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Defining the Malay Culture: In Today’s Perspective

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5597 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The Malay race, which forms the majority of ethnic composition of Malaysia, has a rich history dating back to 2,000 B.C. with the arrival of modern Malays. Yet, there are several cultural definitions by which the Malays are defined and redefined as a community. This paper is an attempt to define the Malay culture in today’s global context and multicultural perspective. It followed a qualitative research approach involving library research and resources from well-known written work about the Malay culture. The cultural influences on Malays were reviewed through three phases; 1) the influence of Indian beliefs, 2) the influence of Islam, and finally, 3) the ‘Arabisation’ of the Malays. All of these influences were examined and discussed in order to provide a describable definition of and answer the question ‘What makes a Malay culture?’ In conclusion, having a distinct definition of a Malay culture in today’s context will help the Malays play a pivotal role in making Malaysia to become a melting pot for diversity and a benchmark for multiethnic and multicultural tolerances.

Introduction – What is the Malay Culture


“Takkan Hilang Melayu Di Dunia”

‘The Malays will never vanish from this earth’, a quote made famous by Hang Tuah, a legendary warrior who lived in the 15th century[1]. Since their migration from Yunnan in China estimated some 2,500 years ago, the Malays have seen much cultural progression and elements of the culture such as clothes and textiles, revered as symbols of power, beauty and social status (Strange and Mohamad, 1997). Many works of literatures have attempted to define the Malay Culture and its place in this millennium. Takkan Hilang Melayu Di Dunia, recommends that the Malays build their confidence by having a cultivated mindset that focuses on not forgetting their cultural heritage in order to remain relevant and continue to prosper (Noor, I. and Azaham, M., 2000).

The Rationale of the Research


Echoing this recommendation, the main purpose of this study is to attempt to define the culture in today’s perspective, highlighting cultural characteristics i.e. value system, behaviour, practice and political knowledge, which have dictated the interpretation of a Malay. Through a qualitative research approach, this writing will explore the progression of the Malay culture with the focus on cultural influences through three phases. These cultural influences are examined and discussed in order to provide a describable definition of the Malay culture.

Therefore, having a distinct definition of a Malay culture in today’s perspective will help the Malays understand their role in making Malaysia to become a melting pot for diversity and a benchmark for multiethnic and multicultural tolerances. Building their confidence through embracing their cultural heritage, it will propel the Malays to become more equipped to face cultural globalisation.

History Background – Who are the Malays?



The Malays, a race of people inhabiting the Malay Peninsula and parts of Southeast Asia have a history that is linked to the development to several waves of movement down the Malay Peninsula from Yunnan in China. This movement dates back to 2000 B.C., marking the arrival of the modern Malays (Milner, 2008). Throughout history, the Malays are known as coastal traders, with fluid cultural tendencies (Milner, 2008), which suggest that through cultural transmission[2] they absorbed, adapt and practice numerous cultural characteristics of other local ethnic groups. With this absorption, the Malay culture and identity were shaped and influenced by various parts of the world—South Asia, China, the Middle East (Islam) and the West (A. B., S., 2001).

Progression of the Malay Culture


Culture can be defined as an explanation of a particular way of life, which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning but also in institutions and ordinary behavior (Turner, 2003). Culture thus acts as a medium of communication where people in certain society can be understood.

‘Malay’ is defined as a member of a people inhabiting Malaysia and parts of Indonesia, and speaks the Malay language (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2018). Historically, the word refers to the people living in the orient that share the same language and religion in the Malay Archipelago area (Andaya, L. Y., 1975). The Malay as a race was not only found in the Malay Peninsula but also the neighbouring region of Indonesia, Brunei and the southern part of Phillipines (Mutalib, H., 1990).

According to ‘On the Malayu Nation’, Raffles identified and used the term ‘Melayu’ in the following way:

“I cannot but consider the Melayu nation as one people, speaking one language, though spread over so wide a space, preserving their character and customs, in all the maritime states lying between the Sulu Seas and the Southern Oceans.”

In the early eighteen-century the word Malay that was originally referred to the area and the people started to change in its use and was broadened into cultural, political and economic environments aspects.

Because of its geographical location, the Malay Peninsula is considered to be a strategic sea-route stopover, a midway point between India and China. This attracted many traders and merchants to participate in an international trade network (Hall, T. D., 2017). In this section, the emergence of the Indian beliefs influence, the coming of Islam and the concept of Arabisation and its impact to the Malay culture in today’s context will be discussed and evaluated.

The Influence of Indian Beliefs

The influence of Indian beliefs could be traced with the emergence of two main factors; political and economical. Indian merchants and traders, and subsequently in later years, the Brahmins[3] and monks visited the Malay Peninsula due to its geographical location during the fourth century (Winstedt, R.O., 1961). It is believed that through these contacts, the Indian influences permeated the life of the Malays. When the Indians came into Malaya most of the Brahmins spread their knowledge of the Hindu religion and developed the Tamil language (Sivanantham and Suberamanian, 2014, p. 214).

Politically, it was during the 8th – 14th century, two Indian kingdoms or ‘superpowers’ i.e. Srivijaya (Indian – Hindu origin) and Majapahit (Indian – Buddhist origin) dominated the Malay Peninsula (Winstedt, R.O., 1961).

Among the cultural influences of the Indian beliefs which has impacted the Malays, are:

-          Language

-          Literature

-          Customs and Traditions

The Malay language has many loanwords from various origins, most profoundly from Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindustani and Arabic (Jstor.org, 2018). Words such as kappal (“ship”), auta (“bluffing, boasting”), peta (“map”) and keling (a term in reference to Indian-Muslim) are borrowed from Sanskrit (Winstedt, R. O., 1944). These words are still widely used not only amongst the Malays but Malaysians as a whole, till this day.

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The Indian influences made their way into Malay literature with the incorporation of Indian elements. Famous literatures were translations of the Sanskrit texts, including Hikayat Seri Rama (the Ramayana[4]) and Hikayat Bayan Budiman (an adaptation of Śukasaptati), introduced Hindu teachings, life and culture (Ford, R. C., 1899). Munshi Abdullah, a Tamil Muslim [5] considered to be the ‘father of Modern Malay Literature’ published Hikayat Abdullah (The Story of Abdullah) in 1849 is an autobiographical work containing social history of Malaya and historical events (Rajantheran, n.d.). Before the spread of Islam, Malay folklore [6] and literatures were full of figures of greater gods of Malay pantheon borrowed from Hindu divinities (Littrup, L. 1996). Its central subjects are relating to nature, animals and people, to showcase the powers of such beings and was to an extent the form of Malays belief system.

In the Malay life, the practice of magic has been associated with elements of Hinduism (Winstedt, R. O., 1961). Malay Sketches’ description of a Malay is Muslim in religion but is also very superstitious, a root that can actually be traced down the Sri Vijaya times (Swettenham, F., 1900). This was evident during the ruling of Srivijaya kingdom, where the King was said to board a ship in search of magic powers (Andaya, L. Y., 1975). Until today, many types of superstitions still abound in the Malay community despite being considered syirik [7] in Islam

Many religious ceremonies and daily ritualism is ingrained with elements of Hinduism. As an example, Tepung Tawar (using baked flour, soaked in fragrant water) is a customary blessing ritual of Malay weddings and celebration of newborn babies that is still being practiced till this day (Koh, J., & Ho, S., 2009).

The Influence of Islam


Islam came to the Malay Peninsula through traders and merchants from India. The Muslim traders not only came in large numbers, but also traded in many ports (Arnold, T. W., 1913). With the coming of Islam during the thirteenth century, the Islamic system of beliefs, laws and teachings heavily influenced the life of the Malays (Mutalib, H., 1990).

The association between Islam and the Malays is strong that it distinguishes the race from the Chinese or Indians (Winstedt, R. O., 1961). Islam Dalam Sejarah dan Kebudayaan Melayu (Islam in the History and Culture of the Malays) insisted that with the religion being embedded in the Malays, it marked a crucial stage in history called the Modernisation of the Malays (Al-Attas, S. N., 1972). It is with this that Islam became the symbol of Malayness, meaning that the faith is inseparable from the Malay ethno-cultural[8] (Roff, W. R., 1967).

Among the cultural influences of the spread of Islam, are:

-          Socio-politics

-          Education

-          Literature

There were two classes in the traditional Malay community; the ruling class (i.e. king of the state followed by the administrators) and the subject class (i.e. peasants, villagers, farmers). With the spread of Islam, Ulama’ (religious leaders) played an important role in educating the Malay community (Roff, W. R., 1967). This group, including Imam and Bilal (clerics of the mosque) was accepted and respected in propagating Islamic teachings.

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It was in the hands of this group that education was made accessible to the subject class. The Islamic teachings were done in the mosque, sekolah pondok [9] or madrasah (Islamic schools) (Muhamad, 1996). Subjects were in reference to the Quran and covered a wide range of learnings such as the history of the Prophet Muhammad p.b.u.h. and Tasawwuf [10] (Gibb., H. A. R., 1947). The close relationship between the Ulama’ and the Malay community has enabled them to lead in many of the celebrations, funerals, and as a source for solutions in every day conduct. This situation is unique as the role of the group superceded the functions of other leaders, to an extent even the ruling class (Gibb., H. A. R., 1947).

With the arrival of Islam, the use of Jawi script [11] was introduced among the Malay community (Marshall Cavendish, 2007). The Islamic beliefs, teachings and ideas (of science, history) began to mark the Malay literature. The Terengganu Inscription Stone, dated 1313, was the earliest findings of Malay narrative of history and law (Nik Abd. Rahman, Ramli and Musa, 2012). Malay Annals, originally titled Sulalatus Salatin (Genealogy of Kings) considered being the most important literary work of historical events and sources of the Malay world (Winstedt, R. O., 1961).

Islam represents a key element of the Malay identity as well as its culture. The identification is strong that the term Masuk Melayu (becoming a Malay) is used in reference of conversion, when a person from another race embraces Islam (Andaya, B. W. and Andaya, L. Y., 1984). Till this day, Islam is regarded as the official religion of Malaysia. According to the Constitution of Malaysia, Article 160 – Constitutional definition of Malay, anyone born as a Malay is a Muslim (Fernando, J., 2006). In the early 90s, Islam in Malaysia is viewed as ‘a moderate version of the religion (Esposito, J. L. and Voll, J. O. , 1996).

Arabisation of the Malays

According to Eddin Khoo, a Malay Culture historian, Arabisation, a term used today to describe the rapid spread of Islam conservatism within the Malay community that once prided itself as an example of a progressive religion. Prior to this phenomenon, the Malays were known for their ability to internalise Islam and assimilate it with their own culture to create a unique mix of identity for itself. However, there is a growing threat to the existing Malayness through two factors; 1) the clash of ideologies between political parties; namely the nationalist UMNO[12] and Islamist PAS[13], and 2) the increasing signs of a more extreme strain of Islamic teachings (Wahhabism) that has crept into the mainstream (Ghoshal, 2010).

Sociologist Syed Farid al-Attas remarked that there is a growing intolerance shown by Muslims in Malaysia towards diversity and religious pluralism (Zahiid, 2016). The teachings of Wahhabism, is a puritanical form of Sunni Islam and practiced in Saudi Arabia (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). This form of ideology has been linked to extremism and is viewed as a Saudi invasion (The Week UK, 2017). What is viewed as Saudi Arabisation process, the spread and acceptance of its teachings is dangerous as it narrows the interpretation of Islam and diminishes tolerance towards diversity (Zahiid, 2016). This scenario is widespread not only in Malaysia but Indonesia is experiencing the same phenomenon, where a majority of Muslims merge conservative Arab culture with practices of Islam (Fernandes, 2017).

As the Malays appropriate the Arab culture to the teachings of Islam, everything perceived as positing Malayness has been discarded in the name of Islam (Jaafar, 2017). There is an identity struggle and contestation among the Malays today, as they question not only their tradition, but even to the extent of how they look in the name of religion. It has been argued that since the re-insurgence of Islamic movement of the 1970s, the Malays were pressured to rethink their culture (Zahiid, 2016).

In Malay culture, clothes (traditional baju kurung) and textiles are revered as symbols of beauty and status (Mohammad, M. (1996). Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the Malays wore the traditional baju kurung or kebaya (Malay dresses, loosely translated as enclosed dress) without the hijab and were never less Muslim because of it (Jaafar, 2017). With the process of Arabisation, the Malays have traded the Malay dress to be Muslim attire (known as modest clothing).

Many Malay leaders, such as the Sultan of Johor (sovereign ruler of the southernmost state in the peninsula and its fourth richest state) and the previous Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister, Tan Sri Rais Yatim voiced their concerns that Malays should retain their own culture and not imitate the Arabs, as many have discarded the Malay customs and traditions (Jaafar, 2017).

The Malays have always taken the position that customs and tradition and Islamic teachings should supplement each other (Zahiid, 2016). Till this day as the debate continues, Malay intellectuals such as the likes of Syed Farid al-Attas and Eddin Khoo are steadfast in their effort for the retention and protection of the Malay culture and identity, sans Arabisation.



The Malays have experienced assimilation of different types of culture since their migration some 2,500 years ago. Their identity has been defined and re-defined with each contact of foreign influences; from the Indian civilization, the emergence of Islam and even today, confronted with the threat of Arabisation. Based on the research provided earlier, the Malay culture has made adaptations to their way of life and is able to create a unique balance of both customs and tradition with the religion, Islam. With these findings, how do the Malays want to be defined?

In the greater global context, what is happening in Malaysia is reflective of Islam in the world becoming overall more conservative as it reacts to “perceived” threats of Westernisation and the erosion of Islamic values and way of life. Learning from history, the Malays should uphold its culture without disregarding the practice of Islam in a balancing act that would complement each other. A description of a Malay that is “well-spoken, well-mannered, knowledgeable and a friendly progressive” is something to be aspired to and not “the conservative, narrow-minded, backward extremist” version.

Having a distinct definition of a Malay culture in today’s context will help the Malays play a pivotal role in making Malaysia to become a melting pot for diversity and a benchmark for multiethnic and multicultural tolerances.


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[1] Even in present-day Malay culture Hang Tuah is held in the highest regard, and is arguably the most well-known and illustrious warrior figure in Malay history and literature (Levinson and Christensen, 2002).

[2] Cultural transmission or cultural learnings, is the knowledge that is learned and passed on to later generations. Hall, 2018. Cultural Transmission – Dictionary of Multicultural Psychology: Issues, Terms, and Concepts

[3] In Indian history, Brahmins are recognized as educated and knowledgeable persons. Sivanantham and Suberamanian, 2014. Cultural Assimilation among Malays and Indians in Malaysia

[4] Ramayana, is an ancient Indian epic poem which narrates the struggle of the divine prince Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. Vālmīki. and Shastri, 1992. The Ramayana

[5] A Tamil-Muslim or Indian Muslim is a classification to define an Indian who has converted to Islam. Lal, K., 1990. Indian Muslims: Who Are They?.

[6] Folklore is a body of traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community passed through generations usually transmitted through word of mouth.  Encyclopedia Britannica., 2018. Folklore | academic discipline

[7]  In Islam, syirik is the act of practicing idolatry or polytheism, which is considered to be an unforgivable sin. Neo, 2014. What’s in a name? Malaysia’s “Allah” controversy and the judicial intertwining of Islam with ethnic identity

[8] Malays were mostly “social, cultural and economic” in character and intent. Roff, W. R., 1967. The Origins of Malay Nationalism.

[9] Consist of small building providing shelter of students. Muhamad, 1996. Pondok Educational System in Malaysia-Its Effectiveness and Limitations.

[10] According to tradition of Islamic teachings, the science of inner purification is called Tasawwuf. Islamicspirituality.org, n.d.

[11] An Arabic alphabet of writing Malay. Marshall Cavendish, 2007. World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia.

[12] UMNO or the United Malays National Organisation, a political party representing the purely the Malay interests. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018.

[13] PAS or the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, a political party of ethnic Malay-Muslims, with its main objective of emphasising Islamic principles and values to governance and politics in Malaysia. Liow, J., 2013. PAS – Islamic Studies – Oxford Bibliographies – obo.


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