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Marriage and Family Formation Patterns

Since the 1960s changes in population patterns and the economy have significantly affected Malaysian families. Over those four decades, economic development, modernization, and rural-urban migration together altered family ties and contributed to a more fragmented family structure. There was a corresponding steady and noticeable decline in the average size of the family in Malaysia over the same period. A related change is the increasing life expectancy in Malaysian society (Subbiah 1994; Tey 1994). This increase is related to economic and social improvements that Malaysians in general experienced during this period.

These changes have ushered in distinct developments in the population distribution and trends in the family that distinguish the experiences of the Malays, Chinese Malaysians, and Indian Malaysians, the three dominant ethnic groups in the country. Based on the 2000 census, the Malays who are predominantly Muslims comprised 65.1 percent of the population (estimated at 23.3 million). In turn, the Chinese Malaysians (who are primarily Buddhist, although smaller proportions of them are Christian, Taoist, or followers of Confucianism) make up 26 percent, and a largely Hindu Indian Malaysian population makes up 7.7 percent of the population. These data represent a shift from 1991; the Malay proportion of the total population increased by approximately 4.5 percent as the Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malaysian proportion declined by 2.1 percent and 0.2 percent of the population, respectively. This shift in the ethnic distribution has occurred alongside a steady pattern of an average annual population growth of 2.6 percent, which dates to 1980 (Department of Statistics 2001). Along with the population growth rate, the 2000 census indicated an upward trend in the number of households that reached the 4.9 million mark, in contrast to the 1.9 million households reported in 1970. Since 1960, Malaysia has been experiencing a higher growth rate of households than of population, and this trend in part reflects the breakdown of the extended family pattern that had historically characterized the traditional rural-based Malaysian society (Tey 1994). However, household size shows a downward trend; the current household size stands at 4.5 persons, compared with 4.9 in 1991. The largely rural states such as Kelantan and Terengganu still show a large household and family size due to the high fertility rates in these states.

Since the early 1970s social interaction between the three dominant ethnic groups has gradually increased, but intermarriage across ethnic lines remains very rare (Leete 1996). As such, marriage traditions and rituals and family life among the different ethnic groups have also remained distinct, reflecting the cultural and religious heritage of each of the ethnic groups (Subramaniam 1997). Compared to the Chinese Malaysian, the Malays and Indian Malaysians have historically been more inclined to marry at a younger age. For the Malays, this practice of marriage at a relatively early age reflects the strong influence of rural traditions and customs that shaped and dominated the lives of the historically rural-based Malay population. For example, in the 1950s more than 50 percent of Malay women married between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. This stands in stark contrast to an only 10 percent marriage rate for Chinese Malaysian women between those same ages during the same period. In large part, this marriage trend among Malay women was due to the fact that it was customary for Malay women to receive minimal, if any, formal education, and parents typically arranged marriages for their daughters shortly after the onset of puberty. However, increased educational and economic opportunities—particularly in urban areas—has lead to a significant shift of the Malay population to urban areas, and this shift affected the trend of marriage and family formation among Malay women. By 1991 only 5.1 percent of Malay women (and 2.5 percent of Chinese Malaysian women) married between the ages of fifteen and nineteen (Leete 1996).

Cutting across ethnic lines, Malaysians as a whole have been opting to marry later in life. Young male adults' age at marriage increased from 28.2 years in 1991 to 28.6 years in 2000, while for females the increase was from 24.7 years to 25.1 years over the same period. At marriage, there is an average of four to five years' difference in the age of the male and female. Furthermore, the proportion of never-married people aged twenty to thirty-four increased from 43.2 percent in 1991 to 48.1 percent in 2000. Among females between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, 68.5 percent were single in 2000, compared to only 60.2 percent in 1991. Similar patterns were observed for both men and women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four (Department of Statistics 2001; Tan and Jones 1990). This tendency to postpone marriage until later in life is most evident among men and women who are urban dwellers and have relatively high levels of education. This phenomenon of marrying later in life corresponds to the decline in the average number of children in Malaysian families as well. In 1974, for example, the average number of children born to a Malay and Chinese Malaysian household, respectively, was 4.2, while Indian households averaged 4.6 children. By 1988 the average had declined to 3.6 for Malays, 3 for Chinese Malaysian and 3.3 for Indian Malaysian (Tey 1994).

The nuclear family—consisting of two parents and at least one unmarried child—remains the predominant family arrangement in Malaysia. Where extended family household patterns persist (that is, where at least one elderly parent resides with an adult child), it is least likely among Malays and most likely among Chinese Malaysians. In part, this difference is a reflection of a strong cultural tradition among Chinese Malaysians that emphasizes filial piety and strong respect for elders. Indian Malaysians also have a strong cultural tradition upholding a son's commitment to care for his adult parents in old age. The influence of filial piety, respect for elders, and a cultural norm of support between parent and son creates a strong bond of social and economic commitment between different generations of Chinese Malaysians and Indian Malaysians, and translates into a higher proportion of parent-adult child living arrangements within Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malaysian families. At the same time, the historically rural-based Malay population created a set of property relations where Malay parents were more inclined to own their own dwellings independent of their children. In contrast, the historically more urban Indian Malaysian and, especially, Chinese Malaysian population would be more likely to encounter higher economic costs of maintaining independent households from their adult offspring (DaVanzo and Chan 1994). With life expectancy in 2001 reaching seventy years for men and seventy-five for women, it is highly likely that elder care by family members and parents residing with an adult child will be a significant concern for Malaysian families in the near future.

If marital dissolution is any indication of the stability of the Malaysian family structure, the majority of Malaysian families tend to be stable. In 1990 more than 90 percent of all first marriages remained intact. For those married less than ten years, 98 percent of marriages were intact. This figure dropped to 75 percent for those married for twenty years or more. Comparing the three dominant ethnic groups, Chinese Malaysians had the lowest divorce/separation rate (2.2 percent), followed by Indian Malaysians (2.9 percent), and Malays (8.4 percent). Malay women are also far more likely than their Chinese Malaysian or Indian Malaysian counterparts to remarry after a divorce. In 1989 only 19.9 percent of divorced women in general remarried, but the rate was 78.7 percent for Malay women. It is widely perceived that these higher rates of divorce and remarriage in large part simply reflect the fact that divorce and remarriage tend to be far more socially acceptable among Malays than among the other ethnic groups (Tom 1993). Another significant trend that has and will continue to affect Malaysian families is the rate of female participation in the labor force, which increased from 42 percent in 1980 to 45 percent in 1994. Malay women (65 percent during the mid-1980s) tended to have a far higher rate of participation in the labor force than women from the other major ethnic groups. Upon marriage, women's participation in the labor force declines significantly, although according to one estimate from the late 1980s, more than 44 percent of Malaysian households can be classified as dual income families (Razak 1993; Tey 1994).

See also: ISLAM


Brien, M. J., and Lillard, L. A. (2001). "Education, Marriage, and First Conception in Malaysia." The Journal of Human Resources 29:1167–1204.

Chattopadhyay, A. (1997). "Family Migration and the Economic Status of Women in Malaysia." International Migration Review 31:338–352.

DaVanzo, J., and Chan, A. (1994). "Living Arrangements of Older Malaysians: Who Coresides with Their Adult Children?" Demography 31:95–113.

Dixon, G. (1993). "Ethnicity and Infant Mortality in Malaysia." Asia Pacific Population Journal 8:23-54.

Hassan, M. K. (1994). "The Influence of Islam on Education and Family in Malaysia." In The Role and Influence of Religion in Society, ed. O. AlHadshi and S. O. S. Agil. Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia.

Leete, Richard. (1996). Malaysia's Demographic Transition: Rapid Development, Culture, and Politics. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Panis, C. W. A. and Lillard, L. A. (1995). "Child Mortality in Malaysia: Explaining Ethnic Differences and the Recent Decline." Population Studies 49:463–79.

Razak, R. A. (1993). "Women's Labour Force Participation in Peninsular Malaysia." In Proceedings of the Seminar of the Second Malaysian Family Life Survey, ed. J. Sine, N. P. Tey, and J. DaVanzo. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Subbiah, M. (1994). "Demographic Developments, Family Change and Implications for Social Development in Southeast Asia." In Social Development under Rapid Industrialization: The Case of Southeast Asia, ed. S. Chong and Cho Kah Sin. Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

Subramanian, P. (1997). Malaysian Family, An Introduction. Kuala Lumpur: National Population and Family Development Board.

Sudha, S. (1997). "Family Size, Sex Composition and Children's Education: Ethnic Differentials over Development in Peninsular Malaysia." Population Studies 51:139–51.

Tan, P. C., and Jones, G. (1990). "Changing Patterns of Marriage and Household Formation." Sojourn 5:163–93.

Tey, N. P. (1994). "Demographic Trends and Family Structure in Malaysia." In Social Development under Rapid Industrialization: The Case of Southeast Asia, ed. S. Chong and Cho Kah Sin. Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

Tom, K. M. (1993). "Marriage Trends among Peninsular Malaysian Women." In Proceedings of the Seminar of the Second Malaysian Family Life Survey, ed. J. Sine, N. P. Tey, and J. DaVanzo. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Other Resources

Department of Statistics, Malaysia. (2001). "Population and Housing Census 2000." In Distribution and Basic Demographic Characteristics Report. Available from http://www.statistics.gov.my/English/pageDemo.htm.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects