Top 5 Malay Idioms – What They Mean And How To Say Them


People who want to learn a new language will eventually hit a certain point in their learning journey: idioms. Specifically, words and phrases that may sound nonsensical but carry a profound meaning – think raining cats and dogs in English.

The Malay language is no stranger to idioms, either. Malay culture is rich with idioms and sayings that reflect its people’s history and diversity. Known as peribahasa (peh-ree-bah-hah-sah) or literally “proverbs” in English, these words and phrases are used in daily speech by native speakers. It adds color and depth to the language in ways that straight sentences never do.

This post presents some of the most popular peribahasa in Malay. Of course, we’ll be showing you their meanings and stories that will contextualize the idioms for you. Are we ready? Let’s learn all about Malay idioms!

Malay Idioms - This tiger cub

Malay Idioms And What They Mean

Anak Harimau Di Dalam Hutan, Tetap Harimau Juga

Pronunciation: ah-nak / ha-ree-mow / dee / dah-lam hoo-tan, / teh-tap / ha-ree-mow / joo-ga

This idiom means: “a tiger cub in the jungle is still a tiger.” This phrase describes a person who may have grown up in difficult circumstances. Still, it possesses the qualities and characteristics of their background or upbringing. Whether people did good deeds or evil in their past, it will always show in their personality!


Muhammad is a 25-year-old software engineer based in Kuala Lumpur. He makes a lot of money, lives in a lovely house, and drives a top-of-the-line car. Growing up, however, his family didn’t have much, and his parents had to scrimp every ringgit they made to make ends meet. Because of this upbringing, Muhammad has learned to be thrifty and can even go for a few days without a meal.

Essentially, this idiom wants to tell us that you will always bring what you learned with you no matter what your future may be.

Air Tidak Boleh Dibohongi

Pronunciation: ah-eer / tea-dah / boo-leh / dee-boh-hong-gee

This idiom translates to: “water cannot be lied to.” While its true meaning doesn’t translate well in English, locals use it to describe a situation where the truth is already public knowledge and cannot be hidden anymore. Pretty poetic, right?


Cinta spread a rumor that Danial stole money from the bola sepak club’s treasury. However, Danial could not do that as he was not the treasurer or a club member. In fact, Danial prefers basketball. Cinta was then seen by her peers as untrustworthy and has stopped inviting her to club meetings. The club’s Facebook comment section posted about the incident, telling its followers that Cinta was a persona non grata.

Water is free-flowing and transparent and yields to nothing — just like the truth. When people already know the facts, it will be tough to dispute that, especially with a lie. And people do not forget. Man, this Malay idiom cuts deep (pun intended!)

Malay Idioms - Two people with t-shirt

Baju Tidak Sebulu Dada

Pronunciation: bah-joo / tea-dah / seh-boo-lou / dah-duh

This idiom literally translates to: “the shirt is not as long as the chest.” It expresses how material possessions and wealth will never bring true happiness and comfort. We all know that story: many things will start making sense once we make it big. But this saying reminds us how material wealth can be fleeting!


Fajar is a hairstylist who dreams of becoming a millionaire. After saving up for years, she opened her first beauty salon, which did very well. Eventually, she opened up many branches throughout the country, all of which became staples of the communities they were built in. Fajar was finally a millionaire. But many problems came with the money, too: business woes, issues with staff, and not enjoying what she did anymore. Fajar wished she could return to when she wasn’t as wealthy but was happier.

Stories like this are what this idiom is referring to. It tries to explain how the pursuit of happiness differs from the pursuit of wealth. Basically, this example tries to deliver the same meaning as this English idiom: “Count what you have, not what you don’t.”

Jangan Menyalahkan Kayu, Bila Botol Pecah

Pronunciation: jan-gan / men-ya-lah-khan / ka-yoo / bee-lah / boh-toh / peh-cha

This is one of those super smart idioms once you hear what it means! It is translated as, “don’t blame the wood when the bottle breaks.” It is used as a teaching device, telling people to not blame innocent parties for the consequences of their own actions. Pretty fun!


Garuda was carrying a cake through his house. He was rushing to serve it to his guests, who had been waiting patiently to eat it. However, Garuda tripped on a power cord. The cake dropped to the floor, and Garuda started acting irritated as if the cable was put there deliberately to trip him up. However, Garuda himself caused this instance – he forgot that he left the cord there in the first place.

When our actions cause discomfort or inconvenience, it can be easy to look outwards and blame everyone else but ourselves. But this idiom reminds us that life sometimes turns for the worse because of our actions. So we should all sit back and enjoy the sunshine with some teh tarik and chill out instead!

This Malay idiom wants you to stop making excuses!

Hendak Seribu Daya, Tak Hendak Seribu Dalih

Pronunciation: hun-dah / seh-ree-boo / duh-yuh, / tuh / hun-dah / seh-ree-boo / dah-lee

The English translation: “if you want something, you have the forces of a thousand; if you don’t want it, you give excuses for a thousand.” This one is not shy when it comes to telling it like it is, huh? This idiom does not need much explanation, so we’ll just tell you a story…


Fattah is a college student. People around him know him as someone really great with his studies but was sorely competitive. People would comment about how seriously he took himself. Fattah took extensive notes on all his subjects and would burn the midnight oil to study hard months before his tests. However, when his classmates sometimes asked for his opinion about a subject or borrowed his notes, he would make up many excuses just to avoid people. Fattah liked being at the top of the class. He wasn’t going to help anyone take it from him.

Fattah is, for lack of a better word, selfish. He only wants to improve himself without caring about his neighbors. Malay culture is collectivist, which puts the group’s needs above the individual’s. Therefore, Fattah may be seen as very driven when they want something but will do anything to not do what they don’t want to. Stories like this are what gave birth to this idiom!


And those were just some of the many Malay idioms that you can learn through your Malay words education! To recap, here are the idioms we learned today:

Anak harimau di dalam hutan, tetap harimau jugaah-nak / ha-ree-mow / dee / dah-lam hoo-tan, / teh-tap / ha-ree-mow / joo-gaA tiger cub in the jungle is still a tiger.
Air tidak boleh dibohongiah-eer / tea-dah / boo-leh / dee-boh-hong-geeWater cannot be lied to.
Baju tidak sebulu dadabah-joo / tea-dah / seh-boo-lou / dah-duhThe shirt is not as long as the chest.
Jangan menyalahkan kayu, bila botol pecahjan-gan / men-ya-lah-khan / ka-yoo / bee-lah / boh-toh / peh-chaDon’t blame the wood when the bottle breaks.
Hendak seribu daya, tak hendak seribu dalihhun-dah / seh-ree-boo / duh-yuh, / tuh / hun-dah / seh-ree-boo / dah-leeIf you want something, you have the forces of a thousand; if you don’t want it, you give excuses for a thousand.

We’ve even given you stories that you can use to further understand the context of the idioms we learned today. We hope you develop a deeper appreciation for the Malay language through these!

And if you’re craving more Malay lessons, don’t fret. We’re not stopping here; we’re only getting started…

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