Malay peoples

Malay houses

Malay houses are a highly evolved form of traditional dwelling, originating before the arrival of foreign or modern influences, constructed by the indigenous Malay and Orang Asli peoples of the Malay Peninsula and their related Bumiputra tribes of Sabah and Sarawak.

Whereas peninsular Malays have single extended-family houses, many of the Borneo people built rumah panjang or 'long-houses' hosting many families, each in its own 'apartment' with a common wide veranda linking the front.

Traditional architectural forms, such as tropically-suited roofs and harmonious proportions with decorative elements are considered by traditionalists to still have relevance. However traditional buildings require significant maintenance compared to modern construction. These traditional skills are gradually being lost as Malaysia continues to the process of industrialisation.

Construction techniques

Using renewable natural materials such as various kinds of timber and bamboo, they often constructed their dwellings without any use of metal including nails. Instead the Malays used pre-cut holes and grooves to fit the timber building elements into one another, effectively making it a ‘prefabricated house’. In Sarawak and Sabah rattan ropes were used to fasten bamboo pieces together.

Although nails had been invented and in later houses used minimally for non-structural elements (for example, windows or panels), there were benefits of structural flexibility which the rigidity of nailing inhibited. Also, without nails, a timber house could be dismantled and reconstructed in a new location. This was done for the beautifully restored Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman, which was transported from Kedah to Kuala Lumpur by Badan Warisan Malaysia, the Malaysian Heritage Foundation. In fact for short distances, the nail-free flexibility and relatively lightweight timber even allowed a house to be lifted on many shoulders through gotong-royong (neighbourhood helping or mutual aid) and carried to another spot.

Design features

Traditional timber houses also incorporated design principals relevant in contemporary architecture such as shading and ventilation, qualities present in the basic house features. A main characteristic of a typical kampung house includes the obvious fact that it is raised on stilts or piles. This was to avoid wild animals, to be above floods, to deter thieves and for added ventilation. In parts of Sabah, the number of dowry buffaloes could even depend on the number of stilts there are in the bridal family’s home.

A traditional Malay timber house is almost always in at least two parts: the Main House called Rumah Ibu in honour of the mother (ibu) and the simpler Rumah Dapur or kitchen annex - this way if the kitchen catches fire only that part would be damaged, saving the main house. Proportion was also very important to give the house a human scale. Indeed, the Rumah Ibu was also named such because the spacings between stilts are said to typically follow the arms-spread width of the wife and mother in the family of the house when being built. There is also at least one raised veranda (Serambi) attached to the house for seated working or relaxation or where non-intimate visitors would be entertained, thus preserving the privacy of the interior.

For ventilation, the elevation of the house and also its many windows, holed carvings and slatted panels around the walls plus the high thatch or clay tile roofs all contribute to the cooling ambience. However the presently popular use of exposed zinc sheets, because of its ease of installation and cheap supply, unfortunately increases heat and is noisy during rain.

All traditional roofs are always pitched to quickly drain off rainwater. Roofs come in two broad categories: ‘bumbung panjang’ long roof type with open gable ends or the ‘bumbung lima’/‘limas’ pyramidal variations. Both types cover almost every conceivable roof design, with some forms peculiar to certain areas or community groups, such as the elegant and distinctive upward curves of the Negeri Sembilan-style Minangkabau house.

Traditional house roofs also always have wide overhangs for shading and protection from heavy tropical downpours. In many cases they have beautifully carved timber eaves to decorate the ‘visual connection’ between roof and sky. Some roofs hold attic bedrooms, effectively making the already raised structure a 3-storey edifice. In fact, there have been olden Malay palaces up to five or six storeys high built entirely in nail-free timber, as in Negeri Sembilan’s Seri Menanti palace.


Each state or ethnic group has its own regional or group style of house or preferred details. For example, in Melaka the staircase is always decoratively moulded and colourfully tiled. In Peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, many houses have distinctive carved roof gable-end boards akin to those in Thailand and Cambodia.

Cultural references

Most of the ancient Malay peoples of South-East Asia maintained a form of self-regenerating environmental culture. Since their houses were built in timber, it was a custom that for every child born, the parents would plant at least one tree in the family compound or kampung (village) orchard on behalf of that child. Usually the most popular tree would be the coconut 'tree of a thousand uses' but in the hinterlands even hardwood shoots were known to be planted for each child, so that each may use it when the time comes to build a home after they marry. In some areas the practice was quite sensibly a coconut tree for a female baby and hardwood trees for males.

Further reading

  • Ariffin, A. Najib; "A Disappearing Heritage: The Malaysian Kampung House", in Heritage Asia (Kuala Lumpur: Mediahub), September 2005, 6-8 -Passages in the above entry appear with permission of the Author/Publisher
  • Lee Ho Yin, "The Kampong House: An Evolutionary History of Peninsular Malaysia's Vernacular Houseform," in Asia's Old Dwellings: Tradition, Resilience, and Change, ed. Ronald G. Knapp (New York: Oxford University Press), 2003, 235-258.

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