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5 Malaysian Taboos You Should Know

by ikalmayang

Growing up, we all could relate to having been told stories of superstitions and bad luck, almost always ending up being life lessons and warnings for us as children to be careful of our surroundings and to avoid making terrible mistakes unless we want to invite unfriendly spirits to come wreak havoc in our household.

All these taboos have always been interesting—coming from unbelievable narratives and yet seem to make sense if you really think about it.

Here are 5 taboos that Malaysians are very familiar with:


  • Clipping nails

It’s a universally Malaysian experience to have heard elders warn you about cutting your nails at night when you were children.

It’s believed that cutting your nails at night brings about a string of terrible things; like inviting ghosts and mean spir its to haunt you while you sleep. 

The underlying reasoning behind this superstition is that back when there was no electricity and light was scarce at night, the chances of cutting yourself as you clip your nails was high. To avoid that, it was best to do it during the day. Of course, with modernity progressing, there isn’t a need for people to be as paranoid. Although, the superstition still remains as a good warning to be more careful when you cut your fingernails.


  • In The Jungle: You are Not Alone

When venturing out into the jungle, they say that you need to be very respectful of your surroundings. Jungles are homes to unseen dwellers who certainly have more authority on the grounds that you trek.

Therefore, it’s important to maintain respect (no vandalising, no unnecessary noise and certainly no bringing back any odd-looking souvenirs!) in the deep green as you will never know whose eyes are watching you, and where they are. 


  • Gift-Giving Guides

Gift-giving taboos are so interesting because one culture’s gold can be another culture’s curse.

For example, it’s uncommon to gift the Chinese flowers on happy occasions as they are reminiscent of mourning and funerals. In Malay customs, wrapping your gifts in yellow should best be avoided as the colour is reserved for royalty—but in Indian and Chinese customs, yellow is encouraged as it is said to bring luck.


  • Pillow-Sitting 

Perhaps this was a method to instil manners to children, but we’ve all heard of the idea that if you sit on a pillow, you will develop painful boils on your buttocks. 

The reasoning behind this actually correlates to Malaysians’ propensity to view the head as a deeply-respected part of the body as we often have various etiquettes surrounding areas of the head. 

Because the pillow is an article that comes into contact specifically with the head, it’s important to avoid sitting on it as your bum isn’t exactly a body part associated with hygiene. 


  • Asking Permission

When you enter a quiet and desolate space, driving through a dark highway at night, or especially attempting to do your ‘business’ on a patch of dirt under a tree, remember to always give a small greeting and ask for permission. 

This is a belief as old as time, but it relates back to the idea of unseen dwellers making a home in places very few humans inhabit. It is said that when you go through these places you are trespassing into their homes, so it’s best to make your presence known and ask for permission before you go ahead and do anything else. 


While some of these taboos are outdated and often deal with superstitions, they all carry meanings tied to psychosocial intricacies surrounding etiquette, manners and the general welfare of the community. 

The previous generations view taboos as a means to justify things they might not have understood, but it can also be viewed as warnings to watch out for their own safety as it was a much riskier process of staying alive. 

Regardless, taboos and superstitions are fascinating practices that have spanned and survived for generations—while they might sound exaggerated and sometimes nonsensical, they are byproducts of our cultural identity and we should embrace them for what they are. 

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