The Malaysian flag. (Photo: Pxhere / CC0)
The Malaysian flag. (Photo: Pxhere / CC0)

Malay or Malaysian?

  Between Two Journeys

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation made from a post originally written in French. My apologies for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have been generated during the process. If you are reading French, click on the French flag below to access the original and correct text: 

Should we say Malaysian or Malaysian? Both! Actually, it depends on the context, because the two terms do not have exactly the same meaning.

Malaysian Malay, Chinese, Indian

You can be Malaysian, that is, of Malaysian nationality, without being Malaysian.

Malaysians are nationals of Malaysia. So when we are talking about something about the country, we use the adjective Malaysian / Malaysian. For example: the Malaysian Prime Minister, a Malaysian company.

The Malaysians are the country's majority ethno-linguistic and historical community. Chinese and Indian communities are also important in Malaysia, and there are also indigenous communities in Borneo.

Being Malay therefore refers to "ethnic" membership. This is not insignificant, as Malaysia distinguishes between its citizens on the basis of their origins, according to fairly precise criteria. This discrimination is enshrined in the Constitution and is reflected in the civil register.

Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution defines Malay as :

1 - a person who practices the religion of Islam, who speaks Malay, who conforms to Malay customs
2 - who has origins within the Federation of Malaysia or Singapore before Independence on 31 August 1957, or who is the child of at least one parent born among the population then belonging to the Federation of Malaysia.

Definition of Malay (Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution). Source: Wikimedia.
Definition of Malay (Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution). Source: Wikimedia.

In other words: the Malaysians of Malaysia are Malaysians, but not all Malaysians are Malaysians?

Ethnic and religious discrimination

Origin and religion are culturally very intertwined in Malaysia. But the ethnic and religious discrimination thus institutionalized has consequences on the daily lives of its 31.5 million or so inhabitants.

A Malaysian freediver (whom I had met in Indonesia) explained to me that he was not Malaysian, but Chinese Malaysian, and therefore did not have the same rights as the Malaysians in certain areas such as education, housing, access to property, credit, etc. He also explained that he was not a Malaysian but a Chinese Malaysian.

Update. This article, originally published in 2006, is still very popular years later, as soon as Malaysia comes back in the news... So I've edited it by adding recent links below, for those who want to know more about this thorny subject.

I refer you in particular to this article in SlateA new book, published at the beginning of 2020, which takes stock of these institutionalized inequalities dating back to British colonization in Malaysia:
→ In Malaysia, the Constitution institutionalizes racial discrimination

See also the enlightening maps and infographics, published in 2016 in this article fromAsyalist :
→ Malaysia: precarious balance

Conclusion: This complex situation is at the root of our hesitation to use the terms "Malay" or "Malaysian". We can certainly say both, but that does not mean quite the same thing ...


The Malaysian flag. (Photo: Pxhere / CC0)
The Malaysian flag. (Photo: Pxhere / CC0)

  Between Two Journeys

  Malaysia: Peninsula and Borneo - July 2006

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. I always asked the question on my trip down, so thank you for the info! a beautiful site!

  2. @Nina: I wondered about it too, preparing my stay there ... So, I looked at the question! Delighted that Little Bubbles Elsewhere pleases you!

  3. All Malay are Malaysian ❓ ❓
    ➡ There are Indonesian, Singaporean, Thai, Bruneian Malaysians who do not have Malaysian nationality, no ❓

    1. @ Geoffroy: very correct, since "Malay" refers to the ethnicity, culture and origin of a population, not to nationality.

      I was only talking about Malaysia here, where I was going to go on a trip, in response to this often asked question: "How do we call the inhabitants of Malaysia? "...

      Hence my formulation a little (too) lapidary.

  4. And the origin of the word is quite controversial, a Malaysian tells me that malas (which gives malasian in English) means lazy, while wikipedia refers to mountain

  5. On the nationality heading in my French residence permit, it says Malaysian instead of Malaysian. French people don't know the difference between these two terms. 😕 Disappointed.