Malays (Melayu) are an ethnic group of Austronesian peoples predominantly inhabiting the Malay Peninsula, the east coast of Sumatra, the coast of Borneo, and the smaller islands between these locations. The Malay ethnic group is distinct from the concept of a Malay race, which encompasses a wider group of people, including most of Indonesia and the Philippines. The Malay language is a member of the Austronesian family of languages.
The ancestor of Malays are believed to be seafarers who are well knowledged in Oceanography, they move around from island to island in great distances between New Zealand and Madagascar, and they served as navigation guide, crew and labour to Indian, Persian and Chinese traders for nearly 2000 years, and over the years they settled at various places and adopted various cultures and religions. Notable Malay seafarers of today are Moken and Orang laut.
Some historians suggested they were descendants of Austronesian-speakers who migrated from the Philippines and originally from Taiwan. Malay culture reached its golden age during Srivijayan times and they practiced Buddhism, Hinduism, and their native Animism before converting to Islam in the 15th century.
The word Melayu began in use during the time of Sultanate of Melaka, founded by the fleeing prince Parameswara, from the declining Melayu Kingdom of Srivijaya in Palembang. And the word was in popular use in 17th century onwards.
During the European colonization, the word "Malay" was adopted into English via the Dutch word "Malayo", itself from Portuguese "Malaio", which originates from the Malay word "Melayu". According to one popular theory, the word Melayu means "migrating" or "fleeing", which might refer to the high mobility of these people across the region (cf. Javanese verb 'mlayu' means "to run", cognate with Malay verb 'melaju', means "to accelerate") or perhaps the original meaning is "distant, far away" (cf. Tagalog 'malayo') with the root word 'layo', which means 'distance' or 'far' in Tagalog and some Malayo-Polynesian languages.
The term Melayu (Malay person in the Malay Language), in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, refers to a person who professes Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and who has at least one ancestor from the Malay Peninsula or Singapore.
The Malay ethnic group is the majority in Malaysia and Brunei and a sizable minority in Singapore and Indonesia, and they form the majority in the five southernmost provinces of Thailand which historically made up the old Malay kingdom of Patani. This people speak various dialects of Malay language. The peninsular dialect as spoken in the Malaysian states of Pahang, Selangor and Johor is the standard speech among Malays in Malaysia and Singapore. In the Malay peninsula, the Kelantanese dialect in its purest form is the most difficult to understand. Other peninsula dialects include the Kedah-Perlis dialect, the Melakan dialect, the Minangkabau dialect of Negri Sembilan, the Perak dialect and the Trengganu dialect. In Thailand, Malays of Satun speak the Kedah-Perlis dialect while those in the Patani provinces speak the Kelantanese lingo. Meanwhile, the Riau dialect of eastern Sumatra has been adopted as a national tongue, Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), for the whole Indonesian population.The ethnic Malay have had a Muslim culture since the 15th century.
In Malaysia, the majority of the population is made up of ethnic Malays while the minorities consist of southern Chinese (e.g. Hokkien and Cantonese), southern Indians (mainly Tamils), non-ethnic Malay indigenous peoples (e.g. Iban and Kadazan), as well as Eurasians.
Malay cultural influences filtered out throughout the archipelago, such as the monarchical state, religion (Hinduism/Buddhism in the first millennium AD, Islam in the second millennium), and the Malay language. The influential Srivijaya kingdom had unified the various ethnic groups in southeast Asia into a convergent cultural sphere for almost a millennium. It was during that time that vast borrowing of Sanskrit words and concepts facilitated the advanced linguistic development of Malay as a language. Malay was the regional lingua franca, and Malay-based creole languages existed in most trading ports in Indonesia.