Working as a tour guide in Malaysia, I’ve met people who were initially hesitant to visit after learning that it is a Muslim-majority country. Concerns included worries about dress codes, potential restrictions, difficulties in finding alcohol, and a general lack of fun and entertainment.
Conversely, there were also individuals who were eager to explore and gain insights into the culture, especially if they had never experienced a Muslim country before. And then there were those who had absolutely no idea what the main religion was, or if there was any at all.
So, first thing first, let’s address this burning question:
Is Malaysia a Muslim country?
Yes, even though Islam is practiced by only about 60% of the country’s population, Malaysia is still a predominantly Muslim country. The country’s constitution recognizes Islam as the official religion of the federation, and the monarch serves as the head of the Islamic faith in their respective states.
The practice of Islam plays a significant role in shaping various aspects of the Malaysian society, including cultural traditions, architecture, legal frameworks, and daily life. In fact, it became such an integral part of the nation’s identity that we put the Islamic crescent symbol on our flag to tell the world we’re Muslim.
Now that we’ve got that question out of the way, you may be wondering how this is going to affect you as a traveler. Will you be expected to dress a certain way? What are the things you are allowed and not allowed to do?
This article tells you what to expect when visiting Malaysia as a non-Muslim traveler, written by a (non-religious) Muslim local who has also traveled extensively in other Muslim and non-Muslim countries.
Understanding Islam in Malaysia
While Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, it is important to remember that it is also culturally diverse, with 40% of the population comprising Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Taoists, animists, and people of other faiths.
Therefore, Malaysians are used to being tolerant of other cultures. Religious festivals are celebrated as nationwide public holidays, regardless of what you believe in.
Sometimes, you can see prayer houses of different faiths all located on the same street. As a matter of fact, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Malaysia is a Hindu temple, featuring the world’s third tallest Hindu statue outside of India.
That being said, it’s still a good idea to familiarize yourself with basic Islamic customs to show respect.
Food & Dining
As an Islamic country, the majority of Malaysians adhere to strict dietary laws and eat only halal food. Halal, which means permissible in Arabic, refers to food that comply with Islamic law throughout its entire production process, from sourcing ingredients to preparation. But this does not mean it is impossible to find non-halal food.
In Malaysia, food premises are categorized into three types: Halal, Pork-Free, and Non-Halal. These categories are clearly labeled outside the restaurants to avoid any mistake or confusion. Halal and non-halal are pretty clear-cut, whereas a pork-free restaurant does not serve pork but may still serve alcohol on the premises, or incorporate it in their cooking.
Depending on their piousness, some Muslims may outright refuse to even step foot inside a non-halal restaurant. Do take this into consideration when inviting a local friend to dinner at a restaurant, for example.
Supermarkets also have a separate section for non-halal products including pork and alcohol, which is manned by non-Muslim employees.
Given Malaysia’s Islamic influence, modesty in clothing is highly appreciated throughout the country. For both men and women, it is advisable to wear attire that covers the shoulders, cleavage, and knees. Women may choose to wear long skirts or loose pants paired with long-sleeved tops, while men can opt for long pants and shirts.
However, some places are noticeably less conservative than the others. In bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur and Penang for example, it is not uncommon to see women wearing short skirts and sleeveless or cropped tops. The hijab is not required by law anywhere in the country, although most Muslim women choose to wear it.
When entering a Muslim prayer house, men have to wear long pants, while women are expected to cover everything up, revealing only their hands and faces. Shoes are to be removed before entering prayer houses and people’s homes.
Swimwear, either one-piece or two-piece, is appropriate at beaches or pools but should be avoided in public places. Going nude (or topless, for women) is an absolute no-no and could get you arrested for indecent exposure.
In some Islamic communities around the world, the segregation of men and women is a cultural norm, and this can clearly be seen in public settings, such as separate seating areas for men and women, separate lanes at checkout counters, separate prayer halls, separate doorways, and so on.
In Malaysia, gender segregation is implemented on some public transports, particularly on the KTM and MRT lines, where specific coaches are reserved exclusively for women. However, this practice has more to do with sexual harassment than religion.
The designated coaches provide a safer space for women, aiming to mitigate instances of harassment and ensure a more secure and comfortable commuting experience.
In Malaysia, public displays of affection should be kept to a minimum. While holding hands is acceptable, kissing or excessive hugging is generally frowned upon.
Additionally, it is crucial to avoid engaging in public criticism of religion or the royal family, as this can be perceived as highly offensive. Malaysia places great importance on respecting religious beliefs and institutions, and any public commentary or critique may be met with strong disapproval and even legal action.
Despite being a Muslim country, Malaysia is not completely devoid of entertainment and nightlife. There are clubs, bars, lounges, and live music venues in the big cities, although these are rarely visited by devout Muslims. We even have a glamorous casino up in the highlands.
In terms of socializing, Islamic culture often dictates a certain level of modesty and reserved behavior between individuals of the opposite gender, unless they are family members.
It is common for people to avoid unnecessary physical contact, such as handshakes, especially in more conservative and traditional settings. Greetings may be exchanged verbally or with a nod as an alternative to physical touch.
While these customs may vary across different communities and individuals, being attuned to and respecting these cultural norms is an important aspect of engaging in social interactions in Malaysia.
To avoid potentially awkward situations, try not to offer a handshake or hug to a Muslim person of the opposite gender unless they offer it first.
Visiting Malaysia as an LGBTQ+ Person
Malaysia has a predominantly conservative societal outlook when it comes to LGBTQ+, and while urban areas may be more diverse and accepting, it’s essential to approach the topic with sensitivity. Same-sex relationships are not legally recognized, and certain forms of LGBTQ+ expression may be met with legal consequences.
While discretion is advised, many LGBTQ+ individuals have reported positive experiences in Malaysia, especially in more cosmopolitan areas. Exploring urban centers like Kuala Lumpur can provide opportunities to connect with the local LGBTQ+ community and spaces that are inclusive.
There are several more key restrictions and regulations that are imposed by the Malaysian government on the Muslim population:
- Eating or drinking in public during the fasting month of Ramadan
- Premarital or extramarital relations or cohabitation
- Gambling or entering a casino
- Consumption of alcohol
- Wearing bikinis in public (in some states)
However, these rules are exclusive to Malaysian Muslims only and do not extend to Non-Muslims or foreigners (of any religion). Additionally, the interpretation and enforcement of these laws can vary between states in Malaysia.
While Malaysia is rooted in Islamic values, it also embraces a harmonious coexistence of various ethnic and religious communities, contributing to the rich diversity of the nation’s cultural heritage. Malaysia’s appeal extends beyond religious boundaries, offering a warm welcome to all those eager to discover its unique charm and hospitality.
As a visitor, regardless of your personal beliefs, it’s crucial to be aware of and respect local customs, norms, and legal restrictions to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit. By being respectful, open-minded, and appreciative of the local culture, you’ll likely have a wonderful experience during your visit.