Culture & Religion

English to BM Phrasebook – Part 8: Sayings

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Once you’ve mastered, or at least kind of know, Malay words and basic phrases, you can spruce up your conversation by adding in some sayings. There are hundreds of Malay expressions and you’ll take a lifetime to learn them all. So, for this part of the phrasebook series, we’ll look at two types: sayings (peribahasa) and idioms (simpulan bahasa).

Peribahasa (Sayings)

In a broader sense, sayings can also include similes and metaphors. An example of a peribahasa is the ever popular, sikit-sikit, lama-lama jadi bukit. Directly translated, this becomes ‘little by little, eventually it becomes a hill’. This peribahasa basically means ‘slowly but surely’, and that can be deduced once you know what the words mean. One instance this saying can be used is to encourage saving money – little by little, you’ll eventually ammas a fortune. Sikit-sikit, lama-lama jadi bukit.

Many sayings work in the same way, a little lesson in a sentence or a metaphor to emphasise something. One thing to note is that a peribahasa has to be a full sentence. You’ll find some common and not so common peribahasa in the table below that, if used well, will surely impress your local friends.

Where possible, I have also included an English equivalent of the peribahasa.

Bahasa Melayu sayingsMeaningEnglish equivalent
Katak di bawah tempurungSomeone who doesn't know what's happening around themLiving under a rock
Bagai kera menjadi monyetNo difference between two people
Bagai kera mendapat bungaDoesn't know the value of things
Bagai aur dengan tebingWorking together for mutual benefit
Bagai mencurah air ke daun keladiAdvice or suggestions are ignoredTalking to a wall / falling on deaf ears
Genggam bara api, biar sampai menjadi arangWhen doing something, see it through to the endIn for a penny, in for a pound / go the whole hog
Melentur buluh biarlah dari rebungnyaEducate children when they are youngStrike while the iron is hot
Duduk sama rendah, berdiri sama tinggiTwo people have the same social status
Berat sama dipikul, ringan sama dijinjingWorking together through tough and eay timesA trouble shared is a trouble halved
Kacang lupakan kulitA person who forgot their roots or where they come from
Masuk kandang kambing mengembek, masuk kandang kerbau menguakFollow the laws and culture of where you areWhen in Rome, do as the Romans do
Sedikit-dikit lama-lama jadi bukitSlowly but surelyslowly but surely
Bak cendawan tumbuh selepas hujanToo many things at one timeLike mushrooms after rain
Sediakan payung sebelum hujanBe prepared
Sebab nila setitik, rosak susu sebelangaBecause of one persons bad behaviour, the whole community gets a bad nameOne bad apple spoils the lot


  • Bagai and bak translates to ‘like’ in this case, so the phrases that start with bagai are specifically similes.
  • These expressions can be used in any sentence in the same way you would in English.
  • It’s helpful to remember that most people don’t use metaphors and sayings in BM conversations as often as in English conversations. Expressions are considered a little more formal and literary.

Simpulan Bahasa (Idioms)

Like idioms in English, simpulan bahasa are two to three words that, when put together, mean something else. One clear example is banyak mulut. When directly translated, it means ‘many mouths’, but the actual meaning of the phrase is ‘talkative’.

I’ve included the direct English translations of BM simpulan bahasa just for a bit of fun.

BM phrasesMeaningDirect English translation
Ada anginMood swingsGot wind
Anak buahNiece / nephewFruit child
Batu apiAgitatorStone fire
Rendah hatiHumbleLow heart
Tangan kosongDisappointedEmpty hand
Lintah daratUsurerLand leech
Gaji butaBeing paid for not doing workBlind pay
Harga diriSelf esteemSelf worth
Durian runtuhUnexpected good luckFalling durian
Cakar ayamVery bad writing, illegibleChicken scratch
Hidung tinggiSnobbishHigh nose
Lidah bercabangSomeone whose story keeps changing and cannot be trustedForked tongue
Buaya daratPlayboyLand crocodile


  • Simpulan bahasa is used more often in daily conversations compared to peribahasa, some more common than others.

If you spot a mistake, please let us know in the comments. And if you happen to know any English equivalents that we’ve not managed to match, do let us know!

Also, if you need any clarification, leave a comment down below and we’ll try out best to help you unravel the mysteries of BM. Check out the entire series of English to BM Phrasebooks here. 

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