Cultural Appropriation in Malaysia? Does it Apply?

Malaysian Students' Global Alliance
5 min
Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Growing up in Malaysia, I feel very fortunate and honored to learn and experience the richness and diverse cultures. I still remember some of the cherishable childhood memories which are still preserved in my mind. I remember the kindness and the warm welcome every time my mum would take me to her friends’ houses for religious holidays, be it Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Christmas and more. I remember being gifted different traditional attires by her friends from cheongsam to lehenga and was ecstatic to wear them during our visits. I have always viewed these experiences as a product of living in a multiethnic society, a cultural assimilation. 

When I was given the opportunity to study abroad, I have to admit that I was oblivious to the concept of cultural appropriation, and I am still learning to this very day.

These topics which have been mainly discussed in Western countries over the years became more prevalent this year with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Cultural Appropriation vs Cultural Appreciation

Google Trends recorded a spike on the term cultural appropriation this year with several events starting in 2016. But, what is the meaning of cultural appropriation? Based on Oxford Language, the term cultural appropriation is defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc of one person or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” In contrast, cultural appreciation is having an interest to learn another culture and acknowledging every part of the culture while giving credit to the society where it belongs to. It also usually involves a fair compensation and use the culture with permission, using it as intended and most importantly, highlighting  that you are not an authority on the culture and avoid taking space from members of that culture who might not otherwise be heard. 

On August 17th, contact lens company posted a collaboration teaser with Mira Filzah, putting her in a traditional Indian attire and using Bollywood music. When the post went live on Instagram, comments were flooded on the account and this issue has been brought over to Twitter to be further discussed. The heated debate on cultural appropriation was heavily discussed by netizens and people were torn by it. So, is the term cultural appropriation just another Western doctrine that could not be applied to a diasporic community in Malaysia? 

Taking this definition into the Mira Filzah situation, on one side, people are defending the company’s marketing decision and Mira Filzah’s interest in Bollywood movies and music. On the other hand, Twitter user @Desgranpa (the account has been suspended as of now) has vocally expressed her disappointment in the company’s decision as not only the Indian attire and Bollywood influence has no correlation with the product, but also that her culture is being capitalized on it. She stated that it would be a nicer approach if the company would at least consider to hire Indian creative team for the advertisement. Although the account is suspended, the thread of the discussion remained available with hundreds of replies debating on the issue. However, it is also important to take note that Mira Filzah apologized to the Twitter user and mentioned that she is a Bollywood fan and meant no harm featuring in the advertisement. 

The tweet became a battleground between two opposite sides. One side was overwhelmed with users who defended Mira Filzah and the company’s action, they mainly argued that the concept of cultural appropriation is a Western doctrine that is irrelevant to a nation that is multicultural. Bear in mind that this opinion mostly came from the largest race population in Malaysia. On the contrary, the side who was supporting @Desgranpa statement mentioned that they did not find that wearing the traditional attire as offensive, but profiting off and only nitpicking certain aspects of the culture while still being racist towards others are what offended them; emphasizing that their voices are not being heard and neglected. 

Lack of Cultural Appreciation to be Blamed?

The situation above is one of many instances where cultural debate is involved in our society. What causes this shortfall in our society?

Through our education system and mass media, non-mainstream cultures which are not being introduced well have led to lack of cultural appreciation. A part of society that is greatly affected by our education syllabus and media representation are East Malaysians. To give you an idea, during our Bersama East Malaysia campaign this year, we have conducted a survey to serve as a platform for East Malaysians to share their thoughts and opinions. 

Some of the questions and answers from the survey: 

  1. In regards to the history, languages and culture of East Malaysia, we found that they are not being introduced excessively in schools and textbooks. Growing up, how did you learn about your heritage?

“I only managed to learn little to nothing of our history, languages and culture in the textbooks made. Instead I talked to my friends, relatives and other communities in Borneo around me and exchanged knowledge about each other.”

“Additionally, it is also a shame that a great many Sarawakian historical figures are also not adequately introduced in our textbooks. Many of these figures hold very strong communal and native values that have shaped our approach to socio-political progress in Sarawak. As a Sarawakian, I am often surprised to learn of new historical figures every now and then through the sharing of mutuals on social media platforms.”


  1. As an East Malaysian, do you have any experiences feeling underrepresented? If yes, would you like to share with us your experiences? 

“History documentation and acknowledgment itself. Local indigenous warriors or local pejuang should be recognised or immortalised be it in monuments or as road names. Also, some (not all of course. Talking from personal experience)  West Malaysians who are ignorant and disregard our cultural celebrations. It’s just plain rude.” 

Speaking of our education system, the current syllabus concentrates  more on the culture and religion of the majority. For example, Arabic language and Jawi are being taught with little to no light on the languages of other main races in Malaysia ie Mandarin and Tamil. Other than the syllabus itself, the division of schools (i.e. vernacular schools) also acts as a barrier that inhibits our youths from learning about each other from an early age. 

However, with all these barriers, are there still remnants of cultural integration in our multiracial society?

Traces of Cultural Assimilation in Malaysia

Assimilation, in anthropology and sociology, is the process whereby individuals or groups of differing ethnic heritage are absorbed into the dominant culture of a society. The process of assimilating involves taking on the traits of the dominant culture to such a degree that the assimilating group becomes socially indistinguishable from other members of the society. As such, assimilation is the most extreme form of acculturation. Although assimilation may be compelled through force or undertaken voluntarily, it is rare for a minority group to replace its previous cultural practices completely; religion, food preferences, proxemics (e.g., the physical distance between people in a given social situation), and aesthetics are among the characteristics that tend to be most resistant to change. Assimilation does not denote “racial” or biological fusion, though such fusion may occur.

Historically in Malaysia, one example of cultural assimilation can be evidenced in Peranakan culture. There are many attempts being made to trace the origin of this unique culture through historical context and folktales. Baba-Nyonya customarily comes first to mind when talking about Peranakan, but the truth is, Peranakan term was coined alluding to a number of different ethnic and cultural groups in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore who are locally born. Peranakan is derived from Malay and Indonesian word, anak which means child or offspring. The community includes Baba-Nyonya (Straits Chinese Peranakan), Peranakan Jawi, Peranakan Dutch, Peranakan Serani and Peranakan Chitty. 

However, in the 18th century, the Straits Chinese are being referred to someone who was born or residing in the Straits Settlements under the British construct; Penang, Malacca and Singapore. During those times, Straits Chinese are not being considered as Baba-Nyonya unless they are displaying the distinct hybrid of Sino-Malay attributes; choice of attire, food, spoken language, choice of education, preferred career choices, choice of religion and loyalties. The Baba-Nyonya hold onto most of their ethic and religious inceptions while assimilating the Malays language and culture. 

Presently, the Peranakan culture itself is disappearing in Malaysia and Singapore. Most of Baba-Nyonya were also traditionally English educated at missionary schools, notably in Penang, especially during British occupation. Later on, having Bahasa Melayu standardization in Malaysia to all ethnic groups has led the Baba Malay language to face extinction. The majority of current young Baba-Nyonya are not conversant in the language and are out of touch with the culture. Fortunately, there have been efforts to preserve the sui generis culture through opening private museums, shops and restaurants in Penang and Malacca to bring awareness to the heritage. 


As part of MSGA, we strongly do not support any hostile and racist remarks that are being made in supporting the arguments on this topic. In my personal opinion, while it is idealistic to hope for a mature and healthy discussion regarding cultural appropriation in Malaysia, invisible barriers are dividing the nation. As a group of the majority ethnic group, when a minority requests to be heard, let us try and give them space to do so and vice versa. Being hostile and ignorant would not lead any of us forward, but also divide us even further. 

By: Nur Ain Shafiqah Mohd Yasim

Assistant Vice President of Advocacy 2019/2020

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