Baju Melayu : A Lapsed Identity

In the post-celebration of Eid Mubarak, Muslims all over Malaysia celebrated their effort of a whole month of fasting in the Ramadhan The Malay community, the largest Muslim community in Malaysia swarms the mosque to perform the Eid Mubarak morning prayer, and soon after visiting the homes of their families and friends, reconnecting and rebonding, forgiving and forgetting part grudges, amending broken bonds. Clad in their signature Baju Kurung, they welcome families, relatives and friends from all races and religion, truly in the spirit of unity in diversity. 

Somewhere amidst the celebration and festive ambiance, an identity fell between the cracks of time. Old tales no longer pass through broken lips and music of the new age replaces the colourful tales our fathers and forefathers grew up with. They Malays, very proud of their heritage abide the flows of time. The uniqueness of Baju Melayu enters mainstream fashion and evolved into what it is today - a lapsed identity.

The History

Unraveling the history of Baju Kurung proves to be a daunting task because there has been very little written documentation to support what has been claimed. Various sources debate that the traditional costume was introduced by Sultan Muhammad Syah, the third sultan of the Malacca Empayar between 1424 to 1444. Other sources claims that Baju Kurung has been around in the Sultanate State of Johore during the ruling of Sultan Abu Bakar in Telok Belanga, Singapore - which gives the name Baju Kurung Telok Belanga. The idea was hatched by the sultan himself in year 1866 to commemorate the nostalgia of Telok Belanga as the ruling capital back then.

Traditional Variation

In Malaysia, Baju Kurung refers to the female costume while it's male counterpart is referred to as Baju Melayu. However, traditionally both are called Baju Kurung, as it's purpose is to confine it's wearer (from dirt, filth, weather, touch etc.) (Kurung literally means to lock up or confine). The style therefore, comes after : Baju Kurung Cekak Musang, Baju Kurung Telok Belanga etc. However, it is generally more accepted to say Baju Melayu Cekak Musang or Baju Melayu Telok Belanga when referring to the male version of the costume, and Baju Kurung to refer to the female version. With the female versions however, there are even more styles I hope to cover from time to time.

Baju Kurung Cekak Musang

Cekak Musang
Literally translated to fox's noose (musang = fox, cekak = noose), this costume is distinguishable by the raised collar and 5 buttons on the placket. In itself, it is a 2 piece costume - the shirt or baju, and the pants or seluar. The hem line of the baju will run to the middle of the wearer's lap, with the placket running a third of it's whole length. 

Whether or not the buttons are traditionally sewn into the plackets is not known for certain, however the common practice is that 5 buttonholes are provided in which dress studs (similar to cuff-links) called kancing are inserted. It is further claimed that 5 buttons represent the 5 pillars of Islam, the religion that the majority of Malaysian Malay follows. Morever, traditionally the placket overlaps right over left, signifying the Muslim's prayer ritual where the right hand is placed over the left hand while standing. Normally, three pockets complete the baju, one on the left side breast and two along the waist a few inches above the hem. 

Baju Kurung Telok Belanga

Telok Belanga
This version of Baju Melayu is also comprised of a 2 piece suit. More famous in the state of Johore, the absence of cekak musang or raised collar and buttoned placket became the distinguishing feature of this variation of Baju Kurung. In place, an opening hemmed with stiff stitching called tulang belut (lit. eel's spine/bone) ending with a small loop to one side to fit a singular kancing. Symbolically, this represents the Muslim's believe of Allah as the one and only god worthy to be worshipped. The breast pocket is sometimes missing in this version of Baju Melayu


To complete the Baju Kurung Cekak Musang and Baju Kurung Telok Belanga, various accessories are added. From head to toe, they are : 

Tanjak - Worn on the head


Bengkung - Worn around the waist over sampin
Sampin - worn around the waist

The Lapsed Identity

It was said that the Baju Kurung not only survived, but thrived - from being first introduced to Islamization, followed by the colonisation of the British empire to the Japanese colonisation and finally modernisation after independence and formation of the Malaysian Federation. However, what Baju Kurung is today is different from what it was hundreds of years ago. Back then, the wearer is identified by the folds and position of his tanjak, by ways whether the baju is worn under or over the sampin, by the folds of his sampin - the length of which tells whether the wearer is single, married, a widower or an elderly. Even the position of the keris carries a connotation of the wearer's intention whether coming in peace or with malice.

The basic two-piece Baju Kurung - both the baju and the seluar was never that long. The sleeves of the baju was once only an inch or two past the elbow for Malays with ranks in the society, while commoners and farmers would wear it sleeveless. This is due to the nature of their job - having long sleeves means they will be more prone to getting dirty. As most Malays are also Muslims, having sleeves up to the elbow means they can easily perform the ablution before prayer without having to roll up their sleeve.

The same is said for the seluar. The lengthening of the seluar from just below the knees (around halfway through the calf) to the hem reaching the ankle came together with the British colonisation. The crotch area were traditionally made baggy to facilitate movement - especially in playing sepak takraw and silat. Again with the Muslim reference, the length of the seluar reaches only past the knee as the male aurat (parts of the body considered to be intimate in Islam) for men is between the belly-button to the knee. Having a shorter length also helps to reduce possibilities of the seluar from catching dirt off the road or ground.

Each accessories also carries a traditional identity along with folks tale surrounding the history of each accessories. The keris, for instance, is usually inherited within a Malay family. Generally regarded as a weapon for self-defence, little is known that the hilt of the keris made from various materials i.e. wood, antlers and coral stone which is further regarded to give certain mystical effect to the keris. 

Rings also forms a part of the traditional Malay costume, it's own connotation on the ring or pinky finger on either hands of the wearer. Similar to the hilt of the keris, the batu cincin or stone of the ring can be made out of various materials from wood to rocks to benefit the wearer medicinally, offensively or defensively, or even believed to have love-potion-like effect to the wearer.

Revival of the Lapsed Identity

There has been a slow and steady attempt to revive the tradition of Baju Kurung. Hazriansyah and Mustaqim, founder of Kotak Hitam Art Studio has a passion in conserving and reviving the Malay heritage and traditional wear. Instead of a cap or a stylish fedora that most guys wear, Hazriansyah and Mustaqim (fondly known as Tok Pek and Mus, respectively) wear the tanjak with their T-shirts and jeans.What makes them even more special is that they not only wear tanjak but they also make their own.

Loque, a 35-year-old songwriter and founder of Butterfingers and MonoloQue, has been wearing the tengkolok with shirts and jeans as his newfound identity since two years ago, saying he feels proud to wear tengkolok because it is part of the Malay culture and it reflects his true identity. According to him,
Tengkolok is ours, not something that we borrow from the West like caps or fedoras. It’s a pity if a man wears tengkolok only on his wedding day. Tengkolok has character and is a unique heritage that we should be proud of.” 
For purists, the attempt to revive and merge tanjak and tengkolok with shirts and jeans or any other wears than Baju Kurung is considered brazen, but to both Tok Pek and Mus,
"It’s not anti-establishment or anti-convention. It’s just our way to revive traditional wear to make it fashionable and more appealing to our peers and the younger generation. It’s also our way to re-introduce tanjak as a daily wear just like it was in those days. Rather than glorifying caps, hats or  bandanas, why not wear a tanjak instead?” 
Efforts to preserve and revive traditional Malay costume not only as the hundred-years-old legacy our forefathers left us but also as one of the main attractions to what makes Malaysia unique should be strengthened lest it disappear into the cracks of time. As the old Malay saying goes :
"Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat."
- lit. Let die the son, not the tradition.