Member of any of a large group of peoples comprising the majority population of the Malay Peninsula and archipelago, and also found in southern Thailand and coastal Sumatra and Borneo. Their language belongs to the western branch of the Austronesian family.
The Malay culture has been enriched by Siamese, Javanese, Hindu, Buginese, Javanese, and Minangkabau migrants. Wet-rice agriculture was introduced in the 5th century and today the majority of Malays live in rural villages, usually surrounded by irrigated rice fields and gardens. Many of their crops are directed towards the world market (coconut, pineapple, coffee, cattle, and rubber), and many Malays are also engaged in coastal fishing, sea trading, and mining. Their wooden houses can be dismantled and moved to new locations. The Malays also build outrigger canoes and wooden sailing ships.
Although the Malays have a Hindu heritage, conversion to Islam began in the 13th century, not completed until the 17th. They are now predominantly Sunni Muslims, although several Malay ethnic groups have remained animist, and there are a number of Malay Christians. Tutelary spirits are still venerated in many regions and customary law, adat, remains important. The Malays have a tradition of shadow theatre using painted leather puppets, and have developed a form of self-defence called silat. They produce fine silverwork and handwoven textiles.
History The early history and origins of the Malays is obscure. The main centre of Malay power appears to have been Sumatra, where a powerful Malay kingdom, known by its Sanskrit name of Srivijaya, developed, with its capital at Palembang. They were considerably influenced by Indian culture, and became Hindus. By 800 their kingdom dominated the Malay Peninsula and in the 13th century they founded a separate kingdom of Tumasik (Singapore). In the 14th century Srivijaya and Tumasik were conquered by a Javanese empire, and the dispossessed ruler of Tumasik then founded a Malay kingdom in Malacca (now Melaka). When, in the 16th century, the Portuguese conquered Malacca, the fugitive Malay sultan fled to the Malay Peninsula and founded the kingdom of Riau Johore.