MALAYSIAN CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY

MALAYSIAN CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY

Malaysians have traditionally valued courtesy, non-confrontation and temepreance. Ian Lloyd, a National Geographic photographer, who has spent a great deal of time in Malaysia said, “Malaysians have an enviable sense of contentment, unusual in today’s frenetically paced world...Even though Malaysia has produced some of the world’s tallest building, a thriving high-tech industry...the soul of the country still resides in the kampongs, or villages, where traditional values and caring for the community are what counts.”

Lloyd said, in the villages he was struck by how happy people seemed. “The women laughed together sorting the day’s catch of fish, young boys swung from trees and into cool streams, while the sarong-clad men worked companionably together in the rice fields. As a guest I was always offered tea, cakes, and conversation, no matter where I was or how humble the circumstances.

“This serenity and caring for others come from living so close to the land, and each other. In a small village, anything else wold be intolerable....There is a...Malay expression goting royong, describing community spiritedness—villagers rallying together to get large projects done, like the barn raisings American farmers used to hold....Malaysians may live at one of the great cultural crossroads of the planet, with 21st-century cities fueled by technological wizardry, but their simple kampong values help them hold onto their sense of contentment in an increasingly complex world.”

Malaysia in many ways is deeply conservative country. Remaining calm is regarded as a virtue. There are few outlets for expressing emotion. Publicly humiliating someone in Malaysian culture is considered unforgivably bad manners. When Prime Minister Mahathir dragged Anwar Ibrahim’s name through the mud it was considered by many Malaysians to be the ultimate violation of Malaysiam ethics.

According to the abstract for “Malay Culture and Personality: A Big Five Perspective” by Khairul A. Mastor, Putai Jin and Martin Cooper, University of New South Wales, Australia: “The study aims to determine whether the Big Five model of personality is applicable to the Malay culture. Two studies were conducted among Malaysian students in Australia (N = 174), and a further study (N = 451) conducted in Malaysia used the refined items from the Australian work. Scree and parallel tests indicated that only five factors should be extracted. Exploratory and Procrustes factor analyses indicated that the Big Five factors of Costa and McCrae exist in the Malay personality structure. The Openness to Actions and Values facets, however, were not replicated well. Overall results and congruence coefficients for 28 facets strongly supported the Big Five model as being cross-culturally applicable. Compared to Americans, Malay students appeared to have high scores in Agreeableness and low scores in Extraversion and Openness.” [Source:“Malay Culture and Personality: A Big Five Perspective” by Khairul A. Mastor, Putai Jin and Martin Cooper, University of New South Wales, Australia

See Separate Article MALAYSIAN SOCIETY

“Malay Character: by James Brooke

James Brooke wrote in his journal in the early 1840s in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “How is it to be accounted for, that the Malays have so bad a character with the public, and yet that the few who have had opportunities of knowing them well speak of them as a simple and not unamiable people ? With the vulgar, the idea of a Malay — and by the Malay they mean the entire Polynesian race, with the exception of the Javanese — is that of a treacherous bloodthirsty villain; and I believe the reason to be, that from our first intercourse to the present time, it is the Fangerans or Eajahs of the country, with their followers, who are made the standard of Malay character. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]

“These Rajahs, born in the purple, bred amid slaves and fighting-cocks, inheriting an undisputed power over their subjects, and under all circumstances, whether of riches or poverty, receiving the abject submission of those around their persons, are naturally the slaves of their passions — haughty, rapacious, vindictive, weak, and tenacious unto death of the paltry punctilio of their court. The followers of such Rajahs it is needless to describe; — they are the tools of the Rajah's will, and more readily disposed for evil than for good ; unscrupulous, cunning, intriguing, they are prepared for any act of violence. We must next contrast these with a burly independent trader, eager after gain, probably not over-scrupulous about the means of obtaining it, ignorant of native character, and heedless of native customs and native etiquette. The result of such a combination of ingredients causes an explosion on the slightest occasion. The European is loud, contemptuous, and abusive; the Malay cool and vindictive. The regal dignity has been insulted ; the Rajah has received " shame” Before his court; evil counsellors are at hand to whisper the facility of revenge, and the advantages to he derived from it. The consequence too frequently follows — the captain and crew are krissed, and their vessel seized and appropriated.*-*

“The repeated tragedy shocks the European mind; and the Malay has received, and continues to this day to receive, a character for treachery and Bloodthirstiness. Even in these common cases an allowance must be made for the insults received, which doubtless on numerous occasions were very gross, and such flagrant violations of native customs as to merit death in native eyes; and we must bear in mind, that we never hear but one side of the tale, or only judge upon a bloody fact. It is from such samples of Malays that the general character is given by those who have only the limited means of trade for forming a judgment; but those who have known the people of the interior and lived amongst them, far removed from the influence of their Rajahs, have given them a very different character. Simple in their habits, they are neither treacherous nor bloodthirsty ; cheerful, polite, hospitable, gentle in their manners, they live in communities with fewer crimes and fewer punishments than most other people of the globe. They are passionately fond of their children, and indulgent even to a fault; and the ties of family relationship and good feeling continue in force for several generations. The feeling of the Malay, fostered by education, is acute, and his passions are roused if shame be put upon him; indeed, this dread of shame amounts to a disease ; and the evil is, that it has taken a wrong direction, being more the dread of exposure or abuse, than shame or contrition for any offence. *-*

"I have always found them good-tempered and obliging, wonderfully amenable to authority, and quite as sensible of benefits conferred, and as grateful, as other people of more favoured countries. Of course there is a reverse to this picture. The worst feature of the Malay character is the want of all candour or openness, and the restless spirit of cunning intrigue which animates them, from the highest to the lowest. Like other Asiatics, truth is a rare quality amongst them. They are superstitious, somewhat inclined to deceit in the ordinary concerns of life, and they have neither principle nor conscience when they have the means of oppressing an infidel, and a Dyak who is their inferior in civilisation and intellect. *-*

"If this character of the Malay be summed up, it will be anything but a bad one on the whole; it will present a striking contrast to the conduct and character of the Bajahs and their followers, and I think will convince any impartial inquirer, that it is easily susceptible of improvement. One of the most fertile sources of confusion is, classing at one time all the various nations of the Archipelago under the general name of Malay, and at another restricting the same term to one people, not more ancient, not the fountain-head of the others, who issued from the centre of Sumatra, and spread themselves in a few parts of the Archipelago. *-*

"The French, the German, the English, Scotch, and Irish, are not more different in national character than the Malay, the Javanese, the Bugis, the Ulanun, and the Dyak ; and yet all these are indiscriminately called Malay, and a common character hestowed upon them. It would he as wise and as sensible to speak of an European character. *-*

“Budi Bahasa Budaya Kita"

“Budi Bahasa Budaya Kita" is a Malay expression used in reference to community harmony. On how this sentiment is being lost in modern, Malaysia, especially among young people, one Malaysian posted on an Interent bulletin board: “We said, we are a community of well-mannered and courteous. But today our young children who are still studying in college because the court sentenced mock authority. Our own filthy anywhere including in a car stuck in traffic. Children looking at us and we are cerminannya.

“Ramadan and Shawwal moon the next thought thousand prostrations and full of glory, but our attitude and love to others rarely we evaluate. We continue to look at the small things that ruin the future of society and the nation. We do not pay attention to what the fate of their neighbors and the needy. We rarely see their destiny in their own families who need help and support. We forget our brothers and sisters who suffer from diseases like HIV-AIDS, drug addiction, and others are left out. We despicable mistake and their families so that the afflicted and some calumny material remains even refused to run.

“Then when other people come extend aid and support, especially from other religious groups, we are angry and see with prejudice. We also talk about things that could threaten national security and harmony among the people there. We complain sheep and blame anyone, including the government and the authorities. We forget to look at the responsibility and the burden carried along, that should start from the individual, but also religious institutions kitaKita seemingly no responsibilities. As if the task we just criticize. Ours will just point fingers.”

Concept of Face in Malaysia

In Asia, it has been said that "face is more important than truth or justice" and losing face is often an individual’s greatest fear. Face is essentially respect in a community and is a crucial underpinning of society. Loss of that respect threatens the relations of individuals with almost everyone in his or her world and is hard to get back once lost and thus is avoided at all costs.

”Face” is equated with honor. Maintaining dignity and avoiding embarrassment is at the heart of maintaining face. Some people describe the West as a guilt-based society where people's behavior is dictated by their personal hang-ups. In Asian societies, on the other hand, are often described as shame-based society, in which behavior is often defined by fear of losing face. It is considered very bad taste to publically criticize a person since it results in a loss of face within the community. Necessary criticisms and suggestions should be made in way the that no one is blamed and shame is not cast upon any individual.

On the idea of face in Malaysia, kwintessential.co.uk reported: “Malays, Chinese and Indians all strive to maintain face and avoid shame both in public and private. Face is a personal concept that embraces qualities such as a good name, good character, and being held in esteem by one's peers. Face is considered a commodity that can be given, lost, taken away, or earned. On top of this face also extends to the family, school, company, and even the nation itself. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk]

“The desire to maintain face makes Malaysians strive for harmonious relationships. Face can be lost by openly criticizing, insulting, or putting someone on the spot; doing something that brings shame to the group; challenging someone in authority, especially if this is done in public; showing anger at another person; refusing a request; not keeping a promise; or disagreeing with someone publicly. Conversely, face can be saved by remaining calm and courteous; discussing errors or transgressions in private; speaking about problems without blaming anyone; using non-verbal communication to say "no"; and allowing the other person to get out of the situation with their pride intact.”

Asian Pride and Asian Values

In the late 1990s it was fashionable to explain Asia’s economic success and prosperity in terms of “Asian values,” a collection of attributes such as a belief in hard work, thriftiness, propensity to save, filial piety, national pride, respect for order and authority, coherence of a society, and a commitments to common ideals, goals and values that place the common good ahead of the individual. Questioning authority and seniors was regarded as disrespectful, un-Confucian and un-Asian.

"What we are seeing in Malaysia is the expression of a growing trend across Asia," John Malott, the United States ambassador to Malaysia told T.R. in National Geographic in the 1990s. "It's a phenomenon that I call 'Asian pride.' The sense is, ''We're doing pretty well for ourselves, and we don't need America to play "father knows best" anymore.'"

Some Asian value advocates went further and argued that Asian values created a better society. High rates of crime, unemployment, divorce, drug use and welfare dependency in Western societies were explained in part, the advocates said, by the fact that Westerners were lazy, selfish and greedy; and they sent their elderly to nursing homes and married several times. Asians by contrast did not have so many problems because they cared for their grandparents, shunned divorce, worked hard, saved their money and were devoted to their families.

Some Asian values advocates argued that the group-oriented, Confucian "Asian Way, " with its emphasis on respect for authority was better than the democratic, Judeo-Christian, individualistic "American Way." They suggested that imposing Western notions of individualism on Asia corrupted Asian society and Asian-style authoritarianism was the best way to develop economic growth.

Advocates and Critics of Asian Values

The highest profile advocates of Asian values were Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of Singapore, and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. Lee claimed there is no such thing as a “victim of society” in Asia. Mahathir said, "The Eurocentric world is finished. Asians have now found the formula." In his book The Voice of Asia, he wrote, "Western societies are riddled with single-parent families...with homosexuality...with unrestrained avarice, with disrespect for others and, of course, with rejection of or religious teachings and values." He also implied that Asian values not European values were universal.

Some critics of Asian values theory argue the theory is a rational for dictators and authoritarianism and say that Confucianism has been distorted and used as a "high-minded rationale for maintaining personal power.” Critics point out that Confucianism was not as rigid as it is made out to be and Western thought is not as liberal and individual-based as is suggested. They argue that many of the traits described as Asian and as Western could also be described as universal. Both cultures prize hard work, education thrift, and investing in the future. Others have argued that Asia’s economic success has been achieved by embracing Western market economics rather than coming up with something uniquely Asian. Christianity, liberal democracy, and Marxism are other Western ideas that have been widely embraced in Asia.

Fareed Zakaria wrote in Foreign Policy: “There is no simple answer to why certain societies succeed at certain times...Cultures are complex: one finds in them what one wants. If one wanted to find cultural traits of hard work and thrift within East Asia, they are there. If one wants to a tendency toward blind obedience and nepotism, these too exist. Look hard enough and most cultures exhibit these traits.

Asian values are changing as values in the West did as people become more mobile and the extended family becomes less important and nuclear families have become smaller. Talk about Asian values was taken less seriously after the Asian finanical crisis in 1997 which was partly blamed on Asian-style cronyism and collusion.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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