The cultural milieu of Malaysia is a complex mixture of Malay, Chinese, and Indians. However, Malay and Malaysians might seem like the same race, or set of people, when examined from afar. Malaysians represent all citizens of Malaysia, regardless of race or creed, ‘Malay’ represents the ethnoreligious set of people who are Malaysian citizens born in Malaysia, whose ancestors are Malays, and who profess to be a Muslim, speaks the Malay language, and follows Malay culture and customs. They form the largest ethnic group, which accounts for over half of the population.
Legend has it that the origin of Malay can be associated with the river Sungai Melayu river that flows in Sumatra. The term is thought to be derived from the Malay word “melaju”, a combination of the verbal ‘me’ and the root word ‘laju’, meaning “to accelerate”, which was used to describe the accelerating flow of the river.
It indicates the ethnological group, which is said to have been originated through the Tamil rulers who invaded the place earlier. The term ‘Melayu’ is also derived from the Tamil word Malaya which means “hill” or “high ground” and the people living in that place are known as Malay.
The first occupiers of Malaysia were the Semang Negritos who were the first wave of human migration to Southeast Asia about 500,000 years ago.
Originally Malaysia was occupied by the Proto Malays which is known as the Orang asli, Iban, and the Dayak community.
The origin of Malay race can be traced back to the 15th century with the decline of the Srivijaya empire and the rise of the Malacca sultanate. It was also due to the traffic of traders from across the world that lead to inter-cultural marriages which eventually contributed to the amalgamation of Malay culture.
Although a large number of Arab traders had passed by the peninsula in the 10th century, it was only during the 14th century that Islam first established itself in the Malaysian Peninsula. The adoption of Islam by the 15th century saw the rise of sultanates, most prominent of which was in Malacca.
Ever since then the Malay Empire left a lasting impression and a legacy that had a major impact on the Malay culture and history in Malaysia. Malacca was the first Malay Muslim state that achieved the status of a regional maritime power.
The conversion of Malays to Islam from Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism began in the 1400s, which was largely influenced by the decision of the royal court of Malacca.
Legend has it that Parameswara, the last king of Singapura, fled the island after a treacherous official in his court allied himself with the Majapahit empire. He and his followers later settled in a fishing village where the legend goes that he witnessed a mouse deer outwitting his hunting dog while he was resting under a Malacca tree. Seeing that a timid mouse deer could best a hunting dog as a good omen, he established a new settlement. Today the humble mouse deer is still part of Malacca’s coat of arms.
It is believed that Parameswara became a Muslim after his marriage to the Princess of Pasai and he took the Persian title ‘Shah’, calling himself Iskandar Shah. Within a few years of its establishment and reign by Iskandar Shah, Malacca officially adopted Islam. Due to the fact that Malacca was under the rule of a Muslim Prince, the conversion of Malays to Islam increased in the 15th century.
As Malacca was an important commercial center during this time, attracting spice trade from around the region as well as the attention of the powerful Ming Dynasty, it became a cultural center, creating a mix of modern Malay culture which is a blend of indigenous Malay, Indian, Chinese, Islamic races, and various historical influences (such as the Portuguese, Dutch and British).
This multicultural influence influenced the culture, culinary traditions, politics, literature, architecture, and royal court traditions of the Malays of Malaysia till this day. Likewise, this unique confluence of cultures, religious ideologies, and trade all played a role in creating the unique cultural identity of the people of Malaysia.
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