The country of Malaysia as a whole is relatively underpopulated. Furthermore, its population is distributed unevenly. In 2006, according to estimated figures, 19,559,669 people, or 80% of the federation total, lived in Peninsular Malaysia; Sarawak had a population of 2,376,800, or 10% of the total; Sabah had 2,449,389 inhabitants, also 10%.
About 54% of the people live in urban areas. Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital, is by far the largest city. Other major cities in Peninsular Malaysia are Ipoh, George Town (Pinang), and Johor Baharu. Of the Borneo cities only Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, ranks with these three in population. The capital of Sabah is Kota Kinabalu, but Tawau and Sandakan have populations as large.
Diversity is Malaysia’s dominant population characteristic. On the basis of conspicuous physical features (such as skin color, facial form, and stature), Malaysia’s population can be classified into four main communal categories: Malays, Chinese, Indians, and indigenous peoples. Religious differences, linguistic divisions, social affinities, political allegiances, and economic specializations all roughly coincide with these ethnic components.
Malays compose about 58% of the population and form the largest ethnic group in Malaysia. They are the brown-skinned descendants of migrants from the interior of Asia before the Christian era. Malaysia absorbed later migrations of this Malay stock from Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, and other Indonesian islands. Immigration today is of little importance.
Most Malays live in Peninsular Malaysia, concentrated in the rural areas of the states of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu (Trengganu), and Pahang. Mainly they subsist on padi (rice-paddy) cultivation or fishing and live in traditional kampongs (hamlets).
The Malays all use the Malay language, which belongs to the Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) linguistic family. Today Malay is written primarily in the Latin alphabet rather than the older Arabic script imported with Islam.
Nearly every Malay is a Muslim, and the mukim (parish) and mosque are focal points of kampong life. The five-pillared teachings of the prophet Moh?ammad do not fully encompass all elements of the Malays’ belief structure. In practice ancient customs, belief in hantu (spirits), animist beliefs, and other pre-Islamic elements combine with Islam to form a complex system that blends disparate elements.
About 27% of the Malaysian population is Chinese. Large numbers of Chinese migrated to Malaysia in the late 19th century to make their fortunes and return to China, but many stayed to make Malaysia their permanent home. Today Malaysian Chinese are almost all Malaysian born.
The greatest number of the Chinese live in the tin-and-rubber belt on Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast. They are markedly urban, with over 75% living in areas having 10,000 or more inhabitants. The Chinese in Sarawak and Sabah also are coastal and urban.
The Chinese are chiefly Confucianists, but there are Buddhists, Taoists, and Christians as well. Actually, many combine several systems of belief: Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, animism, ancestor worship, and deification of local heroes.
Malaysian Chinese are divided into dialect groups that are associated with different customs and provinces of origin in China. Most Malaysian Chinese fall into the Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, or Teochiu groups.
Persons tracing their origins to the Indian subcontinent compose about 8% of the Malaysian population. A majority are Hindu descendants of people from southern India who, like the Chinese, migrated to Malaysia in the 19th century. Nearly all Indians live in Peninsular Malaysia, with major concentrations of this ethnic group found on the rubber-planted western coasts of Selangor and Perak.
Over 75% of Malaysian Indians are Hindu, and most of the remainder are Muslim. As with the Malays and Chinese, folk beliefs and customs mingle with formal religious teachings. About 80% of the Indian community speak Tamil, the remainder speaking either Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali, Marwari, Pushtu, or Sindhi. Indian linguistic groups differ in custom with place of origin in India, and to a marked extent with place of residence and occupation in Malaysia. Persons with origins in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent tend to be urban residents, merchants, and professionals. Members of the larger southern Indian group tend to be manual laborers.
Malaysia’s indigenous peoples make up 11% of the total population. Most of these widely diverse peoples live in the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, where there are six main groups: Iban (Sea Dayak), Bidayuh (Land Dayak), Kadazan (Dusun), Bajau, Melanau, and Murut. A few thousand Semang, Senoi, and Jakun live in Peninsular Malaysia. The Semang are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of the Malaysian mainland.
Indigenous peoples constitute the majority on Sabah and represent about half the population of Sarawak. In Peninsular Malaysia they are a minority of less than 1%.
Except for the Semang and the Senoi, who speak Mon-Khmer languages, the indigenous peoples speak languages related to Malay. Although most of them adhere to the traditional religious beliefs, large numbers have been converted to Islam or Christianity.