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Sep 21, 2021
Izzat Haziq

Of Old Wives Tales and Taboos: A Peek Inside Malaysian Superstitions


Growing up in an Asian household, for the most part, meant that there are certain unspoken rules, superstitions and taboos that you need to adhere to. In the simplest sense, taboo means “forbidden” or “to forbid”, and it also denotes a handful of actions in which an object cannot be touched or words cannot be said (Allan and Burridge, 2006).

As a naive kid, you might’ve not given much thought about this, and maybe now that you’re older, you begin to wonder why on earth would someone start these pantang larang in the first place. Well, we don’t have a concrete answer for that but let's just indulge in the possible explanation behind some of Malaysia's infamous superstitions and cultural taboos.

1. You Can Stay Under My Umbrella
Photo by Vino Li on Unsplash

Apparently, this one right here is a common superstition shared across the globe; you must not open an umbrella indoors. It’s a big no-no. Whatever you do, please do not even think of unfurling an umbrella inside your home, or anywhere indoors for that matter, as it will bring bad luck.

On a related note, the local Chinese community believe that you should never carry red or black umbrellas with you during the Hungry Ghost season, in fear of inviting unwanted guests into your humble abode.

Fact or cap

It’s fair to assume that opening an umbrella indoors can be rather hazardous, especially in tight spaces where you risk injuring someone in the household. And then there’s the possibility of breaking fragile things, like your parent’s heirloom vase. Forget about bad luck, you might even end up banished from your house.

2. Pillow Talk
Photo by That Ning on Unsplash

Picture this: you’re planning to sleep in the living room so you could catch a midnight movie. Tatami bed on the floor, you’ve brought your favourite blanket with you, and as you’re about to settle in, you thought that it would be a great idea to sit on one of your pillows, for that extra support. All is good till your mom catches you red-handed, and she ends up freaking out because you are sitting on top of a pillow. 

According to popular lore, one should never sit on top of a pillow, no matter what the circumstances are. Or else you’ll develop pimples on your derriere. 

Fact or cap

We’re not sure if the line of reasoning applies to cushions, but you shouldn’t sit on top of a pillow because it is considered rude to do so. The head, according to Malay folks, is one of the most sensitive and revered parts of human anatomy (Omar, 2014). Therefore, you should never play or fool around with someone’s head. In this case, the pillow is the support for one to rest their head, so sitting on top of it is highly frowned upon.

3. Singing Sensation

Ladies, beware. Whenever you’re in the kitchen, please refrain yourself from  singing. Not even a chorus. Just don’t. Unless you’re okay with the curse—or blessing, depending on how you look at it—of marrying an older guy somewhere down the line. Hey, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Fact or cap

Not to dismiss the misogynistic undertones, but there is a fair explanation for this. Remember in the olden days before modern appliances were available in our kitchens? Well, back then people used to cook on a wood-burning stove. And, singing while cooking means that one is prone to get carried away while belting out vocals. It sounds like we’re grasping at straws here, but this pantang larang is more of a precautionary tale so that you won’t burn your rice or whatever that is you’re cooking at the moment.

4. Answering Nature’s Call
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Please keep this in mind whenever you’re exploring the great outdoors. Try to avoid urinating in the jungle. If you must, just remember to ask for permission. From whom, you ask? Well, the spirits that inhabit the forest, of course. And never pee at big trees, boulders or termite nests as these are known to be the homes of those who are unseen to the naked eyes.

Fact or cap

Need we say more? It’s extremely disrespectful to soil someone else’s home.

5. Nails on Fleek

Last but not least, if you’re in the mood to do some mani-pedi come nightfall, you might want to give that a second thought. Legend has it that cutting your nails at night might shorten your lifespan. Now, talk about being morbid, right

Fact or cap

Honestly speaking, this also ties back to how we were raised in a different generation altogether from our forefathers. Think of it this way, before the existence of electricity lines, people relied on gas lamps and candles to get through the night. So, it’d make sense that you shouldn’t cut your nails at night, what with the poor lighting and all, to avoid any injuries. 

Whether you’re a sceptic or a believer, there is really no harm in being mindful of the dos and don’ts that run deep in our multicultural society. If you want to read more about other Malaysian cultural touchstones, check out Lisa’s write-up on The Evolution of Sarong in Malaysia



Yusof, A.  (2006). “Beberapa Aspek ‘Urf Fasid dalam Budaya Melayu dan Kesannya Terhadap Hukum” dlm. Md. Saleh Hj. Md. (ed.) ,Hukum Islam dan Budaya Tempatan. Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Malaya

Omar, A. (2014). Pantang larang dalam kalangan orang Melayu analisis dari perspektif teori SPB4K. MELAYU: JURNAL ANTARABANGSA DUNIA MELAYU, 7(1), 76-97.

Allan, K., & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge University Press.

Khaw, C.H (2018, Sept 08). Popular superstitions and taboos in Malaysia. Malay Mail