Traditional Games in Malaysia

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

Do you enjoy challenging games of strategy or complex sports combining strategy and physical ability? Malaysian traditional games offer both. In this lesson we'll explore three popular games with surprising similarities to games you may already know.

Life in Malaysia

Map of Malaysia
Map of Malaysia

Life in Malaysia is quite unique, as the country is split into an Eastern land mass and a Western land mass. Malaysian society is composed of citizens from many different backgrounds, including Malay people and people of several smaller indigenous cultures as well as people of Chinese, Indian, European and multiracial origin. However, despite the cultural diversity, Malaysian people share a social emphasis on family and a love of game play. Living in extended families, children are surrounded by siblings and cousins, an excellent source of playmates. Games, especially the three we will look at in this lesson, help to unify the society by bringing the different ethnic groups into contact with one another, including competitors and teams of all ethnic backgrounds.

Malaysian Flag
Malaysian Flag

Sepak Takraw

A game of sepak takraw.
Sepak Takraw

This game combines many familiar elements similar to soccer and volleyball, yet it comes from a very old game played in Malaysia. There are two forms of the game, bulatan, meaning circle, and the newer form of jaring, meaning net. In both types, players use a woven rattan ball which they can strike with any part of the body except their hands and forearms.

In the circle style of the game, players form a circle and see how long they can keep the ball in the air. Are you familiar with the popular 90s game of hacky sack?

The net version of sepak takraw is now the most popular form of the sport, with official leagues throughout Malaysia and neighboring countries. Each team positions three players on its side of the net: a server, a feeder, and a striker. The teams also have two alternates who can relieve injured or tired players. Play begins with a coin toss to determine first serve and side of court selection. On the serving team, the feeder will toss the ball to the server, who must keep one foot in a serving circle while kicking the ball over the net with the other foot. The other team will attempt to send the ball back over the net.

Each team can contact the ball only three times before the ball must cross the next. Points come from the ball hitting the floor on the opponents' side of the court. The serve switches sides after three consecutive points earned by either team, regardless of who scored the points. A set ends when a team earns 21 points with at least a two-point lead. The first team to win two sets wins the entire match.


Two gasing tops.

Gasing is a game of spinning heavy tops. It is particularly popular among Malay people. Although adults and children both play, adults use heavier tops with more ornate designs and shapes. The shapes include tops resembling plates, eggs, hearts, and hats.

Two different kinds of contests use a gasing. The first, spinning competition, requires intense focus and coordination. Each player launches a top by spinning it on the ground, then attempts to scoop it up with a piece of wood and transfer it to the game table without it toppling. Once it reaches the table, the player whose top continues to spin for the longest time is the winner. The record stands at a spin lasting over two hours.

The second competition style involves far less waiting and watching. Players begin spinning tops, one at a time. Each new top added becomes a striking top aimed at the opponent's tops in hopes of knocking them over. Once the last top completes its launch and finds a stationary spinning position, the player with the most tops still spinning is the winner.


A congkak gameboard.
Congkak gameboard

Congkak is a more relaxed game, requiring far less physical exertion. This two-player game involves a wooden board, often boat-shaped, carved with two rows of seven indentations or holes and two large end depressions which serve as the players' ''homes.'' Each small hole is filled with seven objects.

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