Malaysia: An Insider's persective from an Outsider

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

Camila Luna

The Petronas twin towers at the heart of downtown Kuala Lumpur

When you hear "Malaysia", what’s the first thing you think about? Maybe fancy hair weave/ extensions? Beautiful beaches? Hot tropical climate?

Well I can tell you that yes, Malaysians have amazing hair, yes, the beaches & islands here are on fleeeeek, and yes it's a jungle climate and every day I'm paranoid about getting Dengue, but Malaysia is also an incredible place that has taught me so much.

Here are some of the most poignant things I've learned about Malaysia since I moved here 4.5 months ago:

1. It's a very religious society.

Islam is the official national religion, and Muslims are expected to follow Shariah law, but the government absolutely recognizes and respects the other major religions here, namely Buddhism and Hinduism.

Even though the various religions coexist in peace, there are DEF some hot topics for debate. For example, if you are Muslim, your religion must be listed on your Malaysian ID card (it's like being required to have "Jewish" marked on your driver's license).

But wait, it’s not just if you personally identify as Muslim, it's also if your parents or grandparents were Muslim. Basically, if your ancestors were Muslim, you're not legally allowed to convert to any other religion. And technically, you're expected to follow Shariah law. Get caught breaking the rules, and you might get c̶o̶m̶m̶u̶n̶i̶t̶y̶ ̶s̶e̶r̶v̶i̶c̶e̶ religious counseling classes, fines, or worse.

As you can imagine, not everyone is thrilled about this, but at least for now, it's the law of the land.

The beautiful Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque in Shah Alam, Malaysia

2. It's one of the most ethnically diverse places I've ever lived in.

Here, you'll find native Malays of the peninsula, natives of Borneo and Sarawak, people of the Chinese and Indian diasporas, and more recently, people who've emigrated from neighboring countries. It's just as diverse linguistically as it is racially. What a beautiful mix!

3. Malaysians generally categorize themselves into three “races” based on where their ancestors came from, and those three categories are: Chinese, Indian, and Malay (indigenous Malaysians, also known as “Bumiputera”, meaning “son of the soil”.)

Although thankfully, things are peaceful now, Malaysians of the three different races have not always felt that laws and economic situations are just for all. In fact, in the in the 1970s, the government gave Malay’s “special privileges” in order to help ameliorate disproportionate poverty within the Malay population.

In 2020, although most people can agree that Malay people, who make up 60% of the population, have progressed economically, these “special privileges” remain. For example, in the Malaysian housing market, 20-30% (depending on state) of housing units sold must be reserved for Bumiputera people, and Bumiputera buyers receive a 5-15% (also depending on the state) discount when selecting a home.

There are many other “Bumi privileges” that the government has enacted, which, as you can imagine, not everyone is thrilled about.

4. The different ethnicities generally make significant efforts to retain their cultural identities.

For example, there are many Chinese and Indian (Tamil) schools here for children whose ancestors came from those places.

For instance, imagine if your great, great grandparents came from Italy, and even though you're like 4th or 5th generation American, you still went to an Italian K-12 school and Italian is your first language. In Malaysia, that type of thing isn't uncommon.

5. Rent here is super cheap (compared to New York/ Paris/ San Francisco) and most apartment buildings have swimming pools, gyms, restuarants and other cool amenities that would be really expensive in the west!!! HOLLAAA

6. Malaysians are generally super friendly. Like I don't even understand. Like Why? Why are you being so nice?

7. Last but absolutely not least: like 95% of the population speaks good English.

This is amazing because it's SO SO SO nice to live in a country where you can communicate with every day people. After living in China and speaking about 5 words of Chinese, it's such a huge relief for me to be able to have normal conversations with people.

Islands on Malaysia's eastern coast are famous for their clear waters and pristine beauty

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