Malaysian Malay

ISBN (identifier) Doi (identifier) PMID (identifier)

Malaysian Malays
Melayu Malaysia
ملايو مليسيا
Tarik upih pinang.jpg
Malay kids playing Tarik Upih Pinang, a traditional game that involves dragging the Palm frond
Total population
50.8% of the Malaysian Population (2015)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Malaysian Malay (Varieties of Malay)
Star and Crescent.svg Sunni Islam
Related ethnic groups

Malaysian Malays (Malaysian: Melayu Malaysia, Jawi: ملايو مليسيا) are Malaysians of Malay ethnicity whose ancestry originates wholly or partly in the Malay world. In 2015 population estimate, Malaysian Malays form 50.8% of the total population of Malaysia or 15.7 million people. They can be broadly classified into two main categories; Anak Jati (indigenous Malays or Malays proper) and Anak Dagang (trading Malays or foreign Malays).[2][3]

The Malays proper consist of those individuals who adhere to the Malay culture native to the coastal areas of Malay Peninsula and Borneo.[3] Among notable groups include the Bruneians, Kedahans, Kelantanese, Pahang, Perakians and Terengganuans. On the other hand, the foreign Malays consist of descendants of immigrants from other parts of Malay archipelago who became the citizens of the Malay sultanates and were absorbed and assimilated into Malay culture at different times, aided by similarity in lifestyle and common religion. Many foreign Malays or anak dagang have Acehnese, Banjar, Bugis, Javanese, Mandailing and Minangkabau ancestries that come from Indonesia.[4][5] There are also a minority of Malays who are partially descended from more recent immigrants from many other countries who have assimilated into Malay Muslim culture.

Definition of a Malay

The identification of Malay with Islam traces its origin to the 15th century when vigorous ethos of Malay identity were developed and transmitted during the time of Melaka Sultanate. Common definitive markers of a Malayness are thought to have been promulgated during this era, resulting in the ethnogenesis of the Malay as a major ethnoreligious group in the region. In literature, architecture, culinary traditions, traditional dress, performing arts, martial arts, and royal court traditions, Melaka set a standard that later Malay sultanates emulated.[6][7] Today, the most commonly accepted elements of Malayness; the Malay Rulers, Malay language and culture, and Islam, are institutionalised in both Malay majority countries, Brunei and Malaysia.[8][9][10][11] As a still fully functioning Malay sultanate, Brunei proclaimed Malay Islamic Monarchy as its national philosophy.[12] In Malaysia, where the supremacy of individual Malay sultanates and the position of Islam are preserved, a Malay identity is defined in Article 160 of the Constitution of Malaysia.

Article 160 defines a Malay as someone born to a Malaysian citizen who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language, adheres to Malay customs and is domiciled in Malaysia, Singapore or Brunei. This definition is perceived by some writers as loose enough to include people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds which basically can be defined as "Malaysian Muslims" and therefore differs from the anthropological understanding of what constitutes an ethnic Malay.[13] However, there exist Muslim communities in Malaysia with distinctive cultures and spoken languages, that cannot be categorised constitutionally as Malay. This include Muslim communities that have not fully embraced the Malayness like Tamil Muslims and Chinese Muslims.

This constitutional definition had firmly established the historical Malay ethnoreligious identity in Malaysian legal system,[13] where it has been suggested that a Malay cannot convert out of Islam as illustrated in the Federal Court decision in the case of Lina Joy.[14] As of 2010 census, Malays made up 50.1% of the population of Malaysia (including Malaysian-born or foreign-born people of Malay descent).

Genetic analyses

Studies on the genetics of modern Malays show a complex history of admixture of human populations. The analyses reveal that the Malays are genetically diverse, and that there are substantial variations between different populations of Malays. The differences may have arisen from geographical isolation and independent admixture that occurred over a long period. The studies indicate that there is no single representative genetic component, rather there are four major ancestral components to the Malay people: Austronesian, Proto-Malay, East Asian and South Asian. The largest components of the genetic makeup of the Malays come from the Austronesian aborigines and Proto-Malays.[15] The Austronesian component is related to the Taiwanese Ami and Atayal people, and genetic analyses of the Austronesian component in Southeast Asians may lend support to the "Out of Taiwan" hypothesis, although some suggest that it is largely indigenous with smaller contribution from Taiwan.[16][17] The Proto-Malays such as the Temuan people show genetic evidence of them having moved out of Yunnan, China, thought to be about 4,000–6,000 years ago.[18] The admixture events with South Asians (Indians) may have been ancient (estimate of up to 2,250 years ago in some Indonesian Malays), while the admixture events with East Asians (Chinese) may be more recent (100–200 years ago),[15] although some may have occurred before the 15th century in Java.[18] There are also minor components contributed by other groups such as the Negritos (the earliest inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula), Central Asians and Europeans. Most of the admixture events are estimated to have occurred 175 to 1,500 years ago.[15]

Within the Malay Peninsula itself, the Malays are differentiated genetically into distinct clusters between the northern part of the Malay Peninsula and the south.[19] SNP analyses of five of their sub-ethnic groups show that Melayu Kelantan and Melayu Kedah (both in northern Malay Peninsula) are closely related to each other as well as to Thai Pattani, but are distinct from Melayu Minang (western), Melayu Jawa and Melayu Bugis (both southern).[20] The Melayu Minang, Melayu Jawa and Melayu Bugis people show close relationship with the people of Indonesia, evidence of their shared common ancestry with these people.[18] However, Melayu Minang are closer genetically to Melayu Kelantan and Melayu Kedah than they are to Melayu Jawa. Among the Melayu Kelantan and Melayu Kedah populations, there are significant Indian components, in particular from the Telugus and Marathis. The Melayu Kedah and Melayu Kelantan also have closer genetic relationship to the two subgroups of the Orang Asli Semang, Jahai and Kensiu, than other Malay groups. Four of the Malay sub-ethnic groups in this study (the exception being Melayu Bugis who are related to the people of Sulawesi) also show genetic similarity to the Proto-Malay Temuan people with possible admixture to the Jawa populations and the Wa people of Yunnan, China.[20]


The remains of an ancient folk temple in Bujang Valley. It was believed that the area was home to an early civilisation dating from 553 BC.

The Malay World, home of the various Malayic Austronesian tribes since the last Ice age (circa 15,000–10,000 BCE), exhibits fascinating ethnic,linguistic and cultural variations.[21] The indigenous animistic belief system, which employed the concept of semangat (spirit) in every natural objects, was predominant among the ancient Malayic tribes before the arrival of Dharmic religions.[22] Deep in the estuary of the Merbok River, lies an abundance of historical relics that have unmasked several ceremonial and religious architectures devoted for the sun and mountain worshiping.[23][24][25] At its zenith, the massive settlement sprawled across a thousand kilometers wide, dominated in the northern plains of Malay Peninsular.[23][24] On contemporary account, the area is known as the lost city of Sungai Batu. Founded in 535 BC, it is the oldest testament of civilisation in Southeast Asia and a potential progenitor of the Kedah Tua kingdom. In addition to Sungai Batu, the coastal areas of Malay peninsular also witnessed the development of other subsequent ancient urban settlements and regional polities, driven by a predominantly cosmopolitan agrarian society, thriving skilled craftsmanship, multinational merchants and foreign expatriates. Chinese records noted the names of Akola, P’an P’an, Tun-Sun, Chieh-ch'a, Ch'ih-tu, Pohuang, Lang-ya-xiu among few. Upon the fifth century AD, these settlements had morphed into a sovereign city-states, collectively fashioned by an active participation in the international trade network and hosting diplomatic embassies from China and India.[23][24] Between the 7th and 13th centuries, many of these small, prosperous peninsula maritime trading states, became part of the mandala of Srivijaya,[26]

Portuguese illustration of Malays, 1540.

The Islamic faith arrived on the shores of Malay peninsula from around the 12th century.[27] The earliest archaeological evidence of Islam is the Terengganu Inscription Stone dating from the 14th century.[28] By the 15th century, the Melaka Sultanate, whose hegemony reached over much of the western Malay Archipelago, had become the centre of Islamisation in the east. Islamisation developed an ethnoreligious identity in Melaka with the term 'Melayu' then, begins to appear as interchangeable with Melakans, especially in describing the cultural preferences of the Melakans as against the foreigners.[6] It is generally believed that Malayisation intensified within Strait of Malacca region following the territorial and commercial expansion of the sultanate in the mid 15th century.[29] In 1511, the Melakan capital fell into the hands of Portuguese conquistadors. However, the sultanate remained an institutional prototype: a paradigm of statecraft and a point of cultural reference for successor states like Johor, Perak and Pahang.[30] In the same era, the sultanates of Kedah, Kelantan and Patani dominated the northern part of the Malay peninsula. Across the South China Sea, the Bruneian Empire became the most powerful polity in Borneo and reached its golden age in the mid-16th century when it controlled land as far south as present day Kuching in Sarawak, north towards the Philippine Archipelago.[31] By the 18th century, Minangkabau and Bugis settlers established the chiefdom of Negeri Sembilan and the sultanate of Selangor respectively.

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.[32][33]

Historically, Malay states of the peninsular had a hostile relation with the Siamese. Melaka herself fought two wars with the Siamese while northern Malay states came intermittently under Siamese dominance for centuries. From 1771, the Kingdom of Siam under the Chakri Dynasty annexed both Pattani and Kedah. Between 1808-1813, the Siamese partitioned Pattani into smaller states while carving out Setul, Langu, Kubang Pasu and Perlis from Kedah in 1839.[34][35] In 1786, the island of Penang was leased to East India Company by Kedah in exchange of military assistance against the Siamese. In 1819, the company also acquired Singapore from Johor Empire, later in 1824, Dutch Malacca from the Dutch, and followed by Dindings from Perak by 1874. 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 formalised in 1895, when Malay rulers of Pahang, Selangor, Perak and Negeri Sembilan accepted British Residents and formed the Federated Malay States. 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 and protectorates that collectively known as British Malaya were occupied by the Empire of Japan.

Malay nationalism, which developed in the early 1900s, had a cultural rather than a political character. The discussions on a 'Malay nation' focussed on questions of identity and distinction in terms of customs, religion, and language, rather than politics. The debate surrounding the transition centred on the question of who could be called the real Malay, and the friction led to the emergence of various factions amongst Malay nationalists.[36] The leftists from Kesatuan Melayu Muda were among the earliest who appeared with an ideal of a Republic of Greater Indonesia for a Pan-Malay identity.[37] The version of Malayness brought by this group was largely modelled on the orientalist's concept of Malay race, that transcend the religious boundary and with the absent of the role of monarchy.[38] Another attempt to redefine the Malayness was made by a coalition of left wing political parties, the AMCJA, that proposed the term 'Melayu' as a demonym or citizenship for an independent Malaya. In the wake of the armed rebellion launched by the Malayan Communist Party, the activities of most left wing organizations came to a halt following the declaration of Malayan Emergency in 1948 that witnessed a major purges by the British colonial government.[37] This development left those of moderate and traditionalist faction, with an opportunity to gain their ground in the struggle for Malaya's independence.[39] The conservatives led by United Malays National Organization, that vehemently promoted Malay language, Islam and Malay monarchy as key pillars of Malayness, emerged with popular support not only from general Malay population, but also from the Rulers of the Conference of Rulers. Mass protests from this group against the Malayan Union, a unitary state project, forced the British to accept an alternative federalist order known as the Federation of Malaya.[21] The federation would later reconstituted as Malaysia in 1963.


Malay is the national language, and the most commonly spoken language in Malaysia, where it is estimated that 20 percent of all native speakers of Malay live.[40] The terminology as per federal government policy is Bahasa Malaysia (literally "Malaysian language")[41] but in the federal constitution continues to refer to the official language as Bahasa Melayu (literally "Malay language").[42] The National Language Act 1967 specifies the Latin (Rumi) script as the official script of the national language, but allow the use of the traditional Jawi script.[43] Jawi is still used in the official documents of state Islamic religious departments and councils, on road and building signs, and also taught in primary and religious schools. Malay is also spoken Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand. The total number of speakers of Standard Malay is about 60 million.[44] There are also about 198 million people who speak Indonesian, which is a form of Malay.[45] Standard Malay differs from Indonesian in a number of ways, the most striking being in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling. Less obvious differences are present in grammar. The differences are rarely a barrier to effective communication between Indonesian and Malay speakers, but there are certainly enough differences to cause occasional misunderstandings, usually surrounding slang or dialect differences.

The Malay language came into widespread use as the lingua franca of the Melaka Sultanate (1402–1511). During this period, the language developed rapidly under the influence of Islamic literature. The development changed the nature of the language with massive infusion of Arabic, Tamil and Sanskrit vocabularies, called Classical Malay. Under Melaka, the language evolved into a form recognisable to speakers of modern Malay. When the court moved to establish the Johor Sultanate, it continued using the classical language; it has become so associated with Dutch Riau and British Johor that it is often assumed that the Malay of Riau is close to the classical language. However, there is no connection between Melakan Malay as used on Riau and the Riau vernacular.[46] Variants of Malay in Malaysia differed by states, districts or even villages. The Melaka-Johor dialect, owing to its prominence in the past, became the standard speech among Malays in Singapore and Malaysia, and it formed the original basis for the standardised Indonesian language. There are also well known variants of Malayan languages that are mostly unintelligible to Standard Malay speakers including Terengganuan, Kelantanese, Pahang, Negeri Sembilanese, Sarawakian, Perakian, Kedahan and Bruneian (including a Bruneian-based pidgin Sabah Malay).


In Malaysia, state's constitution empowered Malay Rulers as the head of Islam and Malay customs in their respective state. State councils known as Majlis Agama Islam dan Adat Istiadat Melayu (Council of Islam and Malay Customs) are responsible in advising the rulers as well as regulating both Islamic affairs and adat.[51][52] Legal proceedings on matters related to Islamic affairs and adat are carried out in Syariah Court. The traditional culture of Malaysian Malays is largely predominated by the indigenous Malay culture mixed with a variety of foreign influences. There is considerable genetic, linguistic, cultural, and social diversity among the many Malay subgroups as a result of hundreds of years of immigration and assimilation of various regional ethnicity and tribes within Maritime Southeast Asia. Malay cultures trace their origin from the early settlers that consist primarily from both various Malayic speaking Austronesians and various Austroasiatic tribes.[53] Around the opening of the common era, Dharmic religions were introduced to the region, where it flourished with the establishment of many ancient maritime trading states in the coastal areas of Malay peninsula and Borneo.[54][55] Much of the cultural identities originating from these ancient states survived among the modern east coast people (Kelantanese, Terengganuans, Pahangites, Pattani), northerners (Kedahans and Perakian), and Bruneians.[2]

Malayisation intensified with the spread of Islam and the expansion of Melaka Sultanate in the 15th century . The development of many Malay Muslim-dominated centres in the region, drew many of the non-Malay indigenous people like the Dayak, Orang Asli and the Orang laut, to embrace Malayness by converting to Islam, emulating the Malay speech and their dress.[56] Throughout their history, the Malays have been known as a coastal-trading community with fluid cultural characteristics.[57][58] They absorbed, shared and transmitted numerous cultural features of other foreign ethnic groups. Cultural fusion between local Malay culture and other foreign cultures also led to the ethnocultural development of the related Chitty, Jawi Peranakan, Kristang and Peranakan cultures. Today, some Malays have recent forebears from other parts of Maritime Southeast Asia, termed as anak dagang ("traders") or foreign Malays who have assimilated into the Malay culture. Among the earliest groups of these foreign Malays were of Minangkabau descent who had established themselves in Negeri Sembilan, as well as Bugis people who had formed Selangor Sultanate and domiciled in large numbers in Johor. Between the 19th century and the early 20th century, significant number of immigrants from Java and Sumatra came as traders, settlers and indenture labours to Malaya. British census from 1911 to 1931 shows that many of the immigrants concentrated on the west coast of Malay peninsula and largely predominated by ethnic Javanese.[59] The process of adaptation and assimilation carried out by these ethnicities later gave birth to new Malay communities that retain close relationship with their cultural roots in Java and Sumatra until today.[60]

In 1971, the government created a "National Culture Policy", defining Malaysian culture. The three principles of the National Culture Policy are; Malaysian culture must be based on the indigenous culture of the region, that is the Malay culture, secondly it may incorporate suitable elements from other cultures, and lastly that Islam must play a part in it.[61] Much of Malaysian culture shows heavy influences from Malay culture, an example can be seen in the belief system, whereby the practice of Keramat shrine worshipping that prevalent among Malaysian Chinese, originates from the Malay culture. Other Malay cultural influence can also be seen in traditional dress, cuisine, literature, music, arts and architecture. Traditional Malay dress varies between different regions but the most popular dress in modern-day are Baju Kurung (for women) and Baju Melayu (for men), which both recognised as the national dress for Malaysia and Brunei.[62] Nasi lemak is probably the most popular dish ubiquitous in Malay town and villages, and it is considered as Malaysia's national dish.[63] Many other Malay cultural heritage, are considered as Malaysian national heritage including Mak yong, Dondang Sayang, Mek Mulung, Menora, Asyik, Ulek mayang, Tenun Pahang Diraja, Sepak raga and Pantun.[64] The Malay literary tradition that flourished since the 15th century and various genres of Malay folklore also forms the basis of the modern Malaysian literature. The Malaysian music scene also witnessed strong influence from the Malay traditional music. One particularly important was the emergence of Irama Malaysia ('Malaysian beat'), a type of Malaysian pop music that combined Malay social dance and syncretic music such as joget, Inang, zapin, ghazal, and dikir barat.[65]


There is a community of Malaysian Malays who make up 20% of the total population of the Australian external territory of Christmas Island.[66]


Malays are the majority of the ethnic groups in Malaysia. Every state has population of Malays ranging from around 40% to over 90%, except for Sabah and Sarawak which are the only states where Malays are less than 30%. Figures given below are from the 2010 census, and 2015 numbers. The population figures are also given as percentages of the total state population that includes non-citizens.

State Population
2010[67] 2015*[1]
Johor 1,759,537 52.6% 1,893,100 53.2%
Kedah 1,460,746 75.0% 1,569,100 75.7%
Kelantan 1,426,373 92.6% 1,585,900 92.3%
Malacca 517,441 63.0% 552,700 63.3%
Negeri Sembilan 572,006 56.0% 621,900 56.6%
Pahang 1,052,774 70.1% 1,146,000 70.6%
Perak 1,238,357 52.6% 1,314,400 53.0%
Penang 636,146 40.7% 692,400 41.6%
Perlis 198,710 85.8% 210,200 85.4%
Sabah 184,197 5.7% 268,500 7.6%
Sarawak 568,113 23.0% 616,900 23.4%
Selangor 2,814,597 51.5% 3,069,100 52.2%
Terengganu 985,011 95.1% 1,092,200 94.7%
Kuala Lumpur 679,236 40.8% 729,500 41.3%
Labuan 30,001 34.5% 33,900 35.0%
Putrajaya 68,475 94.6% 83,800 94.9%
Malaysia total 14,191,720 50.1% 15,479,600 50.8%
  • 2015 Population estimates are rounded to the nearest hundred.

See also


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