Adat Resam


Customary Code of Conduct (Adat Resam)

Many of the beliefs and some of the cultural practices of the Malays have developed as a result of the inter-mingling of cultures, and the religious experiences of the Malays over the last two thousand years or so. Some of the influences have already been noted earlier in this volume, and thus there is no need to develop them  any further at this point.


Within a Malay  household that continues to maintain the traditional code of conduct inherited from the past,  the children or younger personsA old malay family are strictly bound by custom  to look upon their parents with respect.  To them are due unquestioned loyalty and total obedience, and these qualities must be demonstrated through the daily conduct.  When a son, for instance is  sent for by either of the parents, he should come before them as soon as possible, and he must be  properly dressed. In their presence he is not allowed to sit in an improper manner, to talk too loudly or to smoke. In the case of a daughter, the expectations of the parents are even greater. Similarly a younger person must behave in decorum before those elder to him or her, be it an uncle or aunt, or an elder brother or sister.


Traditionally this code of conduct extends beyond the family to  recognise certain relationships between families in the same neighbourhood or kampung.  It is customary for, instance, to welcome a new family or a newcomer, to make a social visit to the new household,  and to render any assistance that may be needed.  Again similar concern or involvement, in the spirit of mutual help (gotong royong)  manifests itself  when someone in the neighbourhood is ill, when a child is born or in the event that someone dies. On a very simple level these occasions require at least a visit. Where necessary material assistance may be rendered, particularly during a wedding, as a means of lightening the burden upon a family that is not very well off.


Congregations, common in Muslim communities both in the villages as well as in the towns and cities, serve as a means of social cohesion. The major congregation is the all-important Friday (Jumaat) prayer, which apart from its religious significance also becomes an occasion to meet others from the same kampung or neighbourhood--since generally, a kampung dweller prays in the mosque nearest to his home--and possibly, these days, those from further away. This also applies to the five daily prayers  which, according to Islamic teaching, have greater merit when offered in congregation.


Traditional Attire

The traditional Malay manner of dressing  is dictated by the Islamic dress code, and therefore tends to be  conservative, especially with the revival of interest in Islam. This does not mean that Malays dress in the manner of Arabs, although some, especially those who have visited India, Pakistan or the  Middle East or have gone on the pilgrimage to Mecca do wear items of  Indian or Arab clothing, especially when going to mosques (masjid)  or  on occasions like the annual festivals, Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji.

Traditional Attire

The Malay formal dress for men is the Baju Melayu. This is a loose, long-sleeved shirt (baju) worn over

a pair of trousers (seluar) of matching material and colour, or sometimes over a kain sarung, a wrap-around skirt.  In more formal situations, in addition to the the Baju Melayu  suit (shirt and trousers),  a kain sampin  will be used. This is a short sarung, usually colourful and even made of gold-thread sungkit material, which is worn over the pants, reaching down to the knees. A velvet cap (songkok) completes the formal dress. Shoes or leather sandals may be used.


While visiting the mosque for daily prayers, the less formal style is used, and a white skull cap (kepiah) may take the place of the songkok. Older men and those who have performed the pilgrimage to Mecca may wear a turban (serban).


Malay women have greater choices. The sarung kebaya was at one time commonly worn and may be seen today as well. This is a two-piece dress consisting of  a tight long-sleeved blouse (the baju kebaya) and a figure-hugging sheath of batik or silk (the sarung)  with a slit.  The sarung-kebaya is still worn by MAS air hostesses, as well as those on Singapore Airlines flights.  Considered  rather bold for normal situations, the sarung-kabaya has over the years  been modified, and  is now worn as a loose garment.


Another traditional and popular  costume for women is the Baju Kurung. This comprises  a loose tunic (baju) worn over a long skirt (sarung). The baju kurung  set may be made of any material at all, Selendangincluding batik, sungkit material or silk,  and various styles have been developed in different states.  More sombre colours are used for certain occasions and a white baju kurung suit is normally worn when attending funerals as a sign of respect. Together with the baju and the sarung, there may also be a shawl, (selendang) to cover the head.


With the rise in Islamic consciousness, Malay women these days wear another mandatory piece of clothing--the tudung or selendang. This is a scarf  covering  the head, the ears, the neck and the bosom.  Various styles of tudung have been developed and some made quite attractive with the addition if beads and so on.  Tudung are worn with Malay dress or even with jeans and trousers.


Alongside these traditional fashions of dress, Western style clothing, including trousers or jeans  and blouses or T-shirts are popular among the younger Malays. However generally Malay women do not  wear Western clothes which expose their legs or parts of their bodies.


Visiting Someone

Traditionally Malay houses in the villages (kampung), mainly constructed of wood and thatched palm-leaves (attap)  were built on stilts. This was to ensure safety from floods  as well as the insencts, snakes and animals, some possibly wild ones in the vicinity of the kampung. Certain customary practices designed for such a  situation, however, have been carried on even amongst the Malays now living in apartments or bungalows in Malaysia’s  main towns and cities  as result of changing economic and other circumstances. This is best illustrated in the manner in which visitors are expect to behave and in the manner in which they are received at a kampung house.

When someone visits a Malay house it has traditionally been regarded as good manners and in keeping with the adat, to stop on the open ground at the bottom of the steps leading to  the landing of a kampung house. From this point the visitor greets the occupants of the house or announces his or her  presence. Usually the Islamic manner of greeting “Assalamu Alaikum” (Peace be upon you) is uttered loudly enough for the occupants of the house to hear. The formula may be repeated  in the absence of immediate response.   Someone from the house will generally reply to this formula of greeting with the words “Wa Alaikum Salaam”, (Upon you too be Peace) possibly  before the door is even opened, for it may in fact take a while for the responding person to in fact make his or her appearance at the door.


In modern houses the same practices  are observed, but with certain modifications. A person, for instance,  will call the householder from the gate of a house, or ring the door bell, but in either case the greeting, Assalamu Alaikum” is never omitted.  Children are trained from a very early age to call this greeting each time they enter a house, even their own. Theoretically, this should also be done by adults  according both to Islam and the cultural practice of the Malays.


In the event that the visitor is not a Muslim,  he or she will call out the word ”Encik..” or Tuan meaning mister, Datuk, or  Tuan Haji or by some other suitable title. If someone already knows the person in the house, the full name such as . Encik Khalid, or Puan Rogayah may be used. The title used to call such persons from a household, will of course depend upon the age and status of the visitor too. For instance if the visitor is a young person, he may call the occupations by using the terms “uncle” or “aunt” in Malay. There are in fact many different ways and many different terms that come into use in this situation depending upon the identity of the person being called and that of the visitor, in addition to the differences in status as well as age.


Footwear to be left outside

The visitor, acknowledged and perhaps recognised, is then invited to go up the stairs to the landing of the house. Footwear must be removed and left outside before going up the landing or, in the case of  modern houses, before  entering a house.  Muslims  are generally very particular about cleanliness, and therefore  it considered best to leave shoes outside the house upon entry for they are likely  to bring with them all manner of filth. Most Muslims do not wear footwear in the house. Often common areas of the house, such as the living room, are used for  group prayers.  Besides this many Muslims actually prefer to sit on the floor instead of sitting on chairs in informal situation.  Meals are often eaten sitting on the floor. Much of this culture, therefore comes to the Malays from the Islamic tradition. For all these reasons the house has to be completely clean.

Shaking Hands

The host may shake hands with the guest using both his hands, rather than in the Western manner with the right hand. The grip of hands is gentler and the shaking less vigorous than in the Western style.  Additionally, when a younger person shakes hands with an elder, be it a parent, a teacher or someone else, the younger person also bows  down during the handshake, and kisses the upper side of the right hand of the older person. This is to show respect to the elder person.

During occasions such as Hari Raya the younger persons in a family may also go down on to the knees and then carry out this handshake as just described. This, however, happens only when the elders are seated.


Following the shaking of hands each  person raises both his or her hands  to the chest and  places them momentarily at the centre or on the left side  where the heart is. This action symbolises sincerity.


Shaking hands between members of the opposite sexes is, however, prohibited, as Islam forbids physical contact between the sexes (See the section entitled Touching).  There are of course exceptions to this rule. One may, for instance, shake hands with family-members of the opposite sex or with very young children, as well as with the elderly.


If the visitor to a kampung house is a man he is generally given a seat on the landing; the  host will then attend to him. Traditionally betel left trays (tepak sirih), containing the left and all the requisite ingredients were placed before visitors, but this art of serving betel-leaves is fast dying out.  During the next few minutes a drink is brought for the visitor, and there may even be some snacks.


The Use of the Right Hand for Eating


Traditionally, when eating something the right hand is to be used. It is taboo to use the left hand for eating purposes, even when  forks and spoons are used.   All good acts, such as holding a copy of the Holy Quran, touching someone, giving or receiving something, are to be done using the right hand. In fact if someone gives or receives something using the left hand this is considered rude.  Similarly when someone wishes to point at another person or at something the right hand is to be used. The actual pointing, however, in the Malay style is done not with  the index finger, but with the thumb,  the other fingers being folded backwards. Most acts considered good, therefore, are done using the right hand. The left hand is used for less clean functions such as cleaning oneself after going to the toilet.

While the men then, settle themselves on the landing, female visitors are taken further into the house, into the sitting area,  where the hostess or female members of the family attend to her. Even if a married couple together go to a kampung house, the husband and wife may be separated  in this manner, unless of course they are well-known to the occupants of the house or are related to them.




Traditionally both Islamic practice as well as Malay adat frowns upon physical contact between members of the opposite sex, except in certain specific situations, depending upon the relationship between the parties involved as well as the age differences. Casual touching or physical contact is generally avoided, and even in situations  where such avoidance may be a problem, such as in crowded buses or trains and so on.

TouchingThe Malays have of course derived this practice of avoiding contact between the sexes in public  from  Islam. Universally  in Muslim countries, physical contact between the sexes in public is frowned upon. This applies even in the case of the apparently innocuous  act of shaking hands.  There are of course religious reasons for the prohibition of such contact. Thus the practice of embracing, hugging and even  of shaking hands between members of the opposite sex  is, in theory, totally absent. Western education and modernisation, however, have brought about some changes in attitude amongst the urban Malays in particular towards such physical contact.


In general , when greeting someone of the opposite sex, Malays would once again use the universal Islamic greeting “Assalamu Alaikum”,  and receive the response “Wa Alaikum Salaam” as indicated above. Members of the opposite sex meeting each other may smile at each other, they may even bow a little, but they may not touch.  This rule of not touching extends to into other areas as well, including hugging or embracing, putting one hands on another person’s  shoulders or other parts of the body in a familiar fashion  and so on.  In short any sort of physical contact between sexes is prohibited. To some extent even married couples often observe this practice in public.