The 'Jalur Gemilang' waving in the breeze
On the 31st of August 1957, the Jalur Gemilang, the Malaysian flag, was first raised in Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) after the declaration of freedom and independence by Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. The iconic moment of independence as Tunku Abdul Rahman shouts ‘Merdeka!’ seven times to announce the historical moment has been carried on as a tradition even in today’s National Day (or Merdeka Day) celebrations.
The celebration of freedom from the British colonisation is still largely commemorated through parades, performances, firework displays and so much more. Malaysia, once known as Malaya, has seen different settlers across the years, from Srivijayan Buddhists and Majapahit Hindus to Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese and British settlers. In conjunction with Malaysia’s 60th National Day, let’s take a look at the wonderful cultures and history of this beautiful country.
Going down memory lane
The founding ideals are based on the Merdeka Constitution which are instilled with principles of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights alongside ideals of equality, justice and human dignity. This builds a strong foundation for unity and integration between Malaysia’s diverse races, religions and cultures across both Peninsular and East Malaysia.
When we begin to break apart the aforementioned ideals, each of them can be directly connected to themes of compassionate co-existence between people. This is precisely what we should wholeheartedly embrace this coming National Day - celebrating 60 colourful years of love, acceptance and harmony between Malaysians.
This year, why not spend it unravelling the diverse cultures that intertwine and shape Malaysia so effortlessly. Delve into our beautifully weaved nation that beams rich heritage, a myriad of indigenous people, and abundant arts and tradition. Discover first hand how people live in utmost authenticity and take the time to understand their way of life through home stays and cultural village experiences.
Fascinating murals adding to the cultural allure
Widely known for its delicious local street food and fun graffiti style street art, Penang is also famous for its beautifully wide cultural diversity. With its unique melting pot of cultures, Penang is an interesting blend of the country’s colonial past and mixed-heritage future that unsurprisingly led to the declaration of Penang as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 2008.
Apart from the distinct colonial architecture, The Penang State Art Museum is a modest museum that holds a collection of cultural exhibits, old historical records, photographs and artefacts that showcase the history of Penang, dating back to the days of Francis Light, the founder of the British colony of Penang and Georgetown.
The modern culture of Penang is heavily influenced by the growing local art scene. The Penang State Art Gallery is home to the works of local artists, giving them a platform to display and share their creativity. Living up to the UNESCO title, the Georgetown Festival is held every year, usually in the month of July and grew from a 3-day celebration to a month long event. This festival boasts cultural performances, art exhibitions, dance, film and many other forms of art, culture and heritage. The spectacular city of Penang is truly a unique blend of heritage and modern culture. You can even take a trishaw ride as you explore the city’s heritage!
The picturesque 'red square' of Malacca
Also awarded the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, Malacca is the ideal destination to witness its unique local heritage. The first ever Merdeka celebration outside of Stadium Merdeka and Dataran Merdeka in 1985 was hosted by Malacca city, where the Malacca Club has transformed into the Merdeka Declaration Memorial to archive all future and past Merdeka celebrations.
Apart from the well-balanced mix of historical attractions such as colonial buildings, heritage sites, ruins of fort, churches, temples and old architecture, Malacca is another destination for delectable local food such as satay celup, chicken rice balls and scrumptious local Nyonya fare! The interesting blend of Malay, Indian, European, Chinese and sundry influences has given Malacca its own unique edge.
The origin of the “Baba Nyonya” heritage began in the late 1500s when the Chinese migrated to Malacca due to its strategic trading location and the interracial marriages with the local Malay residents led to the start of this new generation. The lifestyle and culture of this heritage can be viewed in the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum. Other popular interesting heritage sites include A Famosa Fort, St. John Fort, Christ Church, the Stadthuys and Cheng Hoon Teng Temple among many others.
Escape from the generic Merdeka Day (National Day) parade down at heavily congested Dataran Merdeka and leave to the more improbable parts of Malaysia to commemorate our 60th birthday! Over in East Malaysia, two of the most ethnically diverse states await your exploration - Sarawak and Sabah.
The gorgeous Sarawakian hornbill
Sarawakian culture has historically been heavily influenced by Bruneian Malays of the coastal areas and mildly so by Chinese and British backgrounds. The two largest collectives of indigenous people are known as Iban and Bidayuh. Ibans are referred to as Sea Dayaks and Bidayuhs as Land Dayaks, both are proto-Malays despite being completely unaffected by Islamic culture.
Outside the 'baruk', the Bidayuh's skull house
Today, many communities have converted to Christianity, leaving a handful who sternly continue to follow indigenous beliefs. Historically, closed customary practices known as ‘adat’ and traditions such as headhunting were practised widely. Urbanisation has holistically altered their way of life and to our advantage, these lovely communities have begun opening up their homes to genuine individuals. Allowing fellow urban Malaysians and travellers to embrace and quench their curiosity of tribal living.
Tribal longhouses define the cultural scene at Sarawak
The time is ripe to begin understanding local ethnic groups beyond immediate reach. Take on the unfamiliar chance of celebrating this coming Merdeka with the Iban and Bidayuh communities. What better way to do this than to spend a couple of days living under the roofs of their traditional longhouses. Devour scrumptious native dishes, engage in deep conversation and marvel in their simplistic lifestyles as you reflect the differences in how their lives are led in comparison.
A merry scene
Inhabiting the geographic formation resembling a dog’s head, the largest ethnic group in Sabah is known as Kadazan-Dusun, making up a third of the entire state’s population. An interesting noteworthy custom is that the Kadazan-Dusun tribes share a common animistic belief that hovers over their diverse customary practices, in that everything exudes life. The rocks, trees, rivers, rice fields, earth matter are all living beings with souls that must be appeased through ritualistic practices performed during certain festivals. The Monsopiad Village and the Mari-Mari Village are remarkable places to broaden your knowledge of their peculiar ways.
A peculiar way of life that echoes the past
The remaining Sabahan population are divided among 30 other ethnic groups who speak over 80 different dialects. The subsequent majority of tribes are known as Bajau, Rungus and Murut. The Bajaus are the second largest group and are most commonly known as the “Cowboy Horsemen” of Sabah. Traditionally, they are known to have a knack for sword-making and some still continue to practice this ancestral trait today. Similarly, the Rungus are one of the few groups who’ve diligently maintained ancient traditions to this very day. See this in action and catch a glimpse of them at the Bavanggazo Village located at the very tip of Borneo.
The fact that all these different ethnic groups have and continue to harmoniously retain and empower each other is a golden example of our nation’s regard for values of multiculturalism. Take the opportunity of our nation’s 60th celebration of the freedom to acquire a deeper understanding and cultural appreciation for the unique beliefs of the natives. Do check out Adventoro if you need help to plan your travels across Malaysia.