“Malay” = “Muslim” in the Federal Constitution?


Article 160 (“Interpretation”) of the Federal Constitution defines the term “Malay” in the following manner:

“Malay” means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and [is of Malaysian/Singaporean origin]*.

*I have paraphrased the words in square brackets for brevity, as they are not relevant to the discussion that follows.

As we can see, there are several conditions that must be met before someone meets the constitutional definition of a “Malay”. Now, we can best understand the effect of this definition by turning it into a logical statement:


X is a person who professes the religion of Islam
X habitually speaks the Malay language
X conforms to Malay custom
X is of Malaysian/Singaporean origin


X is a “Malay”

Because the conditions are cumulative (i.e., they must all be met), it would be equally true to say:


X is not a person who professes the religion of Islam
X does not habitually speaks the Malay language
X does not conform to Malay custom
X is not of Malaysian/Singaporean origin


X is not a “Malay”

Now imagine the 25-year-old son of a Malaysian Malay couple who is brought up in Tokyo, going to a Japanese school and speaking to his parents in English and Japanese. Is the son a Malay? In our everyday, racial understanding of the word “Malay”, most of us would say yes. But for the purposes of the Constitution, if the son does not “habitually [speak] the Malay language“, then he is by definition not a “Malay”.

Now imagine that the son speaks Malay, but does not conform to Malay custom (whatever that entails). Perhaps he wears his shoes indoors, has a Mohawk, eats with chopsticks and calls his parents by their first names. Is he a Malay? Again, if the son is judged not to “[conform] to Malay custom“, he is by definition not a “Malay”.

Finally, imagine that the son speaks Malay and conforms to Malay custom, but has converted to the Shinto religion, and does not follow any Islamic teachings. Is he a Malay? If he does not “[profess] the religion of Islam“, then he is by definition not a “Malay”.

Does it make sense to say that a Malay must be a Muslim? In a sense it does – but only in the sense that if a person ceases to be a Muslim then he ceases to be a Malay. This is because the question of whether or not a person is a “Malay” is a question of law, a matter of constitutional definition.

In contrast, whether or not a person “professes the religion of Islam” must be a question of fact, to be determined by a competent authority on the basis of factual evidence, just as the question of whether he “habitually speaks the Malay language” and “conforms to Malay custom” undoubtedly are.

It is surely obvious that if a person does not as a matter of fact profess the religion of Islam, if he does not in his heart believe in Allah and the Last Day, then no law in the world can make him do so simply by definition.

Andrew is a Penangite with plans for world domination. Having escaped from a (metaphorical) dungeon where he was kept for five years by his enemies in the City of London, he is now finishing an LLM in human rights and constitutional law at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He intends to crush all who stand in his way (but in a nice, human-rights-compliant manner).

Andrew (@drewyong) is an afficionado of the poetry of Dr Seuss and the music of the Muppet Show. In his spare time he seeks to take over the world.

39 replies on “Myth of the Constitution: “A Malay is automatically a Muslim””

  1. Religion is religion, no matter what. Of course in racist malaysia, our History books tell us that we have 2 different types of religion – agama wahy uand agama bukan wahyu (abrahamic faiths and non-abrahamic faiths).
    buddhism, hinduism, sikhism etc all fall within the non-abrahamic religions. they are still religions as Religion is an organized collection of belief systems, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. So to those super sensitive Malays, learn to accept and respect other people's religions first before you guys can pass judgment on all the followers of the so called ajaran sesat!
    Does Islam really preach you Malays that other people of other faiths are worthless? Why is Islam promoting racism and this mentality that Muslims are above all?

  2. remember what apostles mean: In the case of the Christian apostles, the message they were sent away to convey was the message of the "good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ", and they were sent by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to the Jews.

    i'm so happy you've found jesus retwarp .
    i'll testify about you in church . AMEN

  3. Why in the world would someone that doesnt believe in Islam what more not a malay have questions over what Malay should be and Islam should and hiding behind Contitutions and Logic? To legitimate something? Perhaps, Atheist Malay frens? Apostles?

    Are you guys threathen by Islam? Or by Malays? Which one?

    By logic, if you cant see it, then it is not exist at that time at that place.

    Therefor, i cannot see ur brain, so u have no brain.

    Logic is not it?

    P/s: mind explaining soul with ur logic plz?

    1. 'To legitimate something? Perhaps, Atheist Malay frens? Apostles?'
      lol, retwarp, now you're just accusing andrew of attempting to legitimate 'apostles' with his logic. you're such a christian, JESUS BLESS YOU :)
      in jesus name

  4. Conman, et al.: The bit I paraphrased was as "is of Malaysian/Singaporean origin" actually reads

    "(a) was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore; or

    "(b) is the issue of such a person;

    In reality this requirement is nowadays rarely significant, because it only requires one of your ancestors to be born in Malaysia/Singapore pre-Merdeka. It doesn't matter if 3 of your grandparents were born in Kerala as long as one of your grandparents was born in Malaya/Singapore.

    According to my reading of the definition, the Chinese descendant of pre-Merdeka Straits-born Chinese, if he converts to Islam, habitually speaks Malay and conforms to Malay custom, will be a Malay according to the Constitution.

    1. It is stated somewhere in the constitution Singapore Malays entering Malaysia are Malay. It did not say African Malays or even Indonesia Malays entering Malaysia are Malay.
      Malay is defined in (a) or (b).
      In (a), it is more stringent as it refers to the descendants of Malay parent born on / before Merdeka Day in Malaysia & Singapore only. Naturally all their grandchildren would be Malay.

      In (b), What does THE ISSUE OF THE PERSON mean?. Is the issue of the person referencing to any particular time? Which categories of people will likely be qualified as Malay under (b)?

  5. Hey,

    I find it fascinating that skin colour has absolutely nothing to do with what is the constitutional definition of a “Malay”. In fact, if a person’s name was not automatically determinative of what would constitute conformity to Malay custom…. then someone that is ethnically (say) Chinese and has a Chinese name could potentially fall under this definition.

    If the above is correct, this does not seem to at all correspond to how the man in the street would define this person (“Ah Kow”?) as someone that is Malay, even if constitutionally he or she could be defined as one.

    Best regards,

  6. dsk,

    Are you still in primary school?

    The reason I ask is, because I don't want to come across as being a paedophile.

  7. Ali Davidson

    i love to hear from a people that think he has a complicated mind.

    Why you dont think it in complicated form. Your formula of thinking seems flabbergasted.

    from your complicated mind, it seems that you, thinking that me, schizophrenic. not a problem if you want to, i also didn't care. hahahaha. So think that a schizophrenic people saying here. But dont you know, a schizophrenic people also win Nobel prize.

    Thats why you also an idiot. The "we" that i used is a third person. Commonly used in scientific literature.

    Your complicated mind couldn't find this, go back to school and learn. exclusive term "we".

    Oh yeah, your brain is so complicated and cannot compared to preschool students, go to university and learn "better". hahaha

    Oh yeah, your brain also fully powered with p**sy word. not a problem also. we say that your theory of p**sy failed.

    because your p*n*s could not even make all girl get pregnant because not all girl is same. your theory pwned.

    You want to smoke, oh yeah i give you some. Want more?



    Oh yeah, your complicated mind could not found Nobel Prize?

    I just put a typo, not a problem your brain also could not find it. broken calculator, it seems.

    Oh yeah, SMS your dick to me for a licking.

  8. Syed Hamid Albar's father came to Malaysa in the 30s. So he did not satisfy condition no. 4. But he became an UMNO stalwart. And his son rode on that.

    Likewise with Khir Toyo's father.

  9. dsk,

    Lol. Thanks for the reply homie! Glad to see you have a sense of humour.

    I don’t understand, why do you always refer to yourself as “we”. Are you schizophrenic or are you a siamese twin and both of you are talking to me? Or are you referring to yourself and God? If you, please tell me more about your God? Like did he design your penis? And did he also require you to circumcise it? And why didn’t he just create you with a circumcised penis?

    Voodoo? Dog? What have you been smoking man? Whatever it is, can you please send me some? Voodoo Dog sounds like an awesome trip! I’ma hoping I see an Abrahamic Pussy as well.

    Logic? Every girl? Who the hell have you been having sex with man? More so, are you inserting your penis into the right hole? Maybe that’t the problem!

    What’s a Nobel price? RM4.20? The price that Nobel buys his opium for?

    I ain’t interested in no Nobel Prize man, I’m only interested in chillin with you man! DSK, put some peanut butter on my nipples and lick it!

  10. Ali Davidson

    Hello bro.

    Oh, so you have difficult mind. Good but, sorry to say your mind is useless.

    When you are trying to create fuss here, talking about your voodo thing, we also never care of your life. if you want to pretend to be a dog also we dont care.

    Thats true you could kill some body. oh yeah, but dont forget others can too. Dont think only can do that.

    You said, “Oh if i jerk off into a girl, there will be life in 9 months man. Once again…..BOOYA BIG TIME!”

    Oh yeah, do you think that logic can apply to every girl? Think again with your complicated mind. hahahaha

    You also said,”I can create sand too of course. Come and see me, I’ll take a nice big dump on you. Wait for a few days and my dump will turn to sand! Once again man, for the outro…..ABRACABOOYA!”

    ahahaha ridiculous answer. i also can said that but, think wisely. dumping with that answer is not a solution. Oh yeah, instead of jerk of with non knowledgeable answer, why dont you find something that lead you to a Nobel price huh?

  11. dsk,

    Wassup home boi?!

    Simple? Hey, man, I have a difficult mind alright. I believe in the riders of rohan, a village of hobbits, a pack of wild and crazy orcs and goblins and not to mention bloody cool wizards and hairy dwarfs. Oh, how about the elves of lothlorien? Or those uber cool Nazguls….BOOYA!

    Of course I cannot stop death. Who on earth can? But I can cause death! Booya bitch!

    Yeah I can make life from my own hand. When I jerk off, I release semen which contain sperms, which are living cells, that's life to me man! Booya.

    Oh if i jerk off into a girl, there will be life in 9 months man. Once again…..BOOYA BIG TIME!

    I can create sand too of course. Come and see me, I'll take a nice big dump on you. Wait for a few days and my dump will turn to sand! Once again man, for the outro…..ABRACABOOYA!

  12. @Ali Davidson

    So, you are believing Frodo Baggins.

    Simple mind you have there. Live your live to frodo baggins and get your ring. we never care for your living. If your frodo gives your live, go on with your faith.

    oh yeah, about the soul thing. No problem. You cannot stop death too? Could you make lives from your own hand? Create your own sand too!

  13. My religion has a kitab and it's older than the qoran.

    It's called Kama Sutra and I practise its teachings religiously

  14. Dear Born,

    Like I said, I believe in Frodo Baggins.

    A proper religion? What do you mean by "proper religion"? Is there an "improper religion"? Is there a "semi proper" religion too then? What are the characteristics of a proper religion?

    At which point in time does a religion become a denomination? At which moment does a religion become a sect? At which juncture is a religion a cult? I'm not sure, please tell me!

    Also, please tell me, must something be written on paper to be a religion? I thought religion is a "way of life"? So, is life so simple that everything about it has already been written on paper?

    How do you know what's written on paper is the word of God? Were you there when God was saying it? It could have just been bullshit by whoever who wrote it? How do you know the person who wrote it was truthful and honest? Did you know him personally?

    Well, as for me, like I said, I believe in Frodo Baggins because I have read about him in the Lord of the Rings. And I believe J.R.R. Tolkien is a honest and truthful man. I haven't met him no, so I'm not sure if he is really an honest and truthful man but I'm going to believe he is.

    Of course I don't believe in God. Don't be silly! I believe in Frodo Baggins. I have read about Frodo Baggins and I believe in him.

    What is this soul? I don't believe in this soul thing. I know for a fact, that my lungs is taking in oxygen that oxygenates my blood which is pumped by my heart which is all powered by the food I eat and whose motion is controlled by the nerves from my brain. No soul. Haven't found a single soul.

    So, I worship Frodo Baggins because I think he was a brave little Hobbit who battled against the forces of evil to relinquish the One Ring in the fires of Mordor. He is so awesome! I think Frodo Baggins is more powerful than God!

  15. Hello “learned” friend, if you are really LLM student, you should have finished reading Article 160 before writing your article. You see my friend, there are 2 conditions attached to the Article 160, which basically said that the definition applies to those who claimed to be Malay at the time of Merdeka and not now. Faham?

  16. hmmmmmm reading the above, i reckon we got a Homer in our midst.

    as in Simpson. ^_^

    “Homer: I’m not a bad guy! I work hard, and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to Hell?”

  17. dear ali davidson,

    religion is about beliefs have to agree with that. Do you believe in the existance of God?

    A proper religion would have kitab or bible which can be said as the word from God and guidance.

    You can't see God, so do you belief in Him? How do you Ali get your soul? No you cant't see it. U just living is that so?

    Regarding Malay = Muslim in Malaysia I would think relevant since according to Islam, when A muslim convert, the penalty is death. But Malaysia is not an Islamic country and that's why it is not implimented

  18. Born – many Islamic scholars including Yusuf Al-Qaradawi disagree that the penalty for apostasy in the Shari’ah is death.

  19. Rlowc,

    "Ajaran sesat" doesn't make sense. There is no such thing as "ajaran sesat" in Religion because all religions merely consists of beliefs.

    It doesn't matter whether I believe in Allah or I believe in Frodo Baggins. You and I both have never seen Allah or Frodo Baggins before. So, it is therefore just a Belief in it. Anyone is free to believe in anything.

    I can believe you have a 3 inch cock, but unless you show it to me to prove me wrong, then it will just be my belief that you have a 3 inch cock. Put another way, I have Faith that you have a cock that is no bigger than 3 inches.

    If you think there is such a thing as "ajaran sesat", then Christianity would be an "ajaran sesat" of Judaism. And so will Islam be an "ajaran sesat" of Christianity and Judaism. Buddhism will also be an "ajaran sesat" of Hinduism. Sikhism will be an "ajaran sesat" of Islam and Hinduism. We would all be "sesat"!

    If you want freedom of religion, you have to accept all religions, even the ones you deem "ajaran sesat".

    Now, go get lost (sesat)!

  20. Ahmed Kamal – According to a 2007 article I read, five states (Pahang, Perak, Malacca, Trengganu & Sabah) have provisions punishing apostasy, involving maximum penalties of imprisonment of one to three years, a fine of RM3,000 to 5,000, and in one state up to 6 lashes. In three states (Malacca, Sabah, Kelantan), the apostate may also be put in rehabilitative detention in a ‘faith’ rehabilitation centre for up to 6-36 months, whereas in another five states (Perlis, Kedah, Penang, Selangor, Johore & Sarawak) and the Federal Territories there is no provision for punishment or recognition of apostasy. As previously noted, Negri Sembilan has provision for judicial recognition of apostasy, and Sarawak in practise recognises apostasy through the State Islamic Affairs Department.

  21. Thanks for the judgement quote Andrew, good to see an example of how Article 160 can be abused. The myth that I understand now is that, 'A Malay can only be a Muslim and never change', and that such interpretation has resulted in religion being forced on a person. At the time of Lina Joy's case a friend told me about the apostasy process in N9, but its only legal to be an apostate in Wilayah Persekutuan..it almost sounded like she'd have to go through the process in N9 and teleport to Wilayah to avoid getting jailed.

    Anyway, thanks for the reply.

  22. "As Malays are by definition Muslim, their kids must be Muslim as well, so it is true that a Malay is automatically a Muslim."

    Ahmed Kamal – While it is true that a minor's religion is determined by his/her parent(s), there is nothing in the Constitution that says that a Muslim of full age cannot change his religion. Article 11 in fact states that every person "has the right to profess and practise his religion". The position post-Lina Joy is that a Muslim must obtain a declaration of apostasy from the relevant state syariah authorities before he can profess and practise any other religion. Whether or not this is possible is a matter of state law (it is possible in Negri Sembilan and in Sarawak).

    But the following is an excerpt from the Lina Joy Court of Appeal judgment: "The learned judge heard the originating summons and dismissed it. Among his reasons were the following. The appellant being originally a Malay, by reason of the definition of "Malay" in clause 2 of Article 160 of the Federal Constitution, with its requirement of professing the religion of Islam, the appellant will remain a Malay to her dying day and cannot renounce Islam. The freedom to profess and practise the religion of one's choice guaranteed by clause (1) of Article 11 does not include freedom of choice of religion."

    So while the Art 160 argument does not appear to have played a part in the Court of Appeal and Federal Court, certainly it appears at least to have convinced/confused the judge in the High Court, and it keeps cropping up whenever the issue is discussed.

  23. I am confused. Is Malay a ethnic group or a religion?

    But you have Chinese muslim, buddist, christian etc

    You have Indian muslim, hindu, christian etc

    But Malay?

  24. I don't understand the title of the article. Its not a myth, its a written fact in the Constitution that a Malay must meet those 4 conditions to be considered one. It is an ethnicity that exists purely as a social construct, with no DNA test to verify it. Its a construct with religion as a requirement, which I think is a bit sad.

    In this country, a child born to Muslim parents must be Muslim regardless of race. As Malays are by definition Muslim, their kids must be Muslim as well, so it is true that a Malay is automatically a Muslim. I haven't met a Malay who says he/she is Muslim because of Article 160, have you? I'm not being sarcastic, I really want to know.

    What bothers me is that we have people being born into a faith and living in a country where your religion is associated with your look (the Malay look), and religious officers can clamp down on your freedom. What happens to those Malays who were born Muslims but never embraced the faith? What happens to those who can't fast for medical reasons during Ramadan? They are forced to pretend they are Muslim due to their label of Malay, which isn't right.

    I have met Malays who refuse to accept me as one, because I don't speak Malay, I'm weak in knowledge of Malay culture, and don't practice its customs. Can you imagine what a Western country would be like if its assumed that all white people are Christians and anyone claiming/behaving otherwise is ostracised or worse? Mixing in religion with ethnic definitions just doesn't work.

  25. There is no need to define or segregate by ethnicity of faith but understand the below term :

    *** Jus Soli ***

    Jus soli (Latin: right of the soil), also known as birthright citizenship, is a right by which nationality or citizenship can be recognized to any individual born in the territory of the related state.

    The International Law Commission at its fifth session in 1953 produced both a Draft Convention on the Elimination of Future Statelessness, and a Draft Convention on the Reduction of Future Statelessness. ECOSOC approved both drafts.

    There are 21 Articles, I list the most important below :

    Article 1(1)

    (Contracting) States shall grant their nationality to persons, otherwise stateless, born in their territory (subject to Article 1(2)).


    *** The grant may be by virtue of the birth, or upon application by or on behalf of the person so born. *** This is (Jus Soli)

    Statelessness creates problems for states and disadvantages for those left stateless, to wit:

    * Diminished civil rights in comparison to the nationals of the states where they reside. This may occur despite the ideals espoused in the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. The same diminished civil rights, though of a lesser magnitude are imposed via APARTHEID and BUMIPUTRAISM here in Malaysia and are thus untenable.

  26. Cranberry – In my view, ethnicity is a social construct – if a person is accepted by the Malay community as a Malay, then he is a Malay. I don't believe that the Constitution's definition has any application beyond the realm of constitutional interpretation. The reason I have written this article is because I am fed up of people saying that the definition in Article 160 forces Malay people to be Muslims, when it does no such thing.

  27. dear cranberry: can't a non-muslim, non-malay dicuss the constitution? I can't find anywhere in the piece where he "arrogantly" define a malay..I'm a malay and I find the points raised by the writer very pertinent..though we call ourselves malays, none of my family members would satisfy all 4 conditions

  28. There you go.. A non Muslim, non Malay (Andrew) arrogantly defining what a malay should be and does…

Comments are closed.