Capital city: Kuala Lumpur
Population: 30.1 million (DOSM)
Government: Federal parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy
Currency: Malaysian ringgit (MYR)
Main languages: Malay, English, Chinese dialects
Main religions: Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism
Malaysia is quite literally a country of two halves, with its component land masses – Peninsular Malaysia (which lies on the Malay Peninsula) and East Malaysia (on the island of Borneo) – separated by the South China Sea. A former British colony which gained independence in 1957, the country consists of 13 states and three federal territories governed by a democratic parliament with an elected king, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, as head of state. Every five years, the monarch is elected from the hereditary rulers of the Malay states.
Malaysia is a genuinely multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country, and this diversity has a profound impact on the politics of the state. The political landscape owes a lot to the British parliamentary system, while the constitution acknowledges Islam as the state religion but enshrines in law the freedom to practice other religions. The majority of people in Malaysia are ethnic Malays, but there are also large Chinese and Indian communities.
Malaysia’s stunning coastline with its warm, clear water is the setting for a range of watersports. Outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling and fishing are also popular, while golf is a growing sport for both participants and spectators. The country’s world-renowned spa resorts are a popular venue for socialising, while cities like Kuala Lumpur boast a thriving food scene. Malaysia also has several traditional games and pastimes which are still enjoyed today, with kite (or wau) flying and silat (a form of martial arts) demonstrations a regular sight around the country. Another social attraction is the simple sport of sepak takraw, a game in which players form a circle and try to prevent a small ball from dropping to the ground without using their hands.
Food and drink
Malaysian cuisine strongly reflects the country’s diverse ethnic makeup, with Indian, Chinese and Thai influences clear alongside the Malay classics. Rice remains the staple food, with seafood, beef and poultry also featuring heavily on menus. Unlike some Muslim countries, there are few restrictions on the sale of pork. Characteristic flavours of Malaysian cuisine include chilli, ginger, coconut, soy and satay. Drinks tend to be sweet and somewhat syrupy in nature, for example tea and coffee are usually served with condensed milk. Coconut milk-based drinks are also popular. Alcohol is widely sold although drinking on the street is illegal.
The official language is Malay, which is widely-spoken across not only Malaysia, but Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore as well. English is also widely taught and spoken, largely as a result of past colonial rule. A derivative form of Standard English known as Malaysian English, and the more colloquial Manglish – a creole-type spoken language with Malay, Chinese and Tamil influences – are the most common forms. Other important languages include the various dialects of Chinese spoken by the large Malay Chinese population.
Malaysia has a tropical climate, with hot and humid conditions typical and air-conditioning a must. While there is a degree of variation, average temperatures are around 27°C (80°F), with coastal areas generally a bit warmer and the forest and mountain regions a little cooler. Rainfall is fairly consistent all year round, with only a slight increase between October and April. However, the exception is the wet season experienced by Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast between December and February. During this time many east coast tourist resorts close, but the west of the country is unaffected. Malaysia can also experience typhoons – usually between July and November – so ensure that you are aware of emergency plans in your area.
Safety and security
With its strict criminal justice system, Malaysia has low levels of violent crime. Expats are far more likely to be affected by scams like credit card fraud. Bag snatching and robberies are more prevalent in cities, so always be aware of your surroundings and try to avoid walking alone. Malaysia does experience sporadic political and social unrest, so avoid travelling to disputed areas of East Malaysia and try to stay clear of any public demonstrations.
As with any new country, you should make sure you are aware of local laws. Malaysia has a particularly strict attitude towards drug crimes, with drug trafficking carrying a mandatory death penalty and possession a lengthy custodial sentence. Homosexual acts are also illegal.