Indonesia Malaysia Travel Better Travel Tips

Indonesian vs Malaysian Culture: Differences and Similarities

June 7, 2015
Wayang Golek Indonesian puppets
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Wayang Golek – Indonesian wooden toys used in puppet shows


“Same same but different” – this how people from Sumatra island explain things. Indonesia and Malaysia are similar in many ways, but in the same time, these countries have tremendous differences.

The Language

A long time ago Malay people inhabited Malaysian and Indonesian islands. That’s why Malaysian and Indonesian languages are so similar with about 80% of identical vocabulary. However, Malaysian language uses more Arabic words, and Indonesian – more English and Dutch words because of the years of colonisation.

Political System And Social Life

Development of both countries was dependent on colonisers. Malaysia was colonised by British and Indonesia by the Dutch. Therefore, Malaysia is a federation and constitutional Monarchy. Indonesia is a unitary presidential republic.
Did you know that Indonesia has Ministry of religion with 5 official religions: Islam, Buddhism, Christianity (Protestants and Catholics), Hinduism and Confucianism. And guess what, you have to put your religion in your ID card. And you cannot have a different religion or not have any religion at all.

Malaysia has a Ministry of Unity as well as Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development dealing with women empowerment and reaching gender equality.

Infrastructure And Development

KL Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

This makes the biggest difference. Indonesia is a typical rural country. And many out of 17 thousand islands are still untouched by civilisation. There is no metro in Indonesia, not many high buildings as well, due to constant seismic activity in the region. The most developed place in Indonesia is tourist paradise – Bali island as well as capital city Jakarta.

Malaysia has a well-developed infrastructure, better internet connection, air conditioners everywhere and water heaters in every hostel and house. You could rarely see wet markets in Malaysian cities as well. In Malaysia people are more obedient to rules and have more understanding of interdependent life in the diverse community, probably that’s why usually you won’t see people throwing trash from the car window, that is a usual picture in Indonesia.


indonesia traffic

Bandung, Indonesia

In Indonesia streets are narrow, cities are crowded and everybody use motorcycles so traffic you can easily spend few hours in traffic in the big city. If you don’t know how to ride a motorbike, your life is gonna be very limited in Indonesia.

Malaysia has a well-organized public transportation system, as well, as cars are the most popular private transport. So it’s much easier to get around and that’s the main reason why usually Malaysians are much more punctual than people in Indonesia.

Food Is Important

nasi bebek

Nasi Bebek – Duck rice

From the first glance, food is something life goes around in both countries. People like to eat here and they like to talk about food a lot.

Multiculturalism: Local vs Global

There is around 360 ethnic groups, and around 700 different languages in Indonesia. But everybody can speak state language Bahasa Indonesia. Most of Indonesians (85%) are Muslims. People from different ethnic groups have different traditions, customs, they look differently. Still, this diversity could be called local as their cultures are relatively similar and usually representatives of this ethnic groups live on certain islands, not moving around much. So you won’t spot so many very different people in one city like you will in Malaysia.
Malaysian society is dramatically diverse combining Chinese, Malays and Indians, Muslims, Christians and Hindus and many expats living together in one country. Although state language is Bahasa Malaysia, English, that is recognised as a business language, is used as an everyday language by many.

Edward, Indonesian living in Malaysia:
Malaysians: they really like to go yum cha!! and they mix all languages in their daily conversation: “Ane, mixed rojak satu, dabao ah..”
Indonesians: they really like to talk a lot (they can spend hours talking non-sense).

Collectivistic Culture

Both Malaysian and Indonesian societies value obedience to the rules and respect to the elders, understanding of the interdependence of each person in the community, representatives of both culture recognise the importance of material possessions and status symbols.

Attitude To Foreigners

Bule foreighner in Indonesia

Picture with bule. Makassar, Indonesia

In Indonesia: “Hello Mister, bisa foto-foto?! Bule (pointing at you)!” Wow, you are a foreigner, I wanna be your friend, I wanna take a picture with you, oh, wait, a selfie is even better! Post on FB, Line or Path and show to all of my friends that I a white guy is my friend. Oh, and if you are a foreigner, you are definitely rich tourist from Germany, France or Australia…

In Malaysia: Orang Putih? Oh, yeah, another foreigner, nice to know you.

Happy People

Indonesian children happy

Flores island, Indonesia

Indonesian nation is one of the happiest on the Planet. People are smiling constantly. They are friendly and helpful. Generally, people live a simple life. They are satisfied with the things they have and don’t want to work harder to get more.

Life in Malaysia is different. Because of the greater economic development, people have to work harder to have a good life. That’s why probably you won’t see so many smiling people around.

Have you ever been to Indonesia or Malaysia? What differences and similarities have you noticed during your stay? What have I missed? Let me know in the comments below :).

If you are thinking about going to Indonesia for the first time, here’s my Indonesian Survival Guide!

Originally written for and published at by Hanna Flores

Get exclusive tips on how to Build a Better Life!

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Bogdan Dub June 7, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Крутяк. Особливо про те, що щасливіші у своїй затишній ліні. Просто таки Гомер Сімпсон певно має Індонезійські корені. Дуже вдалий приклад – цитати живих діалогів про селфі. Ну просто переносиш усіх читачів туди. Крутяк, Ганнусько. Прилітай додому, як втомишся – попєм кави, покурим на даху чи шо…

    • Reply Hanna Gulabo June 7, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      Дякую, буду старатись ще краще тебе розважати 😉

  • Reply Bayuhen April 30, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    non sense. Indonesia: Hello Mister, bisa foto-foto?! Bule (pointing at you)! Wow, you are a foreigner, I wanna be your friend, I wanna take a picture with you, oh, wait, selfie is even better! Post on FB, Line or Path and show to all of my friends that I a white guy is my friend. Oh, and if you are a foreigner, you are definitely rich tourist from Germany, France or Australia… >>> what hell it is.

    Indonesian will say hi or smile to foreigner, because our tradition is like that. But what you write is like to point that Indonesian people is countrified.

    • Reply Hanna Flores June 9, 2016 at 6:59 pm

      Hi Bayuhen, I appreciate your point of view and your comment. All thoughts in this article are based on my personal experience of living in Indonesia for a year and travelling to many islands. I didn’t mean that all Indonesian people are “countrified”. I totally agree with you that Indonesian people are extremely friendly and hospitable and it comes from the culture.
      Anyway, this what most of the travellers will encounter while travelling to a majority of places in Indonesia.

  • Reply Ogrr August 23, 2016 at 10:00 pm

    You seem to have a very one-sided view with preferential positivity given towards Malaysians. One thing you have left out in your opinionated article that i feel should be included for the benefit of those reading is….

    Indonesians – Chinese Indonesians, Native Indonesians of different ethnic/dialects – speak Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) to communicate with one another whilst Malaysians – Malays, Chinese, Indians all will regardless, speak English to communicate with one another despite all of them, being linguistically fluent in Bahasa “Malaysia” (Malay language). So in your opinion out of all these – which country would you percept to have a more united and solidarity One-ness ?

    • Reply Hanna Flores January 29, 2017 at 9:28 pm

      Hi OGRR, thank you for your comment!
      I am sorry if I offended you with my “opinionated” article, I honestly didn’t mean that at all. I don’t have any preferences when talking about Indonesian or Malaysian people. I lived a year in Indonesia and I have been living for 2 years in Malaysia. Both countries are great in some way and on the other hand, both have something to improve. As all other countries in the world.
      I totally agree with you about the languages – Indonesian people from different islands and tribes feel they are Indonesians and will speak Bahasa Indonesia with each other when in Malaysia, people feel they are Chinese, Indian or Malay and they would mostly speak English with each other.
      I didn’t mention anything about which country in more united or has more solidarity. I am just sharing my observations and experience. These two countries have very different histories as well as different ethnical and political nations so it’s not that simple to compare the level of solidarity or One’ness.

    • Reply Liaw huan kent July 20, 2017 at 5:10 pm

      Yah it shows that indonesia don’t give the freedom to their people like chinese to speak their ancestors language and this will lead into a bigger problem for example a tourist from china come to indonesia and lost his way so he might ask an indonesian guy that he assume is a chinese guy and ask him how to go to bekasi in chinese and that guy will say what is this guy talking in indonesian. So when this indonesian guy could not answer what the tourist is asking so the tourist will think that indonesian people are arrogant and racist for not letting chinese people to speak chinese(hokkien,mandarin and many more). But in malaysia and singapore we let people to speak their language and speak bahasa malaysia whenever they want so this will make people understand even more language instead of understanding one and speaking the same language the whole time in one country. So uf u want to know, this is the reason why a lot of tourist choose malaysia and singapore as their favourite destination instead of indonesia

  • Reply Jane Chia October 13, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    Hello! Im Jane! i read your blog. I also love traveling and had been to many countries at a young age.. I will be traveler in the near future when i graduate in college. I ran through your blog for I am researching about a topic for our literature class. Well, i hope we can meet in the future Hanna… 🙂

    • Reply Hanna Flores January 30, 2017 at 12:13 am

      Hi, Jane! I’m delighted to read your comment! I am so glad that you found my blog useful/interesting! 🙂
      I am working on the new articles for the blog. Let me know what you would like to read about!
      I am sure we can meeting in the future! I wish you happy graduation and a great travels ahead! 🙂

  • Reply Fouad Osama November 13, 2016 at 3:21 am

    Please can you help me here I am going to move and I was searching about the country who’s people inside it more friendly and kind besides the safety and don’t forget the living cost so Indonesia or Malaysia is better thank you

    • Reply Hanna Flores January 30, 2017 at 12:17 am

      Hi, Fouad! I believe you contacted me via facebook after you wrote this comment! I know you were living in Malaysia and I hope you enjoyed your stay here 🙂
      In my personal opinion, people in both Indonesia and Malaysia are friendly and I feel it’s safe in both countries.
      Regarding living cost, it’s cheaper to live in most places is Indonesia than in Malaysia. But please keep in mind that Bali island is expensive due to the popularity and number of foreign tourists.
      What was your experience?

  • Reply ceylontea March 12, 2017 at 7:29 am

    Between them, if i were to choose where i want to live (not travel), without a doubt it’s Malaysia, with its modern infrastructure, culture, living standard. English is very widely spoken. You can check this nice article about Kuching, Sarawak. Kuching is probably the best city in Asia i had ever lived. It’s rare that Sarawak is actually a Christian state, with diverse culture, English is part of the official language That’s why i prefer the East Malaysia than the West. The culture in the East is substantially different, feels more like a ‘British colonial’ place.

  • Reply Melina Safari May 10, 2017 at 1:24 am

    thank you for your site I had learned a lot to write in my poster.I am 11 years old and I am in grade five I live in Iran. so thankyou

  • Reply WAN AMIR September 19, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    Nice blog!
    But it’s wrong that Indonesian can’t have a different religion (exclude 5 religions above) or not have any religion at all, there’s some Indonesian tribe have their indigenous religion as well and have Indonesian ID card with blank on religion section.

  • Leave a Reply