Culture and Events

Cultural spectacles

In Malaysia’s diverse and harmonious society, people of various races and religions have the right to hold their own beliefs; they can showcase and preserve the uniqueness of their own culture through festivities and ceremonies, which have become cultural heritages in their own rights. Here are some of the most notable examples.

Malay traditional wedding
A couple sitting side by side, dressed in Malay traditional clothing.
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Malay traditional weddings are known for being grand, lavish and meticulously prepared. A Malay wedding involves many steps of preparations, taking place before and during the wedding.

First, the groom-to-be and his family meet his girlfriend to find out if she is married and whether or not she is a good fit for her boyfriend; this is known as merisik in Malay. If everything goes well, the couple propose to each other; this act is called meminang in Malay. Both sides then work out details for the wedding ceremony, such as date, time, and dowry tray-gifts (known as duit hantaran in Malay). An engagement ceremony, called adat bertunang in Malay, is then held, during which a wedding ring is put on the bride’s finger, and the dowries are exchanged. A ceremony called adat berinai takes place a few days before the wedding, where the bride and her bridal party’s hands and feet are decorated with henna.

A Malay wedding ceremony.
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The wedding ceremony is known as akad nikah in Malay, and is only attended by family and close friends of the newlyweds. As per tradition, religious oaths are recited, and the groom must repeat the wedding oath after the officiant – an Imam (head of the mosque) or a Kadi (Islamic official) – in one breath, so that the marriage is declared solemn. The newlyweds also exchange gifts, which are previously agreed upon.

The wedding reception, open to the newlyweds’ family members, friends and acquaintances, is known as majlis bersanding. In this ceremony, the newlyweds sit side by side, and are treated as king and queen – the Malay phrase raja sehari (king for a day) is coined to refer to them. A buffet, as well as cultural performances such as Malay dances, are held during the ceremony. Guests bless the couple during this joyous occasion.

The Chingay parade

The Chingay parade is a time-tested tradition in Penang and Johor. Chingay means “true arts” in Hokkien. Despite bearing the same name, these parades are drastically different.

A Chingay parade in Penang.
Image source: Kwong Wah Daily

In Penang, Chingay parades were originally held in celebration of the birthdays of Chinese deities. Chingay performances involve balancing a large flag, requiring good strength, balance and body coordination.

The earliest documented Penang Chingay parade is said to have taken place in George Town in 1919. In an effort to preserve the art of Chingay, Malaysia’s Chinese community soon cooperated to call for enthusiasts all over the country in forming the Penang Chingay Association in the 1960s. Since then, Chingay performances became more of a cultural performance. Besides various competitions and exhibitions, a Chingay parade is now held annually in George Town every December.

The Chingay parade takes place in Johor Bahru Old Chinese Temple, one of Johor Bahru’s oldest surviving buildings, and a popular place of worship among local Chinese.
Image source: Kwong Wah Daily

The Chingay parade held annually in Johor Bahru is meant to celebrate Chinese New Year; for the local Chinese, their Chinese New Year festivities culminate in such a parade. This parade is meant to bring good luck and prosperity to the people for the upcoming lunar year.

The night parade is the most exciting part of the Chingay parade in Johor Bahru. Here many people are seen supporting the sedan on which a deity statue is seated.
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The festivities, which occur in and around Johor Bahru Old Chinese Temple, begin on the 18th day of Chinese New Year, and involve a series of rituals. Parades are held from the 20th to the 22nd day of Chinese New Year, the most spectacular and important of which is the night parade, held on the 21st day. The night parade lasts for several hours, as the statues of the five deities of the temple are paraded around the city, accompanied by lion and dragon dance troupes, Chinese drum bands, as well as large floats.


One of the most notable Indian festivals in Malaysia, Thaipusam is a public holiday in several states in Malaysia. The largest Thaipusam celebration in Malaysia occurs in Batu Caves, a popular and famous Hindu shrine. Hundreds of thousands of Indians gather there every year to take part in the festivities.

During the Thaipusam celebrations, some devotees perform a dance, called kavadi attam, to give thanks to or seek assistance from the Hindu god Lord Murugan. Some can also be seen carrying kavadis, which are ceremonial offerings carried through a procession to the temple.

Many kavadi carriers can be seen carrying kavadis with skewers that pierce the skin, cheeks and even tongue. Before doing so, they go through a rigorous, 48 day-long preparation process to purge themselves of all mental and physical impurities. This process, which includes eating only one vegetarian meal a day, head shaving, constant prayers, sexual and alcohol abstinence, as well as bathing in cold water, demands great discipline, perseverance and self-control.

Kaamatan and Gawai

Kaamatan, also known as Pesta Kaamatan or Tadau Kaamatan, is an annual harvest festival celebrated in the state of Sabah. Normally celebrated by the ethnic Kadazan-Dusuns, the festival lasts throughout the month of May. Nowadays this festival is widely celebrated throughout Sabah by people from many different walks of life.

Traditional dances such as Sumazau (a Kadazan-Dusun folk dance) and Magunatip (bamboo dance) are performed, and a singing competition, known as Sugandoi, is held. Those who take part in the festivities can also put their strength to the test in folk sports such as Mipulos (arm wrestling) and Migayat Lukug (Tug of War), as well as try out local delicacies such as Butod (sago grubs).

Contestants of the Unduk Ngadau beauty pageant.
Image source: Bernama

During Kaamatan, a beauty pageant known as Unduk Ngadau is held as a tribute to Huminodun. Legend has it that she was sacrificed by her father so that the people can have a plentiful harvest. Open to Sabahans, Unduk Ngadau Kaamatan is one of the most recognisable cultural events in Sabah, and the state-level pageant is the highlight and ending point of the Kaamatan celebrations.

People celebrating Gawai, Sarawak’s own harvest festival.
Image source: Bernama

Gawai, also known as Gawai Dayak, is an annual festival celebrated in Sarawak. This celebration, taking place in June every year, sees the Dayaks, which includes ethnic groups such as Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kelabit and Murut, celebrate the harvest.

During Gawai, a type of rice wine called tuak is served. It is brewed at least a month before the festival. Dishes such as ngelulun pulut (glutinous rice roasted in bamboo), as well as cakes such as sarang semut (ant nest cake), cuwan (molded cake), kui sepit (twisted cake) and penganan iri (a discus-shaped cake), are also prepared prior to the festival.

Male ngajat dancers’ clothing resembles those of the Iban warriors of old.
Image source: Tourist Guide Malaysia Facebook page

During the celebrations, traditional dances such as ngajat and tolak bala are performed. Mini sports and traditional games are also played. Dayak longhouses are also opened to guests during Gawai; similarly, open houses are organised in cities in Sarawak.


Cultural festivities are an important part of Malaysians’ lives, and helps them in promoting and preserving their culture, as well as building good relationships with people from different backgrounds. These festivities are not just appealing to tourists, but also to locals who join in the fun. By taking part in these festivities, one can get a glimpse of Malaysia’s diverse culture, allowing them to better understand the customs and beliefs of other races and religions.

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