Into Their World… The Malay of Malaysia

Malay girl of East Malaysia

Making up over half the population of Malaysia, the Malay nonetheless are settled primarily on the eastern coast of the peninsula of Malaysia and in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. The Malay speak their own Malayo-Polynesian language called Bahasa Malaysia.  The majority of Malay are Muslim, indeed, according to the Malaysian constitution, a person cannot be a Malay without claiming to be Muslim.

However, many Malay are considered “poor Muslims” because they practice many of their pre-Islamic Hindu and Buddhist rituals, including commemorating important birth, marriage and death rituals, and using shamans (witch doctors) to treat illnesses. It is also common for Malay living in more rural areas to believe in ghosts and spirits.

These ancient beliefs date prior to the AD 1400s when the Malay were converted to Islam. Shortly after their conversion, they were divided into sultanates (small, competing kingdoms). This lasted for nearly five hundred years until the groups were united by British influence into one federation in 1909. Since the late 1970s Malaysia has had one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Despite this, most Malay remain poor farmers and fishermen. Over eighty percent struggle to make a living and are forced to deal with poor healthcare, a lack of clean water, no electricity, inadequate education and poor transportation. They are often dominated by the Chinese that live in the land.

Although some Malay have moved to larger cities, many dwell along the coast or near rivers and roads. Houses often have thatched roofs and are built on pilings four to eight feet off the ground. Wealthier Malay have houses with tiled roofs and wooden floor planks.

There are few Christian Malay. In the western region of Malaysia witnessing to Muslims is forbidden and the government has imposed numerous restrictions on the churches there. In eastern Malaysia there is more freedom to share the gospel. Nonetheless, more than ninety-nine percent of Malay remain unevangelized.

For information on the Malay of Malaysia, visit:

(Information compiled from

(Note: The website links above are intended to provide you with more information about this people group. Some of the links are to groups that are not religious in nature but who provide information and background that may be helpful in researching this people group. The content of each of the websites linked to is the sole responsibility of the linked-to organization. Views expressed on these websites do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of the staff or writers of Lausanne World Pulse or those of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, Institute of Strategic Evangelism, Evangelism and Missions Information Service or Intercultural Studies Department.)  

Laurie Fortunak Nichols is editorial coordinator of Lausanne World Pulse. She also serves as editorial coordinator for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and managing editor and book review editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ). She has edited a number of books, including the recent Extending God's Kingdom: Church Planting Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, with A. Scott Moreau and Gary R. Corwin.