Malays In Indonesia

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Malays In Indonesia

LOCATION: Indonesia (Sumatra and its eastern offshore islands; Borneo coast [also outside Indonesia on the Malay Peninsula])
POPULATION: 7 million on Sumatra (2000 census). Another estimate runs to over 13 million; the combined total of Malays living in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, and Singapore may be over 25 million.
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Indonesians; Vol. 4: Malaysian Chinese; Malaysian Indians; Malaysian Malays


One possible origin for the term "Malay" (melayu) may be a Dravidian (south Indian) expression mala ur, "hill people." It is ironic, therefore, that it should come to refer to a maritime people with a sophisticated urban Islamic tradition (highlanders throughout the archipelago are considered most tenacious in their paganism). Of course, popular usage in English extends Malay's scope to include all the indigenous inhabitants of Indonesia (other Papuans), Malaysia, and the Philippines, who share, at the very least, Austronesian languages and Southern Mongoloid physical features. This article will focus on the specific ethnic group in western Indonesia known as "Malay."

Malays have identified, and to a great extent still do identify, more with the diverse small regions (once independent sultanates) to which they are native than with a broader "Malay" ethnicity. For centuries in the archipelago, converting to Islam was known as "masuk melayu," literally "entering Malayness." Thus, being "Malay" meant sharing in a cosmopolitan culture including as its key ingredients Islam and the maritime lingua franca called bahasa Melayu; common ancestry was not the decisive factor, as individual Malays might count Batak, Kubu, Javanese, Bugis, and others (as well as Arabs, Indians, Siamese, and Chinese) among their forebears.

According to the latest scholarship, around the time of Christ the ancestors of the Malays and other closely related groups began migrating from Kalimantan to the Sumatra coast, where they absorbed or displaced fellow Austronesian peoples who had settled there centuries before (forerunners of, among others, the Batak). In the early centuries ad, Malay seafarers played the role of the first intermediaries between China on the one hand and India and the Mediterranean on the other. Sumatra itself was famous as Suvarnadvipa (the "Gold Island") and as the source of camphor and other exotic items. As early as the 5th century, various Sumatran port-kingdoms enjoyed relations with China.

By the late 7th century, one of these states came to overshadow all others and would establish the tradition around which a Malay identity would grow. Centered near the present-day city of Palembang in south Sumatra, the kingdom of Srivijaya dominated the Straits of Malacca region until its decline in the 11th century (partly due to a devastating attack from the south Indian Chola state). In its heyday, Srivijaya was legendary as a center of international trade and of Buddhism.

After shifting to the rival state of Malayu (modern Jambi), leadership of the Malay world came to rest in Malacca on the west coast of the Malay peninsula, founded by a refugee prince from Palembang in 1400. Like Srivijaya, Malacca controlled traffic through the Straits and promoted a universal religion, though it was Islam which it, most successfully, propagated. Meanwhile, Palembang itself became first an enclave of Chinese pirates and then the home of a highly Javanized version of Malay culture.

The Portuguese capture of Malacca in 1509 encouraged the rise throughout the region of small sultanates, often founded by Bugis, Minangkabau, and Arab adventurers, and prospering on the pepper trade until the mid-17th century (first linguistically non-Malay Aceh and then Riau-Johor inherited Malacca's leadership of the Malay world to a certain extent). In the 18th century, Dutch, British, and even French maritime power began to limit the freedom of the Malay states. In the early 19th century, British and Dutch colonialism split the Malay world into Malayan and a Sumatran halves, a division with cultural consequences that persist to this day despite renewed post-colonial interchange and participation in a common regional economy centered on Singapore, the present-day successor of Srivijaya and Malacca.

Along the east coast of Sumatra by the late 19th century, a flourishing plantation economy (tobacco and rubber) developed under Dutch rule, the product of collaboration between European capitalists and Malay sultans—and thousands upon thousands of Chinese and Javanese coolies. Th is region experienced considerable upheaval during the Indonesian struggle for independence, which included violence against the native aristocracy, one victim of which was prince Amir Hamzah, the greatest poet in Bahasa Indonesia in the 1930s and 1940s. Since that time, Sumatra's east coast and adjacent islands have experienced rapid development, fueled by oil and tin wealth as well as proximity to Singapore and Malaysia.


According to the 2000 census, Malays (self-identifying as such) were Indonesia's third largest ethnic group, constituting 3.4% of the population and numbering almost 7 million. Indonesia's Malays lived primarily on Sumatra in the provinces of North Sumatra (east coast), Riau (islands and mainland, where they equaled 38% of the population according to the 2000 census), Jambi (38%), South Sumatra (31%), Bangka-Belitung (72%), and Bengkulu; the interior of these provinces is largely inhabited by non-Malays, such as the Kubu and the Rejang. In the coastal regions, non-Malays are also numerous, especially Javanese transmigrants. Figures from the 1990s estimated the number there to be as high as 13 million, obviously based on different criteria than the 2000 census.

In addition, Malays inhabit the Malay Peninsula as well as communities along the Borneo coast (Indonesian Kalimantan, Malaysian Sarawak and Sabah, and Brunei). Half of Malaysia's 2006 population of 26.6 million, or about 13.3 million, was Malay, while Pattani and three other provinces in southern Thailand were over 80% Malay. A 1998 estimate put the number of speakers of the Pattani Malay dialect at 3.1 million.


Malay is most closely related to Minangkabau, Iban (the "Sea Dayak" of Borneo), and Acehnese, less closely to Sundanese, Madurese, and Javanese. It is spoken in several divergent dialects; the dialect of Riau-Johor, considered a direct legacy of the Malacca sultanate, is esteemed as the "purest" or "finest" Malay and has become the basis of the official languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and (after English and Mandarin Chinese) of Singapore. The Malay spoken in Sumatra differs from that of Malaya in employing Dutch rather than English loanwords, and it lacks the Javanese and other influences characteristic of the Malay spoken in Jakarta and the cities of Java that is so influential on modern colloquial and written Indonesian.

Long before European colonialism, one could make oneself understood throughout maritime southeast Asia, and as far away as ports in south China and Persia, in Malay. In its own right and as a vehicle for Sanskrit, Arabic, and Portuguese loanwords, Malay has had a profound impact on languages throughout Indonesia and the Philippines.


Though weaker today under the pressure of modernist Islam, belief in spirits is still widespread. Every spot has its penunggu (guardian spirit), hantu (ghost), or jembalang (gnome). Penunggu inhabit graves, houses, or trees, and protect a village from other "outsider" spirits; they manifest themselves as a harimau tengkis, a tiger with one short leg. Puako (spirits) occupy specific places, such as river mouths, deep spots in streams, or certain parts of the sea; they may appear in animal form as a white crocodile, a snake, or a gajah meno (an aquatic elephant).

Upon entering a spirit's "territory," one asks permission of the spirit, saying "Tabek datuk nenek, cucu menumpang lalu" (literally, "Hello, honored grandparent, your grandchild is passing through"). Offending spirits cause illness (referred to as ketegow [ketegoran], a "warning"). One asks pardon through making an ancak, a basket full of offerings (eggs, turmeric rice, grilled chicken, cigarettes, etc.—as the spirit has requested through a bomo); one places this in a tree (for a forest spirit) or floats it on the water (for a water spirit). More orthodox Muslims distinguish jin (good spirits) from setan (devils), and instead of uttering "Tabik" declare in Arabic, "A'uu zubi'llahi nibasy-syaitoni rrajim" ("I am under the protection of Allah from cursed devils").

The power of magic is widely recognized. Amulets (azimat) are worn, such as a piece of iron (tangkal) hung from a necklace or wristband (children) or worn as a hairpin (women). Weapons, thrones, and banyan trees, and individuals, such as sultans or ulama (religious scholars), possess mystical power. For instance, a curse will befall those disloyal to the sultan; only confessing the disloyalty to the sultan and begging him for forgiveness will lift the curse. People ask the aid of the spirits of powerful individuals, visiting their graves and vowing to sacrifice a goat or chicken upon realization of the wish.


Islam has been integral to the Malay identity since at least the 14th century, if not as early as the 12th; as such it enters into every aspect of the culture [seeMalaysian Malays ]. Although it is regarded as virtual "idolatry," bomo (shamans) are still known to invoke the Hindu Batara Guru and other figures, not as gods but as powerful supernatural beings.

The chanting of Islamic texts, such as the Quran and the Barzanji (tales of the life of Muhammad), often accompanied by the playing of tambourines ( rebana, berdah, or k[er]ompang ), accompanies ceremonies, such as circumcisions and weddings. At seven years of age, children begin to learn how to read the Quran, mastering the proper pronunciation, emphasis, rhythm, and tone; however, they usually do not understand what they are reading word for word. This is a prized skill, and especially expert readers compete in regional and national contests ( Mushabaqah Tiliwatil Qur'an )that are televised with "pre-game/intermission shows" of folk dances of an "Islamic spirit" ( bernafaskan Islam ) .


See the article entitled Indonesians .


To ensure a successful delivery, a ceremony (tolak due in Riau, nuak in Jambi) is held in the seventh month of the pregnancy. As soon as the child is born, prayers are said over it (azan for a boy and qamat for a girl; a drop of honey is dabbed on the girl's tongue, so she will grow up with a personality sweet in its virtue). The placenta is wrapped in a white cloth, placed in a small basket, and buried in the backyard. Some days later, a name-giving ceremony occurs, including the child's first haircut and the sacrifice of two goats for a boy and one goat for a girl. At three months of age, the child is made to step on the earth for the first time in a turun tanah ceremony (for girls, the first ear-piercing precedes this). As their passage to adulthood, boys undergo circumcision (sunat rasul or khitanan) after learning the skills of reciting the complete Quran, performing silat (martial arts), and dancing the zapin.

Getting married involves the following steps. The young man's side (parents usually do the choosing) makes an initial inquiry into the availability of the young woman. If the woman's side signals its openness to an offer, the man's family sends its sesepuh, the most senior kinsman and his wife, to deliver the proposal; they bring betel-chewing paraphernalia and use poetic language. The next step is for the man's kin to present the agreed-upon wedding goods to the woman's house. As a sign of the formalization of the engagement, the palms and soles of the betrothed are reddened with henna (inai).

In the evening, the akad nikah (Islamic wedding ceremony) is held, led by an ulama; an odd number (3–11) of relatives line up to bless the couple with a dab of a special flour mixture. On the next afternoon, a procession takes the groom to the bride's house to the playing of rebana and the performing of silat. The bride's kin greet the groom's group by showering them with yellow-dyed raw rice; the two sides go back and forth declaiming pantun (structured poems) to each other. Once on the ceremonial dais (pelaminan), the couple enacts a ritual of mutual feeding (suap-menyuap); in Riau, they must refuse to eat food from each other's hands as a sign of self-respect. Later, the couple bows before their parents and asks for their blessing. With this, the wedding feast can begin.

Funerals follow the general Islamic form [ seeIndonesians ]. Post-funeral prayers (tahlil) are held for three days after the burial and on the seventh, twentieth, fortieth, and hundredth day after the death.


Originally, a village was composed of people of the same lineage (suku), but, as outsiders have come to settle there, the bond of a common living place has taken precedence over lineage ties. These communities are small, such that everyone knows each other well and works together in daily activities, e.g., helps each other in emergencies or in holding each other's major celebrations. Villagers are careful to "weigh" each other's feelings (timbang rasa) and appeal to the imam or penghulu to resolve conflicts quickly. Each individual's internal sense of shame (self-respect, or personal and familial face), rather than external coercion, maintains social harmony. A person endeavors to avoid being marked as a person "who does not know custom," i.e., who offends by appearance, word, and action.

Community leadership includes a penghulu, a village head, now selected according to government regulations from among the heads of the various suku. An imam serves as the head of the mosque; leader of Qur'an recitation and religious education; authority in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance; and collector of the tithe (zakat). A datuk is a suku head who has become a territorial chief with power over other suku heads.

Since Indonesian independence, social relations have been democratized, with personality, position, and material situation carrying more weight than hereditary rank alone. In the kingdom of Siak (Riau mainland), society was traditionally divided into four classes: the sultan (or raja) and his consorts; descendants of the present or former rajas: the "good people" (orang baik-baik), the heads of prominent suku; and commoners. Using Javanese terms, such as priyayi (aristocrat), Palem-bang society distinguished the following upper strata: the Raden (men)/ Raden Ayu (women), descendants of royal consorts; Mas Agus / Mas Ayu, descendants of royal concubines; Kemas / Nyimas, descendants of (perhaps less-favored) royal concubines; and Ki[ai]agus / Nyiayu, the ulama or religious scholars.


Houses are raised on posts, and their walls are made of wooden planks, their roofs of dried leaves or shingles; the exact plan differs from region to region. In Riau, two kinds are known: the rumah melintang or rumah bubungan Melayu, with a rectangular plan and a long ridgepole; and the rumah limas, with a square plan and a short ridgepole (the four sides of the roof slant towards the top). In the front, often at a lower level then the floor of the main part of the house, is a selaso, a veranda that may be enclosed with a low wall of sago palm latticework. A kitchen structure stands behind the main house, connected to it by an intervening chamber (telo).

Aristocratic houses in Jambi and Palembang are basically similar but divide into several specialized chambers. At the front of the house is the jogan, a veranda where the family relaxes. From front to back, the rooms of a Jambi house have the following respective functions: an area for receiving male guests; the sleeping area for family's older boys; a room for newlyweds; the sleeping room for the family's older girls; and an area for receiving female guests. The interior of a Palem-bang house divides into sleeping areas for: young male kin who come to help with celebrations; middle-age guests; and older and highly respected guests. The kitchen is at the back. Houses built on stilts over the water are a common sight, for instance, along Palembang's Musi River or at Medan's Belawan port.

In 2005, the provinces with substantial Malay populations had higher Human Development Indices (combining measures of income, health, and education) than Indonesia's national score of 69.6: Riau's, the third highest in the country (after Jakarta and North Sulawesi) was 73.6, the Riau Islands' 72.2, Jambi's 71, Bangka-Belitung 70.7, and South Sumatra's 70.2 (all higher than Java's provinces and Bali). GDP's per capita (even subtracting income from petroleum and natural gas from GDP, important for Riau, Jambi, and South Sumatra) are very high by national standards: us$29,348 for the Riau Islands, us$6,982 for Jambi, us$7,774 for South Sumatra, us$12,234 for Bangka-Belitung, and us$17,264 for Riau. Infant mortality rates (2002), however, were not particularly low: 47.66 deaths per 1,000 live births in Riau (islands and mainland) and 52.66 in each of the other three provinces (cf. 35.72 in Bali and 43.69 in Central Java).


The nuclear family (kelamin) is the basic unit of Malay society, consisting of a husband, a wife, and their unmarried children. Polygamy is permissible under Islam (up to four wives) but it is rare. Newlyweds may live for a time with the bride's parents before establishing their own house nearby. While in the parents' house, the couple obeys the father and contributes their labor or earnings to the larger household. Kinship is reckoned on both the mother's and father's sides, though the male line transmits noble titles. The inhabitants of a village or of neighboring villages may belong to a single clan (suku), but these connections have generally lost importance for Malays.

Terms of address distinguish birth order among siblings. In Riau, these are: long (from sulung, the first-born); ngah (tengah, second); cik (kecik, third or fourth); cu or ucu (bungsu, the youngest); even an only child is specified, as nggal (tunggal, single). These terms also apply to siblings of grandparents (datuk) and of parents (ayah/bapak, father; and emak, mother); thus, the eldest granduncle (or grand-aunt) is called tuk long, the second-oldest uncle yah ngah or pak ngah, and the youngest aunt mak cu. In Palembang, the terminology differs: kakcak is the eldest sibling; kakcek, the second-born; kakcik, third and younger. Uncles (mamang) and aunts (bibi) are specified as mangcak, mangcek, mangcik, bicak, bicek, and bicik.

Although interactions between elder and younger kin should not be stiff, respect for the former must be palpable; relations between in-laws tend, however, to be rather formal. On the major religious holidays, one pays visits to one's elders and (for the nobility) those kin of higher-ranking lineages. One should always seek the guidance of one's parents; otherwise, one earns a reputation for arrogance. During ritual celebrations, a son-in-law must show his submission to his parents-inlaw by obeying any command, however great or small.


For everyday use, men wear pants and a long-sleeved shirt (baju kurung, sometimes with a high collar, in which case it is called cekak musang or teluk belanga); over the pants, with or without the baju tucked in, a cloth can be tied around the waist, extending down to the knee. Nowadays men wear a peci cap instead of the traditional turban-like headcloth, and Arab-style sandals.

Women wear a long kebaya or baju kurung, a sarong, a veil, and slippers (or go barefoot). Although Indian fabrics were once popular, now sarongs are made of plaid cloth in Bugis (Sulawesi), Trengganu (Malaya), and Samarinda (Kalimantan) patterns.

Ceremonial clothing for women differs only in the materials: sarongs of silk, decorated with motifs (such as flowers) in gold thread or gold leaf; and baju of satin. Men's attire is similar, though the predominant color is black; an additional cloth worn over one side of the torso ( kain samping ) must be of a color contrasting with the other pieces (to wear clothes all of one color, especially yellow, is the privilege of royalty). In addition, men wear a headdress, the style depending on rank, and shoes or sandals.


Rice is the heart of the meal, accompanied by fish, vegetables, and sambal (chili sauce). The fish may be stewed with coconut milk, chili, and spices to make a curry, or boiled with chili and tamarind or most simply coked with salt and garlic; it may also be fried or grilled. Vegetables (amaranth, eggplant, string beans, and squash) are boiled with terasi (shrimp paste) or salt fish for flavor. The ubiquitous condiment is sambal terasi, red or green chili ground with salt and mixed with roasted terasi and tamarind or some other souring agent. Breakfast consists of boiled cassava or sweet potato, eaten with grated coconut and sugar or salt fish and sambal.

Foods for special occasions include lempok and emping [seeBanjarese dodol and amping] as well as wajik, black sticky rice cooked with coconut milk or palm sugar until dry, then cut into parallelogram shapes. Asidah is wheat flour mixed with

water, spices, and sugar, cooked until thick, formed into flower or candi (Hindu temple) shapes, and finally bathed in cooking oil and sprinkled with fried garlic. Roti canai is Indian-style fried flat bread, eaten with meat or chicken curries. Nasi minyak resembles Indian biryani rice.

The food of Medan is particularly rich in Indian- and Arab-influenced dishes that use dried seeds and aromatic spices, e.g., the not-very-pungent yet rich goat curries, gulai kumah and gulai bagar. Specialties of Palembang include: empek-empek, fish dumplings (sometimes stuffed with egg), served with a spicy sauce of chili, garlic, dried shrimp, palm sugar, soy sauce, and vinegar; and the local kerupuk (fried tapioca crackers flavored with seafood and spices), renowned because of its higher-than-average proportion of fish or shrimp. Palembang drinks include ginger tea, fruit juices, and air rebusan kumis kucing (literally, "water boiled with a cat's whiskers"), a diuretic.


In 2005, the level of literacy for provinces with substantial Malay populations was high by Indonesian national standards, standing at 94.54% for Jambi, 95.44% for Bangka-Belitung, 95.63% for South Sumatra, 95.97% for the Riau Islands, and 97.76% for Riau (cf. 87.41% for Central Java and 78.79 for West Nusa Tenggara). ( See also the article entitled Indonesians .)


As with other aspects of Malay culture, musical traditions reflect ties to the Middle East and Islamized India. The rebana (tambourine) is a prominent instrument; a group of rebana players usually accompany various forms of chanting and dancing. In addition, there is a tradition of popular song (lagu Melayu) inspired by Arab and Indian models; in a modernized version (orkes, "orchestra"), influenced by Indian film music and employing Western instruments, such as the saxophone and accordion, lagu Melayu became the basis of the nationally popular dangdut [seeIndonesians ].

Malays perform numerous folk dances, the function of many of which is to greet guests. Traditional celebrations include joget (also called ronggeng): the original form begins with a single female singer-dancer (or several) performing in front of a group of men; if a man wants to dance with a woman, he must pay—this has evolved into a couple dance for young people. Another dance form accompanying rite of passage celebrations is zapin, a pair or pairs (formerly only men but nowadays also women and male-female couples) dancing to the accompaniment of the gambus (an Arab lute-like instrument), two-headed drums (marwas, plural marawis), and sometimes violins or accordions. Also popular is zikir, in which the performers combine unison chanting of praise to Allah with dynamic arm movements while seated. Until the mid-20th century, several forms of sung theater, some highly eclectic (combining Malay, Javanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Western influences) were popular in the Malay world: mak yong, mendu, bangsawan, and stamboel.

While the writings of Hindu-Buddhist Srivijaya have been lost, victims of the tropical climate, the rich literature of the later Islamic courtly tradition has been transmitted down to our time, in manuscripts that have been copied and recopied (and reworked) over the generations. These include verse chronicles of a semi-legendary character, such as the Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai, the Sejarah Melayu, the Hikayat Hang Tuah, and the Tuhfat al-Nafis. The last great center of classical Malay literary production was the Riau island of Penyengat in the 19th century. The majority of Malays has, however, until very recently been illiterate; memorizing and improvising rhymed poetry in the short pantun and syair forms is still a common skill.


Living in a region dominated by thick forests and swamplands, Indonesia's Malays have traditionally depended more on the sea than on the land for their livelihood, either as fishers or as traders. In the limited areas where it is feasible, they have also practiced wet-rice as well as swidden (shifting-cultivation) farming. Since the 19th century, the region has become known for plantation crops in high world demand such as tobacco and rubber, as well as for petroleum and tin (the latter has been mined since ancient times). The huge work force required by these enterprises has not for the most part been derived from the local Malays, but rather from Chinese and Javanese immigrants.


Malays have long practiced their own form of martial art, called silat; it is characterized by graceful arm movements (reminiscent of kung fu or t'ai chi) that lend themselves easily to performance as dance.


Spinning tops (gasing) is a popular pastime among males of all ages. A game begins with five or six players spinning their tops simultaneously; the player whose top stops spinning first becomes the lowest "slave," the next one to fall becomes the next higher "slave," and so on until the last, who is then named "king." In the next stage, only a player and the next-higher-ranking player spin their tops at a time; the lower-ranking attempts to strike his superior's top with his own, in which case the former gets promoted and the latter demoted.

See also the article entitled Indonesians .


The most developed crafts are woodcarving (motifs decorate a house's pillars and walls) and weaving songket (cloth into which dense designs have been woven with gold thread).


One of the provinces with a substantial Malay population, Riau (including the now separate province of the Riau Islands) was among the provinces experiencing the highest occurrence of collective violence in Indonesia between 1990 and 2004: 100 people died in 165 incidents (cf. West Java with over 11 times the population but only 5 times the number of incidents). Most of the incidents involved intra-village brawling, often provoked by land-grabbing; a few were instances of vigilantes exercising "popular justice." One anomalous incident was the major riot that broke out due to a gambling dispute in the town of Selat Panjang in 2001: many Chinese houses were burned, 16 Chinese were killed, and hundreds of Chinese fled to a nearby island; except for this case, all anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia between 1990 and 2004 was confined to 1997–1998 (see also the article entitled Indonesians ).


In 2002, despite very high GDP's per capita, the provinces with substantial Malay populations had lower Gender-Related Development Indices (combining measures of women's health, education, and income relative to men's) than Indonesia's national score of 59.2: Bangka-Belitung was 59.2, Riau's 56.9, South Sumatra's 55.5 and Jambi's 53.3 (all lower than North Sulawesi, Bali, Central Java, and Central Kalimantan). Gender Empowerment Measures (reflecting women's participation and power in political and economic life relative to men's) were quite low by national standards: 46.8 for Jambi, 40.4 for Riau, and 38.9 for Bangka-Belitung—only South Sumatra's, 56.9, was higher than the national GEM (54.6).


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———. Adat Istiadat Daerah Sumatra Selatan [Customs of South Sumatra]. Jakarta: Department of Education and Culture, 1978.

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—revised by A. J. Abalahin