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Malay Customs

Malay customs practiced in Penang and other states in Malaysia somewhat differ from place to place. There are some common aspects that cover rituals throughout their lives. The Malays as a race are somewhat divided into many other ethnic groups, depending on their geographical locations.

However, some of them do share a few common principles. The old Malays have a saying: "Biar mati anak jangan mati adat" It means: "We'd rather let our children die than abandoning our customs". Sounds harsh maybe, but that is the way it goes in this part of the world.

Malay customs include elaborate rituals, table manners, costumes for daily wear and also for special occasions, filial piety, way of working and a myriad of beliefs, taboos, do's and don'ts.

Read an overview about Malay table manners from Pickles and Spices Website, which explains about Malay traditional food as well.

Kompang the hand held drum
Kompang is a hand-held drum made of cow's hide.

A lot of traditional paraphernalia are used during all these ceremonies. They involve costumes as well as crafts especially made for the event. Some of them include tepak sirih (betel nut holder), sirih junjung (betel leaves floral arrangement), pulut kuning (yellow glutinous rice), sintok limau (kaffir lime). All these are synonym with Malay customs. Musical instruments include kompang (hand-held drums) and nafiri (flute).

Before Birth

The rituals and ceremonies will accompany Malay men or women since birth to their deaths. From the wombs of their mothers, unborn babies are blessed during their seventh month of pregnancy. This ceremony is called "melenggang perut". Literally meaning "blessing the belly". What happen during this ceremony is a coconut with its husk cleanly shaven off is rolled on the tummy of the mother-to-be.

A midwife who is well versed with the arcane art of divinity can predict whether the baby will be a boy or a girl just by looking the way the coconut roll off the belly. Later on, the coconut is halved and its juice poured into a glass for the pregnant woman to consume, blessed with magical incantation mixed with verses from the Al-Quran. The Malaya believe that coconut juice, if regularly drunk, will assist in easier delivery of the baby.

Here is an entertaining description about this ritual, as explained by Wan, a Malay language teacher. Istiadat Melenggang Perut.


baby's head being shaved by a Malay midwife
Baby's head shaving
done by a Malay midwife.

Newborn babies, as in everywhere in the world, are precious bundles of joy, especially if it is a male first-born child.

Naturally, boys are treated differently from girls. One of the common ceremonies that is carried out is the shaving ceremony whereby the hair of the baby is shaven clean.

The idea is that, the hair that grows inside the womb is unclean and the scalp needs to be scraped of any residue that comes out of the womb. Sintok and fresh lime are used to clean the scalp.

In the picture you can see a midwife performing the shaving ceremony with a normal safety razor.

In the old days, very sharp cut-throat razors were used instead. It is definitely a highly skilled job to be able to shave the baby's head without hurting him.

The kaffir lime is cut into slices and the pieces let fall into the water. It is believed that the way the lime falls in the water may give an indication of the behavior of the baby when he grows up. This is of course mere superstitious because if we were to believe all these beliefs, no one will be able to move forward at all in their lives.

rinsing the baby with clean water after shaving
Rinsing the baby in lime-scented water.

After shaving, the baby is bathed with warm water, scented with sliced kaffir lime to freshen him up. Some babies cry during this ordeal but most remain calm because the midwives are able to say the magic words seeking protection from God from any untoward incident.

Along the way, the babies may or not be circumcised, for the baby girls, the ceremony is done before they reach two years old. Nowadays it is common for baby girls to be circumcised as soon as they are born at the hospital.

One of Malay customs that is losing its popularity is the "first step on the ground" ceremony. The baby, by this time has grown into a toddler are guided to touch the ground with its bare feet. This is party time. Normally done to coincide with the baby's first birthday.

Pre-pubescent years

Around the age of ten to twelve, the circumcision ceremony for boys is normally carried out. For girls, it is ear-piercing ceremony. These two rituals normally coincide with "berkhatam Quran", whereby the children finished learning reciting the Holy Book from a Guru. Yellow glutinous rice is always served during these festivities. This special rice dish symbolizes prosperity.


Well, what else is there when you reach adulthood? Parents expect their grown up children to start a family of their own. Malays observe truly elaborate and complicated rituals before even a betrothal can take place. Even though many of these steps are no longer in practice, it is interesting to know them. Here are the steps:

  • Merisik ("spying" if the young lady is still available)
  • Bertandang (visit of the future in-laws to "view" the young lady in question)
  • Cincin tanda (exchanging of rings and gifts signifying that she is taken)
  • Bertunang (betrothal, formal engagement)
  • Bernikah (the official union done by the Imam)
  • Kenduri/Bersanding (wedding feast)

Bersanding is a part of the ceremony in a  Malay wedding
Bersanding is part of the ceremony
in a Malay wedding

There are many taboos to observe so as not to give offense to anyone. After all, this is a very serious matter. Future in-laws will have many meetings to determine the suitability of the union. Then, there is also the matter of the dowry which is usually the main thing that the whole village want to know. There is a lot of heartache associated with a broken engagement. For the Malays, being highly sensitive and proud in nature, even a broken engagement will bring a lot of shame to the whole family, let alone a divorce.

In the old days, most marriages were arranged by the parents or relatives. The young couple sometimes never met until on their wedding day. During this modern days, Malay couples flirt and go on dates just like everyone else.

After the wedding, the cycle repeats, when the couple have their firstborn. Along the way, some people die. Death is a solemn affair, the dead is handled following the Islamic rites. Before, during and after the burial, there are prayers. Mourning is observed for forty days. On the fortieth day usually, members of the family of the deceased usually will feed the poor so that the act of the alms will ease the passing of the dead.

Between all the rituals mentioned above, there are a whole lot more to learn about Malay customs. If you truly want to understand the culture, it is best to live among the community and take part in the rituals and ceremonies that are held.

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