Malay Muslim Marriages
Weddings of the Malay community are generally festive, grand and celebratory affairs with many guests. Ceremonies may be held over several days in traditional Malay weddings.1 The marriage is solemnised during the akad nikah (solemnisation ceremony). The highlight of the wedding is the bersanding (sitting-in-state ceremony), which is followed by a feast for family and friends.2
Some couples have chosen to simplify matters, opting to have only the solemnisation ceremony and a simple lunch reception. This may be an effort to reduce costs or to ensure that the wedding is more aligned to Islamic beliefs.3
Proposal and engagement
A marriage is traditionally initiated by merisik, a process in which a senior and respected member of the groom’s family visits the prospective bride’s family to learn about her background, and whether she is agreeable to the marriage.4 He is usually accompanied by a small entourage bearing gifts. If the bride is found to be acceptable, a proposal would be made, traditionally in the form of poetic Malay verses.5
Today, merisik may not be conducted, as most couples already know each other well before marriage is considered.6 Alternatively, the meeting may just be a formality for the in-laws to get to know each other, and to set a date for the engagement.7
Once the proposal is accepted – this may take up to a week – the engagement date is determined. During bertunang (engagement ceremony), gifts are exchanged between the couple, and the amount of mas kahwin (dowry) agreed upon.8 The engagement period may last between six months and three years.9
The akad nikah is an important ceremony usually held at the bride’s house on the eve of the wedding.10 The ceremony may also be held at the mosque or at the Registry of Muslim Marriages.11
The ceremony is officiated by an imam (religious leader) or a kadhi (also spelt kadi; a religious official). In the past, the bride would wait in a separate room and only emerge to sign the marriage certificate. Now, the kadhi would ask for the bride’s consent to marriage before proceeding with the solemnisation ceremony.12
During the ceremony, the kadhi recites verses from the Quran and speaks to the groom about his duties and responsibilities to his wife. Following this, the kadhi solemnises the marriage by making certain pronouncements, and the groom is then required to make the relevant declaration correctly and clearly to all present. After this declaration, the bride and groom sign the marriage contract.13 The contract is sealed with the mas kahwin, which can be in cash or kind. The mas kahwin symbolises the beginning of a husband’s responsibility towards his wife in fulfilling her everyday needs.14
The akad nikah is often followed by the berinai ceremony during which the bride’s and groom’s fingers and nails are stained with henna. Traditionally, there are three berinai ceremonies: berinai curi (curi means “steal” in Malay), berinai kechil (“small”) and berinai besar (“big”). Berinai curi is conducted for the bride by her bridesmaids, The other two ceremonies involve both the bride and groom. Berinai kecil is held before akad nikah, while berinai besar takes place after.15
Bersanding and other ceremonies
Most bridal couples choose to wear traditional Malay attire on their wedding day. Clothes made of songket – a hand-woven fabric embroidered with golden threads – are a popular choice.16 A mak andam is often engaged to serve as the bride’s beautician and consultant for the day. She ensures that the bride looks beautiful and that traditional rites such as the sending of the sirih lat-lat (betel leaves arrangement) are carried out. The sirih lat-lat is delivered to the groom’s house to inform him that the bride is ready to receive him and his entourage.17
The wedding ceremony begins with the groom going to the bride’s home, usually accompanied by a kompang or hadrah (Malay drum) band, bunga manggar (palm blossoms made from tinsel paper) carriers, friends and relatives.18 The kompang band members usually sing verses from the Quran, seeking blessings for the couple. The kompang band lends an air of festivity to the occasion and creates an atmosphere of gaiety.19
When the groom arrives at the bride’s home, her friends and relatives will try to prevent him from reaching the bride. The groom will then give a present of money to bribe his way to his bride. Sometimes, the groom has to pay the mak andam to remove the fan she is holding in front of the bride’s face.20
The highlight of the wedding is the bersanding, when the bridal couple, in their wedding finery, sit on thrones placed on the pelamin (dias). They are treated as king and queen for the day. During the ceremony, friends, relatives and guests offer their blessings and congratulations, and sprinkle yellow rice and flower petals – both items are symbols of fertility – on the bridal couple.21
After the ceremony, the bride and groom will eat together in the makan berdamai or makan bersama ceremony.22 In the past, this ceremony used to be held in the bridal suite in the presence of senior family members, during which the bride serves her husband food for the first time. Today, the bridal couple usually feast together with their guests.23
When the wedding is held over several days, the couple may choose to have a second bersanding ceremony – the bertandang – held at the groom’s home a few days later. In Singapore, this process has been simplified and the couple usually proceed to the groom’s home for the bertandang after the bersanding on the same day.24
The reception after the bersanding ceremony typically consists of a feast, accompanied by band performances or guests singing karaoke.25 In the past, guests would bring dishes to the feast,26 and friends and relatives would also arrive a few days early to help with decorations or provide other forms of assistance. Today, most couples engage professional caterers and hired help.27
Traditionally, the wedding reception is held at the courtyard of the family home.28 Nowadays, the wedding reception usually takes place at the void decks of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats or at the housing estate’s communal areas such as community centres.29 The void deck is, however, the preferred choice as it is representative of the “home” of the couple and their families. It is also more cost-effective to host the celebration at the void deck instead of commercial venues, especially when the guest list is long.30 The void deck is usually lavishly decorated for the wedding.31
Guests do not have to remain for the entire duration of the reception.32 Before they leave, they would usually present a gift of money to the couple. In appreciation of their attendance, guests are traditionally given a bunga telur (literally translated as “flower egg”).33 The bunga telur, which is a symbol of fertility, is a hard-boiled egg placed on a base of glutinous rice in a cup made of sticks or wiry paper flower. Today, many couples have replaced the bunga telur with chocolates, sweets or cakes.34
Traditional wedding items
Despite changes to wedding rituals and ceremonies over time, most Malay weddings still retain some traditional features. A traditional symbol of Malay weddings is the bunga manggar, which symbolises prosperity and expresses the hope that the couple will have many children. When it is tied to a road sign, lamp post or placed at a bus-stop, the bunga manggar serves as a directional landmark to help guests locate the wedding reception.35
Other items commonly seen at Malay weddings are the sirih dara and bunga mayang. These are floral arrangements symbolising the chastity of the bride, and are usually gifts from the groom to the bride’s family.36
The pulut pahar, which represents fertility, is found on the pelamin. This plant-like structure is made of hard-boiled eggs. After the reception, half of it is given to the mak andam and the other half returned to the bride’s family.37
Dos and Don’ts
Although there are no hard-and-fast rules about what should and should not be done during Malay weddings, there are certain expectations as to how the bridal couple and guests should behave. For example, the bridal couple are traditionally not allowed to talk too much or even laugh during the bersanding, and guests are expected to dress their best. Most Malay guests turn up in traditional Malay attire. Female guests are expected to dress modestly, and off-shoulder or sleeveless clothes are avoided.38
Jaime Koh & Stephanie Ho
1. Joan Boyle, “King, Queen for a Day,” Straits Times, 2 May 1983, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Muhammad Ariff Ahmad, “Small Steps to Big Day,” Straits Times, 26 November 1990, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Yohanna Abdullah, “More Malays Opting for No-Frills Wedding,” Straits Times, 1 March 1991, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture (Singapore: Asiapac Books, 2003), 42. (Call no. RSING 305.89928 GAT); Syed Mahadzir Syed Ibrahim, Adat Resam Dan Makanan Masyarakat Melayu (Kuala Lumpur: E1 Publication Sdn Bhd, 2009), 15–16.
5. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 43–44; Jaime Koh and Stephanie Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia (California: Greenwood Press, 2009), 119. (Call no. YRSING 305.80095957 KOH)
6. Syed Ibrahim, Adat Resam, 15–16.
7. PROJECTKMSUTM, “Traditional Malay Weddings – Spying Custom (Adat Merisik),” wordpress.com (blog), 20 December 2015.
8. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 45; Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs, 119; Syed Ibrahim, Adat Resam, 16–18.
9. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 46.
10. PROJECTKMSUTM, “Traditional Malay Weddings.”
11. “Learning to Appreciate Malay Weddings and Their Traditions,” Citrus Media Pte. Ltd, last updated 8 September 2019.
12. “Traditional Malay Weddings – The Wedding Contract Ceremony (Akad Nikah),” Citrus Media Pte. Ltd, last updated 8 September 2019.
13. Boyle, “King, Queen for a Day.”
14. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 48–50; Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs, 119; Haron A. Rahman and Aini Mohd, “‘Sitting in State’,” Straits Times, 1 September 1983, 4. (From NewspaperSG); “Maskawin & Marriage Expenses,” Registry of Muslim Marriages (Singapore), last updated 10 May 2019.
15. Muhammad Ariff Ahmad, “When the Bride’s Fingers are Stained with Henna,” Straits Times, 24 March 1988, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “The Songket Is a Symbol of Malay Life,” Straits Times, 26 March 1986, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Haron Abdul Rahman, “What Mak Andam Does on the Wedding Day,” Straits Times, 29 July 1987, 37. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia, 118; “Understanding Islam and Malay-Muslim Culture and Practices – Singapore,” Citrus Media Pte. Ltd, last updated 9 September 2019; Ariff Ahmad, “Small Steps to Big Day.”
19. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 51; “A Matter of Tradition,” Straits Times, 28 February 1990, 25; Ariff Ahmad, “Small Steps to Big Day.”
20. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 52; Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia, 118–119.
21. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 53; Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia, 119.
22. Haron Abdul Rahman, “The Big Day and Its Rites,” Straits Times, 12 February 1986, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Ariff Ahmad, “Small Steps to Big Day.”
24. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 51, 53; Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia, 119.
25. Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia, 119.
26. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 54.
27. Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia, 119; Abdul Rahman, “The Big Day and Its Rites.”
28. Citrus Media Pte. Ltd, “Learning to Appreciate Malay Weddings and Their Traditions.”
29. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 53; Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia, 119; Citrus Media Pte. Ltd, “Learning to Appreciate Malay Weddings and Their Traditions.”
30. Citrus Media Pte. Ltd, “Learning to Appreciate Malay Weddings and Their Traditions.”
31. Citrus Media Pte. Ltd, “Learning to Appreciate Malay Weddings and Their Traditions.”
32. Koh and Ho, Culture and Customs of Singapore and Malaysia, 119.
33. “Malay Customs and Practices,” Straits Times, 14 May 1991, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “Malay Customs and Practices.”
35. “What Is Bunga Mangga?” New Paper, 19 March 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG); Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 54.
36. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 54.
37. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 54.
38. Asiapac Editorial, Gateway to Malay Culture, 55; “It’s Even Sums for Chinese & Odd for Indians,” New Paper, 21 March 2008, 92; “'I Do' and Do's and Don'ts,” Straits Times, 18 July 1982, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
Asrina Tanuri and Nadya Suradi, “Malay-Muslim Weddings: Keeping Up with the Times,” BiblioAsia (Jul–Sep 2021).
Some Aspects of Malay Customs and Practices = Beberapa Aspek Adat Dan Amalan Melayu (Singapore: Majlis Pusat Pertubuhan-Pertubuhan Budaya Melayu Singapura, 1990). (Call no. RSING 306.08999205957 SOM)
The information in this article is valid as at 7 November 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Ethnic Communities>>Customs and Traditions
Heritage and Culture
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Marriage customs and rites--Singapore
People and communities>>Marriage and weddings