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The Malays

Introducing the Malays

The Malays are the dominant ethnic group in Maritime Southeast Asia, and make up 23% of the population in Sarawak. In Sabah they represent roughly 6% of the population, while Muslim ethnic groups closely related to (and practically indistinguishable from) the Malays contribute up a further 15%. In Sarawak, the Malays are concentrated in Kuching and the adjacent coastline, and in the lower Saribas area, although they are found throughout the state. In Sabah, they are concentrated on the West Coast, especially in Kota Kinabalu and the areas bordering Brunei, Most rural Malays are fishermen and rice farmers, whilst urban Malays traditionally dominated the public sector, but are increasingly involved in business and the professions.

Malays were the first Muslim converts in Southeast Asia (10th Century onwards) and have adopted the faith exclusively – to be a Malay is to be a Muslim. Islam as practised by the Malays is doctrinally strict, but far less austere than in the Middle East.  Malays view Islam as a celebration of the greatness and mercy of Allah, and their joyful, vibrant culture reflects this. Malay women enjoy considerable social status and play prominent roles in political and business life.

The Malays have a complex and highly artistic culture. They are renowned for their beautifully crafted wooden houses, many of which can still be seen on the banks of the Sarawak river in Kuching, and in the rural villages around Beaufort in Sabah. They are also famous for kain songket (cloth woven with gold or silver braid) and for their excellent silverware and brassware. Malay literature plays an important role in life; pantuns (allegorical prose poems) are popular with young and old alike. The embodiment of Malay culture, however, is the kris, the superbly crafted Malay dagger, which is often associated with magical powers. In olden times, a Malay man was not properly dressed unless he was wearing his kris, and many men still wear them for ceremonial occasions. The Sarawak Museum has a particularly fine collection of these highly ornamental and very deadly weapons.

Malay Links

Borneo Love: A thoroughly modern Malay mum from Kuching blogs about life, the universe and cheesecake.

Hunter’s Food: A short but informative blog about Sarawak Malay food.

Malay culture: A fascinating blog about almost every aspect of Malay culture.

Recommended Reading

Yusuf bin Abang Puteh is regarded as one of the leading authorities on Sarawak Malay history and culture and has produced more than a dozen works on the subject.

Power and Prowess: The Origins of Brooke Kingship in Sarawak by John Walker. A fascinating historical work that explores the relationship between the Brookes and Sarawak’s Malay aristocracy in revealing detail.

The Malays by Anthony Milner: A comprehensive examination of the origins and development of Malay identity, ethnicity, and consciousness over the past five centuries.

A Traditional Malay Family