese residents take this break to go visit their family and friends back home.
Wesak or Vesakha is the most important festival observed by Buddhists around the world, including Malaysia. This day is also known as Buddha Day or Buddha Purnima in certain countries. It celebrates the birth of Lord Buddha and is also symbolic of his enlightenment as well as his demise. According to Buddhist reckoning, all the three events take place on the same lunar day. Prior to this occasion, the followers observe a vegetarian diet in order to cleanse themselves.
The celebrations include visiting the temple, offering prayers, meditating on the 8 Precepts, bathing the Buddha, chanting the sutras, singing hymns and giving alms to the poor. The ceremony begins at dawn when devotees gather at the temple to hoist the Buddhist flag. The highlight of this occasion is the candle session.
The festival of lights is one of the most important annual occasions for Hindus all over the world. This day is celebrated to mark the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom after a 14-year exile. It also signifies the triumph of good over evil. About a week or two before the occasion, people tend to clean their homes and decorate the place with lights. Colorful rice paintings made on the floor in front of the houses bring success and prosperity.
Hindus start Deepavali by rising early, taking a bath, praying and lighting an incense stick before going to the temple. They wear new clothes, visit family and friends and exchange sweets. A show of respect towards the elder family members is followed by open houses for close ones. A traditional feast comprising vegetarian delicacies is served for all visitors. In some areas, children may burst firecrackers too.
Almost everyone is familiar with the significance of this annual festival, which falls on December the 25th every year. While Christmas is a family affair for most Westerners, Malaysians celebrate this occasion with their friends, colleagues and acquaintances too. Many people hold open houses so that they can interact with the rest of the community, regardless of their religion.
The birth of Christ is celebrated with evening mass, caroling and parties. Homes and commercial establishments are decorated with Christmas trees, lights and other ornaments to create the yuletide atmosphere. Parades take place all over the country. People buy gifts for their loved ones and extend the spirit of giving beyond homes, by engaging in charity work. Of course, the occasion is incomplete without a Christmas dinner of roast turkey and several side dishes as well as desserts.
The Harvest Festival, locally known as Sabah Ka’amatan or Tadau Ka’amatan is a traditional occasion of the largest ethnic group in Malaysia, called the Kadazan Dusun. This annual event occurs in the month of May in honor of Bambaazon, the rice padi spirit. According to the beliefs of the community, this spirit is responsible for the growth and well-being of the padi plant. It offers protection from the natural hazards and brings a season of bountiful harvest.
Considering the timeless nature of this festival, ancient customs and traditions are definitely the order of the day. Padi farmers lay down their tools and meet up at certain venues in various districts in order to celebrate. The main highlight of this festival is the traditional sports performances by cultural troupes from all across the country. The event is held at the Kadazan-Dusun Cultural Organization headquarters.
A cleansing and blessing ritual, called Magavau, is performed by a high priestess or Bobohizan. The entire procedure is said to have people spellbound. Tapai, an intoxicating rice wine, flows freely among the revelers. Young girls of the Kadazan community participate in a Beauty Queen Contest.
Other occasions that are also considered very important in this country include the Birth of Prophet Mohammed, National Day, Gawai Darak, Sabah International Folklore Festival, Sarawak Gawai and Hungry Ghost and Moon Cake Festival.