Growing up Malay in Sri Lanka: 7 unavoidable questions

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Being a part of and growing up in multi-ethnic Sri Lanka has its benefits. Not only do you get holidays declared for every religious festival (not complaining), you also have access to a wide variety of food courtesy of your multi-ethnic friends. Moreover, you also learn to appreciate and respect the differences in beliefs of your friends and neighbours, no matter what some of the mushrooming racist groups aim to spread.

However, growing up as a Malay can be quite a struggle in this kaleidoscope of society, where you are a minority of a minority. When your identity is created by a variety of aspects, it is not so easy to say “I’m this” or “I’m that” and stop at it. So I’ve summed up a few questions that I usually get asked, and my responses (most of it in my mind as I struggle to be polite and simplify my answer). I believe most Malays in Sri Lanka must have come across these questions in different forms. This, perhaps is what makes us special; an ethnic group evolved to what we are today with the numerous transactions with the other communities in different levels, and still identifying as a separate and unique community.

Q.1. Are you Korean/Phillipino/ Japanese (or any other East Asian Country)?

When I was a little girl, I was proud to hear this question, and would like to answer back saying “Yes, I’m Japanese”, (the popularity of the Japanese tele drama Oshin in the late 80s having everything to do with this sentiment). However, later as a teenager and once in Uni and studying about identity and discourse under Professor Arjuna Parakrama (!) this question would make my mind race and trigger hundreds of questions; “No, I’m Sri Lankan. You want to know how? What makes you Sri Lankan? And what makes me one?”

In fact, most Malays are asked this question based on their features, and in some instances, skin colour. Well, it’s beyond our control that the Dutch East Indies Company decided to colonize the Indonesian archipelago and Ceylon, and bring their colonized to suppress the fellow colonized. Thus the ‘Babath Mukas’, and it sometimes pays off when you want to pass off as a foreigner but an asolute downfall when the tuk-tuk guy tries to siphon an extra hundred rupees for an eighty rupee fare.

Q.2. “What’s your name?” “What?” “Sorry?” “How do you spell it?”

We Malays are champions in giving our children names with complicated spellings and even more complicated pronunciation. When the two main languages in the country do not have sounds such as /z/ and /f/, and your name has as many /z/s and /f/s one can squeeze into a name, you naturally learn to announce your name and spell it out as well, for the benefit of the listener.

For me, my name is one of the unique things about my identity. Therefore, the most embarrassing time is when you are standing in a queue at a polling booth and the officer shouts out your name loud enough for all the other officers on duty, and your neighbours to hear, and only you and your family members know how far from your real name it sounds like.

Q.3. You speak Sinhala?

Yes! I do! And I read and write it too. Thanks to the ‘Sinhala Only’ act and subsequent alterations (with minimal effect) to it, we were not given a choice of language to study in, did we? The choice was between Sinhala, which anyway has to be learnt in order to survive in a majority Sinhala country, and Tamil, which was equal to learning Greek. More on that in Q.5. though.

Q.4. You’re Muslim???!!!

This is one sensitive area within the community. The differentiation between being Muslim and a Malay as well as explaining that you are not a Moor but still a Muslim, can range from “Ok, if you say so, but I’m still confused” to lengthy discourses about religious and ethnic identity.

Even though at present Malays are increasingly exhibiting their religious fervor than they used to, for various reasons, the idea that a majority of Malays in Sri Lanka are Muslims is yet to be deciphered by many of our country(wo)men. Back in 2005, involved in a group research as a first year undergrad, I was appalled to hear the answers from random people who were asked the question “Do you know who a Malay is?” and cringed at some of the responses. It is sad that despite what we Malays think for ourselves, a majority of our fellow citizens do not know nangka (jack) about us.

So to make things clear, a majority of Sri Lankan Malays are Muslim. The general idea of a Muslim being the average Tamil speaking person is wrong. A Muslim is a follower of Islam and in Sri Lanka it covers a variety of ethnicities like the Moors, Malays, Bhoras and Memons. The cultural variances among these communities means that their display of religious fervor too can be different from one another. Therefore, do not be aghast by the fact that the Malay woman living next door does not cover her head, or her father does not sport a thoppi and runs to the mosque five times a day.

Q.5. “But you don’t know Tamil?”

So this question crops up due to your ignorance about the difference explained in the previous section. No. Just because we are Muslim, we do not necessarily know Tamil. The ethnicity of the Tamil speaking Muslims is ‘Moor’ (‘Yonaka’ in Sinhala).

The Malays are masters in adapting to their surroundings, which made our ancestors stay back in this country when the British overpowered the Dutch and gave them the choice of going back ‘home’. Therefore, the language choices are clearly based on each individual family’s social level, education and neighbourhood. Clearly if you have had an upbringing in an environment where Tamil is spoken regularly, then you get your Malay who knows Tamil.

Personally, I was brought up speaking English and Malay at home with substantial exposure to Sinhala. So when the time to choose the language stream for my education, my parents had to opt for Sinhala, because English medium education was not available in Government schools back in the early 90s. So, the answer for Q. 3. as well, that’s how I know my Sinhala, even to outsmart some of the ‘posh Colombites’ whose ethnicity is limited only to their official documents.

Q.6. So, you’re one of those ‘Burgher Muslims’?

I came across this interesting observation only after I joined the hotel industry, so it might be an industry related thing. In a field where alcoholism and eating all kinds of meat, and partying hard are basic requirements of survival, I understand that most Malays have failed miserably to maintain their guards and given in to temptation. With that perhaps came the perceived allegiance to the happy-go-lucky Burgher brethren.


The ultimate question!

I was actually asked this, following a rapid question and answer session with a person who was trying to understand my identity. In a way all the preceding sentiments were shared during the course of conversation.

It all started with an innocent “What’s your name?”



“Tinaz. T. I. N. A. Z.”.

“Er, What’s your Surname?”


“Are you Sri Lankan?”


“Um, ok, you’re Burgher?”

“No, I’m Malay.”



“So are you Christian? Do you go to church?”

“No, I go to the mosque, at least the men in my family do.”

“Mosque? Muslim mosque?”

“Yes, because I’m Muslim.”

“But you speak good Sinhala.”

“Yeah, duh, I studied in Sinhala for 13 years.”


Tinaz Amit
Surviving in the field of Public Relations, mainly because it keeps me closer to things I enjoy; reading, writing and research, with a smatter of socializing. Daughter, wife, mother and career woman, trying to keep a level head while juggling all these roles, just like all others. Cynical to the extreme but has the required amount of social skills to restrict expressing them to the world.

15 thoughts on “Growing up Malay in Sri Lanka: 7 unavoidable questions

    1. Factuals. Good reading for SL Malays.

      One thing I observed in the SL statistics is that the Malay community has reduced by around 20 percent due to declareing their status as Muslims.

  1. Good stuff Tinaz! Can you do a write up about the Malay influence on Sri Lankan cuisine? I’ll be glad to help with the research! By the way, you still owe me a Biriyani for Ramadan and I haven’t forgotten about it…

    1. Thank you Indika. Yes, I’ve not forgotten that either and that definitely is a great idea. I’ll do some background research and get in touch with you.

  2. Well Written. Enjoyed it. Very few write what’s happening around us or what we experience at this moment we are currently living in.

  3. Awesome article, enjoyed reading it 🙂 Thanks for sharing information about Malays and our backgrounds, I have certainly learned a lot just from reading some of your posts. 🙂

    1. We are so glad that you liked our articles Sdr. Mirzaa Cassim. 🙂
      Please do keep in touch with us for more interesting stories & news about Sri Lankan Malays 🙂
      Terima Kasih

  4. 1) My Religion is Islam. 2) I am a Muslim. 3) I can speak English, Malay, Tamil, Sinhales, Arabic, Hindi & Urdu. 4) I follow Almighty Allah & his Messenger Prophet Muhammed (Sal). 5) I was born to 100% Malay Background Malay Parents.

    You must ask all the Malays why Malay Language is fading in Sri Lanka because 20% Malays are married to Sinhales, Tamils, Christians, Moors & B urgehers and behave like Burghers in appearence

  5. I am a Sri Lankan Malay. My children were born in UAE. When I went to the Sri Lankan embessy for birth registration, the lady on duty refused to register as Malay. She said she never heard of Malays in Sri Lanka. I went home and brought my other childs birth certificate which was registered at the same office 2 years before. Then only she corrected it, which is still clearly visible on the BC.

  6. Fading Malays in Sri Lanka whom supposed to blame…? To the kids..? NO.. to the parents. Why…they didn’t properly brought up their children’s and didn’t educate the importance of tradition. When the financial situation worsened in the past the bride parents can’t afford dowry to groom family,…NO marraige. The parents keep mouth shut until daugthers bring someone home then getting married with other ethnicity its a one easy way of avoiding dowry and wedding expenses in your comment not 20% currently its 65% were married to different ethnicity. Its obviously fading community.

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