Culture & Religion

9 ‘Rules of Engagement’ When Visiting a Malay Home

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Now that it’s Raya, here’s a refresher on the ‘do’s and do-not’s’ when it comes to visiting a Malay home or attending a Malay function, whether for the festive occasion or not.

“Selamat pagi” and “Terima kasih” or even “Alamak!” and “Aduh!”, are some of the frequently used or familiar Malay language phrases and exclamations that expats have heard of or have even spoken themselves on arrival in Malaysia, or after being in this country only a short while.

In fact, we quite easily get used to and are comfortable speaking simple and polite Malay terms to our Malay friends and acquaintances at work or maybe at the nearby mamak restaurant. Notably, while Malays are Muslim, they are also very much Asian, with so much of what is good in both of these identities found inherently in them. Most of them are basically a warm and friendly race with a deep love for God, family, friends. and country besides having a communal kampung (village) spirit to help others. So this brings to mind the question, “What does one do or say or what are the traditional customs and etiquette one should follow when visiting a Malay home?”

Before delving deeper into this ‘often asked and pondered’ subject, it is interesting to note that Malaysia’s population comprises roughly 50.1% Malays, 22.6% Chinese, 6.7% Indians, 11.8% indigenous, other 0.7% and non-citizens 8.2%. The Malay language is the national language of Malaysia, and most widely used language among locals, while English is an important second language spoken by many Malaysians too. Also, Malaysia has obviously progressed and changed so much and profoundly over the years, however, its’ many races and cultures have not lost much of their customs and traditions.

For the average expat who truly wants to experience and get to know Malaysia and its people well, will sooner or later, find themselves, invited to a Malay home or attending an official Malay function. Therefore, it is good if not important to be aware of the customs and culture or the ‘Rules of Engagement’, figuratively speaking, for attending one of these occasions, as follows.

1. Making an appointment

If you are formally visiting a Malay friend or acquaintance in their home, it’s best to make an appointment, (provided they have not been giving an invitation with an appointed time already) with at least half a day or a full day notice. But if these visitors and the Malay hosts are so familiar with each other already or that they drop by so often then there is usually no need for the usual formalities. This rule, of course, tends to apply universally throughout most cultures and races of all nations, and the Malay culture in this instance is no different from the rest of the world, although they do have certain finer points that are uniquely theirs.

2. Don’t show up empty-handed

Bringing along a gift (everybody loves one!) when visiting Malay friends or acquaintances is recommended especially for special occasions, as giving and receiving gifts is also very much a part of the Malay culture and heritage. Whether for a wedding or birthday or new born baby gift or for just a friendly visit, having the gift wrapped nicely and decoratively is a good idea as Malays are a colourful race who love vibrant and decorative things. Chocolates, flowers, food hampers, baby toys and apparel, tea sets, and mementos are some of the types of gifts one can consider getting for a gift depending on the occasion. If going round during ‘tea-time’, bringing along a snack or treat is always welcome! However, if the gift is something edible, it is of utmost importance that the product be ‘Halal’ for Muslim consumption. Click here to find out more about what are some ‘Halal’ foods.

3. Dress code does apply

Dress code is important especially if you, the visitor, are not very familiar with the Malay family you are visiting. Clothing should be decent if not appropriate to the occasion, with men wearing long pants (not too tight-fitting) and a short-sleeved shirt or T-shirt. Women should at least wear a top with sleeves, either short or long, and skirts should be below knee level while long pants are most acceptable. Long dresses are recommended as it is a sign of respect to the hosts. All of which should not be tight fitting. Women should also avoid wearing shorts and clothing that expose too much of their skin, like at their legs and shoulders and certainly not showing any cleavage either.

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4. Observing the right days and visiting hours is good

While most days are suitable to visit Malay friends as they are generally a welcoming bunch, weekends and public holidays are still the best, and visiting hours are recommended not be earlier than 9.30 am and not later than 10.00 pm. It might be more polite not to visit during lunch and dinner times, that is, 1pm to 2pm, and 7pm to 8pm respectively, unless specifically invited to visit during this time. Late afternoon from 3pm to 6pm is an ideal time to visit. These time ranges can vary somewhat, give or take, half an hour or so. For weekdays, observing visiting hours after dinner time, is ideal. The best would be between 8pm and 10pm since 7.30pm – 8pm is usually prayer time in many Muslim households and it’s considered impolite to visit at this time.

5. When children are brought along for the visit

If the visitor brings along their children, they should make sure that their kids are also appropriately dressed and well-behaved. Children should not make a nuisance of themselves or make a mess in the host’s home, so bringing along a toy or gadget of theirs to keep them occupied isn’t such a bad idea. That being said, as Malaysians are generally family-oriented, children visitors are often received with joy from Malay hosts and they are quite tolerant of their antics. 

6. Body contact – yes or no?

Shaking hands and hugging is permitted, if not encouraged, between the same sexes. But visiting males should keep a respectful distance from female Malay hosts. In fact, there should be absolutely no physical contact unless the Malay female host on her own part extends out her hand to shake hands first, as a gesture of respect and goodwill or as a mere formality. Then of course, the male visitor should shake her hand. The reason being, whilst being aware or sensitive, to this issue, is important as sometimes Muslim women do undergo certain religious rituals or a time where physical contact with men of any sort is not permitted and this should be respected.

7. Never wear shoes inside the house

Like most Asian customs, shoes should not be worn into the Malay home but instead taken off before one enters the main door or at the foyer where there is a shoe rack or space allocated to leave your shoes. This is a sign of respect and also for the need not to bring in dust or dirt from outside into the home.

8. How long to visit

A normal visit should be around one to three hours as if you leave in a hurry, this might come across as rude. If you only stay for 15 minutes or so, it will leave a rather odd chill even before things get ‘warmed up’. And on the other extreme, it creates an awkward situation if you overstay your welcome by being encamped in the living room for too many hours.

9. Showing respect and being polite is important

Lastly but not least, in a formal visit, showing respect is important as it paves the way for better and closer ties. And when one adds politeness, goodwill will surely be fostered even more so between the visitors and the Malay hosts. Speaking some Malay greetings and polite phrases is highly encouraged if one wants to ‘break the ice’ quickly, so to speak, and will certainly bring forth a lot of smiles between both parties. Because the Malay culture and its traditions stress much on respect and love (kasih sayang) for elders, so too, visitors should be extra respectful of Malays who are older and present at the home. Do try to avoid interrupting conversations of older persons present but should one want to say something important, that needs to be spoken at that time, saying ‘minta maaf’ (excuse me) before speaking helps a lot if not being exceedingly forthcoming.

So, for the expat who does get the opportunity to visit a Malay home in the near future, by knowing some of the rules of etiquette and customs of visiting a Malay home, will truly find it beneficiary for all concerned if not a fulfilling experience. In fact, fostering friendships and visiting with the other various races of Malaysia, in their homes whether on normal days or during festive seasons (which are a handful) in this country is also a ‘must do’ experience which foreigners will certainly not regret.

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