10 Malay Proverbs With The Best Advice!

Have you ever come across peribahasa or Malay proverbs? If you came across English proverbs, sometimes you do not even realize it was a proverb, because it is used often in our daily speech and the expressions are often more vernacular (or maybe it’s just me). Just imagine someone using the phrase “it takes two to tango”, nobody would react differently because it is very common to use it, but if you use the Malay equivalent of it in a Malay conversation, “bertepuk sebelah tangan, tidak akan berbunyi“, there is a certain air about it that makes it sounds classy.

Learning proverbs is crucial to understand a language to a deeper level. If one is to study each Malay proverb, you will find that the older generations were rich in culture and wisdom, and we, the newer generations certainly can find many things to learn from them.

English Proverbs Vs. Malay Proverbs

If you take the previous example, “bertepuk sebelah tangan, tidak akan berbunyi“, it literally translates to ‘clapping with one hand cannot produce a sound‘. What you can derive from this phrase is that you need two hands to clap properly, hence, it takes two to tango. An interesting twist to the basic English version right?

Most Malay proverbs are longer compared to English ones. Personally, I think this is because English proverbs are straightforward in delivering their meaning (not in every case), compared to Malay proverbs that use flowery words and hidden meanings. Of course, there are simple and short ones, but most of them are long sometimes confusing, even to Malay native speakers.

In this post, I would like to share some of the wisdom of Malay proverbs with you by introducing some of the most commonly used proverbs in Malay.


What Are The Most Common Malay Proverbs?

Common Malay Proverbs

Listed below are 10 of the most common Malay proverbs that you can hear among the locals.

1. Sambil Menyelam Minum Air

Let’s start with some easier ones. This one is pretty common, even in English. The direct translation of this phrase is “while diving, drink water”. It is basically the Malay equivalent of killing two birds with one stone.

2. Mati Semut Kerana Gula

The English translation for this phrase is ‘ants die because of sugar‘. You cannot really guess what it means just by the words themselves right? The easiest way to explain it is by using it in a situation when someone falls victim to wheedles or an easy way out.

3. Sudah Jatuh Ditimpa Tangga

The English translation for this phrase is, ‘after falling, the ladder falls on you’.

The best way to use it is when someone is going through bad luck or hard times one after another; or in other words, it never rains but it pours.

There is another Malay proverb that has the same meaning: ‘terlepas dari mulut buaya, masuk ke mulut harimau’,which can be translated to ‘escaping the mouth of the crocodile just to enter the mouth of a tiger’.

4. Hendak Seribu Daya, Tak Hendak Seribu Dalih

This one is one of my favorites. The direct translation is: if you are willing, you can do a thousand things to achieve it, If you are unwilling, you can come up with a thousand excuses.

The English translation is pretty self-explanatory. Some may say it is the same with “when there’s a will, there’s a way”, but in my opinion, I only agree to some extent. This is due to the emphasis on the second part of the saying where it highlights that people can come up with petty excuses just to escape anything.

Do you need a proverb to bash on your ex who always has an excuse to not spend time with you? This is the perfect one.

5. Lembu Punya Susu, Sapi Dapat Nama

If you have a boss or a coworker always take credit for your work, this is the best proverb to describe the situation.

English translation: The milk belongs to the cow, but the bull cow gets the name. This one is a bit unique to translate because the Malay expression uses the words ‘lembu‘ and ‘sapi‘, both meaning cow in Malay language, instead of a bull. It shows how ‘sapi‘ steals the credit for ‘lembu’s‘ milk, or in other words, to steal one’s thunder.

6. Harimau Mati Meninggalkan Belang, Manusia Mati Meninggalkan Nama

The direct Translation is: tigers die and leaves their stripes, but humans die leaving their names.

If you haven’t noticed, tigers play a big role in Malay culture. In this case, the true meaning behind the saying is that a good person dies, forever leaving a good impression while a bad person leaves a bad name forever.

The wisdom behind this phrase is to encourage people to do good until their last breath and not give themselves a bad name.

7. Sepandai-Pandai Tupai Melompat, Akhirnya Jatuh Ke Tanah Juga

The English translation for this phrase is: no matter how high the squirrel jumps, it will eventually fall onto the ground.

Have you ever seen a squirrel fall? Me neither. But the point of this proverb is to remind everyone that no matter how hard you are running away from your misdeeds and wrongdoings, one day people will found out about it. That’s why sometimes you will see this proverb used as the title of a busted drug syndicate news.

The English correspondent for this saying could be “curses, like chickens, come home to roost”.

8. Tanam Lalang Tak Akan Tumbuh Padi

The English translation is: if you plant grass, you won’t get rice.

‘Lalang’ is actually a type of weed that is unwanted and people always joke that you can get weed while planting rice but you will never get rice if you plant weed.

The hidden meaning is that all misdeeds will receive retributions, or to make it simple karma never loses. In truth, it is another expression that encourages good deeds and condemning bad deeds.

9. Malu Bertanya Sesat Jalan, Malu Berkayuh Perahu Hanyut

English translation: If you’re shy to ask you will get lost, if you refuse to paddle your boat will drift away.

This one is important for those who are still learning, either in a learning environment or a working environment under a superior. The meaning behind it is that if you do not try something, it will be difficult to achieve something, and if you are reluctant or shy to ask your superior or teacher, you are bound to make a mistake.

Imagine this, you are in class working on a project and you hit a wall and decided to follow your classmates’ ideas instead of asking the lecturer to explain- you might be losing marks somewhere there, trust me.

10. Alang-Alang Menyeluk Pekasam Biar Ke Pangkal Lengan

The English translation for this expression is: if you will reach into the fermented fish jar, you should just put your whole arm in.

The meaning behind this expression is that you should be determined to finish what you have started successfully, not half-heartedly.

But why fermented fish? That is because pekasam has a very pungent smell; and if you are going to be smelly from putting for hand in there anyway, why not just go all out, right?

The same meaning can be derived from the saying, “in for a penny, in for a pound“. There are several others in Malay that has the same meaning, though, for instance: ‘alang-alang mandi biar basah’, or alang-alang berminyak, biar licin’.

Related Vocabulary

SeribuA thousand
TanahEarth/ ground
PadiRice/ Paddy
JalanRoad/ path
PerahuBoat/ canoe
PekasamFermented fish

Don’t Stop, Learn More!

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I personally was forced by my teachers to memorize these proverbs in secondary school to score higher marks. Sure it was easy to pass a test in your native language, but it was not easy to score high right away due to our use of vernacular Malay. But we were thought early on to embrace the literary side of our language because bahasa jiwa bangsa (language is the soul of the nation).

That is why you should try Ling App to learn the Malay language. Don’t just settle on learning the language online. Ling App offers so many functions you can try to improve your Malay and get as close as you can to native-like speech. You can listen to audio and try the quizzes available, all at your own pace. You don’t need to rush, but let Ling App make your journey much easier!

Aside from Malay, there are about 60 other languages that you can try out from Ling App, so don’t miss your chance! You can also visit here to read more blog posts on Malay and other languages to have more in-depth knowledge about the languages you are interested in.

Did you enjoy all these wonderful proverbs today? If you do, don’t forget to drop us a comment!

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