Adat, translated here as traditional social norms and associated forms of behavior, influences the way a Malay lives by setting the standards by which behavior is judged to be either refined and seemly (halus) or unrefined and unworthy (kasar). Adat also serves as the key social mechanism by which one's place in society is made clear and unambiguous. Lacking certainty, two strangers meeting for the first time will in all probability carefully gauge the age, dress, speech and mannerisms of the other before making a determination of relative prestige.
Broadly stated, prestige and respect in rural Malay society can be said to increase with age. Children learn to distinguish their position vis-à-vis elder brothers and sisters (abang and kakak respectively) and younger siblings (adik, irrespective of gender). These terms may be and often are used in addressing non-kinsmen as well, serving, as do the terms for "uncle" and "aunt" (pak and mak), to place a given relationship into a recognized category where each knows what to expect of the other.
There is, of course, the point at which the aged reach senility and social deference begins to resemble something akin to bemused respect. Although by this time a younger man (typically the son or perhaps son-in-law) may have become the effective head of household, proper Malay behavior requires continued outward display of deference to the elder. To do otherwise would be evidence of an improper upbringing--to be kurang ajar, one of the harshest criticisms imaginable to a Malay.
A second major source of ascribed prestige is that of gender, with the primacy of the male enshrined in the Koran and accorded at least public deference. A woman with a forceful personality may dominate her husband within the home, but in the company of others she will rarely contradict him.
In common with the women of Southeast Asia in general, Malay women are economically active outside the home, although the degree to which this is so would seem to vary. In Malay fishing villages the men perform the heavy labor on the boats, but the women handle much of the marketing.
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Publication information: Book title: Broker, Mediator, Patron, and Kinsman:An Historical Analysis of Key Leadership Roles in a Rural Malaysian District. Contributors: Conner Bailey - Author. Publisher: Ohio University Press. Place of publication: Athens. Publication year: 1976. Page number: 9.