Malaysian Culture

Naming

Naming practices in Malaysia generally differ between ethnicities. The various practices followed by Malays, Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indians are outlined below.


Malay Naming Conventions

  • Malay naming conventions structure names as follows: [Given name(s)] [Patronymic noun] [Father’s given name]. For example, Razak bin Osman (male) and Aisyah binte Musa (female). 
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) is chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier.
  • Children inherit their father’s given name at birth. For example, in the name ‘Aisyah binte Musa’, ‘Musa’ is her father’s personal name.
  • The patronymic noun is the word ‘bin’ (meaning ‘son of’) for men and ‘binte’ or ’binti’ (meaning ‘daughter of’) for women. For example, the name ‘Razak bin Osman’ translates to mean “Razak son of Osman”.
  • Some individuals may use the terms ‘anak lelaki’ (son of) or ‘anak perempuan’ (daughter of) instead of the words ‘bin/binte/binti’.
  • The use of the father’s name is different to the western notion of a ‘family name’ that is shared by all generations within a family. For example, while Razak bin Osman may have a brother named Zikri binte Osman, his father (Osman bin Abdul) and mother (Nor binte Ahmad) have different endings to their name that relate to their own fathers. Therefore, it can be difficult to assume familial relation from a person’s name alone.
  • Women generally do not change their names at marriage. 
  • Most people with Malay names do not list a surname on public records. However, some may have a family name that they add to the end of their name (usually those from prestigious families). For example, Prime Minister Mohammad Najib Bin Abdul Razak has the family name “Razak”.
  • Some individuals may have two or three given names, e.g. Muhammad Khidir bin Ali. If a person’s father has two given names, both are included in their child’s full name, e.g. Muhammad Khidir bin Muhammad Ali.
  • Some Malays may abbreviate the patronymic noun to ‘B’ in written form, or omit it altogether (e.g. Aisyah B. Musa or Aisyah Musa). This can lead English-speakers to mistake the ‘B’ for an abbreviation of a middle name, or to presume that the father’s name is a surname. 


Names

  • Most Malay people’s names are Arabic and have an Islamic significance, e.g. Muhammad, Ahmad, Zikri, Rayyan (male) or Nor, Zara, Aishah, Nadia (female).
  • Due to their widespread use, names such as Muhammad, Ahmad and Nor have lost their individualising function. Therefore, it is common for parents to give children with these names two personal names, so that the second is more distinctive.
  • Multicultural’ names are popular, whereby parents choose names from different languages, e.g. Adam or Hannah (Hebrew), Mirza (Persian), Marina (Latin). These names are often given as a child’s second personal name. 
  • Traditional Malay names are often derived from one or multiple of the following languages: Malay, Sanskrit, Pali, Javanese, Thai, Khmer or Cham. They are generally less popular in modern Malaysia, although they continue to be found in rural areas. 
  • Examples of traditional Malay names include Kiambang (Malay), Joyo (Javanese), Darma (Sanskrit).
  • The National Registration Department forbids names which have a negative meaning or represent colours, animals or natural objects/phenomena. This means many traditional Malay names are illegal, e.g. Pendek (short), Puteh (white), Wulan (moon), Awan (cloud), Suria (sun), Rimau (tiger).
  • Male names tend to have meanings associated with masculinity (e.g. ‘brave’, ‘noble’, ‘handsome’), while female names tend to have gentler, feminine meanings (e.g. ‘grace’, ‘princess’, ‘light’).


Addressing Others

  • Malay people generally address others by titles and honorifics in formal/professional settings or when meeting someone for the first time.
  • The most common forms of address in Malay are ‘Encik’ for men and ‘Puan’ or ‘Cik’ for women, which roughly translate as ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Miss’ respectively.
  • Titles are used with a person’s given name rather than with the last name/father’s name. For example, Razak bin Osman would be referred to as “Encik Razak” (Mr. Razak), not “Encik Osman”.
  • People may use a title followed by the person’s full name if wishing to be more formal or addressing them in written form. For example, “Encik Razak bin Osman” (Mr. Razak bin Osman).
  • A title of ‘Haji’ or ‘Hajjah’ indicates the person has made their pilgrimage to Mecca. For example, ‘Haji Razak bin Haji Osman’ indicates both Razak and his father Osman completed the Hajj.
  • When referring to someone using a single name without a title, the given name is always used. It is impolite to refer to someone by their last name alone, as this is their father’s personal name.
  • If a man has two personal names, of which one is ‘Muhammad’ or ‘Abdul’, he is usually referred to by his other personal name. For example, Muhammad Khidir bin Ali would be known as simply ‘Khidir’.


Malaysian Chinese Naming Conventions

  • Chinese naming conventions arrange names as follows: [FAMILY NAME] [given name]. For example, LEE Shin Cheng (male) and TAN Mei Ling (female).
  • The family name (or ‘surname’) is passed on through paternal lineage, inherited from one’s father and shared with other siblings. It always comes before the given name and is usually a single syllable/Chinese character.
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) is chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier. It is usually two syllables/Chinese characters long. However, one syllable given names also exist.
  • Given names with two syllables/Chinese characters may be written together, hyphenated or divided into two. For example, 美玲 could be written Mei Ling, Mei-Ling, Meiling. However, it is most common for Malaysian Chinese to write their given name as two separate words (i.e. Mei Ling).
  • There are no spaces between a person’s family name and given name when written in Chinese characters, e.g. 李深靜 (LEE Shin Cheng).
  • Many Chinese characters can be used as both family names and given/personal names. Therefore, it is common practice to write family names in capitals to avoid confusion.
  • Women do not change their legal names at marriage. However, some may choose to place their husband’s family name before their full name in certain contexts. For example, if TAN Mei Ling married LEE Shin Cheng, she may be known as LEE TAN Mei Ling.
  • Some families may pass on a ‘generation name’, whereby siblings share the same first character in their personal name. For example, LEE Shin Cheng may have a sibling called LEE Shin Wei, in which case ‘Shin’ is the generation name. This may be shared by cousins of the same generation as well. Traditionally, this practice was reserved for male children, although many families now extend it to female children as well.


Romanisation

  • Be aware that Chinese names written in the Roman alphabet have all been transcribed from original Chinese characters. There are many different ways to represent these characters in English, which can result in the same Chinese name being written with many different spelling variations. 
  • In China, the most commonly used romanisation system is Hanyu Pinyin. However, many Malaysian Chinese use a romanisation system other than Hanyu Pinyin. This results in spelling variations from mainland China. For example, the same Chinese name 陳偉銘 could be romanised as ‘Chen Weiming’ in China and ‘Tan Wee Beng’ in Malaysia. 
  • Many Malaysian Chinese family names may be Romanised based on dialects. For example, ‘CHEN’ (Pinyin form) is Romanised as ‘TAN’ in the Fujian dialect and ‘DING’ in the Fuzhou dialect.


English Names

  • Malaysian Chinese who are Christian or speak English commonly have an ‘English name’ that they use on a regular basis, as well as in international and English-speaking contexts. For example, TAN Mei Ling may be known as “Emily”.
  • People’s English names are often based on a similarity in sound to their Chinese name, e.g. Ming Xuan becomes ‘Michelle’, Mei Lee becomes ‘Mary’, and so on.
  • Many Malaysian Chinese prefer to use their English name to introduce themselves and address one another on a casual basis, especially amongst the younger generation. This is often seen as the most convenient name to use in educational and commercial settings, as it is neither overly formal or too personal.
  • This name may or may not be present in official documents (such as an identity card) depending on whether it was given to a person by their parent’s at birth, or chosen later in life.
  • When it does appear on formal documents, this English name may be written in a variety of arrangements, e.g. Emily TAN Mei Ling, TAN Mei Ling Emily or Emily Mei Ling TAN. The order of the English given name, Chinese given name and Chinese family name tends to vary depending on the person’s individual preference. 
  • Similar to having an ‘English name’, some Malaysian Chinese Muslims may have an Arabic name that is used in the same way. For example, LEE Shin Cheng may be known as “Rayyan”.
  • Most people will revert to using their original Chinese name whenever writing in Chinese. The family name always comes first in the Chinese language.


Malaysian Indian Naming Conventions

  • Malaysian Indian names are generally arranged as follows: [Given name] [Patronymic phrase] [Father’s given name]. For example, Nagaratnam a/l Suppiah (male) or Mathuram a/p Anbuselvan (female).
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) is chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier.
  • Most Malaysian Indians do not have family names. Children inherit their father’s given name at birth. For example, in the name ‘Mathuram a/p Anbuselvan, ‘Anbuselvan’ is her father’s personal name.
  • The patronymic phrase is either ‘anak lelaki’ meaning “son of” or ‘anak perempuan’ meaning “daughter of”. This is often abbreviated to ‘a/l’ and ‘a/p’ respectively, or ‘s/o’ and ‘d/o’ (English abbreviation). For example, the name ‘Nagaratnam a/l Suppiah’ literally translates to mean “Nagaratnam son of Suppiah”.
  • Some individuals may omit the patronymic phrase altogether and write their name simply as [given name] [father’s given name]. This can lead foreigners to mistake the father’s given name as a family name. 
  • The use of the father’s name is different to the western notion of a ‘family name’ that is shared by all generations within a family. For example, both parents of Nagaratnam a/l Suppiah will have different endings to their name that relate to their own father’s. 
  • Some individuals may also write their name by placing the initial of the father’s name before their first name (e.g. S. Nagaratnam).
  • Ultimately, while a person’s formal name may be “Nagaratnam anak lelaki Suppiah”, it may be written as 1) Nagaratnam a/l Suppiah, 2) Nagaratnam Suppiah, or 3) S. Nagaratnam.
  • Some Malaysian Indian women may use her husband's personal name instead of her father's name after marriage. For example, if Mathuram a/p Anbuselvan married Nagaratnam a/l Suppiah, she may be known as Mathuram Nagaratnam.


Religious Variations

  • Malaysian Indian Sikhs have a religious name that comes after their given name, i.e. ‘Singh’ for men and ‘Kaur’ for women. This is not a family name. For example, Manjit Singh s/o Karamjit Singh.
  • Some Malaysian Indian Christians may add an English name (or an Arabic-derived Christian name) before their Indian given name, e.g. Michael Nagaratnam a/l Suppiah.
  • Malaysian Indian Muslims often have personal names derived from Arabic words.
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