Last weekend featured the most exciting Malaysian cultural event I’ve heard of in a long time:  a flash mob of people wearing sarongs descended on the LRT lines in Kuala Lumpur.  I would have joined in solidarity from Kuching, but, alas, we have no trains.  We have Jalan Keretapi, but the train, tracks and station are all missing in action. No matter.

Well should Malaysians be proud of their sarongs.  It is local technology that has spread around the world, from Yemen to Fiji.  I had first encountered the sarong in Sri Lanka, where it is the household garment of choice for the Sri Lankan man.  Upon arrival as a uhhh foreign exchange student, I was instructed to cut my unacceptably feminine shoulder-length hair.  Next I was told to trade in my trousers for a sarong.  Savor the irony.

with Goviya Mudiyanse Tennekoone, Sri Lanka 1991
with Goviya Mudiyanse Tennekoone, Sri Lanka 1991

Sri Lankans are no strangers to cloth wraps.  The lungis, veshtis, dhotis of the subcontinent are all lengths of cloth worn around the waist, as is the izar of the Arabs, worn by Our Master Muhammad, peace be upon him.  The key distinction, which affects the way it is tied, worn and looks, is the sarong is stitched to create a hoop or sheath of cloth.  The Malay word sarung can also mean the sheath of a sword or any other thin wrapping or skin of an object.  Malays brought the word and presumably the innovation itself to Sri Lanka, where a small community of ethnic Malays still exists to this day.  Sarong has now entered English as well, making it another Malay Contribution to English, for the record.

Despite gifting this word to the rest of the world, in Malaysia the word is rarely used nowadays.  Instead the term kain batik is used for the ladies, who get stunning floral ones, and kain palikat (pelikat/plikat/plaikat) for the men, who get dull plaid ones. I wondered about that term: palikat.  No one could tell me what it meant.  But it dawned on me one day.  I had been searching for a nice cotton sarong. Thin, breathable, cool, like the ones I wore in Lanka.  All I could find were 100% synthetic materials.  They certainly looked sharp, they didn’t fade despite the sun, and they dried quickly despite the humidity.  But it wasn’t what I wanted.  When I found one that felt a bit more like a soft, natural fabric, the store owner told me it was a polyester-cotton blend: a poly-cot.

Polycot.  Palikat.  The word Kain palikat replaced sarong because synthetic fiber blends were enthusiastically adopted by Malaysians as superior to cotton fabrics.  You heard it here first, folks. Fanciful etymology? True unearthed origin of the word? Preposterous rubbish? I stand by my theory until a better one comes along.

PulicatPreposterous Rubbish!  Preposterous Rubbish it is! Saudara Jordan (who knows from sarongs) quickly pointed to the five-hundred-year-old writings of a Portugeuse traveler to the region, one Castenheda. This Castenheda records that Tamil-speaking traders at that time were importing great volumes of cloth for sarongs, originating from the seaport of Paleakat, “a region of Thondai Mandalam which is made up of the south eastern districts of Andra and the north eastern districts of Tamilnadu” according to Dr. S.Jayabarathi. That corresponds with the present-day town of Pulicat, up the coast from Chennai (Madras). I’m convinced though quietly disappointed . Truly, the fabric of life in Malaysia is woven of threads from all over the world.

A cotton sarong from Pulicat
UPDATE: Incontrovertible proof. Chop Sipoth (Snail brand) all-cotton sarongs from Madras (now Chennai) and Pulicat!

Sarungs are good enough – in fact awesome – for lounging aound the house. Malay women, strictly in the privacy of their homes, will often tie a kain batik under the arms for a one-piece house dress. Malay men will also wear them to the mosque or to religious functions in the neighborhood, with a shirt of course. But they fall short of what is needed for occasions of high formality. For weddings, high holidays, royal ceremonies and the like, there is the songket:


When holding thread to stitch a songket
Back and forth stitch threads of gold
When you recall a small favor done
Be not concerned to ask in return

Ada benang kain disongket
Benang emas ikat berbelas
Apa dikenang budi sedikit
Bukan cemas minta dibalas

As the pantun mentions, the songket is a sarong woven through with golden or silver threads. The result is magnificent. It is worn differently from the ordinary sarong, above the ankles, typically just below the knees. Matched with traditional Malay shirts and trousers in complementary tones, it makes a striking outfit. I wore one at my wedding, and never since that I can recall. Guys who like looking good will wear them every Friday for congregational prayer, but I lack the necessary swagger.

Dad and I in Songkets

And now, we conclude with the utterly ridiculous Sarong Song by Anuar Zain Ft. Ellina. Sisqo, watch out!

Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarongs can be used so many ways

Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong, Sarong! Wear them here and there

Sarongs are such special clothes
They let the air in all around
Wear over your head with such ease
Mothers, sling your child, it’s a breeze

To rest at home they are divine
At wedding days they really shine
Sarong Sarong! Don’t you let
Your eyes rest on that rip!

Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong, Sarong! So dang comfortable!

Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarongs, you oughta wear them all the time!

Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat diguna aneka cara

Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat dipakai disini sana

Pakaian istimewa
Berangin-angin keliling
Kelengkapan tudung kepala
Ibu menggendong anaknya

Ke kamar rehat sesuai
Bila kenduri dipakai
Kain pelikat dielak
Bertenggok koyak

Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat selesa memang selesa

Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat diguna semua ketika

Malay pantuns courtesy of Malay Civilization.
Sarong Song lyrics courtesy of lirik lagu muzika.
English translations entirely the fault of Bin Gregory Productions.

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

Join the Conversation


  1. “Savor the irony.” LOL!

    In Singapore, the songket is frequently worn on Eid ul Fitri and maybe on Eid al Adha. I rarely see them worn (or wear one personally) on any other day.

  2. I like your theory on the etymology! Still, I should point out the Malay Wikipedia entry for kain pelikat, which says:

    “Seorang pengembara Feringgi (Portugis) yang tinggal di Melaka semasa zaman keagungannya 1528 hingga 1538 Castanheda menulis bahawa terdapat pedagang dari PaLaiyakat iaitu satu kawasan di Thondai Mandalam yang terbentuk dari daerah tenggara Andra dan timur laut Tamilnadu. It a turut merangkumi tanah Cholza. Mereka berdagang kain sarung khusus, kain putih dan barangan sebagainya yang diimport dari Palekat. Ia begitu popular sehinggakan kain ini dikenali sebagi kain pelikat.”

    I still think your version is cool, though.

    I was going to attend the sarong event in KL last weekend, but didn’t make it. Still, I did my part: There was a photo of me on page 3 of The Star, in my living room, wearing a kain pelikat, extolling its virtues. Good times.

  3. Also it remains an open question how come everybody wears synthetics here. What gives? Cotton is so much nicer but only the ladies get those. Enough to make you consider cross-dressing!

  4. Overall, I like this post. Look up for the manners in tying the sarong and songket vis-a-vis the ‘beranak’ and the ‘beremak/beribu’. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I however think something is not quite right with the translation of the pantun – the pembayang (the top two sentences are OK), but the pemaksud (bottom two) goes against the Malay spirit of not asking for return for favour (big or small) done. Perhaps the word cemas is better translated as urgency or desperation or wanting or a fall. Wallahu a’lam.

  5. I like your article on sarong/izaar. Indeed it was a sunnah of our Prophet , Peace be upon Him. According to one scholar, Sh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi, the word sarong could have originated from the arabic word izaar i.e izaarun -> saarun -> sarong, when Hababib brought Islam (and izaar) from Yemen to Indonesia first and Malaysia. My grandfather, who came from Yemen to Malaysia, also used to sell sarong. Wallahu ‘alam.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Sh. Muhammad. I had always heard that the Yemeni word sarun had come from the Malay sarong; interesting to think it may have been the other way around.

  7. Salaam brother, I found this an incredibly illuminating post. I’ve always wondered myself about the etymological distinction between sarong and pelikat … By the way, if you have Twitter, take a look at @HistoryofMalay. It’s a project of mine which aims to discuss the origins of Malay words and the language’s influence on other languages ๐Ÿ™‚

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply