People, Tradition & Culture of Malaysia


Current population is estimated at around 23.3 million of whom 83 percent live in the Peninsula, eight percent in Sabah and nine percent in Sarawak.

The Malays (the country’s original inhabitants), make up 52 percent, Chinese 29 percent, Indians eight percent and the indigenous communities 11 percent. The Malays and the indigenous people are called ‘Bumiputeras’(sons of the soil) owing to the entrenched ancestral roots that go back thousands of years. Together, the Malays and the indigenous groups make up 63 percent of the population.

With this multi-ethnic make-up, the country affords a very wide spectrum of colours and excitement in the myriad cultures and traditions. This amalgamation of thrilling attributes is the true-to-life manifestation of Malaysia being truly Asia.


To conservative Malays it is important that the practice of adat, or traditional custom, is upheld at all times, for this is an essential part of life, a sentiment reflected in the old proverb, &quotbiar mati anak, jangan mati adat," loosely translated as &quotlose a child rather than lose a custom."
The practice of traditional custom begins from before birth and culminates with death, and even though adat varies from state to state, and even from village to village, the following examples are basic customs, which, with slight variations, occur across the peninsula.

Childbirth and Circumcision

In most villages and rural areas, the seventh month of pregnancy is when the rocking of the abdomen, lenggang perut, is carried out. Certain materials are gathered and prepared, including seven different coloured sarongs, one gantang (about three kilos) of rice, a ripe unhusked coconut, cotton yarn, resinous damar (red wax), seven white candles, a betel, nut box, and lastly, some massage oil. When these are ready the midwife invites the mother-to-be to lie down on a mattress over which the coloured sarongs have been arranged.

After gently massaging her with the oil, the midwife takes the peeled coconut and rolls it seven times across the abdomen. On the last roll she allows it to fall to the floor. If it stops with the &quoteye" facing upwards it is believed the child will be a boy. To conclude the ceremony, the midwife grasps both ends of all the seven sarongs to form a cradle, and then rocks the woman a couple of times before pulling the sarongs out.

Hours before the child is born, the husband cuts a bunch of thorny pandanus leaves and hangs them beneath the house to trap any evil spirits that might harm the mother and her newborn baby.

Immediately after the seventh day, a feast is held during which time it is also customary to shave the baby's hair, and give the child a name. The newborn is passed around to the guests who bless it with scented water before the head is shaved. The hair is then put into a young coconut filled with water and buried alongside a coconut seedling planted near the house, to serve as a reminder of the birth.

Another important adat which is still observed is the bertindik telinga, or piercing of a girl's ear lobes - when she is between five to ten years old, and the bersunat, the boy's circumcision, when he is between eight and 12. On the auspicious day the boy is dressed in fine clothes, and carried around the village on a special dais. Before the ceremony begins, a few things are prepared for the arrival of the 'tok mudin' who will perform the operation. These include about three yards of white cloth, one live rooster, a bowl of water, a banana stem, and a betel-nut box.

Once the boy has been prepared by the 'tok mudin' and certain incantations have been said, he is washed and then seated on the banana stem. After the lightning quick operation, the mudin takes the live rooster, holds it above the boy and notes its response by looking at its feathers.

From this ritual, the 'tok mudin' is supposed to be able to judge the boy's sexual prowess in the future. Thereafter, for the following three mornings, the mudin will dress the boy's wound until he is satisfied that he has recovered. Today, many parents take their sons to a clinic where a doctor performs the circumcision.

The Wedding

By far the most popular adat is the marriage ceremony and customs. Although traditions differ from state to state, there are certain basic practices which most Malays adhere to, regardless of whether they come from rural or urban society. Parents go to great lengths to spend time and money on making the occasion a memorable one, and to ensure that the marriage ceremony and all the adat involved meets the expectations of their community.

The basic rules and customs of a marriage can be divided into three stages. Firstly, the parents will deputise a close relative as their representative to select a suitable partner for their son. When a bride has been chosen the engagement or betrothal takes place, when the go between approaches the girl's parents for their consent.

Once the decision has been made, a ring and other gifts are sent to the bride, followed by a ceremonial feast. In a case of breach of promise by the man the gifts are all forfeited, but if the bride changes her mind, then she has to return twice the number of gifts or double their value. This adat has been followed for generations, although most Malays these days pick their own partners.

Apart from agreeing on the dowry and wedding expenses, other items exchanged on the wedding day have to be agreed upon by both parties. These include a ring, a complete bridal attire, good quality cloth (usually pure silk), a complete betel nut set, cakes and fruits, and others. These are carried at the head of the procession accompanying the ceremonially dressed bridegroom, to the bride's house, where the marriage is solemnised.

Before the bersanding, there are other minor rituals like hair trimming and teeth filing, as well as staining of the fingers with henna. After this comes the finale where the bride and groom are seated on a specially decorated pelamin, or dais.

Family elders and friends bless the couple by ceremonially feeding them yellow rice, and sprinkling them with tepung tawar (rice flour mixed with water), sliced petals and scented water. Having done this the guest is presented with a decorated egg symbolizing sincerity, purity and fertility.