Malay Proverbs

Pantuns, proverbs and expressions translated into English for our mutual edification.


  • “Macam Belanda mendapat tanah.”

“Like a Dutchman getting land.” Grasping greediness, similar in usage to “Give an inch, he’ll take a mile.”

  • “Jangan nantikan nasi disajikan dilutut.”

“Don’t wait for rice to be served at the knee.” Meaning, don’t expect something without effort, as translated and explained by Syed Hussein Al-Atas in The Myth of the Lazy Native. (Rice is served at the knee if you are sitting bersila on the floor to eat.)

  • “Pandai tak boleh diikut, bodoh tak boleh diajar.”

“Intelligence you can’t follow, ignorance you can’t teach.” Not so much a proverb as a choice turn of phrase for that persistent idiot in your life. We all have one…

  • “Masuk bakul angkat sendiri.”

“Climbing in the basket and lifting it yourself.” To compliment yourself, similar to the English “patting yourself on the back”.

  • “Bapa kencing berdiri, anak kencing berlari.”

“When the father urinates standing, the child will urinate running.” Bewildering, until we realize that traditionally Malay men sit to urinate, in accordance with the Sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him. But the point of the proverb is that good character must be carefully inculcated. Small flaws in one generation becomes disastrous in the next. Like father like son, but more so.

  • “Terlepas perahu boleh undur, terlepas kata buruk padahnya.”

“A boat past the dock can be reversed, words past the lips are a disaster forever.” Inspired by the twitter utterings of local politician Bung Moktar Radin.

  • “Merajuk pada yang sudi”

“Sulk with someone who cares.” Not a dismissive statement but a helpful one. Sulking will get you nowhere unless there is someone willing to comfort you (pujuk).

  • “Kera di hutan disusukan, anak di rumah mati kelaparan.”

“In the jungle nursing monkeys while the child dies of hunger at home.”
An old proverb about misplaced priorities, often deployed to devastating effect by pro-development politicians.

[Nursing monkeys in Sarawak [1][2]]
  • “Durian dengan mentimun, menggolek kena, kena golek pun kena.”

“Whether the durian hits the cucumber or the other way round, it’s going to be bad for the cucumber.”

  • “Hujan emas di negeri orang hujan batu di negeri sendiri.”

“Showers of gold in a foreign land are no better than a hail of stones in your own.”

  • “Ukur baju ikut badan sendiri.”

“Measure your clothes to fit your own body.” = Live within your means.

  • “Tepuk dada tanya selera.”

“Tap your chest and ask its pleasure.” = Do as you please.

  • “Di mana tumpahnya kuah kalau tak ke nasi?”

“Where pours the sauce if not upon the rice?” – Like father, like son.

  • “Lebih besar periuk lebih banyak keraknya.”

“The larger the pot, the more rice sticks to the bottom.” – As income rises, so do costs;
cf.  Mo money, mo problems (Smalls, B. 1997).

  • “Nasi sudah jadi bubur.”

“The rice has become porridge.” – The situation is irreversible.

  • “Keras-keras kerak nasi.”

“Tough like burnt rice.” – Stubbornness that crumbles under pressure.

  • “Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi.”

Applied to betrayal of trust by those in positions of responsibility.  As spelled, it would mean “Trust the fence, then the fence eats the rice.” But as astute readers have informed me, pagar here is actually pegar, the pheasant, so “Place your trust in the pheasant [to chase away other birds], then the pheasant eats the rice.” Due to mistransliteration from jawi in the past, the original meaning is now not widely known.

  • “Telur sebiji, riuh sekampung.”

“A single egg, a village in uproar.” – Making a big deal over a small accomplishment. Wisdom from chickens.

  • “Bersusah-susah dahulu, Bersenang-senang kemudian.”

“Facing difficulties in the beginning yields ease in the end.” – said of e.g. child-rearing.

  • “Hidup segan, mati tak mahu.”

“Afraid to live, unwilling to die.”

  • “Garam di laut, asam di darat
    Di dalam kuali bertemu juga.”

“Limes* from dry land, salt from the sea
In the pot may meet eventually.”

  • “Hangat-hangat tahi ayam.”

“Hot like chickenshit.” – Temporary enthusiasm.  [Yet more chicken-related wisdom.]

  • “Lentur buluh biar dari rebungnya.” 

“Bend the bamboo while it is young.” – Said of children.

  • “Rambut sama hitam, tapi hati lain-lain.”

“The same black hair, but different hearts.” – Universal wisdom …in an East Asian context.

Proverbs will be added to this list from time to time.  Follow me on Twitter for updates as they happen.  Send me your favorites:

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