Malays Common Social Etiquette

Malay traditions has been strong and robust over many decades. It has withstand the passage of time and still remains even in a shrinking Malay population in Singapore. The arrival of foreigners did little to change important values and customs, many Malays still hold dear to their hearts.

Within the Malay community, we put great emphasis on adab or social etiquette. A person who lacks this is called biadab or rude. One’s social etiquette reflects his upbringing thus any lack of decorum reflects poorly of his parents and family not just himself.

Here I will explain the highly visible social etiquette expected when you are among Malays in social events.

Common social etiquette

The Salam

Malays greet each other with ‘Assalammu’alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh‘. This is normally shortened to ‘Assalammualaikum‘. It means ‘May the Peace, Blessings and the Mercy of Allah be upon you’.

In response you say ‘Wa’alaikumus salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh‘ or in short ‘Wa’alaikummussalam‘ which means ‘The same to you and may Allah grant you His blessings’.

The greeting is accompanied by a handshake with the right hand or both hands and then retreat the palm to the chest as sign of sincerity. The other individual will do the same.

The Salam is only initiated between individuals under these circumstances.

  • Same gender
  • Direct family relationship, like a father and daughter or a brother and sister.
  • Blood relations on the paternal side, like a daughter and uncle or a son and aunt.
  • Or very senior (elderly) person, like a grandmother with her children and their children’s spouses and children

The Salam is normally initiated by the younger individual.

A Salam is also used when visiting a Malay home. You say the greeting ‘Assalammualaikum‘ to announce your presence at the door.

A non-Muslim can greet a Malay with just a handshake. You also need not say the greeting when you arrive at a Malay home, just press the doorbell 🙂

Entering a Malay home

Footwear is not worn in a Malay home thus leave your footwear outside the home before entering. This also applies for most Chinese and Indian household in Singapore.

It is rude to still have your footwear on when entering a Malay home. Malay-Muslims perform their daily prayers at home so it is kept as clean as possible.

When you are visiting a Malay home

It is considered proper and respectful if you are dressed appropriately when visiting a Malay home. As majority of Malays are Muslims, we adhered to Islamic dress code of not revealing too much of flesh for women as well as men. So short skirts, low-cut tops and tight-fitting clothes are considered distasteful especially if you are visiting a host with an elderly family member. Ideally clothes that covers a woman’s modesty is preferred.

Once you are inside a Malay home, the host and family will come and greet you to welcome you. You will be invited to sit down while drinks is being prepared for you. Sit properly and for a woman, sit modestly. Sitting with your legs wide apart is rather offending and if you are wearing a short skirt, very distracting to the poor host ;P

Young men and women sitting on the floor in a close relatives home.

Young men and women sitting on the floor in a close relatives home.

If by chance, you are required to sit on the floor which is rather uncommon in Singapore, it may be due to other guests still present in the host’s home. But this is an acceptable situation and sitting on the floor is not degrading and the host will likely sit on the floor with you too. When sitting on a floor, for the men, sit cross-legged and as for the women, sit with both legs folded and tucked neatly beneath the body. However the rule for men is quite relaxed especially for younger men.

Normally guests will sit closely with their family or partners. It is consider improper for a female guest to sit closely with a male guest who is not family or is a stranger.

It is also considered improper to venture around the house beyond the living room meant to entertain guests unless you are a very close family member. Once the drinks and/or cakes or cookies are served, you will be invited to drink and eat them.

Some will say ‘Don’t be shy’, my advise is, be shy and eat just to taste. Try not finish all the cakes or cookies being served. Eat just enough not to offend the host. Always eat with your right hand.

If you need to walk pass an elderly person, do not walk upright, your body should bend slightly forward and head slightly lowered with your right-hand directed vertically to the ground. You can keep your left hand on your sides  or slightly at your back, Maintain this posture until you have passed the elderly person.

Also do not be too loud, or comment on the food if it is not positive. I have been served spoiled food without the host’s knowledge of course, so I left the food untouched after my first taste. I guessed after I have left they wondered why I didn’t touch my food and found that the food they served me was spoiled and called me to apologize.

Lastly before leaving the host’s house, you salam the host and family and thank them for their hospitality. The host will walk you to the door before bidding you farewell.

Hope I have covered the important points in this particular topic. Ultimately, respect your host, host’s family and their home and be a gracious guest.

When you are invited to a meal in a Malay home

Malays always use their fingers of the right hand to eat. Rarely if ever with the left. The left hand is used to handle serving spoons. Hands are thoroughly washed before and after a meal. If you are a non-Malay, you are likely to be served with a set of fork and spoon.

Rice is the staple food for the Malays. It is served with several accompanying dishes during a meal served at once and not in courses. As majority of Malays are Muslim, we adhered to Islamic halal dietary law. Pork or alcohol are absent in our diets and will not be served.

A host serving her guests

A host serving her guests

In a private meal setting, normally the guests will be invited to the dining table after the table is set. The host is usually seated at the head of the table with or without his spouse sitting beside him. At times, the host may not even join the guests to eat but will still accompany them at the dinner table.

In a bigger event, like an open house for Hari Raya where there are a lot of guests, the host is likely to have an open banquet where the guests are required to help themselves to the food. Plastic cutlery and plates to be used are placed at the edge of the table. Not much of the Malay customs to be observed here except the usual courtesy to not cut the queue if there are guests waiting for their turn to help themselves to the food ahead of you.

In a private meal setting, if you wish to use your hands to eat, usually there is a small bowl of water present at the dining table for you to wash your hands. Alternatively, you may ask your host if you can use the washbasin in his kitchen to wash your hands.

Saying a short prayer before a meal

Saying a short prayer before a meal

Just before a meal, Malays usually say a short prayer. For non-Malays it is not required, however, before digging in, wait to be invited to help to the food. And it is considered improper to immediate help yourself to the food when you just arrived at the dining table.

When eating your food, it is polite to start with the dishes nearest to you before reaching for those farther away. Try to praise your host for the food.

After you are done, wash your hands and thank your host for the fine food. You are likely directed to be seated in the living room area for a chat. It is considered improper to leave immediately after a meal in a private meal setting.

Most of the above facts I have stated are based on my own experiences and knowledge from family members, friends and research either online or from printed books which are rather limited. I am certain that there are more Malay customs and traditions that I did not mention here and I am still uncovering, discovering and learning.

This page is always in progress because as I unraveled more Malay traditions I will update this page or relevant pages in my blog. I hope you can stay tune and give me your support by sharing with me what I have yet to mention or anything that you are curious about that may lead to many more discoveries about the Malay traditions.

If you like what I have written, kindly Like, Pinterest or Share this page/post with your friends. Thanks in advance and May God Bless You 🙂


One thought on “Malays Common Social Etiquette

  1. Pingback: Rendang (Beef Curry) | The Malay Kitchen

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