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Country in Southeast Asia, consisting of a federation of 13 states, 11 of which form West Malaysia in the Malay Peninsula at the southernmost tip of the Southeast Asian mainland (see fig. 1), while the two states of Sarawak and Sabah, which surround Brunei in the north of the island of Borneo (formerly British North Borneo), comprise East Malaysia, situated some 650 km across the South China Sea. This article concentrates on the Muslim arts of the country.

I. Geography and history. II. Architecture. III. Urban planning. IV. Sculpture. V. Painting. VI. Other Arts. VII. Art education.


1. Map of west Malaysia; Malacca has a separate entry in this encyclopedia

view larger image

I. Geography and history

Both parts of Malaysia are dominated by high mountains and heavy tropical rain forest, with habitable lowland largely confined to the coastal zone, where small rivers have built up a fringe of deposits. In northern Borneo these tend to form mangrove swamps, which give way inland to low hills backed by east–west fold mountains, rising to the granite peak of Mt. Kinabalu (4101 m)—Malaysia's highest mountain—in Sabah. Toward the end of the 20th century Malaysia became one of the richest countries of Southeast Asia, as the world's leading producer of natural rubber, a major exporter of tin and pepper, and as a result of economic diversification through palm oil, pineapples, and oil production and tourism. Situated on the east coast of the Straits of Malacca, West Malaysia has long benefited from its position on this major trade route between the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia and, in consequence, has been influenced by many cultures.

Malaysia is characterized by an enormous ethnic and cultural diversity, with Malays of many different origins (47%), Chinese (34%), Indians (9%) and Europeans, as well as a number of aboriginal peoples, such as the Ibans of Sarawak. The distribution, however, varies markedly between West and East Malaysia, Malays dominating the former, but the Chinese and Ibans more numerous in Sarawak. Malay is the official language of West Malaysia, with English in the East, although Chinese and Tamil are also important, and there is a wide range of lesser languages and dialects. Racial tensions are a problem, partly caused by the government's active promotion of Malay interests. Islam is the state religion, and Muslims make up some 60% of the population.

Peninsular Malaysia was settled over a long period between c.2500 and c.1500 BCE by peoples of Malay or Indonesian stock, who largely replaced the original aboriginal peoples in the area. During the first millennium BCE maritime trading contacts were established between Southeast Asia and India and China, the strategic position of Malaysia meant that it played an important role in the dissemination of the religious and cultural influences from these areas, especially those emanating from India. Buddhism is attested from the 4th century BCE.

Islam seems to have been introduced into the area as early as the late 7th century. Tombstones of that date in Perak and Terengganu inscribed with Koranic texts in Arabic may mark the burials of local inhabitants or Muslim immigrants. The first Muslim rule dates to the 15th century when a Sumatran prince—whose title Parameswara means Prince Consort—and his Javanese wife fled northwards from Tumasik (Singapore) to found Malacca further up the Straits. Parameswara was converted to Islam c.1414 and took the name Iskandar Shah. At first the new state of Malacca was under the suzerainty of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, but until the arrival of the Portuguese its rulers maintained close ties with China. Malacca became a rich and cosmopolitan city, its prosperity based on its entrepôt trade in a wide variety of goods, especially Indonesian spices, and the leading maritime power in Southeast Asia. It pursued an expansionist foreign policy, extending its control over Kedah, Pattani, the Riau and Lingga archipelagos and the riverine states of eastern Sumatra, and was an important center for the diffusion of Islam in the Indonesian archipelago. In 1511 Malacca was conquered by the Portuguese and remained in their hands until 1641, when it was seized by the Dutch East India Company. During the 16th century, Minangkabaus from the highlands of central Sumatra crossed the Straits to settle in Negeri Sembilan north of Malacca and introduced their distinctive style of architecture into the area.

In 1786 the British gained their first foothold in Peninsular Malaysia by occupying the island of Penang. In 1819 Thomas Stamford Raffles founded Singapore, and by the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 Malacca was ceded to the British in exchange for Bengkulu (Bencoolen) in Sumatra. These three acquisitions formed the Straits Settlements. During the 19th century the British gradually acquired control over the Malay sultanates of the Peninsula, in some cases by force, until 1919, when Terengganu finally accepted British rule.

In 1839 James Brooke arrived in Kuching in Sarawak from Singapore and, having successfully put down a rebellion by Illanun and Sea Dayak pirates for the sultan of Brunei, was persuaded to stay on as raja of Sarawak. Under his benign rule (r. 1841–68), and that of his nephew Charles (r. 1868–1917) and Charles's son Vyner (r. 1917–46), the so-called White Rajas, Sarawak enjoyed political stability and increasing prosperity based on the production of antimony, gold, pepper, oil, rubber, sago and birds’ nests. Between 1882 and 1904 Sarawak added Baram, Trusan, Limbang and Lawas to its territories at the expense of Brunei. Sabah was originally shared between the sultans of Brunei and Sulu in the Philippines. In 1881, after a number of private individuals and companies had bought concessions to different parts of the territory and attempted unsuccessfully to exploit its resources of opium, timber and coal, it was finally acquired by the British North Borneo Company, which administered the territory under British government protection until 1946. Both Sarawak and Sabah have economies based chiefly on agriculture and forestry and a rich and varied culture.

During World War II both Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak were occupied by the Japanese. British rule was re-established in 1945, but the period of unrest that followed led in August 1957 to the independence of Malaya under its first prime minister, Tungku Abdul Rahman. In 1961 Tungku Abdul Rahman divulged his plan to bring about the unification of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah in a Malaysian federation. This was a strictly political concept and was not intended to have any cultural or ethnic implications; the name Malaysia is not and never has been seen as synonymous with Malay. On 16 September 1963, in spite of hostility from Indonesia and the Philippines, the Federation of Malaysia came into being. Brunei refused to join and in 1965 the largely Chinese city of Singapore broke away to become an independent republic. The new nation developed rapidly to become one of the most stable and prosperous states in the region.


  • R. J. Wilkinson: “The Malacca Sultanate,” J. Malay. Branch Royal Asiat. Soc., xiii/2 (1935), pp. 22–69
  • R. O. Winstedt: “A History of Malaya,” J. Malay. Branch Royal Asiat. Soc., xiii/1 (1935) [whole issue]; rev. as book (Singapore and New York, 1962)
  • R. O. Winstedt: The Malays: A Cultural History (Singapore, 1947/R 1981)
  • K. G. Tregonning: Under Chartered Company Rule (Singapore, 1958)
  • S. Runciman: The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak, 1841–1946 (Cambridge and New York, 1960)
  • C. D. Cowan: Nineteenth Century Malaya: The Origins of British Political Control (London and New York, 1961)
  • P. Wheatley: The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the Historical Geography of the Malay Peninsula before AD 1500 (Kuala Lumpur, 1961/R 1966)
  • M. A. P. Meilink-Roelofsz: Asian Trade and European Influence in the Indonesian Archipelago between 1500 and about 1630 (The Hague, 1962)
  • Wang Gungwu, ed.: Malaysia: A Survey (London and Dunmow, 1964)
  • B. W. Andaya and L. Y. Andaya: A History of Malaysia (London, 1982)
  • C. Leong: Sabah: The First 100 Years (Kuala Lumpur, 1982)
  • J. Ave and V. T. King: Borneo: The People of the Weeping Forest (Leiden, 1986)
  • J. Katharithamby-Wells and J. Villiers, eds.: The Southeast Asian Port and Polity: Rise and Demise (Singapore, 1990)

II. Architecture

Few buildings constructed in Malaysia before the 19th century have survived in their original form, as they were made of wood. Indigenous architectural styles, which embraced important elements first of the Hindu–Buddhist and later of the Islamic traditions, also came to absorb Chinese and West European colonial influences.

A. Religious. B. Secular.

A. Religious.

The Great Mosque (Mesjid Agung) of Demak in north Java, built in 1477–9, which is the oldest mosque in Indonesia and is based on the traditional Javanese pendopo, or pillared pavilion, was undoubtedly a prototype for Malaysian mosques as it was for Indonesian. The oldest mosques in Malaysia are the Peringgit Mosque (c.1720), the Terengkera Mosque (1728), the Kampung Hulu Mosque (c.1728; see fig. 2) and the Kampung Keling Mosque (1748), all in Malacca, and the Kampung Laut Mosque (c.1730) in Kelantan. Although considerably smaller than the Demak Mosque (which has a base of almost 24 m sq. and a height of nearly 22 m), the Kampung Laut Mosque (nearly 16 m sq.; h. c. 11.5 m) and the Malacca mosques (similar in dimensions to the Kampung Laut structure) are clearly modeled on the Javanese building. All have triple-layered (tangkup) roofs with four central wooden pillars (tiang seri) supporting the topmost roof and two outer rows of columns (16 tiang tegak of 4.2 m and 24 tiang serambi of 2.14 m) supporting the other two roof layers. Originally the structures were entirely of timber, but during the 20th century some elements were replaced by brick or stone. The Javanese type predominates in traditional Malaysian mosques, though occasionally they incorporate features of indigenous palace architecture, as in the Langgar Mosque (1871), at Langgar, Kota Baharu, which resembles contemporary palaces built by Sultan Muhammad II of Kelantan.

A distinctive feature of Malaysian and Indonesian mosques is the subsidiary building (serambi) that is attached at one side. This is an open verandah used for meetings, classes and social gatherings. The old wooden mosques of Malaysia did not originally have minarets, and some still lack them. Added later, they are often in a radically different style, as, for example, the minarets in the style of a Chinese pagoda at the Terengkera and Kampung Keling mosques, the Mughal-influenced minaret of the Kampung Hulu Mosque, and the European tower at the Paloh Mosque (1912) in Ipoh, Perak. The mid-19th-century minaret at the Pulai Chondong Mosque in Kelantan is made of cengal wood (Balanocarpus heimii), but most minarets are made of stone or plastered brick.

Although an early example of the onion dome was built in Penang in 1802 (the Kapitan Keling Mosque in Georgetown), the form, often associated with Islam, came into common use only c.1900, coinciding with a return to fundamentalist attitudes among Malaysian Muslims. Since British colonial architects often drew on Indian models at that time, the domes of Malaysian mosques usually have the pointed, outward-bulging profile of Mughal buildings. Notable among these are the Ubudiah Mosque (1913) in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, where the minarets are crowned with umbrella-shaped chatri-like finials, the Jamek Mosque (1909) in Kuala Lumpur and the Perlis State Mosque (1972) in Kangar. The Zahir Mosque (1912) at Alor Star in Kedah clearly shows the influence of the mosque in Aceh, northern Sumatra, that its architects had studied.

Some mosques of the colonial period incorporate European styles. The Abu Bakar Mosque of Johor Baharu (1892) is in neo-Renaissance style, as is the Jamek Mosque (1925) of Muar, also in Johor state, while the Sultan Sulaiman Mosque (1932) in Kelang, Selangor, blends Islamic domes with Art Deco towers and turrets. Since independence in 1957, Malaysian architects have sometimes adopted contemporary styles, as in the National Mosque (1963–5) in Kuala Lumpur, a huge building with fan-pleated roof designed by Datuk Baharuddin bin Abu Kasim (b. 1926), and in the Negeri Sembilan State Mosque in Seremban. The latter, designed in 1967 by Jurubena Bertiga and Ove Arup and Partners, has a soaring cantilevered concrete roof projecting from an octagonal core and epitomizes the trend away from the traditional mosque type in favor of either orthodox Middle Eastern or avant-garde international styles.

B. Secular.

1. Traditional. 2. Colonial and modern.

1. Traditional.

Most of Malaysia's population is still rural, living in small villages (kampung). Palaces are similar in plan to ordinary dwelling houses but on a larger scale, built with a wider variety of materials, more subsidiary structures and more refined and elaborate carving. Typically, houses are raised on stilts and have palm thatch roofs, like those built in riverine and coastal Thailand, Laos and Cambodia as well as by the Minangkabau and Batak peoples of Sumatra and the Bugis of South Sulawesi. This elevation offers protection from floods (frequent in delta locations) and in earlier times gave security from marauding animals or human enemies; it has the incidental advantages of increasing air circulation by raising the structure above impeding ground planting and of providing a protected space beneath the house in which to keep animals and perform daytime tasks.

Various local hardwoods such as cengal, petaling, meranti, merbau and damar laut are used for the post-and-lintel frame with a central column (tiang seri) as structural and ritual centrepiece. The roof is usually in simple gable form (bumbung panjang), especially in the northeastern states of Kedah, Perlis, Penang and Perak. There is typically a subsidiary, parallel lean-to roof over a verandah (serambi) flanking one or both sides of the main structure, and in larger houses and palaces there is also a small extension for the kitchen. Variants with gracefully curved gable beams, possibly influenced by Thai roof forms, are common in the western states of Kelantan and Terengganu; a fine example from the Royal Palace of Terengganu, the Istana Satu, has been dismantled and re-erected in the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur. Another gable variant occurs when the end beams project beyond the roof ridge and cross one another, as in the 1902–8 Royal Palace (Istana Lama) in Sri Menanti, Negeri Sembilan; this “scissors” version is possibly derived from Bugis examples.

Double constructions comprising parallel gabled roofs are found in Malacca, where an open courtyard sometimes occurs between the two buildings. Hipped roofs (bumbung lima) also occur, as well as gambrel forms (bumbung perak), particularly in Perak, Pahang and Johor. These show Western influence but also resemble some Javanese models. In Negeri Sembilan the influence of Minangkabau culture from across the Straits of Malacca has resulted in roofs with ridge-poles curving up at the outer ends; in addition there is sometimes an upper roof with a similar profile. The 1612 Sejarah Melayu (Malay Chronicle) describes a palace in Minangkabau form built in the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah of Malacca (r. 1459–77). Another form (bumbung limas), pyramidal and probably deriving from Javanese models, is restricted to mosques and is often tiered.

Roof coverings are traditionally made from thatched palm leaf, a material much better suited to provide protection from the tropical sun than the metal roofs introduced in the 20th century. Ceramic tiles are found in Malacca houses, possibly reflecting the influence of Chinese settlers. Occasionally wooden shingles form the roof covering, as in the 1865 Minangkabau-style palace formerly at Ampang Tinggi, Negeri Sembilan, which is now a museum in Seremban.

Walls are made of prefabricated panels—either of timber, often carved with foliate or geometric forms, or of woven split bamboo—which are placed between the structural columns. Fastenings were traditionally all of wood, the metal nail being introduced only in colonial times. Ventilated gable ends, generous eaves that kept the sun from the walls and obviated closure during rainstorms, unglazed windows (sometimes filled with carved pierced screens) and internal spaces unobstructed by interior walls promote excellent air circulation and contribute to the successful adaptation of Malay architecture to the tropical climate. Access is by projecting stairs that sometimes lead to spacious entrance porches connecting with the verandah. Much of the social life takes place in these unenclosed areas, the inner room (rumah ibu) being used mostly for sleeping and praying.

Some of the people of Malaysia still live in their traditional longhouses, notably the Sakai peoples in the Peninsula and the Ibans (so-called Sea Dayaks) and Orang Ulu (Kayans, Kenyahs, Kelabits) in Sarawak. Longhouses are usually constructed near water, preferably at the confluence of a river and one of its tributaries, both for ease of communications and to ensure a water supply, and are grouped together to form a village community. Some longhouses are as much as 180 m long and 15 m wide and can accommodate 50 families or more, but the average size is sufficient only for 10 or 12 families. Since they are built entirely of wood, they decay quickly and have to be rebuilt every 10 or 15 years. As well as varying in size, the longhouses differ widely in their architecture, methods of construction and the arrangement of their interiors, but they usually have ridged roofs and are raised on wooden piles between 1 and 3 m high in order to increase the circulation of air, to provide space for livestock beneath and to give protection against vermin, flooding and enemy attack. The principal door is usually at the east end of the longhouse and is provided with a notched log or a ladder, which is pulled up at night. Parts of the building may be decorated with carvings. The carving on Kayan longhouses and funerary monuments is often of specially high quality. The interior is divided with partitions into apartments for each family, and a verandah running the whole length of the building and usually facing the river provides a communal living area. Rice, firewood, fishing nets, mats, tools and utensils are stored in a loft, and skulls from former headhunting expeditions are hung in the rafters.

The most important contribution of the Chinese population to Malaysian domestic architecture is the shop house. These are typically two-story, with commercial space at street level in front, and storage, living and sleeping quarters behind and above. They dominated the urban scene in Malaysian cities until high-rise developments after World War II began to obliterate them. In the first quarter of the 19th century, beginning during Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles's governorship of Bencoolen (Bengkulu) in Sumatra and his oversight of the new settlement in Singapore (founded 1819), the shop house was protected by decree from sun and rain by an arcaded roof over the pavement—the “five-foot covered way”—that was a simple and effective adaptation of the design to climate. The shop house, which is deep and narrow and has interior courtyards for ventilation and light, is sometimes overtly Chinese in style, with gabled end walls, curved roof-tiles and pierced ceramic ventilation panels. Later examples often adopted Western details, with arched windows and elaborately carved pillars and pilasters. Their evenly spaced and harmoniously varied façades lend a pleasing scale to the streetscape. The post–World War II urge to demolish the shop house in the interests of increased density and stylistic modernization (and Westernization) was curbed by the last decade of the 20th century as urban planners came to appreciate the urban virtues of this pervasive Southeast Asian building type.

2. Colonial and modern.

The oldest surviving colonial structure in Malaysia is the solid stone Santiago Gate, all that remains of A Famosa, which was rebuilt by the Dutch in the 17th century and almost entirely demolished by the British in 1807. The oldest intact colonial buildings in Malaysia are those the Dutch built in Malacca, notably the Town Hall, built between 1641 and 1660. The simplicity, solid walls, flush end-gables and large windows reveal the Netherlandish inspiration of this three-story structure. Except for the imposing Neo-classical St. George's Church in Penang (1818), little significant architecture remains from the early decades of British rule, as the administration of the Malay states remained largely in the hands of the indigenous rulers. In the mid-19th century, with the development of steam ships, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the industrialization of Britain, international trade expanded, as did the British presence in Malaya. A spate of building occurred at the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th. Some, neo-classical or neo-Renaissance, was to enhance British imperial status; some attempted to fuse Asian and European styles. Among impressive examples of the former are the colonnaded municipal building in Ipoh, the High Court in Kuching, the arcuated Civil Service buildings and cathedral of the Assumption in Penang, the pedimented and colonnaded Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, offices for the Chartered Bank throughout the region and the sultan of Johor's palace. Attempts to create a locally appropriate architecture produced several imposing if eclectic buildings, many designed by A. C. Norman or A. B. Hubbock, whose inspiration was Mughal India. In Kuala Lumpur, intricate Mughal arches embellish the High Court and the Secretariat building, while chatri confections crown the elaborately arcaded railway station and administration buildings. This decorative blend of Indian Islamic with British imperial style sometimes provokes derision but has certainly created an architecturally unique fantasy.

Since independence in 1957 there has been a tendency to embrace international modern styles with high-rise office buildings and apartments. Typical examples include the vertically fenestrated Bangunan Datu Zainal Building, Kuala Lumpur (1978, Hijjas Kasturi Associates), the round glass tower of the Sabah Foundation Headquarters complex in Kota Kinabalu (1979, Wisma Akitek & James Ferrie International) and the glass-fronted Kompleks Nagaria (1986, Pakatan Reka) in Kuala Lumpur. Some buildings show efforts to adapt to the climate, such as the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur (1963, Jabatan Kerja Raya), which has an exterior concrete screen of pre-cast spandrels, and the Kuala Lumpur Dayabumi Complex (1984, BEP+MAA Akitek Sdn), which is screened by a metal grille with an Islamic design.

The growth of industrialization, Westernization, urbanism and population that followed independence caused rising prices for land, labor and materials and a public domestic housing problem. In many cases the attempt to solve it resulted in European solutions, either by the construction of high-rise apartment buildings (such as the 1958 Sulaiman Court, now demolished, and the 1985 Downtown Condominium, both in Kuala Lumpur) or by terrace houses where interior ventilation and protection from tropical rain and sun are inadequate.

Middle-class villas before World War II tended to incorporate in a grander version such indigenous vernacular features as construction on stilts, deep eaves and wide verandahs, just as planters’ and officials’ houses during the British colonial period in the 19th century were modeled on vernacular Malay architecture. Like low-cost housing, villa architecture after independence adopted international style, as in the house of the architect Kington Loo (1959) or Lai Lok Kun's The Hexagons (1971; both in Kuala Lumpur). During the 1980s there began a trend toward well-synthesized fusion of contemporary style with indigenous vernacular, as in the house of T. Y. Chiew (1980, CSL Associates, Selangor) and another for Ng Lu Pat (1984, Akitek MAA Sdn Bhd, Kuala Lumpur), or toward environmental consciousness as explored in the innovative Roof-Roof House (1984, T. R. Hamsah & Yeang Sdn Bhd, Selangor), where the concept of movable elements reacting to sun and breeze variables offers effective low-energy climate control.

After World War II some attempt was made to assert the distinctiveness of Malay culture by returning to indigenous architectural motifs. Most of the large buildings that resulted are hybrids with superficially applied features, such as the National Museum (1963, Ho Kwong Yew & Sons), which has an arbitrarily imposed traditional roof with “scissors” eaves, and the Hilton Hotel (1973, BEP Akitek Sdn Bhd) in Kuala Lumpur, where a low entrance building with stylized indigenous roof sits incongruously in front of a tall tower. Deeper integration of local and international modern themes can be seen in the LUTH complex of 1986 (Hijjas Kasturi Associates Sdn, Kuala Lumpur), where the waisted round tower, with its five heavy vertical ribs suggesting the five pillars of Islam and its vertical fenestration ending in pointed arches, invokes Islamic form.

In the 1980s and 90s the quest for a culturally and climatically appropriate architecture for Malaysia in the 21st century was articulated by several thoughtful Malaysian architects. The design for the IBM headquarters by Kenneth Yeang (b. 1948) in Subang Jaya near Kuala Lumpur, Menara Mesiniaga (1992), a high-tech, 15-story corporate showcase on a convenient and visually prominent corner site, won an Aga khan award for architecture for its promising approach to the design of many-storied structure in a tropical climate. The Datai Hotel in Pulau Langkaw (1993; Kerry Hill Architects) won an Aga Khan award in 2001 for its ecological approach to coastal development.


  • M. MacDonald: “Malacca Buildings,” J. Malay. Branch Roy. Asiat. Soc., xii/2 (1934) [whole issue]
  • Abdul Halim Nasir: Panduan ke Tempat-Tempat Bersejarah: Guide to Historic Sites: Kelantan (Kuala Lumpur, 1979)
  • J. G. Butcher: The British in Malaya, 1880–1941 (Kuala Lumpur, 1979)
  • Abdul Halim Nasir: Mosques of Peninsular Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, 1984)
  • J. Cooper, D. Dunster and D. Jones, eds.: “Vernacular, Pastiche, Modern?: The Search for a Malaysian Architecture,” ULA International Architect, 6 (1984) [whole issue]
  • M. B. Ševcenko, ed.: Design for High-intensity Development (Cambridge, MA, 1986)
  • K. Yeang: The Tropical Verandah City: Some Urban Design Ideas for Kuala Lumpur (Selangor, 1986)
  • K. Yeang: Tropical Urban Regionalism: Building in a South-east Asian City (Singapore, 1987)
  • Chan Chee Yoong, ed.: Post-Merdeka Architecture: Malaysia, 1957–1987 (Kuala Lumpur, 1987)
  • Lim Jee Yuan: The Malay House: Rediscovering Malaysia's Indigenous Shelter System (Penang, 1987)
  • M. B. Hooker: Islam in Southeast Asia (Leiden, 1988)
  • S. Vlatseas: A History of Malaysian Architecture (Singapore, 1990)
  • D. Ng: Penang: The City and Suburbs in the Early Twentieth Century (Penang, n.d.)
  • J. S. H. Lim: “The ‘Shophouse Rafflesia’: An Outline of its Malaysian Pedigree and its Subsequent Diffusion in Asia,” J. Malay. Branch Roy. Asiat. Soc., lxvi/264 (1993), pp. 47–66
  • Archit. Rev. cxcvi/1171 (1994) [seven articles on modern architecture in Malaysia]
  • A. Bruce: “Notes on Early Mosques of the Malaysian Peninsula,” J. Malay. Branch Roy. Asiat. Soc., lxix/271 (1996), pp. 71–81
  • J. DumarÇay and M. Smithies: Cultural sites of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia (Kuala Lumpur, 1998)
  • M. T. M. Rasdi: The Architectural Heritage of the Malay World: The Traditional Mosque (Johore, 2000)
  • A. H. Nasir and O. M. Abdullah: Mosque Architecture in the Malay World (Bangi, 2004)

III. Urban planning

Most of the major urban settlements of Malaysia were built under the British administration between the late 19th century and independence in 1957. They are in marked contrast to the traditional coastal or riverine settlements and trading posts. During this period extensive building was fuelled by the income from trade and the exploitation of the Peninsula's commodities of tin and later rubber, a period that to a great extent fixed the urban patterns of the older parts of the major towns and cities along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, primarily Penang, Ipoh, Kelang, Kuala Lumpur, Seremban and Malacca down to Johor Baharu and Singapore. This resulted in the transformation of the traditional settlement pattern and the shifting of focus inland. The legacy of the British in these towns includes a random pattern of streets in the central business districts, the disposition of some of the key urban activities (such as the market square, and the cricket and parade ground with the country club and town hall facing it) and the ubiquitous development of low-rise shop houses (built mostly by the Chinese; see §II, B, 1 above).

There was no evidence of formal urban planning until the 1920s and it was not until 1948 that the Municipal Ordinance gave powers for such planning. Previously, the sanitary boards in Penang and in Kuala Lumpur (set up in 1890) had simply managed their town's services under the jurisdiction of the British residents and governors. Another contribution to the rapid increase in urban settlements was the Emergency Resettlement Program in the 1950s prompted by the anti-terrorist war of 1948–60. As the settlements expanded rapidly with the natural increase in population and migration into the cities, the common problems associated with rapid urban expansion, such as inadequate utilities and services, poor housing, squatters, traffic congestion and pollution, became increasingly difficult to resolve, and this led to measures to ensure more orderly growth. During the colonial era, certain aspects of urban planning had already been incorporated in various enactments, for example relating to utilities and public health. The most important were the Town Board Enactments or Council Ordinances. These various enactments were replaced in 1976 by the Local Government Act, which provided for a new system managed by local authorities. In the same year the British system of urban planning (i.e. the development plan system) was embodied in the Town and Country Planning Act. This instituted a uniform planning system to cover all the state in Peninsular Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, was founded in 1859, 35 km inland from the Straits of Malacca, at the junction of the Kelang and Gombak rivers, a location originally known as Lumpur (“mud”), later becoming Kuala Lumpur (“muddy estuary”). It was created by Chinese immigrants engaged in tin-mining. When the British Resident was transferred to Kuala Lumpur in 1880, its shanty town image of predominantly timber buildings was changed to a more permanent settlement of brick buildings, the shop houses of old Kuala Lumpur (see §II, B, 1 above). At the early stages, most of the urban development was concentrated on the eastern bank of the Kelang River, where the Chinese tin-miners and traders lived. The quarters of the British and other Europeans were on the west of the river. The city was gradually transformed into an administrative and commercial center from the middle of the 20th century, which resulted in a rapid increase of the indigenous population (mainly Malays). The nucleus of the central area of Kuala Lumpur coincides with the Old Town constructed before 1884 and is defined by the areas reserved for the railway, the bus terminal and the central market. Around the mid-20th century, suburban residential and shopping areas began to be established around the fringes of Kuala Lumpur, notably Petaling Jaya, followed by satellite townships. The gradual decentralization of the urban center, and amalgamation of resettlement villages (established during the anti-terrorist war between 1948 and 1960) with secondary centers linked to the central areas, have transformed Kuala Lumpur and its immediate environs into an extensive urbanized region.

Ipoh, the capital city of Perak state, was another important town in the Peninsula that developed and flourished in the 1880s through tin-mining. During this period Chinese immigrants and Europeans laid out the street patterns for the town, which owed its initial importance to its position as the highest navigable point on the Kinta River, and so became a natural staging-point and a market to the surrounding district. By c.1900 brick buildings started to replace the wooden shacks of the mining town. Chinese shop houses proliferated (see §II, B, 1 above), especially along the main streets traversing the town, many built with classical façades. The style combined stucco moldings and pitched Chinese tiled roofs in bright colors, giving it its characteristic skyline. There is a fine ensemble of buildings formed by the cricket ground (Padang) and the various Neo-classical colonial administrative buildings facing it, including the magnificent white Town Hall. By 1890 Ipoh had swollen to become the largest town in the Kinta Valley.

Malacca, some 100 km southeast of Kuala Lumpur on the Straits of Malacca, contains the oldest European, Hindu, Chinese and Malay buildings in the country. Founded c.1400, it developed under the Portuguese and later the British. Its architecture of shop houses and row houses is highly eclectic in style.


  • L. Chin: Cultural Heritage of Sarawak (Kuching, 1980)
  • J. M. Gullick: The Story of Kuala Lumpur (1857–1939) (Singapore, 1983)
  • C. W. Harrison: An Illustrated Guide to the Federated Malay States (1923) (Kuala Lumpur, 1985)
  • R. O. Winstedt: A History of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, 1986)
  • K. Yeang: The Architecture of Malaysia (Amsterdam, 1992)
  • S. R. Aiken: Imperial Belvederes: The Hill Stations of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur, 1993)

IV. Sculpture

About 90 km southwest of Kuala Lumpur is a group of menhirs on the site of the Keramat Sungai Udang (Saint of Prawn) River that are of a high order of aesthetic plasticity. The Sword Stone (2.52×0.66×0.32 m) has a stylized human form and the word “Allah” carved in relief. The Rudder Stone (1.89×1.12×0.38 m) bears a landscape in low relief with mythical animals in curvilinear form echoing the elegant shape of the stone. Nearby is a square-sectioned sandstone pillar that marks the grave of Shaykh Ahmad Mokhtar Ramli Ibni Marfu Talani (d. 1467–8). Next to it, embedded in the ground, lies a flat, heart-shaped stone called the Shield Stone (1.17×1.35 m), in low relief with an eight-pointed star and a decorative motif of foliated “clasps.” Together the stones form a symbolic link between the coming of Islam in the 15th century and the culture that preceded it.

The innumerable Batu Aceh tombstones (15th–19th century) found throughout Peninsular Malaysia have rich sculptural qualities. Rectangular or square, with Koran verses inscribed in panels, some have “shoulders” with crocket-like wings extending on either side, round or eight-sided, topped with foliated finials.

In the 1970s Abdul Latiff Mohidin (b. 1938) created reinforced-cement sculptures that reflect his early paintings: the “Langkawi” series of wall sculptures in painted wood. His The Emerging Kubah (1986) is a stainless steel sculpture. Syed Ahmad Jamal (b. 1929), commissioned to execute a public sculpture based on Islamic principles, produced Allah, using khat (calligraphic) forms in stainless steel (1980); later he created Lunar Peaks (1986) and Growth (1987). Sculptors fundamentally committed to Islamic principles include Zakaria Awang, teacher in an art school. He too contrived a khat form, by means of lead weights suspended on transparent nylon strings to create a mystical effect. His sculpture Tauhid (1983) exudes a quality of calmness and spirituality (all works Kuala Lumpur, N.A.G.).


  • Othman bin Mohd. Yatim: Batu Aceh: Early Islamic Gravestones in Peninsular
  • Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, 1988)
  • D. B. D. Pustaka: Form and Soul: Syed Ahmad Jamal (Kuala Lumpur, 1994)

V. Painting

No evidence survives of a painting tradition in Malaysia during the Hindu–Buddhist period, and before the arrival of Islam in the area virtually the only Malay paintings earlier than the 1930s are those found on manuscripts.

A. Manuscript. B. Other.

A. Manuscript.

Manuscripts in the Malay language originate from present-day Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern parts of Thailand and the Philippines, and are generally written on paper in Jawi, a modified form of the Arabic script. The oldest Malay manuscripts extant date from the early 16th century, and the tradition of copying them lasted until the early 20th century. During this period Islamic manuscripts wholly or partially in Arabic were also produced in Peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia, and Arabic was the language of some diplomatic exchanges. Most examples are either illuminated letters from rulers to other rulers or to high-ranking European officials—a fine early example is a letter to King James I of England from Sultan Perkasa Alam Johan of Aceh in Sumatra (1615; Oxford, Bodleian Lib., MS. Laud Or. Rolls. b. 1)—or illuminated frontispieces and colophons of literary and religious works, including the Koran.

Characteristic designs show a text block surrounded by rectangular borders, or a variety of single or multiple round, pointed and ogee arches (the last suggesting the influence of eastern Islamic manuscript painting from India), decorated with arabesques, geometric patterns and foliate and floral motifs. The main colors used are various shades of red and reddish brown, together with black, blue, green, ocher and yellow, often with the addition of gold, in both leaf and powder form. Chapter headings and key words and phrases may also be highlighted in red or gold, with colored medallions and petal-like roundels as text markers. One of the most beautiful examples is a manuscript of the Tāj al-Salāṭīn (“The Crown of Kings”), copied in Penang in 1824 by Muḥammad bin ῾Umar Shaykh Farid (London, BL, MS. Or. 13295). In accordance with orthodox Islamic practice, figural painting in Malay manuscripts is rare and occurs only on a few late 19th-century examples, which betray contemporaneous popular Indian and European influences (e.g. the Hikayat Hanuman; Kuala Lumpur, U. Malaya Lib., MS. 30), which has many pencil-outline and watercolor illustrations). However, many magic and divination texts, which were often carried as charms, have crude anthropomorphic and zoomorphic illustrations in black and red ink, as can be seen, for example, in a charm book from Kelantan (c.1906; U. London, SOAS, MS. 25030).


  • M. C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve: Indonesian Manuscripts in Great Britain: A Catalogue of Manuscripts in Indonesian Languages in British Public Collections (Oxford, 1977), pp. 103–71
  • A. T. Gallop: “Malay Manuscript Art: The British Library Collection,” BLJ, xvii/2 (Autumn 1991), pp. 167–89
  • A. T. Gallop with B. Arps: Golden Letters: Writing Traditions of Indonesia/Surat Emas: Budaya Tulis di Indonesia (London and Jakarta, 1991) [Bilingual text], pp. 33–72
  • A. T. Gallop: The Legacy of the Malay Letter/Warisan Warkah Melayu (London, 1994) [bilingual text]
  • A. Kumar and J. H. McGlynn, eds.: Illuminations: The Writing Traditions of Indonesia (Jakarta and New York, 1996)
  • A. T. Gallop: “Seni hias manuskrip Melayu,” Warisan manuskrip Melayu (Kuala Lumpur, 2002), pp. 233–59
  • A. T. Gallop: “The Spirits of Langkasuka? Illuminated Manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula,” Indonesia & Malay World, xxxiii/96 (2005), pp. 113–82

B. Other.

Modern Malaysian painting dates from the 1930s but was first introduced by British colonial officers in the 18th and 19th centuries. The art of watercolor painting in the English tradition of Romantic treatment of the landscape influenced a whole generation of artists until after World War II. These Malaysian watercolors were generally idyllic landscapes of villages, rice-fields or palm-fringed beaches. A few personalities dominated the art scene of that time. Yong Mun Sen (1896–1962) produced simple landscapes in fluid washes of sun-filled scenes of coconut palms and the simple life of country people, as well as some portraits, figural compositions and landscapes in oil. The watercolors of Abdullah Ariff (1904–62), by comparison, were technically more complex.

In the 1930s a number of immigrant artists introduced Western techniques and styles of painting derived from the art academies in southern China, among them Chuah Thean Teng (b. 1914), who worked in Penang. Their academic training was evident in their handling of medium and their sense of plasticity of form, but they infused local elements into their work, such as lush tropical flora and scenes of urban and rural life. Teng developed batik as a medium for pictorial expression.

In the 1950s art groups and organizations were instrumental in the development of Malaysian art in response to the mounting impetus of the independence movement. The Arts Council, founded in 1952, organized art activities, while the Wednesday Art Group, established in 1952 and led by Peter Harris, an expatriate English art educator, introduced modern concepts of art to aspiring artists. In 1956 Mohd. Hoessein Enas from Indonesia established the Peninsular Artists’ Movement, which was concerned with realistic figural presentation and identity. The National Art Gallery was established in 1958 and houses a national collection of works by Malaysian artists.

The artists of the 1950s and 1960s subscribed to the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism. The gestural qualities of that expressive visual language appeal to the Malaysian temperament and sensitivity and have affinity with the calligraphic traditions of both the Malays and the Chinese. Among the leading artists of the period were: Abdul Latiff Mohidin (b. 1938), whose haunting surrealistic forms drew inspiration from the region; Cheong Laitong (b. 1932), who made use of calligraphic motifs; Dzulkifli Buyung (b. 1948), who depicted scenes of childhood; Khoo Sui-Hoe (b. 1939), notable for his dreamscapes; the symbolist painter Lee Joo For (b. 1929); Nik Zainal Abidin (1933–93), who portrayed figures from the shadow puppet theatre; Patrick Ng Kah Onn (1932–91); Sayed Ahmad Jamal; and Yeoh Jin Leng (b. 1929).

In the late 1960s Malaysian art changed as the second generation of post-war Malaysian artists became involved in international artistic developments. In contrast, in the 1970s artists became more involved with local materials and with their environment. Malaysian artists not only worked in the realm of Hard-edge, Minimalism, Pop (such as Joseph Tan (b. 1941)), Op and other contemporary trends but also examined mystical and metaphysical values (such as Ismail Zain (1930–91) and Syed Thajudeen (b. 1943)). Ibrahim Hussein (b. 1936), Jolly Koh (b. 1941), Redza Piyadasa and Choong Kam Kow (b. 1934) also extended the boundaries of Malaysian painting, and Zulkifli Dahlan (1952–77) turned his skills to satires against social hypocrisy. Long Thien Shih (b. 1946) and Raja Zahabuddin (b. 1948) raised the art of printmaking to a high level of technical excellence while maintaining seriousness of content. During that decade, moreover, there was growing awareness of a common cultural heritage with other countries in Southeast Asia.

This awareness continued to grow during the 1980s, alongside an increased sensitivity to Islamic values. Foremost among artists of this period were Ahmad Khalid Yusof (b. 1934), Awang Damit (b. 1956), Fauzan Omar (b. 1951), Sharifah Fatimah Zubir (b. 1948) and Suleiman Haji Esa (b. 1941). The end of the 1980s was an active period, as Malaysian artists engaged increasingly with socio-political issues (e.g. Nirmala Shanmughalingham (b. 1941), Lee Kian Seng (b. 1948) and Ponirin Amin (b. 1952)). There was also a revived interest in figural art and in ecology among the younger local-trained artists.


  • D. D. Wharton: Contemporary Artists of Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, 1971)
  • The Treatment of the Local Landscape in Modern Malaysian Art (exh. cat. by R. Piyadasa; Kuala Lumpur, N.A.G., 1981)
  • T. K. Sabapathy, R. Piyadasa and D. B. Dan Pustaka: Modern Artists of Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, 1983)
  • Thirty Years of Malaysian Art (exh. cat. by S. A. Jamal; Kuala Lumpur, N.A.G., 1987)
  • T. Chee Khuan: Penang Artists, 1920–1990 (Penang, 1990)
  • The Malaysianness of Malaysian Art: The Question of Identity (exh. cat. by Z. Ali; Kuala Lumpur, N.A.G., 1991)
  • Z. Ali: The Art Scene in Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, 1994)
  • K. Jit and others: Vision and Idea: Relooking Modern Malaysian Art (Kuala Lumpur, 1994)
  • K. P. Khuan: “The Story of a Museum: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM),” A. Asia, xxxiii/1 (2003), pp. 117–24

VI. Other arts

Malaysia has a rich artistic tradition dating back to the 15th century, when Islam was introduced. The most important are metalwork, including coins, textiles and wood-carving, and many are exhibited in the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, which opened in 1998.


  • Arts & the Islamic World [many articles in v/1 (1988), v/2 (1990), xxvi (1995), xxvii–xxviii (1996), xxix (1996)]
  • Z. Ali: “Notes on the Sejarah Melayu and Royal Malay Art,” Muqarnas, x (1993), pp. 382–6
  • O. M. Yatim: Islamic Arts (Kuala Lumpur, 1995)
  • M. Lopez: The Art of Living in Malaysia (Selangor and Singapore, 2000)
  • F. P. Khuan: “The Story of a Museum: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM),” A. Asia, xxxiii/1 (2003), pp. 117–24
  • L. De Guise: The Message and the Monsoon: Islamic Art of Southeast Asia from the Collection of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, 2005)

A. Metalwork. B. Coins. C. Textiles. D. Wood-carving.

A. Metalwork.

Malaysia has an ancient tradition of intricate work in gold and silver, to which Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian and Borneo peoples have all contributed, with a considerable cross- fertilization of ideas. Under the patronage of the Malay sultans, Malaysian craftsmen produced a wide range of gold and silver pieces for court use as regalia, plate, furnishings and personal ornament. Chased and repoussé gold and silver work is to be seen on keris, swords and spears. Boxes, trays, dishes and areca nut slicers for betel sets, boxes for cosmetics and tobacco, cuspidors, incense burners, bowls and water-jugs are all elegant in form. The more practical items are highly polished with restrained decoration; the rest have elaborate ornamentation. The decorated thrones and beds of Malay weddings gave opportunities for imaginative work in gold and silver leaf. The gilded silver plates (bantal) sewn on to the ends of pillows have become prized collectors’ items. Best known and rarest of all the pieces are the bunga mas, trees made with gold flowers and silver leaves which were sent by Malay rulers as gifts or tribute to foreign potentates.

The favored metal was pure gold, though it might be alloyed with other metals to produce a range of colored golds. Much pre-20th-century silver was derived from melted-down coinage, so there is considerable variation in the composition of the metal, which frequently does not match the workmanship in quality. Techniques included chasing, repoussé and filigree. Filigree work of twisted wire and ribbon with spherical and faceted granules was sometimes mounted on a plain sheet of silver or gold. Focal points would be provided by the addition of precious and semi-precious stones in box or openwork settings. Depth was often added to such work by gilding the silver sheet or by chemically staining the underlying gold red or orange.

Malay designs follow Muslim conventions of geometric and vegetal patterns, concentrating on leaves (e.g. the breadfruit leaf), buds, tendrils, fruit and flowers (e.g. the eight-petaled lotus blossom), shapes that give serrated edges to a form or allow perforated patterns round edges. The interior may then be filled with intricate scrolling or geometric patterns. In Chinese and other designs animal and anthropomorphic figures are found, as well as culturally specific symbols of good fortune. While ethnic attributions can generally be readily given to designs and motifs, it is often more difficult to do the same with workmanship.

Many of the best extant gold and silver pieces were made by craftsmen for the Peninsular courts of the 18th and 19th centuries, and for the wealthy Straits Chinese traders of the late 19th century and early 20th. Since then many of the classic forms have become obsolete, and a smaller modern industry has grown up, orientated to a fashion-conscious market, though there are still craftsmen who will make pieces in traditional styles to order in the more conservative states such as Kelantan. The Malohs, the traditional itinerant jobbing silversmiths for the Dayak peoples, find a declining market for their wares as people cease to wear traditional dress.

Brass was in common use everywhere for domestic ware until the increasing import of iron, steel and later aluminum and plastics drastically reduced its local markets. Much of the brassware resembled the finer silver and gold pieces in form and decoration, though its greater weight and strength enabled more use to be made of perforated designs. Falling demand during the 20th century restricted craft production in brass to specialized local kitchenware, such as coconut presses, baking molds and cooking pots. The state of Terengganu has a long tradition of brassworking. Here and there in other states craftsmen will still produce to commission, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, where brass is valued for jewelry and for household status objects such as betel boxes, gongs and kettles resembling Brunei ware. Terengganu smiths are famous for their tembaga puteh (“white brass”) objects, using a secret “brass” alloy with a high proportion of nickel and zinc. Today they concentrate on high-value objects, such as betel sets, candlesticks, ritual washing equipment, incense burners and vases. These tend to be undecorated apart from scalloping of lips and edges and rely for their beauty on their elegant traditional shapes and high polish.

The work of the Selangor Pewter Company, founded in 1885, is well known internationally. It has concentrated on the best contemporary international design and, by using almost pure tin, has achieved a very fine satin polish on its wares. Elegant ewers, coffeepots, vases and tankards, plain or with simple incised pictures of, for example, palm trees, Malay houses and boats, are typical products successfully aimed at the high-quality souvenir market. Its range has expanded considerably to cater for the demands of pewter collectors, with such products as, for example, chess sets and miniature replicas of the keris displayed in the National Museum.


  • H. L. Roth: Oriental Silverware, Malay and Chinese: A Handbook for Connoisseurs, Students and Silversmiths (London, 1910/R Kuala Lumpur, 1966, 1994, with intro. by S. Fraser-Lu)
  • J. H. Alman: “Dusun Brasswork,” Sabah Soc. J., iii (1962), pp. 29–38
  • T. Harrisson and S. J. O’Connor: Gold and Megalithic Activity in Prehistoric and Recent West Borneo (Ithaca, NY, 1970)
  • M. Sheppard: Taman Indera: A Royal Pleasure Ground: Malay Decorative Arts and Pastimes (Kuala Lumpur, 1972)
  • V. T. King: “Maloh Silversmiths,” Sarawak Gaz., ci (1975), pp. 114–15
  • Ho Wing Meng: Straits Chinese Silver: A Collector's Guide (Singapore, 1976, rev. 1984)
  • M. Sheppard: Living Crafts of Malaysia (Singapore, 1978)
  • L. Chin: Cultural Heritage of Sarawak (Kuching, 1980)
  • E. Moore: “Peranakan Silver in Singapore,” A. Asia, xii (1982), pp. 154–6
  • D. Ch’ng: “Overseas Chinese Silversmiths,” A. Asia, xiv (1984), pp. 100–06
  • A. A. Choo: Silver, National Museum: A Guide to the Collections (Singapore, 1984)
  • B. Singh: Malay Brassware, National Museum: A Guide to the Collections (Singapore, 1985)
  • Power and Gold: Jewelry from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines from the Collection of the Barbier-Müller Museum, Geneva (exh. cat. by S. Rodgers; Geneva, Barbier-Müller Mus.; New York, Asia Soc. Gals.; 1985)
  • D. Ch’ng: “Malay Silver,” A. Asia, xvi (1986), pp. 102–9
  • V. T. King and Bantong Antaran: “Some Items of Decorative Silverware in the Brunei Museum Ethnographic Collection,” Brunei Mus. J., vi/3 (1987), pp. 1–52
  • Mohd Kasim bin Haji Ali: Gold Jewelry and Ornaments of Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, 1988)
  • V. T. King: “Maloh, Malay and Chinese Silversmithing and Cultural Exchange in Borneo and Elsewhere,” Metalworking in Borneo: Essays on Iron and Silver-working in Sarawak, ed. J. W. Christie and V. T. King (Hull, 1988), pp. 29–56
  • S. Fraser-Lu: Silverware of South-east Asia (Singapore, 1989)
  • V. T. King: “Brassware and Sarawak Cultures” and “Silverware and Sarawak Cultures,” Sarawak Cultural Legacy, ed. L. Chin and V. Mashman (Kuching, 1991), pp. 155–64, 165–75

B. Coins.

The earliest Islamic coinage in Peninsular Malaysia is a tin series struck by Malacca sultans between c.1450 and 1511, for example those issued with calligraphic designs during the reign of Sultan Muzaffar Shah (r. 1445–59). The legends on Malacca tin were influenced by Indian coin design, notably from Gujurat. Following the conquest of Malacca by the Portuguese in 1511, a European-style coinage replaced the local series. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Johor played a major role in the development of Malay coinage, introducing an extensive series of octagonal gold kupang (0.60 gm) and mas (2.40 gm), including coins with Arabic calligraphic designs during the reign of Sultan Abdul Jalil Shah (r. 1623–77), as well as a large tin coinage that grew out of the Malacca experience. Johor's issues in turn influenced the coinage traditions of Kedah and Terengganu.

Another important area of gold-coin production, particularly during the 17th century, was Pattani–Kelantan. The most pervasive coin is a bull issue with al-ādil (“the Just”) inscribed on the reverse which gradually took on the character of a wayang shadow-puppet figure. By the 19th century these gold issues had been replaced by a subsidiary tin coinage. A distinctive form of coinage, based on the old Malay tin ingot, is the tampang or “tin hat” money of Pahang. The earliest dated coins were made in 1819; they continued as a major currency on the east coast until demonetized in 1889. In the north of Peninsular Malaysia, notably Singora, Patalung and Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat), areas under heavy Thai influence, bilingual and trilingual coinage was introduced in the second half of the 19th century. These cast-tin issues are inscribed in Chinese, Thai and Malay.

By the end of the 17th century, the gold issues of Johor, Pattani–Kelantan, Kedah, Terengganu and elsewhere were supplanted by Spanish silver as a medium of international trade. Indeed, Kedah issued a short-lived silver coinage in 1741 equal in weight to a Spanish real. As European silver gained in importance and popularity, only small, low-value tin coins were minted by local officials and merchants, most notably the Chinese. These issues continued to be made until the last decades of the 19th century, when they were replaced by British currency.


  • F. Pridmore: “The Native Coinage of the Malay Peninsula,” Spinks Numi. Circ., lxxvi/10 (1968)–lxxii/3 (1974)
  • W. Shaw and M. K. H. Ali: Kedah Coins (Kedah, 1970)
  • W. Shaw and M. K. H. Ali: Malacca Coins (Kuala Lumpur, 1970)
  • W. Shaw and M. K. H. Ali: Tin “Hat” and Animal Money (Kuala Lumpur, 1970)
  • S. Singh: “Tin and Gold Coins of the Malay States, 1400–1963,” Malaysian Numi. Soc. Newslett., vii/4 (1975)–ix/6 (1977)

C. Textiles.

The production of traditional Malay textiles is largely confined to the northeastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu, which, along with Pattani (now part of southern Thailand), have a cultural tradition dating back to the 1st century CE. Because of their relative isolation from the lanes of commerce during the last few centuries of European dominance, these states have retained more of their traditional Malay culture than the west-coast states, which have been subject to considerable Western and Chinese influence. There are still a number of tribal peoples in East Malaysia, the most notable being the Ibans of Sarawak, and the Rungus, Dusun and Bajau peoples of Sabah, who continue to weave traditional textiles. The impact of changing lifestyles in the last half of the 20th century led to a drastic decline in weaving among these peoples.

Various techniques are used. The weaving of kain songket, a luxurious silk cloth patterned with gold supplementary wefts, which is considered to be the most traditional fabric of the Malay people for ceremonial wear, continues as a small cottage industry on the outskirts of Kota Baharu and Terengganu. The art of ikat (a resist-dye process in which yarns are tied in selected areas and then dyed so as to form a pattern when woven) is also practiced in Malaysia. Northeast Malaya was at one time a notable center for weft ikat. Until the early years of the 20th century, magnificent weft ikat cloth called kain cindai or kain limar was produced in Terengganu and Kota Baharu. It was made from the finest imported Chinese silk yarns delicately patterned with subtle arrowheads, zigzags, rhombs and small floral patterns against a rich ground of purple, deep brown and various vibrant reds. In the 20th century weft ikat patterned silk cloth was superseded in Malaysia by a faster resist-patterning technique, that of batik, a method by which a wax compound is applied with a canting, a small copper vessel with a downward-pointing spout, to areas of previously woven cloth and acts as a resist during the dyeing process. Batik or other cloth that is embellished with gold-leaf designs is known as kain telepuk. The area to be gilded is first smeared with gum arabic applied with a small hand-carved wooden design block. The same block is used to cut a pattern from gold foil which, when placed on the fabric, adheres to the glue. A sumptuous gold effect may also be achieved by embroidering couched gold thread designs onto a velvet-covered cardboard base. This embroidery technique (tekat) is used to decorate coverings and pillows for the bridal bed, prayer mats and ceremonial dish covers with delicate, interlacing floral patterns.


  • Kain serian songket [Silk songket cloths] (Kuala Lumpur, n.d.)
  • A. Haddon and L. E. Start: Iban or Sea Dayak Fabrics and their Patterns (London, 1936)
  • A. H. Hill: “Weaving Industry in Trengganu,” J. Malay. Branch Royal Asiat. Soc., xxii/3 (1949), pp. 75–84
  • J. M. Gullick: “Survey of Malay Weavers and Silversmiths in Kelantan in 1951,” J. Malay. Branch Royal Asiat. Soc., xxv/1 (1952), pp. 134–48
  • J. Alman: “Bajau Weaving,” Sarawak Mus. J., ix/15–16 (1960), pp. 603–18
  • Batek, Ikat and Pelangi and Other Traditional Textiles from Malaya (exh. cat. by B. A. V. Peacock; Hong Kong, Urban Council, 1977)
  • M. Shepherd: Living Crafts of Malaysia(Singapore, 1978)
  • M. Shepherd: Taman Indera: A Royal Pleasure Ground: Malay Decorative Arts and Pastimes (Kuala Lumpur, 1986)
  • S. Arney: Malaysian Batik: Creating New Traditions (Kuala Lumpur, 1987)
  • S. Fraser-Lu: Handwoven Textiles of South-east Asia (Singapore, 1988)
  • G. Mohd. Nawawi: Malaysian Songket (Kuala Lumpur, 1989)
  • G. I. Selvanayagam: Songket: Malaysia's Woven Treasure (Singapore, 1990)
  • E. Ong Liang Bin and R. Crill: International “Ikat” Weaving Forum, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia (Kuching, 1999)
  • M. Hitchcock, ed.: Building on Batik: The Globalization of a Craft Community (Aldershot, 2000)

D. Wood-carving.

Traditional Malay houses are often embellished with wood-carving on posts, banisters, roof eaves, doorways, walls and window panels. Floral and geometric designs are prominent in these decorations, and the more elaborate they are, the higher the status of the owner of the house. The decorative fascia boards covering the roof and floor edges are called awan larat (floating clouds). Patterns of decoration also bear such names as roda berpusing (rotating wheel) and bunga matahari (sunflower). Ventilation is provided by fenestrations carved into window panels, which at the same time reduce glare. Wood-carvings on houses in Malacca are often painted, whereas in the rest of Malaysia they are usually left unpainted, so as to display the natural grain of the wood.

The most reputed Orang Asli wood-carvers are the forest-dwelling Mah Meri people of Pulau Carey c. 60 km west of Kuala Lumpur in the state of Selangor. The Mah Meri, who are a sub-group of the Senois, carve figurines out of the soft wood of trees that grow near the sea, using a parang (machete), a chisel and a mallet. They also carve ceremonial masks from pulai wood and images of their ancestors and of other spirits. They give to both masks and images the generic name of moyang (ancestor). Moyang images are used both as guardians to ward off evil spirits and sometimes in healing rituals. At least 200 types of moyang are known, each one with its own distinctive features. The Orang Asli also carve bamboo tube containers, blowpipes and wind instruments with finely incised designs.

The locally born Chinese population in Peninsular Malaysia, who are called peranakan or, more commonly, Baba Nyonya, and are concentrated chiefly in Malacca and Penang, and also in Singapore, make wood-carvings essentially as architectural decoration for buildings of all types. The most elaborate examples of this can be found in Malacca, where their ancestors came as traders and subsequently settled from the 15th to the 19th century. By combining designs and motifs from their native China with the use of local materials and techniques, the Straits Chinese created a unique and flamboyant style of ornamental wood-carving, generally in teak, ebony or rose-wood, to adorn doors, paneling, window frames, staircases and pieces of furniture. The most frequently used motifs are dragon, phoenix and floral designs, and symbols of luck, fortune, longevity and happiness, while shop fronts are often carved with the names of their proprietors. One of Malacca's best-preserved Baba Nyonya houses is at 48 and 50 Jalan Tun Cheng Lok, built in 1896 by Chan Cheng Siew, a prosperous rubber planter. It was opened as a museum in 1985. Every surface in the interior is covered with carved rose-wood, gilded, lacquered or inlaid with mother-of-pearl. It has a teak staircase carved with longevity motifs and adorned with gold leaf. Much Straits Chinese furniture is made of ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Sometimes the carved wood is covered with a coat of red lacquer and adorned with gold leaf. Red lacquer and gold doors and panels are made, as well as chests, beds and chairs.


  • R. Werner: Mah Meri of Malaysia: Art and Culture (Kuala Lumpur, 1974)
  • F. Chia: The Babas (Singapore, 1980)
  • M. Sheppard: Taman Indera: Malay Decorative Arts and Pastimes (Kuala Lumpur, 1985)
  • W. Moore and I. R. Lloyd: Malacca (Singapore, 1986)
  • Lim Jee Yuan: The Malay House (Penang, 1987)

VII. Art education

Art education was developed only under British administration after 1945. When Malaysia gained its independence in 1957 art and crafts became a compulsory subject in primary schools and up to Form Three in secondary schools. To cope with the demand for specialist teachers, the Specialist Teachers’ Training Institute at Cheras in Kuala Lumpur was established in 1960.

In 1965, as part of the Government's social reconstruction program, the Institute of Technology, MARA, was created to provide tertiary education exclusively for ethnic Malays or “bumiputeras.” Set up some 25 km outside Kuala Lumpur in Shah Alam, its School of Art and Design provides three-year diploma courses in Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking, Textile and Fashion, Industrial Art, Fine Metal and Jewelry, Ceramics, Graphic Design, Photography and Music. The Science University of Malaysia (Universiti Sains) in Penang, established in 1969, offers a full-time undergraduate program in the School of Humanities. Besides government institutions, there are a number of private art institutions, of which the Malaysian Institute of Art, established in 1967, is the largest. Three-year diploma courses in Fine Art, Printmaking, Graphic Design, Interior Design, Textile and Fashion Design, Industrial Design and Ceramics are offered. Other smaller institutions have developed in recent years to meet the increasing demand created by the commercial and advertising design industry in the country.


  • K. Sanusi: “Islamisation of the Arts: Case Study: School of Art and Design, I.T.M., Malaysia,” Muslim Educ. Q., vi/2 (1989), pp. 11–24
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