Malaysian Football culture and Malaysian culture in general can be difficult to define. After all, Malaysia is not really a country.
It’s best to think of Malaysia as a federation of different states each culturally and historically distinct from one another. These different states shared no political unity until post British colonisation during the “Mederka” Independence of 1961. Even now, 9 of the states of the Malaysian Federation have their own monarchy, but even they differ among themselves when it comes to their political structure. It is fairer to view Malaysia the same way as we view the USA or the UK; a collection of individual countries under a single administration.
The nature of the political relationships between the different Malaysian states has left its imprint of the way Football is played within Malaysia. Unlike in Western Europe, where there is a long tradition of Football clubs either being private companies or arms of businesses established to entertain employees, most Malaysian clubs have traditionally been owned and operated by each individual state’s government. And unlike former Communist countries and large swathes of Asia where Football clubs were historically linked to a nationalised trade or entity such as the air force, the army, the national energy concern or the national railway concern etc, Malaysian clubs are mostly not linked to a profession or a trade (with a few exceptions). This is the reason why many club names reflect the state name; there is no single city called “Selangor” or “Kedah”, because these club names represent the state in which they are situated.
To a large degree, Malaysian Football has traditionally been a medium for ongoing competition between each state’s government. Regional rivalries often led by the monarchies and governments of each state within the federation are played out on the Football field. This in many ways actually gives Malaysian Football more character, as games that may be uninteresting to outsiders function as ongoing chapters in tensions between different states. These rivalries may be led by the regional leaders, but the fans definitely feel them as well. However, the state-ownership nature of Malaysian clubs means that club management invariably involves politicians (whose real interest is not Football), and bureaucracy. Malaysian Football clubs are subject to top-down decision making, management and financing from the state they represent and its politicians who usually know little about Football. As such, Malaysian Football clubs do not respond quickly to change.
Johor Darul Ta’zim FC, the Football club of the state of Johor in the south of Malaysia, have broken away from this mould. The Crown Prince of Johor was elected head of the Johor Football Association in 2012 and immediately merged all Football clubs in the state into one Football team, while simultaneously consulting foreign professionals in the field of club management to better understand franchising and revenue-stream diversification of Football clubs. The objective behind these decisions was to create an independent Football club functioning much more like a private enterprise free from top-down tinkering and with capital that management had complete control of. Thanks to this break-away from the traditional Malaysian club management model, JDT FC are able to make quick decisions concerning investment, staffing and operations, which has translated into business efficiency and better decision making. It is little surprise therefore that Johor Darul Ta’zim FC has quickly become the dominant force in Malaysian domestic Football, ahead of its competitors who cannot for example quickly sign an upcoming star without the approval of bureaucrats in the state’s government.
The Crown Prince of Johor continues as chairman of JDT FC, so the club still maintains regional political connections, but he has had the foresight and intelligence to give the club the right level of independence needed to compete more effectively. The story of a politician becoming chairman of a Football club and then effectively reducing the extent to which politicians could influence that very club is a little amusing, but credit to him. Johor’s people do the rest. The very proud Johoreans now have a contemporary vehicle they can invest in to express their pride in their history, region and identity, which is very extensive and well documented. They are willing to purchase branded merchandise, creating revenue that JDT FC uses to fund sports operations without the need to consult the state’s politicians first. We can assume that other Malaysian Football teams will copy JDT FC’s management and financial model in the future to evolve into more efficient Football clubs, but JDT FC’s dominance will prevail in the short and mid term. Kuala Lumpur is the city (and administrative region) that dominates almost all other industries within the Malaysian Federation, but it does not dominate Malaysian Football.
Malaysian culture is not just unique compared to other countries thanks to its political structure. Its cultural diversity and unique demographics also make it an interesting country to spend time in and learn about. 53% of the total population of around 31 million are ethnically Malay, 8% are Tamil or Southern Indian and 21% are of Chinese origin. The relative lack of tension and violence between Malaysia’s diverse citizens is quite astounding when you think about it. Malaysia has not seen significant racially-motivated violence since the 60’s. But the demographics differ drastically per state. Citizens of Penang in the North West for example are more likely to be ethnically Chinese, while the ethnically Indian citizens are relatively more numerous around Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Interestingly, the terraces do not match this demographic diversity. At the moment in time, we have not seen reliable statistics to confirm this, but the majority of people watching Football in Malaysia seem to be ethnically Malay.
Why? This can be a hard question to answer. One narrative that makes sense is that the Indians and Chinese do not have a history of involvement in Football. Indians famously take more interest in cricket, whereas the Chinese have long since been far more interested in individual sports than team sports. It makes sense therefore that Indian and Chinese communities in Malaysia would also express little interest in local Football teams. Does this explain why Malaysian Football fans are more likely to be ethnically Malay? The United Kingdom, as a comparison, also sees very low amounts of its citizens with Indian or Chinese roots engaging in Football relative to British citizens with other ethnic backgrounds. British Football players with African or Caribbean backgrounds are common, but the British-Asian community is still to make an impact on the pitch, which could be interpreted as evidence that Indians and Chinese cultures are simply less interested in Football. Sadly once again we have not had the pleasure of seeing accurate statistics to confirm this suspicion.
The actual Malaysian fan traditions and customs are very similar to the fan traditions and customs of its neighbour, Indonesia. The two are continuing rivals; Malaysia being more developed and wealthier and Indonesia claiming itself the cultural superior. A big part of the rivalry however simply comes from the fact that the two share a strong culture exclusively with each other (forgetting Singapore for now). At Malaysian and Indonesian matches, you witness the same songs and ubiquitous drumming, the same dynamic and moving tifos and the same emphasis on the collective instead of the individual, along with tailgaiting and extensive fan merchandising. The ostensibly Muslim population and culture can be seen in the food and drink sold during games which tends to follow Sharia practice, and prior to kick-off a prayer is sung in Arabic. However, the majority of fans, eternally conscious of the importance of cultural plurality in their diverse nation, put a strict emphasis on secularism on the terraces.
p.s. if you have any experience of Football fan culture in Malaysia and have any additions or exceptions to what we have written, please feel free to get in touch.