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Malaysia is a country that celebrates its diversity. Whereas in most other countries there is a trend towards creating a homogeneous society for the purpose of national unity, in Malaysia the various races are encouraged to keep their ethnic names and their languages, to practise their respective religions and to embrace not only their own cultures, but fellow citizens'. All this has served to create a vibrant multi-cultural society. This is especially visible during any festival, as all Malaysians take any excuse to celebrate! Malaysia has some of the most public holidays in Asia, due to the myriad of holy or cultural festivals celebrated by the variety of cultures in the country.
You will see multi-cultural aspects everywhere you look, due to the multi-racial nature of Malaysia. It is most evident in Kuala Lumpur than other smaller cities in the country. To some. it is most obvious in terms of food. If you are a food lover, you are in the right place. Kuala Lumpur must be one of the best places to enjoy a huge variety of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and other food.
Malaysia is very unique in the sense of its culture. People of different religions and backgrounds mix easily together, respect and live with each other peacefully. The outcome is a spectacular mix of people, food, traditions and culture. Malaysians are generally a very happy and cheerful people, but most of them will not tolerate bad manners and rudeness. Manners are important in this country; always say "thank you" and "excuse me" when you are interacting with people. Like most Asians, the people here can be introverted and a little shy. Ocaasionally you may be lucky to meet an outspoken person with whom you can have an insightful chat about Malaysian or world issues. Tell them you find Malaysia lovely, they will smile broadly!
Malaysia has a large population of Malays, who are Muslims, so you will see a lot of ladies with headscarves. Try not to stare as it is considered rude. However, in Kuala Lumpur, its capital city, expect some stares everywhere you go, as many KL-ites consider "people-watching" the ideal activity to pass the time.
Muslims in Malaysia are, in general, moderate in faith and friendly; there is no need to be afraid of them, though they have a religious aversion to pigs and dogs. Muslims, like Jews, have strict dietary requirements, so if you're presenting a Muslim with any kind of food, check if it's halal (Islamic version of kosher). The second largest race are the Chinese, who mainly live in the urban areas and are principally involved in business and commerce. The Chinese are predominantly Buddhist, Christian or free-thinkers. Indians are the third major race, they tend to be either Hindu, Christian or Muslim (Mamaks). The Hindus and Buddhists also have their own dietary requirements, but there are so many variations that you would have to check with each individual. Checking dietary requirements is the norm in Malaysia and quite expected. In addition to these three races, there are many other races in this multi-racial country, such as the Iban from Sarawak and the Kadazan from Sabah.
If you are to visit a Malaysian private home or most Malaysian places of worship, be prepared to remove your shoes and wear conservative clothing. You'll also need to keep the conversation down in the places of worship. There is a huge difference in exposure towards foreign cultures between Malaysian cities and their rural areas, but if you dress conservatively when venturing out of the cities and tourist areas, you'll find that Malaysians are very tolerant of any other faux pas.
Kuala Lumpur and Penang are the two most well-known cities and provide the biggest variety of cultures in Malaysia. You will most probably find a very friendly-and-maybe-nosy taxi driver/tour operator that usually starts up a conversation with the sentence "Where do you come from, Sir / Madam?" Just tell them the country of where you come from, or make up something, and they will be happy enough to talk about anything. They will either talk to you all the way till the end of your ride, or say nothing at all. Just don't forget to keep your eye on the taxi meter!
The majority of the Chinese and Indian populations are in the cities, and city people speak a kaleidoscope of languages. Malaysians consider food as the ambassador of a culture, and reflecting this attitude, you'll find food from all over the world available in the cities. If you were to land in a food court, you will most probably find a huge variety of food. If you hanker for western or fast food, McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut or Starbucks are easily found. Burgers, chips / fries, and steaks are all over the place. No matter how adventurous an eater you are or not, you won't starve here. However, do have a meet up with the "ambassadors" of Malaysia's local culture, and give nasi lemak, chicken rice or fried kuey teow, and chapati or roti canai a try. You won't find the genuine article outside of Malaysia, no matter how many Malaysian restaurants pop up around the world.
The East Coast and the North have a largely Malay population. The people in these parts are more intense in their passions for religion and politics, so avoid discussing religion or politics! Instead, focus on the lovely, untainted natural surroundings. The people here are generally less extrovert compared to those in the larger cities, and they are rather shy and keep to themselves. Dress conservatively when travelling through these parts of the country.
Other notes to remember:
Islam is the official religion, so come any friday, there would be an extended lunch break for friday prayers at all goverment departments. Avoid doing any official business during this time as all work comes to a stand still (except for essential services). In some states, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, so offices open on Sunday instead.
Possession of Heroin or other prohibited drugs (over the stipulated amount) carries the mandatory death penalty.
Civilians are not allow to be in possesion of firearm; you need to have a license to carry and use.