Ethnic Malays

Ethnic Malays
Enrique of MalaccaHamzah HazHang Tuah
Hassanal Bolkiah of BruneiDato LatMahathir Mohamad
SalomaSiti NurhalizaSurin Putsuwan
Sheikh Muszaphar ShukorTunku Abdul RahmanPengiran Anak Sarah
1st row: Enrique of MalaccaHamzah HazHang Tuah

2nd row: Hassanal Bolkiah of BruneiLatMahathir Mohamad

3rd row: Saloma • Siti NurhalizaSurin Pitsuwan

4th row: Sheikh Muszaphar ShukorTunku Abdul RahmanPengiran Anak Sarah

Total population
c. 27.8 million
Regions with significant populations
Majority populations
Malaysia 14,749,378 (2010 estimate) [1]
Brunei 261,902 (2010 estimate) [2]
Minority populations
Indonesia 8,789,585 (2010 estimate) [3][4]
Thailand 3,354,475 (2010 estimate) [5][6]
Singapore 653,449 (2010 estimate) [7][8]

Malay, Indonesian, Yawi, Thai, English


Sunni Islam (approx. 99.9%)[9]

Related ethnic groups

Acehnese, Banjarese, Batak, Betawi, Bugis, Burmese Malays, Cape Malays, Cham, Cocos Malays, Javanese, Kedayan, Melanau, Minang, Orang laut, Sri Lankan Malays, Sundanese and other Austronesian peoples

Malays (Malay: Melayu Jawi: ملايو) are an ethnic group of Austronesian people predominantly inhabiting the Malay Peninsula, including the southernmost parts of Thailand, the east coast of Sumatra, the coast of Borneo, and the smaller islands which lie between these locations. The Malay ethnic group is distinct from the concept of a Malay race, which encompasses a wider group of people, including most of Indonesia, Philippines, and Oceania. The Malay language is a member of the Austronesian family of languages.



Proto Malays

Also known as Melayu asli (aboriginal Malay) or Melayu purba (ancient Malay), the Proto Malays are of Austronesian origin are thought to have migrated to the Malay archipelago in a long series of migration between 2500 and 1500 BC.[10] The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early History, has pointed out a total of three theories of the origin of Malay:

  • The Yunnan theory, Mekong river migration (published 1889)
The theory of Proto Malay originating from Yunnan is supported by R.H Geldern, J.H.C Kern, J.R Foster, J.R Logen, Slametmuljana and Asmah Haji Omar. Other evidences that support this theory include:
  1. Stone tools found at Malay Archipelago which are analogous to Central Asian tools;
  2. Similarity of Malay customs and Assam customs; and
  3. the fact that the Malay language & Cambodian language are kindred languages because the ancestral home of Cambodians originated at the source of Mekong River.

The book "Contesting Malayness – Malay Identity Across Boundaries" edited by Timothy P. Barnard reflects the views of anthropologists that there is no such race as the "Malays" to begin with, even if one has since developed in Malaysia. If one follow the original migration of a certain group of southern Chinese of 6,000 years ago, some moved to Taiwan (today's Taiwanese aborigines are their descendents), then to the Philippines and later to Borneo (roughly 4,500 years ago) (today's Dayak and other groups). These ancient people also split with some heading to Sulawesi and others progressing into Java, and Sumatra. The final migration was to the Malayan Peninsula roughly 3,000 years ago. A sub-group from Borneo moved to Champa in Vietnam roughly 4,500 years ago. Interestingly, the Champa group eventually moved to present day Kelantan in Malaysia. There are also traces of the Dong Song and HoaBinh migration from Vietnam and Cambodia. There was also the Southern Thai migration, from what we know as Pattani today. All these groups share DNA and linguistic origins traceable to the island that is today Taiwan, and the ancestors of these ancient people are traceable to southern China.

However, a recent genetic studies carried out by HUGO (Human Genome Organization) involving almost 2000 people across Asia, points to another theory of Asian migration pattern. The HUGO found genetic similarities between populations throughout Asia and an increase in genetic diversity from northern to southern latitudes. These findings support the hypothesis that Asia was populated primarily through a single migration event from the south, and the South East Asian civilizations including the Malays are possibly much older civilizations compared to East Asian civilizations[11]

The proto Malays are believed to be seafarers knowledgeable in oceanography and possessing agricultural skills. They moved around from island to island in great distances between New Zealand and Madagascar, and they served as navigation guides, crew and labour to Indian, Arab, Persian and Chinese traders for nearly 2000 years. Over the years they settled at various places and adopted various cultures and religions.

Deutero Malays

The earlier Proto Malay groups were later pushed inland by the Deutero Malay settlers in the second wave of migration around 300 BC.[12] The Deutero Malays are Iron Age people descended partly from the Chams of Mainland Southeast Asia who came equipped with more advanced farming techniques and new knowledge of metals.[13] They are kindred but more Mongolized and greatly distinguished from the Proto Malays which have shorter stature, darker skin, slightly higher frequency of wavy hair, much higher percentage of dolichocephaly and a markedly lower frequency of the epicanthic fold.[14] The Deutero Malay settlers were not nomadic compared to their predecessors, instead they settled and established kampungs which serve as the main units in the society. These kampungs were normally situated on the riverbanks or coastal areas and generally self-sufficient in food and other necessities. By the end of the last century B.C, these kampungs beginning to engage in some trade with the outside world .[15]

The Deutero Malays are considered as the direct ancestors of present day's Malay people.[16] Their series of migration had indirectly forced some groups of Proto Malays and aboriginal people to retreat into the hill areas of the interior further upriver. Notable Proto Malays of today are Moken, Jakun, Orang Kuala, Temuan and Orang Kanaq.[17]

Indian influence

Candi Bukit Batu Pahat of Bujang Valley. A Hindu-Buddhist kingdom ruled ancient Kedah possibly as early as 110 A.D, the earliest evidence of strong Indian influence which was once prevalent among the pre-Islamic Kedahan Malays.

There is no definite evidence which dates the first Indian voyages across the Bay of Bengal but conservative estimates place the earliest arrivals on Malay shores at least 2,000 years ago. The discovery of jetty remains, iron smelting sites, and a clay brick monument dating back to 110 A.D in Bujang Valley, shows that a maritime trading route with south Indian Tamil kingdoms was already established since the 2nd century A.D.[18] The growth of trade with India brought coastal people in much of the Malay world into contact with the major religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Thus, Indian religions, cultural traditions and the Sanskrit language began to spread across the land. Temples were built in the Indian style, local kings began referring to themselves as Raja and more desirable aspects of Indian government were adopted.[19] Subsequently, small Malay states started to appear in the coastal areas of Malay peninsular, notably the Red Earth Kingdom (1st century), Gangga Negara (2nd century), Langkasuka (2nd century), and Kedah (2nd century). Between the 7th and 13th centuries, many of these small, often prosperous peninsular maritime trading states became part of the Srivijaya empire[20], a great Malay kingdom centered in Palembang[21] and Kadaram.[22]

The Buddhist maritime empire of Srivijaya, the first vast Malay polity in the region

Srivijaya’s influence spread over all the coastal areas of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, western Java and western Borneo, as well as the rest of the Malay Archipelago. Enjoying both Indian and Chinese patronage, its wealth was gained mostly through trade. At its height, the Old Malay language was used as its official language and became the lingua franca of the region, replacing Sanskrit, the language of Hinduism and Buddhism.[19] The Srivijayan era is considered the golden age of Malay culture.

The glory of Srivijaya however began to wane after the series of raids by Indian Chola Empire in 11th century. By the end of 13th century, the remnants of the Malay empire in Sumatra was finally destroyed by the Javanese invaders during the Pamalayu expedition (Pamalayu literally means: war against the Malayu).

The destruction of Srivijaya led to the diaspora of the Srivijayan court and several attempts were made by the fleeing Malay princes to revive the empire. In 1324, with the support of the loyal servants of the empire, the Orang lauts, a Malay prince of Srivijaya origin, Sang Nila Utama established the kingdom of Singapore in Temasek.[23] His dynasty ruled the island until the end of 14th century, when the Malay polity once again faced the wrath of Javanese invaders. In 1401, his great grandson, Paduka Sri Maharaja Parameswara headed north and established the Malacca Sultanate.[24] The Malacca sultanate succeeded Srivijaya and inherited much of the Malay royal and cultural traditions, including most of the territories of its predecessor.[25][26][27]


The extent of Malaccan Empire in the 15th century. One of the major Sultanates that contributed to the Islamization to the Malays.

The period of the 13th and 15th centuries saw the arrival of Islam and the rise of the great port-city of Malacca on the southwestern coast of the Malay peninsular[28] — two major developments that altered the course of Malay history.

The Islamic faith arrived on the shores of what are now the states of Kedah, Perak, Kelantan and Terengganu, from around the 12th century.[29] The earliest archaeological evidence of Islam from the Malay peninsula is an inscribed stone dating from the 14th century found in Terengganu state, Malaysia.[28]

By 15th century, the Malacca Sultanate, whose hegemony reached over much of the western Malay archipelago, had become the centre of Islamization in the east. The Malaccan tradition was transmitted onwards and fostered a vigorous ethos of Malay identity.[30][31] During this era, the Islamic faith became closely identified with Malay society and played a significant role in defining the Malay identity.[32][33][34]

In 1511, the city of Malacca fell into the hands of Portuguese conquistadors. However, Malacca remained an institutional prototype: a paradigm of statecraft and a point of cultural reference for successor states such as Johor Sultanate (1528–present), Perak Sultanate (1528–present) and Pahang Sultanate (1470–present).[30]

Across the South China Sea in 14th century, another Malay realm, the Brunei Sultanate was on the rise to become the most powerful polity in Borneo. By the middle of 15th century, Brunei entered into a close relationship with Malacca Sultanate. The sultan married a Malaccan princess, adopted Islam as the court religion, and introduced an efficient administration modelled on Malacca.[35] Brunei profited from trade with Malacca but gained even greater prosperity after the great Malay port was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. It reached its golden age in the mid 16th century when it controlled land as far south as present day Kuching in Sarawak and north towards the islands of the Philippines.[36] Brunei's fairly loose river based governmental presence in Borneo projected the process of acculturation known as "Malayization". Fine Malay Muslim cultures, including the language, dress and single family dwelling were introduced to the natives primarily from ethnic Dayaks, drawing them into the Sultanate. Dayak chiefs were incorporated into the Malay hierarchy, being given the official titles of Datuk, Temenggong and Orang Kaya. In West Kalimantan, the development of such sultanates of Sambas, Sukadana and Landak tells a similar tale of recruitment among Dayak people.[37]

Other significant Malay sultanates were the Kedah Sultanate (1136–present) and Patani Sultanate (1516–1771) that dominated the northern part of the Malay peninsula.


Between 1511 and 1984, numerous Malay kingdoms and sultanates fell under direct colonization or became the protectorates of different foreign powers, from European colonial powers like Portuguese, Dutch and British, to regional powers like Siam and Japan.

In 1511, the Portuguese Empire captured the capital city of Malacca Sultanate. The victorious Portuguese however, were unable to extend their political influence beyond the fort of Malacca. The Sultan maintained his overlordship on the lands outside Malacca and established the Johor Sultanate in 1528 to succeed Malacca. The Portuguese Malacca faced several unsuccessful retaliation attacks by Johor until 1614, when the combined forces of Johor and the Dutch Empire, ousted the Portuguese from the peninsular forever. As per agreement with Johor in 1606, the Dutch later took control of Malacca.[38]

Historically, Malay states of the peninsular had a hostile relation with the Siamese. Malacca sultanate herself fought two wars with the Siamese while northern Malay states came intermittently under Siamese dominance for centuries. In 1771, the Kingdom of Siam under the new Chakri Dynasty abolished the Pattani Sultanate and later annexed a large part of Kedah Sultanate. The Siamese imposed a new administrative structure and created the provinces of Satun, Songkhla, Phuket, Trang, Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani out of the former sultanates.[39][40]

In 1786, the island of Penang was leased to East India Company by Kedah Sultanate in exchange of military assistance against the Siamese. In 1819, the company also acquired Singapore from Johor Empire, and later in 1824, Malacca from the Dutch. All these trading posts officially known as Straits Settlements in 1826 and became the crown colony of British Empire in 1867. British intervention in the affairs of Malay states was formalized in 1895, when Malay rulers accepted British Residents in administration, and the Federated Malay States was formed. In 1909, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis were handed over by Siam to the British. These states along with Johor, later became known as Unfederated Malay States. During the World War II, all these British possessions collectively known as British Malaya were occupied by the Empire of Japan.

The decline of the Bruneian Empire culminated in the 19th century, when Brunei lost much of its territory to the White Rajahs of Sarawak. Brunei was a British protectorate from 1888 to 1984.[41]

Following the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 which divided the Malay Archipelago into British zone in the north and a Dutch zone in the south, all Malay sultanates in Sumatra and Southern Borneo became part of Dutch East Indies. Though some of Malay sultans maintain their power under Dutch control[42], some were abolished by the Dutch colonial government, like the case of Riau Sultanate in 1911. Since the establishment of Republic of Indonesia as a unitary state in 1950, all traditional Malay monarchies were abolished[43], and the Sultans positions reduced to titular heads or pretenders.

Malay nationalism

The bronze mural of the legendary Malay warrior, Hang Tuah with his renowned quote Ta' Melayu Hilang Di-Dunia (Malay for "Never shall the Malays vanish from the face of the earth") written on the top. The quote is a famous rallying cry for Malay nationalism.[44][45]

The earliest and most influential instruments of Malay national awakening were the periodicals which politicized the position of the Malays in the face of colonialism and alien immigration of non-Malays. In spite of repressions imposed by the British colonial government, there were no less than 147 journals and newspapers published in Malaya between 1876 and 1941. Among notable periodicals were Al-Imam (1906), Pengasuh (1920), Majlis (1935) and Utusan Melayu (1939). The rise of Malay nationalism was largely mobilized by three nationalist factions – the radicals distinguishable into the Malay left and the Islamic group which were both opposed to the conservative elites.[46]

The Malay leftists were represented by Kesatuan Melayu Muda, formed in 1938 by a group of Malay intelligentsia primarily educated in Sultan Idris Training College, with an ideal of Greater Indonesia. In 1945, they reorganized themselves into a political party known as Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM). The Islamists were originally represented by Kaum Muda consisted of Middle east –educated scholars with Pan-Islamic sentiment. The first Islamic political party was Partai Orang Muslimin Malaya (Hizbul Muslimin) formed in March 1948, later succeeded by Pan-Malayan Islamic Party in 1951. The third group was the conservatives consisted of the westernized elites who were bureaucrats and members of royal families that shared a common English education mostly at the exclusive Malay College Kuala Kangsar. They formed voluntary organizations known as Malay Associations in various parts of the country and their primary goals were to advance the interests of Malays as well as requesting British protection on Malay positions. In March 1946, 41 of these Malay associations formed United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to assert Malay dominance over Malaya.[46]

The Malay and Malayness has been a fundamental basis for Malay ideology and Malay nationalism in Malaysia. All three Malay nationalist factions believed in the idea of a "Malay Nation" (Bangsa Melayu) and the position of Malay language, but disagreed over the role of Islam and Malay rulers. The conservatives supported Malay language, Islam and Malay monarchy as constituting the key pillars of Malayness, but within a secular state that restricted the political role of Islam. The leftists concurred with the secular state but wanted to end feudalism, whereas the Islamic group favoured ending royalty but sought a much larger role of Islam.[47]

Federation of Malaya in 1948. It was formed out of 9 traditional Malay states and two British Straits Settlements, Penang and Malacca

The demise of the Malay sultanates in East Sumatra during the "Social revolution" of 1946, drastically influenced their Malayan counterparts and politically motivating them against the PKMM's ideal of Greater Indonesia and the Islamists' vision of Islamic Republic. In March 1946, UMNO emerged with the full support of the Malay sultans. The new movement forged a close political link between rulers and subjects never before achieved. It generated an excited Malay public opinion which, together with the surprising political apathy of the non-Malays, led to Britain’s abandonment of the radical Malayan Union plan. By July, UMNO succeeded in obtaining an agreement with the British to begin negotiations for a new constitution. Negotiations continued from August to November, between British officials on the one hand, and the Sultans' representatives and UMNO and the other.[48]

Two years later the semi autonomous Federation of Malaya was born, which reflected a clear victory for Malay interests. The new constitutional arrangement largely reverted to the basic pattern of pre-war colonial rule and built on the supremacy of the individual Malay states. Malay rights and privileges were safeguarded. The traditional Malay rulers thus retained their prerogatives, while their English-educated descendants came to occupy positions of authority at the centre, which was being progressively decolonized. In August 1957, the Federation of Malaya, the West’s last major dependency in Southeast Asia, attained independence in a peaceful transfer of power.[48] The federation was reconstituted as Malaysia with the addition in 1963 of Singapore (separated in 1965), Sabah and Sarawak.



The Kedukan Bukit Inscription written in Pallava script. Dating back from 683, it is the oldest surviving Malay written artifact.

The Malay language is one of the major languages of the world[49] and of the Austronesian family. Variants and dialects of Malay are used as an official language in Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The language is also spoken in Thailand, Cocos Island, Christmas Island, Sri Lanka. It is spoken natively by approximately 33 million people throughout the Malay Archipelago and is used as a second language by an estimated 220 million.[49]

The spread of the Malay language began with the suzerainty of the Srivijaya empire and accelerated under Malacca sultanate. At the height of Malacca’s power in the 15th century, it spread eastward to areas far beyond Malacca’s control, such as Ternate and Tidore in the northern Moluccas. Malay became the language of court and literature in kingdoms outside traditional Malay speaking areas.[50] Under the Sultanate of Malacca, the language evolved into a form recognizable to speakers of modern Malay.

In the age of learned languages, Malay was one of the three major learned languages of Islamic scholarship. European writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Tavernier, Thomassin and Werndly describe Malay as "language of the learned in all the Indies, like Latin in Europe".[51] It is also the most widely used during British and Dutch colonial era in the Malay Archipelago.[52]

The dialect of Johor Sultanate or Johor-Riau is the standard speech among Malays in Singapore and Malaysia, and it formed the original basis for the standardized Indonesian language.[50][53][54][55] In the Malay Peninsula, the Kelantanese dialect in its purest form is the most difficult to understand. Other peninsular dialects include the Kedahan dialect, the Melakan dialect, the Negeri Sembilan dialect, the Perak dialect, the Pahangite dialect and the Terengganu dialect. In Thailand, Malays of Satun speak the Kedahan dialect while those in the Patani provinces speak the Kelantanese lingo. In Brunei, there are varieties of Malay dialects in use; Royal Malay, Kedayan, Kampong Ayer, Bazaar Malay and Brunei Malay.[56]

The Malay language was historically written in Pallava, Kawi and Rencong. After the arrival of Islam, Arabic-based Jawi script was adopted and is still in use today as a co-official script in Malaysia and Brunei.[57] Starting from 17th century, as a result of British and Dutch colonization, Jawi was gradually replaced by Rumi script[58] and eventually became the official modern script for Malay language in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia (co-official in Brunei).


Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa in Jawi text. Also known as the Kedah Annals, it is an ancient Malay literature that chronicles the bloodline of Merong Mahawangsa and the foundation of Kedah.

The rich oral literature and classical literature of the Malays contain a great number of portraits of the people, from the servant to the minister, from the judge to the Rajas, from the ancient to the very contemporary periods, which together form the amorphous identity of the Malays.[59]

Considering the softness and mellifluence of the Malay language, which lends itself easily to the requirements of rhyme and rhythm, the originality and beauty in Malay literature can be assessed in its poetical elements. Among the forms of poetry in Malay literature are – the Pantun, Syair and Gurindam.

The earliest form of Malay literature was the oral literature and its central subjects are traditional folklore relating to nature, animals and people. The folklore were memorized and passed from one generation of storytellers to the next. Many of these tales were also written down by penglipur lara (storytellers) for example: Hikayat Malim Dewa, Hikayat Malim Deman, Hikayat Raja Donan, Hikayat Anggun Cik Tunggal, and Hikayat Awang Sulung Merah Muda.

When Indian influences made their way to the Malay Archipelago around 1700 years ago, Malay literature began incorporating Indian elements. Literature of this time is mostly translations of Sanskrit literature and romances, or at least some productions inspired by such, and is full of allusions to Hindu mythology. Probably to this early time may be traced such works as Hikayat Seri Rama (a free translation of the Ramayana), Hikayat Bayan Budiman (an adaptation of Śukasaptati) and Hikayat Panca Tanderan (an adaptation of Hitopadesha).[60]

The era of classical Malay literature started after the arrival of Islam and the invention of Jawi script (Arabic based Malay script). Since then, Islamic beliefs and concepts began to make its mark on Malay literature. The Terengganu Inscription Stone, which is dated to 1303, is the earliest known narrative Malay writing. The stone is inscribed with an account of history, law, and romance in Jawi script.[28]

At its height, Malacca sultanate was not only the center of Islamization, but also the center of Malay cultural expressions including literature. During this era, notable Middle Eastern literary works were translated and religious books were written in Malay language. Among famous translated works are Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah and Hikayat Amir Hamzah. The most important piece of Malay literary works is perhaps the famed Malay Annals or Sulalatus Salatin. It was called "the most famous, distinctive and best of all Malay literary works" by one of the most prominent scholars in Malay studies, Sir Richard O. Winstedt.[61] The exact date of its composition and the identity of its original author are uncertain,[28] but under the order of Sultan Alauddin Riaayat Shah III of Johor in 1612, Tun Sri Lanang oversaw the editorial and compilation process of the Malay Annals.[62]

In 19th century, the Malay literature received some notable additions through writings of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, a famous Malacca-born munshi of Singapore.[60] Abdullah is regarded as the most cultured Malay who ever wrote,[60] one of the greatest innovators in Malay letters[50] and the father of modern Malay literature.[28] His most important works are the Hikayat Abdullah (an autobiography), Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan (an account of his trip for the government to Kelantan), and Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Mekah (a narrative of his pilgrimage to Mecca 1854). His work was an inspiration to future generations of writers and marks an early stage in the transition from classical Malay literature to modern Malay literature.[50]


Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei on the eve of Ramadhan. The wealthy kingdom adopted Melayu Islam Beraja (Malay Islamic Monarchy) as the national philosophy since its independence in 1984.

In the beginning, Malays were animists, believing in the existence of spirits, known as semangat (spirit),[19] in everything. Around the opening of the Christian era, Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism were introduced by Indian traders to the Malay Archipelago, where they flourished until the 13th century, just before the arrival of Islam brought by Arab, Indian and Chinese Muslim traders. In the 15th century, Islam of the orthodox Sunni sect flourished in the Malay world under the Malacca Sultanate. In contrast with Hinduism, which transformed early Malay society only superficially, Islam can be said to have really taken root in the hearts and minds of the Malays.[63] Since this era, the Malays have traditionally had a close identification with Islam[64] and they have not changed their religion since.[63] This identity is so strong that it is said to become Muslim was to masuk Melayu (to become Malay).[32]

Nevertheless, the earlier beliefs having deeper roots, they have maintained themselves against the anathemas of Islam – and indeed Sufism or the mysticism of Shia Islam have become intertwined among the Malays, with the spirits of the earlier animistic world and some elements of Hinduism.[65]

Following the 1970s, Islamic revival (also referred as re-Islamization[66]) throughout the Muslim world, many traditions that contravene the teaching of Islam and contain elements of shirk were abandoned by the Malays. Among these practices was the mandi safar festival (Safar bath), a bathing festival to achieve spiritual purity, in which can be discerned features similar to some of those of the Durga Puja of India.[67]

Approximately 99.999% of modern Malays are the adherents of Sunni Islam[9][68][69] and the most important Malay festivals are those of Islamic origin; Hari Raya Aidilfitri (Eid ul-Fitr), Hari Raya Aidiladha (Eid al-Adha), Awal Muharram (Islamic New Year) and Maulidur Rasul (Mawlid – Birthday of the Prophet).


The replica of Malacca Sultanate's palace which was built from information and data obtained from the Malay Annals. This historical document had references to the construction and the architecture of palaces during the era of Sultan Mansur Shah, who ruled from 1458 to 1477.
Anjung Seni Idrus Tintin in Pekanbaru, Riau. A major performing arts centre in Indonesia.

Various cultural influences, notably Chinese, Indian and Europeans, played a major role in forming Malay architecture.[70] Until recent time, wood was the principal material used for all Malay traditional buildings.[28] However, some remarkable stone structures were also found and effectively restored particularly the religious complexes from the time of Srivijaya Empire and ancient isthmian Malay kingdoms.

Candi Muara Takus and Candi Muaro Jambi in Sumatra are among the examples that associated with the architectural elements of Srivijaya Empire. However, the most of Srivijayan architecture was represented at Chaiya (now a province in Thailand) in Malay peninsular, which was without doubt a very important centre during the Srivijaya period.[71][72][73] The type of structure consists of a cell-chamber to house the Buddha image and the summit of structure was erected in the form of stupa with successive, superimposed terraces which is the best example at Wat Pra Borom That of Chaiya.[72]

There is also evidence of Hindu shrines or Candi around south Kedah between the mount Jerai and the Muda River valley, an area known as Bujang Valley. Within an area of about 350 square kilometers, 87 early historic religious sites have been reported and there are 12 candis located on mountain tops, a feature which suggests may derive from pre-historic Malay beliefs regarding sanctity of high places.[74]

Early reference on Malay architecture in Malay peninsular can be found in several Chinese records. A 7th century Chinese account tells of Buddhist pilgrims calling at Langkasuka and mentioned the city as being surrounded by a wall on which towers had been built and was approached through double gates.[75] Another 7th century account of a special Chinese envoy to Red Earth Kingdom in Malay peninsular, recorded that the capital city had three gates more than hundred paces apart, which were decorated with paintings of Buddhist themes and female spirits.[76]

The first detailed description of Malay architecture was on the great wooden Istana (Palace) of Sultan Mansur Shah (reigned 1458–1477) of Malacca.[28][76] Based on the Sejarah Melayu, the building had a raised seven bay structures on wooden pillars with a seven tiered roof in cooper shingles and decorated with gilded spires and Chinese glass mirrors.[76]

The traditional Malay houses are built using simple timber-frame structure. It have pitched roofs, porches in the front, high ceilings, many openings on the walls for ventilation,[77] and are often embellished with elaborate wood carvings. The beauty and quality of Malay wood carvings were meant to serve as visual indicators of the social rank and status of the owners themselves.[78]

Several design elements of traditional Malay architecture are adapted to modern structures to reflect the Malaysian identity. The stilt elevated undulating roof structure of the KLIA is supposed to imitate the traditional Malay-styled raised kampung houses. Wood, an important element in traditional Malay buildings, is also reinterpreted and readapted in modern landscape in the KLIA and Putrajaya. In Putrajaya, the Prime Minister’s office is lined with wood panels to achieve the design goal. The underside of the KLIA’s domed roof structure is similarly “clad in narrow strips of wood” which the architect suggests, “alludes to vernacular Malaysian timber structures, reinterpreting traditional building methods and strengthening sense of local identity”. Non-architectural elements of the Malay heritage are also employed. The entrance to the Petronas Twin Towers is adorned with contemporary Malay motifs adapted from traditional handicrafts, including Songket and timber carvings inspired by images of the tropical rainforests.[79]

Visual art

Wood carving is a part of classical Malay visual arts. The Malays had traditionally adorned their monuments, boats, weapons, tombs, musical instrument, and utensils by motives of flora, calligraphy, geometry and cosmic feature. The art is done by partially removing the wood using sharp tools and following specific patterns, composition and orders. The art form is seen as an act of devotion of the craftsmen to the creator and a gift to his fellowmen.[80]

The art form is mainly contributed due to the abundance of timber on the Malay Archipelago and also by the skillfulness of the woodcarvers that have allowed the Malays to practice woodcarving as a craft. The natural tropical settings where flora and fauna and cosmic forces is abundant has inspired the motives to be depict in abstract or styled form into the timber board. With the coming of Islam, geometric and Islamic calligraphy form were introduced in the wood carving. The woods used are typically from tropical hardwood species which is known to be durable and can resist the attacks of the fungi, power-boots beetles and termites.[81]

A typical Malay traditional houses or mosque would have been adorned with more than 20 carved components The carving on the walls and the panels allow the air breeze to circulate effectively in and out of the building and can let the sunlight to light the interior of the structure. At the same time, the shadow cast by the panels would also create a shadow based on the motives adding the beauty on the floor. Thus, the carved components performed in both functional and aesthetic purposes.


Different Malay regions are all known for their unique or signature dishes – Terengganu and Kelantan for their Nasi dagang, Nasi kerabu and Keropok lekor, Negeri Sembilan for its lemak-based dishes, Pahang for its gulai tempoyak, Kedah for its northern-style Asam laksa, Malacca for its spicy Asam Pedas, and Brunei for its unique Ambuyat dish.

The main characteristic in traditional Malay cuisine is undoubtedly the generous use of spices. The coconut milk is also important in giving the Malay dishes their rich, creamy character. The other foundation is belacan (shrimp paste), which is used as a base for sambal, a rich sauce or condiment made from belacan, chillies, onions and garlic. Malay cooking also makes plentiful use of lemongrass and galangal.[25]

Nearly every Malay meal is served with rice, the staple food in many other East Asian cultures. Although there are various type of dishes in a Malay meal, all are served at once, not in courses. Food is eaten delicately with the fingers of right hand, never with the left which is used for personal ablutions, and Malays rarely use utensils.[28] Because most of Malay people are Muslims, Malay cuisine follows Islamic halal dietary law rigorously. Protein intake are mostly taken from beef, water buffalo, goat, and lamb meat, and also includes poultry and fishes. Pork and any non-halal meats, also alcohol is prohibited and absent from Malay daily diet.

Nasi Lemak, rice cooked in rich coconut milk probably is the most popular dish ubiquitous in Malay town and villages. Nasi lemak is considered as Malaysia's national dish.[82] Another example is Ketupat or nasi himpit, glutinous compressed rice cooked in palm leafes, is popular especially during Hari Raya or Eid ul-Fitr. Various meats and vegetables could be made into Gulai or Kari, a type of curry dish with variations of spices mixtures that clearly display Indian influence already adopted by Malay people since ancient times. Laksa, a hybrid of Malay and Peranakan Chinese cuisine is also a popular dish. Malay cuisine also adopted some their neighbors' cuisine traditions, such as rendang adopted from Minangkabau in Sumatra, and satay from Java, however Malay people has developed their own distinctive taste and recipes.

Performing arts

A troupe of Siamese Malay dancers performing the Mak Yong during the reign of King Rama V of Siam (1853–1910).

The Malays have a diverse kind of music and dance which are fusions of different cultural influences. Typical genres range from traditional Malay folk dances dramas like Mak Yong to the Arab-influenced Zapin dances. Choreographed movements also vary from simple steps and tunes in Dikir barat to the complicated moves in Joget Gamelan.

Traditional Malay music is basically percussive. Various kinds of gongs provide the beat for many dances. There are also drums of various sizes, ranging from the large rebana ubi used to punctuate important events to the small jingled-rebana (frame drum) used as an accompaniment to vocal recitations in religious ceremonies.[83]

The Persian-influenced Nobat music became part of the Royal Regalia of Malay courts since the arrival of Islam in 12th century and only performed in important court ceremonies. Its orchestra includes the sacred and highly revered instruments of nehara (kettledrums), gendang (double-headed drums), nafiri (trumpet), serunai (oboe), and sometimes a knobbed gong and a pair of cymbals.[28]

Indian influences are strong in a traditional shadow play known as Wayang Kulit where stories from Hindu epics; Ramayana & Mahabharata form the main repertoire. There are four distinctive types of shadow puppet theater that can be found in Malay peninsular; Wayang Gedek, Wayang Purwa, Wayang Melayu and Wayang Siam.[84][85][86]

Other well-known Malay performing arts are; Bangsawan theatre, Dondang Sayang love ballad and Mak Inang dance from Malacca Sultanate, Jikey and Mek Mulung theatre from Kedah, Asyik dance and Menora dance drama from Patani and Kelantan, Ulek mayang and Rodat dance from Terengganu, Boria theatre from Penang, Mukun dance from Brunei[87] and Sarawak[88][89] and Serampang Dua Belas[90] dance from Serdang.

Traditional dress

A Palembangese Malay woman in the traditional Gending Sriwijaya dance costume, South Sumatera, Indonesia.

In Malay culture, clothes and textiles are revered items of beauty, power and status. Numerous accounts in Malay hikayats stressed the special place occupied by textiles.[91] The Malay handloom industry can be traced its origin since 13th century when the eastern trade route flourished under Sung Dynasty. Mention of locally made textiles as well as the predominance of weaving in Malay peninsular was made in various Chinese and Arab accounts.[91] Among well-known Malay textiles are Songket and Batik.

Common classical Malay attire for men consists of a baju (a long sleeve shirt), a small leg celana (trousers), a sarong worn around the waist, and a tanjak or tengkolok (headgear). It was also common for a Malay warrior to have a Kris tucked into the front fold of sarong.

Traditional Malay dress varies between different regions but the most popular traditional dress in modern day are Baju Kurung (for women) and Baju Melayu (for men), which both recognized as the national dress for Malaysia and Brunei,[92][93] and also worn by Malay communities in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

In contrast to Baju Melayu which continued to be worn as ceremonial dress only, Baju Kurung is worn daily throughout the year by a majority of Malay women. Sighting of female civil servants, professional workers and students wearing Baju Kurung is common in Malaysia and Brunei.

Martial art

Silat Melayu and its variants can be found throughout the Malay world; Malay peninsular, Singapore, Riau Islands, Sumatra and coastal areas of Borneo. Archaeological evidence reveals that, by 6th century, formalized combat arts were being practiced in Malay peninsular and Sumatra.[94] Earliest forms of Silat is believed to have been developed and used in the armed forces of ancient Malay kingdoms of Langkasuka (2nd century)[25][95] and Srivijaya (7th century).

The influence of Malay empires of Srivijaya and Malacca Sultanate has contributed to the spread of this martial art in the Malay Archipelago. Through a complex maze of sea channels and river capillaries that facilitated exchange and trade throughout the region, Silat wound its way into the dense rainforest and up into the mountains. The legendary Laksamana Hang Tuah of Malacca is one of the most renowned pesilat (Silat practitioner) in history[96] and even considered by some as the father of Malay silat.[97] Since the classical era, Silat Melayu underwent great diversification and formed what is today traditionally recognized as the source of Indonesian Pencak Silat.[98][99]

Apart from Silat, Tomoi is also practiced by the Malays mainly in the northern states of Malay peninsular. It is a variant of Indo-Chinese forms of kickboxing which is believed to have been spread in the Southeast Asian mainland since the time of Funan Empire (68 AD).

Traditional games

A Wau-maker's workshop in Kelantan, Malaysia.

Traditional Malay games usually require craft skills and manual dexterity and can be traced their origins since the days of Malacca Sultanate. Sepak Raga and kite flying are among traditional games that were mentioned in the Malay Annals being played by nobilities and royalties of the Malay sultanate.[100][101][102]

Sepak Raga is one of the most popular Malay games and has been played for centuries. Traditionally, Sepak raga was played in circle by kicking and keeps aloft the rattan ball using any part of the body except the arms and hands. It is now recognized as Malaysia’s national sport[103][104] and played in the international sporting events such as Asian Games and Southeast Asian Games.

Other popular game is Gasing spinning which usually played after the harvest season. A great skill of craftsmanship is required to produce the most competitive Gasing (top), some of which spin for two hours at a time.[25]

Possibly the most popular Malay games is the Wau (a unique kind of kite from east coast of Malay peninsular) or kite flying. Wau-flying competitions take place with judges awarding points for craftsmanship (Wau are beautiful, colourful objects set on bamboo frames), sound (all Malay kites are designed to create a specific sound as they are buffeted about in the wind) and altitude.[25]

The Malays also have a variant of Mancala board game known as Congkak. The game is played by moving stones, marbles, beads or shells around a wooden board consisting of twelve or more holes. Mancala is acknowledged as the oldest game in the world and can be traced its origin since Ancient Egypt. As the game dispersed around the globe, every culture has invented its own variation including the Malays.[25]

Names and Titles

Malay personal names are complex, reflecting the hierarchical nature of the society, and titles are considered important. It has undergone tremendous change, evolving with the times to reflect the different influences that the Malays been subjected over the ages. Although some Malay names still retain parts of its indigenous Malay and Sanskrit influences, as Muslims, Malays have long favored Arabic names as marks of their religion.

Malay names are patronymic and can be consisted of up to four parts; a title, a given name, the family name, and a description of the individual’s male parentage. Some given names and father's names can be composed of double names and even triple names, therefore generating a longer name. For example, one of the Malaysian national footballer has the full name Mohd Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak, where 'Mohd Aidil Zafuan' is his triple given name and 'Abdul Radzak' is his father's double given name.

In addition to naming system, the Malay language also has a complex system of titles and honorifics, which are still extensively used in Malaysia and Brunei. By applying these Malay titles to a normal Malay name, a more complex name is produced. The current Prime Minister of Malaysia has the full name Dato' Seri Mohd Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, where 'Dato' Seri' is a Malay title of honour, 'Mohd Najib' is his personal name, 'bin' is derived from an Arabic word Ibnu meaning "son of" if in case of daughter it is replaced with binti, an Arabic word "bintun" meaning "daughter of", introduces his father's titles and names, 'Tun' is a higher honour, 'Haji' denotes his father's Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and 'Abdul Razak' is his father's personal name.

The more extremely complex Malay names however, belong to the Malay royalties. The reigning Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia has the full regnal name Duli Yang Maha Mulia Al-Wathiqu Billah Tuanku Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud Al-Muktafi Billah Shah, while the reigning Sultan of Brunei officially known as Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Seri Baginda Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien.

Sub-ethnic groups

Ethnic group Historical realms Regions with significant population
Bangka-Belitung Malay
Bangka belitung coa.png
Bangka–Belitung Islands
Bangkok Malay[105][106] Seal Bangkok.png Bangkok
Bengkulu Malay
Bengkulu coa.png
Berau Malays
Coat of arms of Berau Regency.svg
Berau Regency
Bruneian Malay[107][108][109][110]  Brunei
 Labuan,  Sarawak,  Sabah
Bugis Malay[111][112]
Assimilated Malay group of Bugis descent
 Selangor,  Johor,  Pahang
Riau, Lambang Riau Kepulauan.jpeg Riau Islands
Deli Malay
North Sumatra coa.png
North Sumatera
Jambi Malay
  • Jambi Kingdom (7th century)
  • Dharmasraya (1183–1347)
  • Jambi Sultanate (1460–1907)
Javanese Malay[111][112]
Assimilated Malay group of Javanese descent
 Johor,  Selangor
Johorean Malay[108][109][110]  Johor
Kedahan Malay[108][109][110][113]  Kedah,  Perlis,  Penang,  Perak
Seal Satun.png Satun, Seal Trang.png Trang, Seal Krabi.png Krabi, Seal Phuket.png Phuket, Seal Phang Nga.png Phang Nga
Seal Ranong.png Ranong, Seal Nakhon Si Thammarat.png Nakhon Si Thammarat, Seal Phattalung.png Phattalung
Seal Songkhla.png Songkhla, Seal Yala.png Yala
Flag of Tanintharyi Division.svg
Tanintharyi Division
Kelantanese Malay[108][109][110]
  • Red Earth Kingdom (1st −6th century)
  • Kelantan Sultanate (1267–present)
  • Jembal Sultanate (1638–1720)[114][115]
Loloan Malay[116][117][118][119][120]
Lambang Kabupaten Jembrana.png
Jembrana Regency
Malaccan Malay[108][109][110]  Malacca
Minangkabau Malay[111][112]
Assimilated Malay group of Minangkabau descent[121]
  • Chiefdom of Negeri Sembilan (1773–present)
 Negeri Sembilan,  Selangor
Pahangite Malay[108][109][110]
  • Pahang Sultanate (1470–present)
Palembangnese Malay
South Sumatra COA.svg
South Sumatera
Pattani Malay[108][109][110]

Seal Pattani.png Pattani, Seal Yala.png Yala, Seal Narathiwat.png Narathiwat, Seal Songkhla.png Songkhla, Seal Krabi.png Krabi
 Kedah,  Kelantan

Perakian Malay[108][109][110]
  • Gangga Negara (2nd – 11th century)
  • Perak Sultanate (1528–present)
Pontianak Malay
  • Tanjungpura Kingdom (880–1590)
  • Matam Sultanate (1590–1948)
  • Pontianak Sultanate (1771–1950)
  • Sambas Sultanate (1675–1944)
West Kalimantan Emblem.svg
West Kalimantan
Riau Malay
  • Riau-Lingga Sultanate (1824–1911)
  • Siak Sultanate (1725–1949)
  • Pelalawan Sultanate (1791–1946)
  • Indragiri Sultanate (1298–1963)
Riau COA.svg
Riau, Lambang Riau Kepulauan.jpeg Riau Islands
Sarawakian Malay  Sarawak
Singaporean Malay  Singapore
Tamiang Malay
  • Bukit Karang Kingdom (1023–1330)[127]
  • Benua Tamiang Sultanate (1330–1528)
Aceh coa flag.gif
Aceh Tamiang Regency
Terengganuan Malay[108][109][110]  Terengganu


Ptolemy (c. AD 90 – c. 168) in his work Geographia recorded about a cape in Aurea Chersonesus or Golden Chersonese (Malay peninsular) named Maleu-kolon, which is believed to have been originated from Sanskrit word malayakolam or malaikurram.[128] According to G. E. Gerini, Maleu-Kolon was referring to modern day Tanjung Kuantan while Roland Bradell claimed it on Tanjung Penyabung, both in the Malay Peninsula.

A view of Titiwangsa Mountains taken from a tea plantation in Cameron Highlands. Many Indian scholars believed that the origins of the word Melayu came from the Sanskrit word Malayadipa (Mountain Insular Continent ), referring to the mountainous terrain of the Malay Peninsular.

People of the Mountain

In chapter 48 of the Hindu religious text, Vayu Purana, the Sanskrit word Malayadvipa (literally: “mountain insular continent”) was mentioned, referring to one of the provinces in the mythical eastern archipelago that are full of gold and silver. There stood a hill called Malaya as well as a great mountain called Mahamalaya (literally:”the great mountain”).[129] Even though some western scholars particularly Sir Roland Braddell equates this Malayadvipa with Sumatra,[130] many Indian scholars believe that Sumatra is more correctly associated with Suvarnadvipa while Malayadvipa should be referring to the more mountainous Malay peninsular,[131][132][133][134][135] where several ancient isthmian Malay kingdoms once stood since the beginning of Christian era.

It is interesting to note that the Malays were once referred as "Kun-lun people" in various Chinese records. Kunlun was originally referring to a fabled mountain range that was believed to span parts of Tibet and India. It was used by the Chinese as reference to black, wavy-haired barbarians of the mountains and jungles from the remote part of geographically known world. The Viets, Champas and Khmers were called Kunlun people by the Chinese before the term being applied to the Malays or more accurately Austronesians as a whole. In 750, Jianzhen (688–765) noticed the presence of many "Brahmans, Persians and Kunluns in Canton". The Book of Tang reported that "every year, Kunlun merchants come in their ships with valuable goods to trade with the Chinese".[136]

The Kingdom of Mo-Lo-Yu

From the record of Yi Jing (a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk), who visited the Malay Archipelago between 688–695, he mentioned about a kingdom known as Mo-Lo-Yu (Melayu) which was 15 days sail from Bogha (Palembang), the capital of Sribhoga (Srivijaya). It took him 15 days sail as well to reach Ka-Cha (Kedah) from Mo-lo-yu, therefore that Mo-Lo-Yu lies just halfway between the two places.[137] According to Yi Jing, Mo-Lo-Yu was initially an independent kingdom before it was annexed by the SriBhoga.

On the ruins of Candi Gumpung, where a Buddhist temple at Muaro Jambi of Melayu Kingdom, Jambi, Indonesia, once stood. Formerly a major urban centre in the ancient Srivijayan Empire, it signifies one of an earlier usage of the name Melayu.

In the later Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the word Ma-La-Yu was mentioned often (in the history of China) to refer to a nation from southern sea with different spelling due to the change of dynasty.

  • (Chinese: 木剌由) – Bok-la-yu, Mok-la-yu
  • (Chinese: 麻里予兒) – Ma-li-yu-er
  • (Chinese: 巫来由) – Oo-lai-yu (traced from the written source of monk Xuan Zang)
  • (Chinese: 無来由) – Wu-lai-yu

The following sentence is a partly extract from the original Chronicle of Mongol Yuan (in Chinese): Chronicle of Mongol Yuan


(in English: "Animosity occurred between Siam and Ma-la-yu (Malays) with both killing each other..."), possibly referring to the centuries old hostilities between the Thai polity in the north and the states in Malay peninsular.

The famous Venetian traveler Marco Polo(1254–1324) in his book Travels of Marco Polo mentioned about a kingdom named "Malauir" which according to him located in an area somewhere in the southern part of the Malay peninsula.[138][139]

The word "Melayu" began in use and popularized when Malacca Sultanate rose to power in 15th century, to describe the cultural preferences of Malaccans as against foreigners from the same region, notably the Javanese and Thais.[140] Malacca was not the only dominant trading centre of the region, but also a vigorous centre of Malay culture, influential in shaping the political institutions and traditional culture of the Malays through the succeeding centuries.[141]

During the European colonization, the word "Malay" was adopted into English via the Dutch word "Malayo", itself from Portuguese "Malaio", which originates from the Malay word "Melayu".


  • According to Sager, the term Melayu probably never referred to a distinct cultural or ethnic group, and unlike Malaysian, never became a national identity. In the past, Melayu referred to the downstream costal Kingdom, with Orang Melayu meaning, the people of Melayu. These days, the term is largely associated with Islam and being Muslim. The term appears to be based upon the Aryan race word Mala-Yu where Yu is a suffix that denote a specific group of people or culture. The word Mala-Yu appears in various stone inscriptions, found in various parts of South East Asia, in IndoChina, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand as well as in Malay peninsular and also in the Indonesia, erected by ancient Malay Kings and Emperors (that use the title such as Mauliraja, Phra, Sri Siantan Naga Nahud) who ruled these lands, confirming the present of various ancient and historical Malay city states in the area that is known today as IndoChina, before the influx of Dai-Viet people from southern China in early 13th century.

The concept of Malay race

The term Malay is sometimes used to describe the concept of a Malay race, which includes all the ethnic groups inhabiting the Malay Archipelago and which are not of older aboriginal stock. The term was first used by the German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840), in classifying human races. According to Blumenbach, the “Malay race” constituted one of the five racial divisions of humanity.[142]

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