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The Malay Race


Malay race consists of many ethnic groups. The Malays are one of the three main ethnic groups in Penang. According to the Malaysian constitution, the Malays are the native people who are Muslims. Therefore, non-Malays who embraced Islam, or Muallaf, are known as someone who "masuk Melayu", meaning, becoming a Malay too.

Jawi Pekan family
Old photo of a Jawi Pekan family. The lady on
the left is Indian while the man is native Malay.

The Malays conduct their daily lives following a set of rules, rituals and customs. They eat the staple food of rice, together with spicy dishes, cooked with plenty of herbs and also coconut milk. Malay traditional food uses a lot of natural ingredients and elaborate ways of cooking.

Anthropologists determined that the origin of the Malay race started from the people who migrated from South China thousands of years ago settled in Malay Peninsula.

Over the millennia, their features and skin color changed to suit the local climate. Those who lived by the sea became expert sailors and fishermen. Those who lived inland, cultivated the land to harvest staple foods.

Before the influence of Islam, the religions practiced were mainly Hinduism and animism.  The old beliefs and customs were deeply ingratiated into their daily lives. When Islam took hold of the region, during the heyday of the Malaccan empire, a lot of these customs were abolished as they were against the Islamic teaching.

In Penang, it was recorded that there were Malay settlements scattered throughout the island before Francis Light took over in the late 18th century.  These places were notably at Batu Uban and Dato' Keramat. There is now a very village left at Batu Uban (literally means "Stone of Grey Hair").

The only building that is still standing from the old days is a mosque, which has been repaired many many times over the years. Dato' Keramat also has become part of George Town and therefore is losing its identity as a Malay settlement. By the way, Dato' Keramat literally means "Mystical Grandfather".

Later, in the late 19th century, a lot of Malays from Acheh royal families, together with their entourage immigrated from Indonesia fleeing from the wrath of government who especially wanted to terminate them. They made their homes in Penang. P.Ramlee, who was the most famous actors from Penang, was a descendant from this community.

Another group of people who make up the Malay race in Penang are the Indian Muslims.

They came from Southern India, thus they speak Tamil and Malay.

They are sometimes called Jawi Peranakan. Those who live in the city were called Jawi Pekan. Normally it is a mixed marriage with native Malay with Indian immigrant.

The origin of Penang signature food nasi kandar and other delicious curries came from this group. Nagore Shrine, at the corner of Chulia Street and Queen Street is dedicated to a Muslim patron saint from India.

There are also descendants from the Middle East who settle here in Penang. For example, Syeikh Omar Basheer Al-Khalidy, from Yemen, was one of the most influential leaders in the early days. Seven generations of his family have flourished here in Penang up till today.

It goes without saying, all these groups marry among each other, resulting in current Malay race. If we put pictures of the Malays next to each other, we probably can collect over thirty different features and skin colors, but they will still insist that: "Yes, I am a Malay!"

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