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People, Languages & Religions


The population of Malaysia consists of three main ethnic groups—Malays, Chinese, and peoples of the South Asian subcontinent. Collectively, indigenous groups are known as Bumiputras ("sons of the soil"). Estimates for 2004 reported the following distribution: Malays, 50.4%; Chinese, 23.7%; Bumiputras, 11%; Indians, 7.1%; and other groups, 7.8%. Malays predominate in the rural areas, while the Chinese are concentrated in urban and mining areas, where they control much of the nation's wealth; enmity between Malays and Chinese has occasionally erupted into violence. The non-Malay indigenous groups on the peninsula, collectively called the Orang Asli (aborigines), number about 147,000; they represent the poorest group of people in the country.

Non-Malay indigenous tribes constitute about half of Sarawak's residents; the largest indigenous group consists of the Sea Dayaks, or Ibans, followed by the Land Dayaks, or Bidayuh. the majority of Sabah's population consists of indigenous peoples, principally Kadazans, Bajaus and Muruts. The balance is dominated by Chinese.


Bahasa Malaysia, or Malay, is the national language and the lingua franca of all Malaysia. The traditional Bahasa Malaysia script is Jawi, which derives from Arabic script, but Rumi, based on the Roman alphabet, is officially used in government, education, and business. English is widely employed in government and commerce and is a compulsory subject in all schools. Chinese (notably the Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan and Foochow dialects), Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, and Thai are spoken. In addition, in East Malaysia several indigenous languages are spoken, the largest of which are Iban and Kadazan. Most Malaysians are bilingual or multilingual.


Islam is the official religion and the head of state, the Yang Dipertuan Agong, is also the national leader of the Islamic faith. While the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom to profess, practice, and propagate other religions, in practice religious practices of groups other than other than Sunni Muslims are restricted. Proselytising of Muslims to non-Muslim religions is prohibited.

According to the Population and Housing Census 2010 figures, ethnicity and religious beliefs correlate highly. Approximately 61.3% of the population are practising Islam. 19.8% practice Buddhism; 9.2% Christianity; 6.3% Hinduism; and 1.3% practice Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions. 0.7% declared no religion and the remaining 1.4% practised other religions or did not provide any information.

All ethnic Malays are considered Muslim by law of the Constitution. Statistics from the 2010 Census indicate that 83.6% of the Chinese population identify as Buddhist, with significant numbers of adherents following Taoism (3.4%) and Christianity (11.1%), along with small Hui-Muslim populations in areas like Penang. The majority of the Indian population follow Hinduism (86.2%), with a significant minority identifying as Christians (6.0%) or Muslims (4.1%). Christianity is the predominant religion of the non-Malay Bumiputra community (46.5%) with an additional 40.4% identifying as Muslims.

Muslims are obliged to follow the decisions of Syariah courts in matters concerning their religion. The Islamic judges are expected to follow the Shafi`i legal school of Islam. The jurisdiction of Shariah courts is limited to Muslims in matters such as marriage, inheritance, divorce, apostasy, religious conversion, and custody among others. No other criminal or civil offences are under the jurisdiction of the Shariah courts, which have a similar hierarchy to the Civil Courts. Despite being the supreme courts of the land, the Civil Courts do not hear matters related to Islamic practices.

The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism is an interfaith organisation promoting mutual understanding and peace between religions. the Malaysian Council of Churches and the Christian Federation of Malaysia serve a similar purpose. The National Human Rights Commission has also worked to promote dialogue between faiths. Certain Christian, Muslim and Hindu holidays are recognised as national holidays.





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