FACTORS INFLUENCING FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS IN MALAY SOCIETY
University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The discussion in this paper focuses on the factors that influenced family relationships in Malay society. There are six major factors identified namely: age, seniority, power and authority, gender, collateral distance, marriage, residential patterns and family obligations. Emphasis is given to the role of Islam and Malay kinship system in determining the nature of those relationships. Islam is the core element of Malay culture, and Islamic principles have become the guiding principles for social organizations, activities, and relationships, including family relationships among the Malays. Kinship system also provides the basis for family organizations and relationships, but its principles should not contradict those of Islam. Otherwise both sets of principles are allowed to co-exist.
Family relationships, Islam, kinship system, age, seniority, power, authority, gender, marriage, family obligations.
Generally, relationships within the family system involve three categories of relatives, namely, blood relatives, afiinal relatives, and those who are recruited into the family system through adoption. There are different sets of rules and principles to be observed when a person interacts with family members from different categories of relatives mentioned above. In Malay society, these rules and principles of family relationship are determined to a large extent by Islam and the kinship system practiced by the society.
FACTORS INFLUENCING FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS
The following discussion focuses on the factors that influenced family relationships in Malay society which include age and seniority; power and authority; gender; collateral distance; marriage; residential patterns; and family obligations.
Age and Seniority
Within the Malay family circle, a person is respected not so much on account of his social standing, but on the basis of his position in the family system. It has always been the norm in Malay society for younger family members to respect their elders and to make the first move in any form of interaction between both parties. For example, courtesy calls and family visits on festive occasions should first be made or initiated by a junior family member to a senior one, and not vice versa even though the senior member does not occupy high position in society.
Respect towards the elders may takes various forms which include: non-intervention by the young in adult discussions, deference, proper manners and body positions, the use of low-toned language, and the use of proper terms of address towards the seniors in daily communications. To the [traditional] Malays, young people are presumed to be lacking in knowledge and not having mature thoughts and ideas. Respect and deference towards senior members of the family are also manifested in the usage of language as well as in body positions shown while communicating with them in person.
Power and Authority
The superior position of husband-cum-father in the family system and also in society in general, is the norm in almost all cultures. In Muslim societies including Malay society, the dominant position husband in the family system lead scholars to categorize it as being patriarchal (Winstedt, 1956). However, being head of the family and a person with authority, it does not mean that the husband could exercise absolute authority over his wife and children to the extent of enslaving them for his personal gains. In Islam, women also have conjugal rights, and they would not have to submit totally to their husbands’ demands if those demands were beyond limits allowed by Islam.
In Malay society, it is regarded shameful for a person to live under his wife’s control. The Malays regard such phenomenon as, ‘hidup di bawah telunjuk isteri’ (literally: to live under wife’s pointing finger). Any man who is under his wife’s control is said to be lelaki dayus, i.e., a weak husband with no dignity. However, studies by Firth (1963) shows that in matters pertaining the family’s economy, it is usually the wife who acts as the banker. In any economic transaction, the husband would always refer to the wife. Djamour (1959), also points out that bitter conjugal quarrel would occur if a man spent a large share of his earnings without his wife’s approval. Husbands who attempt to cheat by keeping some money for their personal use were severely reprimanded by their wives for deceit and selfishness. Banks (1983) also reports that women have an important say in all of the major decisions that their husbands make. Through their passive role, they will have the prerogative of criticizing bad decisions made although they should never do this in public.
Power and authority in the Malay family system is not only confined to that of a husband over his wife but also of parents over children and of elder siblings over the younger ones. The father being head of the family has full right and authority over his children from the time they were born until they come of age to start a family of their own. During that period the welfare of his children is entirely his responsibility.
In Malay-Muslim society, the father is the rightful wali (guardian) who legally gives his daughter’s hand away in marriage. He has the power to stop his daughter from marrying a person whom he dislikes. The majority of Muslim scholars agreed that the approval of the guardian is a condition, without which the marriage contract would become null and void. The most senior paternal uncle has authority over a person’s life when his father or his paternal grandfather dies. The paternal uncle would also be the rightful guardian or wali who gives away his niece’s hand in marriage. However, in matrilineal Malay society, the reverse scenario occurs when maternal uncle has more right on a person’s life than the paternal uncle. Maternal uncle known as buapak kedim holds authority over his sister’s family, and it is him who decides upon matters of importance that involve the life and welfare of his maternal nephews and nieces.
The Malays also recognize the high position or status of elder siblings in the family system. Upon the death of the father, the eldest brother (abang long) would assume responsibility as family head. He is the center of authority (kepala kuasa) who commands respect from the younger siblings. Important family matters are mostly referred to him for advice and consent. Unmarried sisters would submit to his authority and if there were no senior paternal male relatives around, the eldest brother would be the legal guardian or wali who would give away his sister(s) in marriage.
Gender is an important factor that determines the nature of family relationships in the Malay family system. This involves the issues pertaining to gender differentiation, gender inequality, and gender discrimination. The Malays in general emphasize role expectations in relationships between males and females in the family system. The husband is assigned the instrumental role of breadwinner, whilst the wife is assigned the role of homemaker. The Malays regard the wife as ibu rumah or the nucleus of the family. The nickname of orang rumah or the person who manages the house given by the husband to his wife explicitly explains the expected role position a woman should undertake when she gets married. Malay parents also give the nickname of orang dapur (literally: the kitchen-person or the person who manages the kitchen) to their new-born baby girl, as opposed to the nickname of orang balai (litterally: the hall-person or the person who waits in the hall) to their new-born baby boy. Traditionally, it has been the society’s perception that a woman’s place is always in the home, as expressed in a Malay saying, “biar tinggi mana pendidikan bagi anak perempuan, akhirnya beliau ke dapur juga” (no matter how educated a daughter is, she eventually ends up in the kitchen). Only lately (after Independence), that Malay parents give equal opportunity to their daughters to acquire good education alongside with their male siblings, which later enable them to move out from their traditional private domain, which is the home. Even so, their movement as well as their involvement in the public domain is relatively restricted compared to males.
Relationship between husband and wife in Malay society is generally cordial although they seldom express it openly especially when other peoples are around. In public, their relationship tends to be a bit formal when the wife or the husband address each other by the name like “Ahmad” or “Aminah” and not by the affectionate name like sayang, meaning “dear” or “darling” which they otherwise would do in private. Generally, the wife would address her husband by using the term abang (literally: brother), and the husband would just address his wife by her name, like “Mah” (short of Fatimah). The tendency for both of them to behave formally in public is also shown by a degree of social distance that exists between them, meaning by their not being physically intimate with one another like holding hands or sitting very close to one another. By doing so it would create an impression that they were being “too much” or melampau which is considered improper. Nevertheless, Kuchiba et al., in their observation on relationship among married couples in Malay society say, “the social distance between them is not as great as in Japan, whereby formerly a couple would avoid even walking together. The Malay couples’ outward appearance is one of conjugal harmony” (1979:46).
An interesting phenomenon which is least discussed on the relationship between husband and wife in Malay society is sexual relationship. Although sex is most fundamental in any marriage, it is even so among the Malays when it becomes the subject of gossip in society. This is especially so when sex is associated with impotency for men and with barrenness for women. It has become the yardstick for a successful marriage if the couples could have at least a child after years of their being together. However, if the marriage is not blessed with any child, it would be seen as either the husband as impotent or mati pucuk or the wife as wanita mandul or a barren woman. Both mati pucuk and wanita mandul are labels embedded with negative connotations that affect the couples’ social standing in the eyes of the public.
Another important aspect related to sexual relationship between married couples in Malay society is the religious law that governs it. Under normal circumstances, it is obligatory for the wife to submit to her husband’s request for sexual favors, rejecting it is improper, and at the same time sinful from the point of view of Islam. A man could also make excuses to take another wife if he felt that his present wife is sexually inactive due to illness, or if she is proven to be a barren woman. Nevertheless, if the husband intended to enter into another marriage, he is required to submit a formal application to the religious authority in his domicile state for approval. Only upon verification of relevant documents including the written consent from the wife, that permission to contract a second marriage will be granted by the religious authority to the applicant.
Besides rules, procedures and norms to be observed by married couples in family relationship discussed above, there are also unwritten rules along gender line in parent-children relationship. For example, when a girl is still a minor, there is not much barrier in her relationship with her father, but when she comes of age and reaches maturity, the gap between them both is quite pronounced. Under most circumstances, the grown-up daughter would use the mother as intermediary to communicate with her father, especially when she would like to seek permission to go out with her friends or to ask for cash for her personal expenses. In situations when the mother is not around, because of death or of long absence due to sickness or due to her presence being needed somewhere else, for example to attend to her folks in her natal family, the grown-up daughter would be asked to stay temporarily either with one of her aunties, with any married sister of hers or with any female cousin until her mother comes back. It is regarded improper for the father to be accompanied only by his grown-up daughter, when the wife-cum-mother is not around. Nevertheless, relationship between a mother and her son(s) is relatively intimate compared to that between a father and his daughter(s) even though the son has come of age and reaches maturity. It seems that the mother is the person whom her children, irrespective of sex interact closely with, and it is the mother who pays more attention to her children’s needs and their welfare. However, this does not mean that the father is less concerned about the welfare his children, only the nature of his not being at home during their waking hours, leads to the situation where the wife has to bear the brunt of the burden of childcare.
Relationship between siblings of opposite sex is intimate when they are still small. They are even allowed to sleep together in the same room, but not the case when they come of age. If there were a number of boys and girls in the family, the brothers would be sharing room among them, so would be the sisters. However, the physical structure of traditional Malay houses does not provide compartments or rooms to house the males and females separately. Under these circumstances, parents would normally sleep in one section of the house, female children in another section, while male children would sleep together in another section of the house, probably in the living hall.
There are three sub-categories of relatives in Malay family system, the division of which is based on account of collateral distance or the degree of blood relationship one has with those relatives. The categories are: close relatives (saudara dekat), distant relatives (saudara jauh), and the more-distant relatives popularly referred to as bau-bau bacang (literally: the scent of horse-mango fruit). Close relatives comprise members of one’s immediate family including parents and siblings; parents’ siblings and their descendants; grandparents; and grandparents’ siblings and their descendants. Distant relatives on the other hand comprise those who are related to a person by blood within the range of third to fourth cousins, while the more-distant relatives (bau-bau bacang) comprise those who are related to the person by blood within the range of fifth to sixth cousins. Those beyond the range of sixth cousins are normally regarded as strangers or orang asing. Banks (1983) says, “blood or darah falls or comes through layers (lapis), and by counting the number of layers one is related to another, one may gauge closeness”.
Relationship with close relatives other than with members of one’s immediate family is normally cordial, especially if they were staying together in the same village. Normally, there would be a lot of cooperation and support from and among close relatives in family activities such as family gathering accompanied by feasts (kenduri) to commemorate various events, for example, wedding, safe delivery of a new-born child, festive celebration after the fasting month of Ramadan (Hari Raya), success in getting jobs, success in getting a place in universities, safe return from the Hajj, recovery from illness, funerals, etc. In major family events, notably weddings and funerals, close relatives who stay in places near and far would be invited. Even those who stay abroad would come back to be together with the family on such occasions. They would regard themselves as being rejected by the family circle if such important events mentioned above were organized without their knowledge. However, distant relatives do not exert much influence on a person’s life and vice-versa, unless they happened to be staying within the same locality. In most cases, distant relatives especially those who stay in places further away, where communication with them is minimal, are regarded as least important. It is very unlikely for a person to invite them to participate in major family events mentioned above. They also would not feel offended if they were left out for obvious reasons, that they too did similar thing to him. In reality, the nature of relationships with distant relatives is not much different from that with strangers.
Among close relatives, cousins especially first cousins (saudara pupu), are the people that one establishes frequent contact with. In the extended family system, relationship with cousins is as close and intimate as that with siblings. Cousins probably grow up together under the same roof, under close supervision and care from their common grandparents. In matrilineal Malay society of Negeri Sembilan, uterine parallel cousins, i.e., children of two sisters who are members of the same lineage group (perut) are also entitled to inherit the landed property (tanah pesaka) commonly owned by the females of the lineage. Because of their common descent, uterine parallel cousins are prohibited by the Adat law to marry one another. Breaching the law is tantamount to committing incest. In the past, it was punishable by death or outlawry. However, marriage between cross-cousins is most preferable, because the couples belong to different lineages and clans. A maternal uncle (buapak kedim) is more than happy to have his maternal nephew as son-in-law, because the marriage between his daughter and his nephew would bring the two lineages closer, i.e., the lineage he and his nephew belong to and that of his wife’s and daughter(s)’. It is also his nephew-cum-son in-law who would inherit his position as the lineage head upon his death.
In Malay society, marriage is an important factor for group cooperation, relationships and group unity. Marriage between relatives within the same kindred is preferable as it helps strengthen bonds between kin and family members. To the [traditional] Malays, marrying someone who is not related by blood, though permissible, would result in “blood ties becoming thinner” (ikatan darah menjadi kian cair) [Djamour, 1965].
To the Malays, marriage is not only contracted between two people, but also between two family groups. Compatibility between the two family groups is often regarded as more important than compatibility between the married couples themselves. Couples who come from diverse family backgrounds and cultures may face problems of getting support (financial, emotional and others), from kin and family members, and there is a possibility that they may not be invited to participate in important kin and family functions. To avoid the risk of being left out by the family circle, one normally conforms to the (traditional) patterns and practices. Viewed from this angle, in-group marriage is functional in fostering close relationship and unity within the family group even though there are scholars who believe that in-group marriage in Malay society would result in purebred Malays (Mahathir Mohamed, 1970).
The mechanism practiced by the Malays to preserve close family relationship through marriage is the institution of ganti tikar (literally: to change the mat). Ganti tikar is a version of sororal marriage which allows a person to marry one of his sisters-in-law upon the death of his wife. The marital link that exists between the two family groups remains intact despite the death of the female spouse. The man’s relationships with his parents-in-law (mertua) and with other affinal kin would not be affected by the new marriage. However, his [new] wife has to readjust herself and realign her position with regards to her relationship with the members of her husband’s natal family. It would not be a difficult task for her though, because she practically knows almost every member of her husband’s (former brother-in-law’s) family and relatives.
Another factor that influences family relationships is residential pattern. When family members stay together under the same roof, or in places close to one another, they interact more often and do many things together. Among the traditional Minangkabau Malays of Negeri Sembilan, members of an extended family (rumpun) stay together under the same roof in a big house known as rumah gadang. When daughters got married, they would be given separate dwelling units within the rumah gadang or rumah minang where they would stay together with their respective husbands, and raise their children. This pattern of residence is specifically meant to maintain close family relationship and to preserve family unity.
In bilateral Malay society, however, there is no specific residential rule for married couples. They could choose either to stay with the husband’s family (in patrilocal or virilocal residence), or with the wife’s family (in matrilocal or uxorilocal residence), or reverse their decision later for pragmatic and practical reasons. Unless both sets of parents were staying in the same village or kampung, the couples could physically belong to only one family group, and it is with this group that they identify themselves, or establish close relationship with.
Generally in the rural areas when married couples decide to stay together either with the husband’s family, or with the wife’s family, they do so during the first few years of marriage. Later, they normally move to stay in their own house, erected a few meters away from the parents’ house in the same compound. Over the years, when all the other siblings get married, and they may also choose to stay close to their parents’ house within the same compound, then there would be a cluster of houses (3-8 houses), forming what is known as compound households (Kuchiba, et al, 1979.)
In many instances a Malay kampung (village), besides being a territorial unit is also a kinship unit. This is due to the fact that most of the peoples staying in the village have blood ties between them. Traditionally, a Malay village was once founded by a person, and over the years, the number of its residents who have genealogical connections with the founder member, multiplies. The members of a Malay village normally have a strong attachment and sense of loyalty to the village. It is their place of birth, and it is also the place where they would want to be buried when they die.
It is true that a person will be physically detached from his family circle when he moves to stay in a new place far from home. His contact with relatives also becomes less frequent. However, relationship with parents and siblings does not change much due to physical separation, especially when there are easy means of communication available. For example in peninsular Malaysia, a person could reach home in just a matter of hours by road. Some people (especially those with ready cash or those having transport of their own) would visit folks in their home-towns more often than they would have visited other relatives who stay nearby. Besides, in the present context, communication via telephone, e-mails and SMS (short message services) is also within everybody’s means.
To the Malays, maintaining close relationships with kin and family members is not only a family obligation, but also a religious and moral duty. Islam prohibits quarrels or feelings of hostility between family members. Values that emphasize kindness, close family ties, fulfilling family obligations, etc., show that the religion (Islam) places great importance on the family relationship. A person is not considered faithful to the religion if he neglected his kin and family members, especially if he neglected his parents and turned them down in times of need and desperation. Only in the absence of son(s), grandson(s) or other close relatives who is able to bear the cost of maintenance of his parents or grandparents, may the burden be thrown on to society (Muhammad Abdul Rauf, 1994).
In Malay society, especially in the rural areas, one is expected to inform his kin and family members of any important activity to be held. He could not act alone, for fear of creating tensions in his relationships with his family and kin groups. It is normal for every family member to know what the other members are doing, to get involved in their activities, and to offer assistance if necessary. Decisions on important matters are often made collectively or upon consultation with family members. A person who disregards his family would be branded as lupa asal usul (forgets his origin). To live alone (sebatang kara) with no family to turn to for help, for advice, or for emotional comfort, is no less than being dead.
There are numerous Malay sayings and proverbs that foster family goodwill, cooperation, mutual help, and above all family unity. Among the popular ones are: ‘cincang air tidak akan putus’ (literally: water could not be cut into pieces); ‘cubit paha kanan paha kiri akan terasa’ (literally: when the right thigh is pinched, the left thigh also feels the pain); ‘biduk lalu kiambang bertaut’ (literally: when a canoe passes by, the water lettuce merges back); ‘ludah ke langit jatuh ke batang hidung sendiri’ (literally: if one spits up to the sky the saliva will fall onto his own nose; and ‘carik-carik bulu ayam, lambat laun bertangkup kembali’ (literally: a split in chicken’s feather, in no time it would merge back)
The most important family obligation is the provision of care for the aged and the infirm. Finch (1989) says biology seems to be the foundation of social obligation most obviously in the case of parents and children. Offering support to parents or children is just part of human nature. Generally the Malays are concerned about the welfare of their parents. Seldom do we hear cases of Malays sending their parents to welfare homes to be cared by strangers. Siblings would normally take turn to accommodate their elderly parents in their homes and also would contribute to take care of their hospital bills and other related expenses. In whatever circumstances children still feel that they have an obligation and a moral duty to support aged parents as a way of expressing their thanks and gratitude for what the parents have done for them over the years. In fact, most elderly parents do not need much active care. They are quite capable of managing for themselves as they have done throughout the life-course. Graham Allan says, “they may be that much frailer and find some activities harder to complete, but they generally have no desire to be seen as dependent on their children” (1996:63). However, there are limits to this. If both parents become infirm, then at least one child, particularly the one who is staying nearby, would become more involved in providing care and a level of support.
Family relationship is key relationship in society, and it is the strongest compared to other social relationships one engages in. Elements of favoritism and even nepotism in society are manifestations of strong ties that exist among family members. To the Malays, fostering close family relationship is part of their religious duties, and to disregard it, is morally and religiously wrong. As discussed above, the nature of family relationship in Malay society is determined mostly by factors strongly influenced by Islam and Malay kinship system. Both Islam and kinship system emphasize values such as respect, obedience, fidelity, authority, sincerity, solidarity, and morality in family relationships. However, most of these values have been eroded by the processes of change. Nevertheless, the Malays in general still strongly uphold Islam. Its principles still exert strong influence on Malay society and culture, including on Malay family organization, particularly on the nature of relationship among family members which forms the subject of discussion in this essay.
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 Malaysia achieved its Independence from the British on August 31, 1957 after more than 200 years of colonial rule.
 The Prophet (PBUH) said, “I am the guardian of him who is with no guardian, and the state is the guardian of whoever has no guardian” (Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, c.f Muhammad Abdul Rauf, 1994:101)