IndexAsiaMalaysia, Malay



Featured: Minangkabaus, Semai






The Malay boy is told by the mudin at circumcision (ages seven to twelve?), when the foreskin is loose, “that the boy must have been playing with his penis” (Wilder, 1970:p225)[1], but no consequence was apparently attached. At about twelve (sexual maturity) it becomes the general rule that boys and girls do not associate (p228, 230-1). “One of the commonest notions held but the adults (though not very openly) is the suspicion of clandestine encounters between boys and girls, or between boys and adult women (divorcees), for purposes of sexual play and sexual intercourse. […] There is, too, a strong suspicion expressed by adults, which also comes out in teasing among older boys, of voyeurism among the boys of the village” (p239). In the past decade, Malaysia has undergone rapid modernization and social changes, including rising age at marriage and “erosion of traditional limits on interactions between unmarried boys and girls”[2]. Joining the global scene, there would also have been an increasing awareness that sexual abuse of “children” (<18y) is “a problem” in Malaysia[3]. While measuring lower than Western rates among paramedical students, the authors aimed at dispelling “the Malaysian myth that sexual abuse [of “children”] is a “foreign” disease that has recently “infected [their] country” (p491). Thus, “[…] the awareness of sexual abuse [of children] has increased considerably in Malaysia in recent years and there may still be some way to go in recognition”[4] [arguing for compulsory reporting by professionals].

Of Malaysian male medical students, 40% were aware of homosexual feelings prior to age 15 years (opposing a 16% current awareness)[5]. Almost half of adolescents (15-21, probability household sampled survey carried out in Kuala Lumpur in 1986) who indulged in masturbation, begun earlier in males, were worried by the act, especially females[6].

In Islamic women, sunnah circumcision (“Female circumcision in the Malay society is now [1993] often performed well before puberty between five and eight years old, and it is getting younger. Many parents prefer to circumcise their daughters immediately after birth”) is in part motivated on the grounds that “it takes away a part of the female body which can enhance her sexuality and promiscuity. Many argue that it is dangerous if a woman is promiscuous and thus she needs to be circumcised”[7]. Also, “[t]hrough circumcision, a Malay girl can preserve her virginity. Virginity in Malay society is a prerequisite and valued highly”.


In one 1994 study[8],


“adolescent boys’ psychological experience of the first ejaculation was examined with regard to emotional reactions to the event, informational sources and who should provide the information about the event. Sixty boys were interviewed. 65% felt that they were well informed prior to the first ejaculation. Thirty of the boys had ejaculation explained to them by another person, in all cases an adult male. A few discussed the matter with their peers. Majority of the boys reported experiencing strong positive feelings prior to the first ejaculation. Only two were very scared, seven were embarrassed, one upset and three ashamed. The subjects suggested that schools should provide more information about maturation in classrooms”.


Minangkabaus (Malaysia)


Van Eerde (1901:p402, as cited by Ronhaar)[9] states that “[…] in most cases we may assume as certain that the girl during the years of her childhood or as a girl at play with her boy-friends, has chosen one or more lovers from among them”; premarital sex is free.




East and West Semai (Malaysia)


A child on its transition to childhood would be shamed (slniil) by looking away from him when patting his genitals; the same is done with older boys lifting up smaller boys, exposing their genitals and yelling “Take a picture!” (Dentan, 1978:p130)[10].


Dentan (1968:p61-3)[11] discussed the sex rearing practices of these “non-violent” people. Sexual and aggressive disobedience may fuse into one concept (sombong, sumbang, sumbung). “It is reasonably in this context to threaten a disrespectful child that its genitals will swell to enormous size because an aggressive breach of propriety falls into the same category as sexual behavior. Conversely, sexual misbehavior logically is tarlaid, like any other action that is considered violent”.

The East Semai are more casual about the sexual activities than the west Semai. The play is sometimes overt. “A boy may, for instance, pretend to copulate with a girl, using a corncob as a penis, while watching adults whoop with laughter. Adolescent boys often expose the genitals of younger boys as a joke, for example, by lifting them out of the water while bathing. On the other hand, as soon as the west Semai child can speak a few words, its kinsmen begin to put its hands over its genitals, saying “Cover up! Cover up! Be embarrassed!”. They pat its hand away when it plays with itself and rebuke it for talking about sex, often threatening that its genitals will swell”. Similarly, the East Semai expect a good deal of premarital and extramarital sexual activity, while the West Semai have adopted the Malay code against such practices, although violations of these rules are common. The East Semai, however, may associate sexual misbehaviour with aggression, and they often “talk about their first sexual experience as if it had been very frightening. They say that even after a virgin boy or girl has consented it may take weeks to consummate the relationship because the inexperienced person is so scared”.




Additional reading:



  • Chrisler, J. C. & Zittel, C. B.   (1998)Menarche stories: reminiscences of college students from Lithuania, Malaysia, Sudan, and the United States, Health Care Women Int 19,4:303-12




Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Dec 2004


[1] Wilder, W. (1970) Socialization and social structure in a Malay village, in Mayer. Ph. (Ed.) Socialization: The Approach from Anthropology. London [etc.]: Tavistock, p215-68

[2] Xenos, P. (1993) Extended Adolescence and the Sexuality of Asian Youth: Observations on Research and Policy. East-West Centre Reprints Population Series; No. 292. Referred to by Zulkifli, S. N. & Low, W. Y. (2000) Sexual practices in Malaysia: determinants of sexual intercourse among unmarried youths, J Adolesc Health 27,4:276-80

[3] Singh, H. S., Yiing, W. W. & Nurani, H. N. (1996) Prevalence of childhood sexual abuse among Malaysian paramedical students, Child Abuse Negl 20,6:487-92

[4] Kassim, K. & Kasim, M. S. (1995) Child sexual abuse: psychosocial aspects of 101 cases seen in an urban Malaysian setting, Child Abuse Negl 19,7:793-9, at p797

[5] Buhrich, N., Armstrong, M. S. & McConaghy, N. (1982) Bisexual feelings and opposite-sex behavior in male Malaysian medical students, Arch Sex Behav 11,5:387-93

[6] Zulkifli, S. N., Low, W. Y. & Yusof, K. (1995) Sexual activities of Malaysian adolescents, Med J Malaysia 50,1:4-10

[7]Female circumcision in Malaysia, Women’s Int Network News Autumn 1993;19,4:35

[8]Desa, A. (1994) The Study of Maturational Knowledge and Experiences in Adolescent Boys, Jurnal Pendidikan [Malaysia] 19:3-7

[9] Van Eerde, J. C. (1901) Een huwelijk bij de Minangkabausche Maleiers, Tijdschr v I Taal, Land & Volkenk [Dutch] 44; Ronhaar, J. H. (1931) Woman in Primitive Motherright Societies. Groningen: Wolters/ London: D. Nutt, p331

[10] Dentan, R. K. (1978) Notes on childhood in a nonviolent context: the Semai Case, in Montagu, A. (Ed.) Learning Non-Aggression. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press, p94-143

[11] Dentan, R. K. (1968) The Semai. New York [etc.]: Holt, Rinehart & Winston