Malaysia: General Information

Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy located in Southeast Asia. It is separated by the South China Sea into two similarly sized regions, Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo). It has a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population of over 30 million people. About half the population is ethnically Malay (Bumiputras), with large minorities of Malaysian Chinese (24.6%), Malaysian Indians (7.1%), and indigenous peoples [the Orang Asal (meaning the ‘original’, ‘natural’ or ‘aboriginal’ people), with 11% being also known as Orang Kita (meaning ‘Our People’)]. The constitution declares Islam the state religion while allowing freedom of religion for non-Muslims. This cultural and ethnic diversity and the chequered history of the country means that different types of traditional clothing are present in Malaysia.


The autochthonous peoples of the Malay Peninsula are the Austroasiatic-speaking Semang and Senoi groups. The Proto-Malays, who speak Austronesian languages, migrated to the area between 2500 and 1500 BCE. These Orang Asal peoples kept to themselves until the first traders from India arrived in the first millennium CE. The rise of historical pre-Islamic Malay kingdoms and later Islamic sultanates assimilated and Malayalised most of the historical Orang Asal people into their community, thus becoming the ancient ancestors for many present-day Malay people. Other Orang Asal groups, however, opted to retreat further inland to avoid contact with outsiders and are the ancestors of the various Orang Asal subgroups and tribes in existence today.

The present-day state of Malaysia has its origins in the Malay kingdoms which arose at the beginning of the Common Era. Between the 7th and 13th centuries, many of these small, often prosperous peninsula and Sumatran maritime trading states, became part of the Mandala of Srivijaya, whose was gained mostly through trade with India and China. The Srivijayan Era is considered the Golden Age of Malay culture; the state religion was Buddhism. The glory of Srivijaya, however, began to wane after the series of raids by the Indian Chola dynasty in the 11th century. By the end of the 13th century, the remnants of the Malay empire in Sumatra was finally destroyed by Javanese invaders. Rebellions against the Javanese rule ensued and in 1299, the Kingdom of Singapura in Temasek was established, which ruled the island kingdom until the end of the 14th century, when the Malay polity once again was attacked by Javanese invaders. The period between the 12th and 15th centuries saw the arrival of Islam and the rise of the great port-city of Malacca on the southwestern coast of the Malay Peninsula. In 1400, the Malacca Sultanate was established, inheriting much of the royal and cultural traditions of the Srivijaya era. In the 14th century, another Malay realm, the Bruneian Empire had risen to become the most powerful polity in Borneo and by the middle of the 15th century, Brunei had entered into a close relationship with the Malacca Sultanate.

By the 15th century, the Malacca Sultanate, whose hegemony reached over much of the western Malay Archipelago, had become the centre of Islamisation in the east. As a Malaccan state religion, Islam brought many great transformations into the Malaccan society and culture, and it became the primary instrument in the evolution of a common Malay identity. Over time, this common Malay cultural idiom came to characterise much of the Malay Archipelago through the Malayisation process.

In 1511, the Malaccan capital fell into the hands of Portuguese conquistadors. The Sultan maintained his overlordship on the lands outside Malacca and established the Johor Sultanate in 1528 to succeed Malacca. Between 1511 and 1984, however, numerous Malay kingdoms and sultanates fell under direct colonisation or became the protectorates of different foreign powers: from European colonial powers like Portuguese, Dutch and British, to regional powers like Siam and Japan.

Following the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 which divided the Malay Archipelago into a British zone in the north and a Dutch zone in the south, all Malay sultanates in Sumatra and Southern Borneo became part of the Dutch East Indies. Though some of Malay sultans maintain their power under Dutch control, some were abolished by the Dutch colonial government. In the Pontianak incidents during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese massacred most of the Kalimantan Malay elite and beheaded all of the Kalimantan Malay Sultans.

Those areas which became subject to the British Empire in the 18th century were known as the Straits Settlements, and the associated Malay kingdoms became British protectorates. The territories on Peninsular Malaysia were first unified as the Malayan Union in 1946. Malaya was restructured as the Federation of Malaya in 1948, and achieved independence on 31 August 1957. Malaya united with North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore on 16 September 1963. Less than two years later in 1965, Singapore was expelled from the federation.

Since its independence in 1957, Malaysia has had one of the best economic records in Asia. Its economy has traditionally been fuelled by its natural resources, but is expanding in the sectors of science, tourism, commerce and medical tourism. Today, Malaysia has a newly industrialised market economy, ranked third largest in Southeast Asia and 29th largest in the world.

1) Orang Asal
1) Orang Asal

Indigenous clothing

Orang Asal are the indigenous people and the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia. Officially, there are 18 Orang Asal tribes, categorised under three main groups according to their different languages and customs: the Semang (or Negrito), generally confined to the northern portion of the peninsula; the Senoi, residing in the central region; and the Proto-Malay (or Aboriginal Malay), in the southern region.

2) Orang Asli
2) Orang Asli

Before the creation of the ancient kingdoms, most aboriginal people wore bark costumes decorated with beads. In the times of the early kingdoms hand-crafted textiles were used, and trade from other areas brought other outfits such as silk costumes, pulicats (?) and sarongs, and jubbahs (Islamic shirts). The Orang Asli still wear clothing of natural materials, often out of tree bark, rattan and vines. Leaf fronds are sometimes crafted into headbands or other ornaments. These materials were worn for their magical powers.

3) Orang Asal
3) Orang Asal

In East Malaysia similar clothes are worn. The Orang Ulu wear hand-loomed cloths as well as tree bark fabrics. Beads and feathers are used for decoration.

4) Pua kumbu textiles
4) Pua kumbu textiles

The Iban are known for their woven pua kumbu textiles. Another well-known type of cloth is the songket of the Sarawak Malay.

5) Sonket textiles
5) Sonket textiles

In Sabah the clothing of different tribes varies to different degrees, with tribes in close proximity having similar clothing.

4) Kadazan-Dusun straw hats
6) Kadazan-Dusun straw hats

Notable ones are the Kadazan-Dusun straw hats for ladies, the dastar of the Bajau. Men from the Lotud tribe wear a headdress which has a number of fold points equal to the number of the man’s wives.

The ceremonial costume of the Iban, one of the largest tribes in Sarawak is distinct. The men wear a jacket (kelambi) of either woven cotton or bark cloth, often embroidered with special motifs, a loincloth (sirat) made of up to 6 metres of material; and a rattan cap with feathers. The women wear a tube skirt (bidang) heavily embellished with beads and shells sewn in elaborate patterns on the skirt and bells, tassels and coins added to the fringes. They also wear a rattan corset (rawai) embellished with silver or brass, a beaded collar and a sash.

Malay clothing

For both men and women, see Traditional Malay costume: baju kurung.

7) Baju kebaya
7) Baju kebaya

Another popular traditional costume for women is the baju kebaya, a more tight-fitting two-piece dress that originated from the court of the Javanese Majapahit Kingdom. This is often considered less formal than the baju kurung. It is also traditionally worn by women in Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia (national costume), the southern part of the Philippines, and southern Thailand. In addition, it is worn by the female flight attendants of Malaysia Airlines. It is sometimes made from sheer material such as silk, thin cotton or semi-transparent nylon or polyester, adorned with brocade or floral pattern embroidery.

8) Kain panjang and sarong
8) Kain panjang and sarong

A kebaya is usually worn with a sarong, or a batik kain panjang (head covering), or other traditional woven garment with a colourful motif.

9) Baju kebarung
9) Baju kebarung

Malay women also wear the baju kebarung – a combination of the baju kebaya and the baju kurung. It is loose and almost reaches the ankles. It is not one of the traditional clothes of the Malay, but an adaptation.

10) Woman in kemban and man in sarong
10) Woman in kemban and man in sarong

Prior to the wide embracing of Islam, Malay women wore kemban, a type of sarong tied just above the chest. In some instances Malay women wore three sarongs: one tied around the waist and hanging down to the ankle, one tied underneath the arms to cover the bosom and hanging down to the buttocks, and a third to cover the head, face and shoulders.

11) Songbok
11) Songbok

Malay men wear a songkok or kopiah on their heads. Songkok are generally a dark natural colour, and the kopiah is a white colour and represents purity. Women often wear scarves (tudung) on their heads.

12) Kopiah
12) Kopiah

Another traditional piece of Malay male headgear is the tengkolok (also known as destar, setanjak/tanjak and setangan kepala). It is made from long songket cloth folded and tied in particular style (solek). Nowadays, this type of headgear is worn by royalty or for ceremonial occasions or during the wedding ceremony by grooms. Weddings are also the only time that commoners are decked out in regalia fitting for a king and queen and are allowed to wear the royal colour of yellow.

13) Tengkolok
13) Tengkolok


Chinese clothing

The classical everyday clothing for men in Malaysia is a short-sleeved shirt worn over the trousers, light-weight trousers and informally, sandals for comfort.

13) Cheongsam
14) Cheongsam

The Chinese women wear the cheongsam, a one-piece dress with a high collar, diagonally closed with small clips or toggles (fabric clasps). It can sometimes have slits at the side, as is made with a soft fabric such as silk. The cheongsam is especially popular around the time of the Chinese New Year and other formal gatherings.

14) Samfoo
15) Samfoo

Older well-respected women wear a samfoo, which looks like pyjamas with a separate loose fitting top (sam) fastened by toggles and ankle length, or above the ankle, pants (fu or foo).

15) Peranakan Chinese
16) Peranakan Chinese

Old Chinese immigrants who have married Malays and adopted some of their culture are known as the Baba Nyonya or Peranakan Chinese. They wear hand-made lace-like versions of the baju kebaya, often with intricate embroidery.

16) Sari
17) Sari

Indian clothing

Indians in Malaysia as with elsewhere in the world wear saris, a cloth of 5-6 yards which is usually worn with a choli (short tight blouse) of a similar shade. The sari is wrapped around the body so that the embroidered end hangs over the shoulder. Both the sari and choli are made from a wide variety of materials. The choli originally had a high neckline and long sleeves, but since the 1960s it has become shorter with the sleeves ending above the elbow and the blouse ending above the navel.

17) Salwar kameez
18) Salwar kameez

The Punjabi salwar kameez is popular with women from northern India, and is a long tunic worn over trousers with a matching shawl.

18) Kurta pyjama
19) Kurta pyjama

Indian men wear the kurta, a knee-length shirt usually made from cotton or linen and often with trousers in a suit known as kurta pyjama (the shirt is mostly white or pastel coloured and the loose trousers with a string tie at the waist are traditionally white in colour).

19) Sherwani
20) Sherwani

Indian men otherwise wear sherwani (a coat-like garment fitted close to the body, of knee-length or longer and opening in front with button-fastenings with jodhpur-like trousers), lungi (a short length of material worn around the thighs rather like a sarong; also worn by women)  or dhoti (a cloth worn around the hips like trousers but draped to form pleats at the front).

20) Lungi
21) Lungi
21) Dhoti with kurta
22) Dhoti with kurta

Portuguese clothing

Those descended from the Portuguese often wear Portuguese-style outfits. Men wear jackets and trousers with waist sashes, while women wear broad front-layered skirts. The dominant colours are black and red.

22) Portuguese traditional costumes in Malaya
23) Portuguese traditional costumes in Malaya


Condra Jill (2013) Encyclopedia of National dress. Traditional clothing around the world. Volume 2. ISBN 978-0313-37635-8




1) Orang Asal –

2) Orang Asli –

3) Orang Asal –

4) Kadazan-Dusun straw hats –

5) Pua kumbu textiles –

6) Sonket textiles –

7) Baju kebaya –

8) Kain panjang  and sarong –

9) Baju kebarung –

10) Woman in kemban and man in sarong –

11) Songbok –

12) Kopiah –

13) Tengkolok – By Gryffindor – Own work, Public Domain,

14) Cheongsam –

15) Samfoo –

16) Peranakan Chinese –

17) Sari –

18) Salwar kameez –

19) Kurta pyjama –

20) Sherwani –

21) Lungi –×500.jpg

22) Dhoti with kurta –

23) Portuguese traditional costumes –

24) Malaysia map –




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