Wednesday, May 17, 2017


To say that this folksy collection of Malay sayings (generically called peribahasa) represents only the tip of a veritable iceberg would be metaphorically correct, if climatically inappropriate, considering the steamy, tropical, kampung environment from which they have sprouted. 

For generations, thousands of Malay proverbs, idioms, aphorisms, homilies and whimsical turns of phrase remained oral legacies - until 1878 when W.E. Maxwell began publishing parts of his personal collection in the early journals of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

In the 1890s two swashbuckling British civil servants and Malay scholars, H.C. Clifford and F.A. Swettenham, took on the task and started a short-lived trend; R.J. Wilkinson, J.L. Humphreys, and R.O. Winstedt were among those who followed suit.

Peribahasa  enjoyed  a burst of renewed interest in the 1930s, an era that saw notable compilations by E.S. Hose, A.W. Hamilton, and a Kelantanese scholar - Muhammad Adnan bin Muhammad Arifin, or M.A. Muhammad Adnan, if you happen to be a stickler for tradition and insist on the double initials that appear to be the hallmark of all bona fide compilers of peribahasa.

C.C. Brown, a retired civil servant and lecturer in Malay at the University of London, produced a lively and authoritative collection in 1951. The book was reissued  by Graham Brash in 1989. In 1992 the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society published an updated edition of E.S. Hose's compilation. It was edited by Tan Sri Dato' Dr Mubin Sheppard. To these last two publications I am greatly indebted, for I have relied heavily on them as references.

One of the endearing qualities of Malay sayings is their extremely graphic imagery, and I have claimed artistic licence with some of them. While many sayings are broadly interpreted, the ones with ribald connotations, in particular, have been prone to dilution as parents and schoolteachers with prudish tendencies have thought it fit to bowdlerize (or launder) them before handing them down to their children.

It is hoped that the zany flavor of the drawings and the freestyle elaboration in the text will underscore the ageless relevance and applicability of these homespun peribahasa.

Magick River


1.  Masuk bakul angkat sendiri
Getting into a basket and carrying it yourself

Self-promotion, Overweening pride. 
Counter-productive egotism; getting ahead of oneself.

2.  Air dicincang tidak putus
You may slash water but you can't sever it

Quarrels among good friends and relatives are but temporary. 
Blood is thicker than water. Similarly, carik-carik bulu ayam, 
lama-lama ia bercantum pula (ruffle a fowl's feathers 
and they'll soon be smooth again).

3. Bapa borek anak rintik
Where the father is speckly, 
the son will at least be freckly

Like father, like son.

4.  Air digenggam tiada tiris
When he grabs water, not a drop 
seeps through his fingers

Said of the avaricious. Tight-fisted. An Ebenezer Scrooge.

5.  Di mana bumi dipijak 
di situlah langit dijunjung
Wherever you stand on earth 
is where you support the sky

A lowly birth is no exemption from a noble life. 
A spoilt past is no reason to ruin a good future.  
Regardless of one's circumstances, one can still be a paragon of virtue. 
Sometimes interpreted as a call to patriotism.

6.  Anak baik menantu molek
A good son and a pretty daughter-in-law

Consider yourself amply blessed. What more could one ask of life?

 7.  Bunga layu kembang semula

    A faded flower blooms anew

Vindicated by time, making a comeback, reinstated into favor.
Or making a futile attempt at staying fashionable. Mutton dressed as lamb.

8.  Alang-alang mandi biar sampai basah, alang-alang berdakwat 
biar sampai hitam

   If you're going to take a bath, get wet; if you're going to write in ink, let it be  a good, black ink

In other words, don't do things in half-measures. 
Go the whole hog. One may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

9.  Batu besar berguling turun, 
batu kecil berguling naik
The rocks come tumbling down, 
the pebbles go rolling up

The rich fall and the poor rise in the whirligig of time. 
What goes up must come down. How the mighty are fallen. 
Vico's theory of cyclical evolution expressed in kampung terms.

10.  Bertemu telaga di kaki bukit
Finding a well at the foot of a hill

A limitless supply of pure water, never again shall one thirst.

11. Biar lambat asal selamat

   Be late if you must, but get there safe and sound

The slow-but-sure approach may not win any races,
 but it is sometimes wiser to leave the competition altogether.

12.  Bulat datang menggolek,
 pipir datang melayang
 What's round comes a-rolling,
 what's flat comes a-flying

To the optimist this could only mean money; 
to the pessimist, pills and bills to pay!

13.  Bunga bukan sekaki,
 kumbang bukan seekor
Flowers don't come singly, nor do bees

There's more than one fish in the sea.
 Usually offered as consolation for those who have lost their lovers.

14.  Cangkat sama didaki, 
lurah sama di turun

    Together we climb the hills, 
together we descend into the valleys.

Sticking together through thick and thin. Said of tried friends and comrades.
Many variants have arisen, e.g., ringan sama menjinjing, 
berat sama memikul (together we carry the light objects in our hands,
 together we lift the heavy burdens on our shoulders).

In a more Gary Larsonish vein: hati gajah sama dilapah, 
hati kuman sama dicecap (together we carve the elephant's heart, 
together we savor the heart of the microbe).

Similarly, berkuah sama menghirup, bersambal sama menculit
(when there's gravy we'll lap it up together, when there's pickles 
we'll share the snippets). Friends are made in wine and proved in tears.

Just one more for its dramatic quality: terlentang bersama 
menadah embun, tiarap sama memakan pasir 
(if we fall on our backs, together we'll catch the dew;
 if we fall face down, together we'll bite the dust).

Real friendship does not freeze in winter. Comrades to the bitter end!

15.  Empat gasal lima genap
 Four is odd, five is even

Absolute nonconformity. Said of someone or something totally contrary:
 "With so-and-so white is black."

16.  Hilang panas setahun 
kerana hujan sehari
 A whole year's heat is canceled by a single day's rain

Sudden relief after long suffering. But does the reverse apply?

 17.  Hujan berbalik ke langit

    The rain goes back to the sky

Reversal of "the natural order": a topsy-turvy situation,
 as when the student professes to teach the master. 
The tail wagging the dog. Teaching one's grandmother to suck eggs. 
(Today, however,  we all know that the natural order is cyclical - 
and that the rain does, in fact,  go back to the sky when it evaporates!)

18.  (Ibarat) Kaca jatuh ke batu
  (Like) glass falling on a rock

A shattering experience, broken-hearted.

19.  Kain panjang empat, ditarik ke atas ke bawah tak sampai
The sarong is four feet long; pull it up 
to cover your breast, and you expose your legs

Burning the candle at both ends. Said of someone overstretching 
his or her resources.  You can't please everybody.

20.  Kapal besar ditunda jongkong
 The big ship is towed by a dug-out

Led by one's inferiors. A benevolent leader under the influence of parasitic minions.

21.  (Ibarat) Lilin membakar 
diri untuk menerangi orang lain
 A candle burning itself to illuminate others

The martyr complex or Florence Nightingale syndrome. 
Usually intended as a cynical observation: "The good die young."

22.  Mendengar guruh di langit, 
curahkan air di tempayan
Hearing thunder from afar, he empties the water jar

An imprudent act that could result in thirst. Don't count your chicks 
before they're hatched. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
 And don't drop that bone into the pond just because 
you think you've seen a bigger one.

23.  (Ibarat) Ludah ke langit 
(timpa ke muka sendiri)
To spit at the sky (and hit your own eye)

Slander flings stones at itself. Speak ill of your own family 
and the injury recoils on yourself.

To shoot yourself in the foot. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
 It's an ill bird that fouls its own nest. Alternatively rendered as: 
Ludah ke langit, timpa batang hidung sendiri
 (spit at the sky and the spittle lands on your nose).

 24.  Permata jatuh di rumput 
pun gilang
A gem will sparkle even in the grass

True worth will reveal itself. You can't keep a good man down.

25.  Musuh di dalam selimut
  An enemy under the blanket 

A traitor in the household. Often used against unfaithful wives.

26.  Sebab nila setitik 
rosak susu sebelanga
One drop of indigo spoilt the whole pot of milk

It was once common practice to add a drop of indigo (a dark blue dye) to the wash to accentuate the whites but, in this instance, the milk not only gets no whiter, 
it becomes undrinkable. One bad apple is enough to ruin the whole barrel.

27.  Sebab tak tahu menari 
dikatakan lantai tinggi rendah
He who can't dance claims the floor is uneven

A bad workman blames his tools.

28.  Retak menanti belah

       The crack awaits the split

The little rift within the lute. Said of relationships and situations that are close to breaking point, requiring only the slightest excuse to snap completely. Sometimes rendered as retak mencari belah (the crack seeks the split)  - in which case the parties involved are really just looking for "a decent excuse" to terminate a moribund contract. The final straw (that broke the camel's back).

 29.  (Seperti) Kapas dimakan api

       As cotton is consumed by fire

Swift and utter destruction. Helpless as a dewdrop in the midday sun.

30.  Tertawa bagai batu roboh

       To laugh like a landslide

Roaring with mirth from the depths of one's belly. 
In England people prefer to laugh like drains.

 31.  Telan mati emak, ludah mati bapak

       If you swallow your mother dies, 
if you spit your father dies

On the horns of a dilemma. Between the devil and the deep blue sea. 
Hobson's choice. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

32.  Sedikit-sedikit lama-lama 
jadi bukit

     Little by little it becomes a hill

The virtue of perseverance. Look after the pennies 
and the pounds will take care of themselves.


 33.  (Ibarat) Ayam bertelur sebiji 
riuh sekampung
The hen lays one egg and clucks to the whole village

Much ado about nothing. Braggadocio. To blow one's own trumpet. 
The greatest talkers do the least. Rendered in its full, formal glory: 
Penyu bertelur beribu-ribu seorang pun tak tahu, ayam bertelur sebiji 
pecah khabar sebuah negeri (the turtle lays eggs by the thousands
and no one knows of it; the hen lays one egg and breaks the news
to the whole nation).

34.  Apa lagi sawa? 
Dia berkehendak ayam lah
What do you expect from a python? 
Of course he's after the chickens 

Asking mice to guard the cheese. Burp.

35.  Ayam hitam terbang malam
A black fowl flies by night

A fishy story, difficult to verify. An obscure and mysterious case
 in which no judgment is possible. Things that go bump in the night.
 Quoted in the annals of the Malay Court of Justice:

           Ayam hitam terbang malam,
           Hinggap di pokok pandan;
           Berkesah ada, rupanya tidak.

           A black fowl flies by night,
           Alighting in the screw-pine;
           A rustling is heard but nothing is seen.

36.  Ayam putih terbang siang
A white fowl flies by day

A clear-cut case, obvious circumstances.
 Beyond any shadow of doubt. Clear as day.

       Ayam putih terbang siang,
       Hinggap di halaman,
       Malah kepada mata orang banyak.

       A white fowl flies by day,
       Alighting in the courtyard,
       In full view of the public.

37.  Masuk kawan ayam berkokok
 If you find yourself among cocks, crow

Be versatile, blend with the crowd, conform! When in Rome, do as the Romans.
 Similarly, masuk ke dalam kandang kambing mengembek
(if you enter a goat-pen, bleat); masuk kawan kerbau menguak
(in the company of buffaloes, bellow); masuk kawan gajah menderin
(when with elephants, trumpet)

38.  Ayam terlepas, tangan bawa tahi
The fowl has escaped, leaving shit in the hand

Traditionally said of someone who has been jilted.
 The image, however, is graphic enough to describe any situation
 where carefully laid plans are blown asunder, leaving a messy aftermath. 
A down-to-earth version of "What man proposes, God disposes."

39. Bertelingkuh antan di lesung,
 ayam juga yang kenyang
When pestles clash in the mortar,
 it's the chickens that eat well

A familiar scene in every kampung: chickens pecking merrily away
 whenever grains are being pounded. Nowadays the chickens 
are armed with law degrees.

40.   Mati ayam, mati tungaunya
If the fowl dies, its ticks perish too

When misfortune befalls the mighty, the impact is also felt 
at the bottom of the scale. Compare this with langit runtuh bumi cair 
(the sky collapses and the earth dissolves). 

A prince's underlings are crushed by his fall.

41.  Gagak ganggang telur
A crow with an egg in its beak

The whiteness of the egg makes the crow appear even blacker. 
Said of ill-favored individuals in beautiful clothes, where their lack of beauty 
is only accentuated by their fine apparel.

A hunchback in high heels.

42.  Telur di hujung tanduk
An egg teetering on the tip of a horn

A risky business or fragile situation. Shaky undertaking. Cutting a fine line.

Walking a tightrope. Skating on thin ice.