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 of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, correct text: 

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

Malaysian Malay, Chinese, Indian

One can be Malaysian, that is to say of Malaysian nationality, without being Malaysian.

Malaysians are the nationals of Malaysia. When we talk about something related to 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 Malaysian therefore refers to "ethnic" belonging. This is not insignificant, because Malaysia distinguishes between its citizens according to their origins, according to quite precise criteria. This discrimination is written in the Constitution and is recorded in the civil status.

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 Malaya or Singapore prior to Independence on August 31, 1957, or who is the child of at least one parent born within the population then belonging to the Federation of Malaya.

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 intertwined in Malaysia. But the institutionalized ethnic and religious discrimination has consequences on the daily life of its 31.5 million inhabitants.

A Malaysian snorkeler (whom I had met in Indonesia) had explained to me that, as he was not a Malaysian, but a Chinese Malaysian, he did not have the same rights as the Malays in certain fields such as education, housing, access to property, to credit, etc.

Update. This article originally published in 2006 is still very much consulted, years later, as soon as Malaysia comes back in the news... So I have edited it and added 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 origin of this hesitation of language that we have to use the terms "Malay" or "Malaysian". We can certainly say both, but it 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

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

  2. @Nina: I was wondering about that too, while preparing my stay there... So I thought about it! I'm glad you like Petites Bulles d'Ailleurs!

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

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

      I was only talking about Malaysia where I was about to go on a trip, in answer to this often asked question: "what should we call the inhabitants of Malaysia?"...

      Hence my somewhat (too) terse formulation.

  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 speaks of mountain

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