As in most collectivist cultures, extended families are seen as the basic unit of society – the first group a person becomes a member of at birth. Therefore, families are perceived as having a collective face. In this way, the act of an individual can impact the perception of the entire family by others and the interests of the family supersede those of the individual.
The links a Malaysian person maintains with extended family overseas are much closer than those maintained by most people in Western societies. However, some members of the younger generation are less family orientated.
In rural and agricultural areas, households tend to include the extended family as well. However, in modern industrialised Malaysia, this tradition is becoming more difficult to maintain and the nuclear family is becoming the predominant household structure. The Malaysian preference is to have a large number of children; therefore, it is common for men to choose young women as their brides, to ensure that the couple will have plenty of time to have many children.
The patriarch of the household is often the father in Malaysian families. However, it is the elders who handle the important family matters. The oldest members of the family are consulted before any major decision and demand the most respect. In Chinese-Malaysian households, filial piety is displayed at all times.
The mother’s role usually involves the traditional domestic duties of a household and caring for the children. Though gender roles are changing in the younger generations, women do not have as much power as men. Even those who go on to have careers will depend on their husband or father financially at some point. Furthermore, family lineage, guardianship and inheritance are codified in laws in favour of males.
Marriage and Dating
Malaysian parents usually assert that their children cannot date until they have finished their education (including university). However, children often start dating at around the ages of 17 and 18. In urban areas, most other Malaysian dating and marriage practices are relatively liberal and similar to Western standards.
Malays may be more traditionalist about relationships and marriage. It is common for them to look to marry immediately after they finish their tertiary studies as a precursor to finding a job. Once a couple is settled, they then begin taking on the responsibilities of adult life.
In rural areas, dating habits are more conservative. Marriage is often expected to be the end result of dating. Parents arrange some marriages, but the choice is more commonly left up to the couple. However, the whole family is usually consulted prior to all marriages. This is important as marriage is considered to be the joining of two families in Malaysia, not only the couple in question. Some rural Malays may still practise polygamy, with a man having multiple wives. This is not common in the cities or among the well educated.
Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia and same-sex relationships are strongly stigmatised.