browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

The Great Malaysian-Indonesian Divide

Posted by on 16 June 2010

At first glance, Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian language) and Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language) look very similar. Most of the words are the same — makan (eat), ikan (fish), rumah (house); the structure of sentences are also the same, e.g. Ini anak saya (This is my child).


Malaysian (left) & Indonesian flags

But after countless trips to Indonesia, it is becoming more and more apparent to me that these two languages are as disparate as oil and water.

Here are some words that Malaysians and Indonesians should take note of when communicating with each other, to avoid any misunderstanding. This is not a comprehensive list by any means but it’s a start:-

1. Jemput. DH likes to tell this anecdote of a Malaysian friend whose Indonesian friend came to KL for a visit. The Malaysian invited the Indonesian to his home, saying “Saya jemput Bapak, ya?” (I jemput you, okay?). You know what happened? The Malaysian ended up waiting for his friend, who never showed up; the Indonesian also waited in his hotel, waiting for his friend who never came to pick him up. You see, jemput means ‘to invite’ in Malaysia but ‘fetch/pick up’ in Indonesia. Moral of the story for Malaysians: instead of jemput, it’s safer to say undang. This is why wedding invitation cards in Malaysia say ‘Kad Jemputan‘ but in Indonesia, they say ‘Kad Undangan‘.

2. Pusing. If a Malaysian invites you to go pusing-pusing, he means he’d like to take you around. But in Indonesia, pusing often refers to pusing kepala, which means ‘to have a headache’! Malaysians, use putar in lieu of pusing.

3. Cadangan. If you’re in a meeting in Jakarta and you want to ask for suggestions, please don’t use the word cadangan because in Indonesia, it means ‘spare’, e.g. kaos cadangan (spare shirt). Use the word usulan instead.

4. Senang. In one episode of Upin & Ipin, Susanti tells her new Malaysian classmates “Saya senang sama teman-teman” (I like you all, friends) which made Upin and Ipin whisper to each other “Masa bila kita susahkan dia?” (When did we make things difficult for her?). You see, senang in Indonesia means ‘to like’ (i.e. Malaysian: suka), not ‘easy’, as it means in Malaysia!

5. Ibu. When I first came to Indonesia, I thought people addressed me as ‘Ibu‘ because well…I’m a mother, which is what ibu means in Malaysia. Weeelll…ibu can also mean the same thing in Indonesia. However, the more common use of Ibu is as a form of address, i.e. ‘Mrs’ or ‘Madam’ :P ‘Miss’ in Indonesian is mbak, which should not be confused with the Javanese mbah, which means ‘grandmother’!

6. Cakap. Malaysians use this word to mean ‘talk’ or ‘say’. In Indonesia, however, this word means ‘good-looking’ or ‘cute’. So the next time you say “I cakap…” and find your Indonesian friends looking amused, you know why.

7. Buntut/Bontot. Remember my previous post on language being a hidden danger of travel? This word means ‘tail’ in Indonesia and is a common item in many restaurant menus, i.e. sop buntut (oxtail soup). In Malaysia, however, you can get into hot water (or get laughed at) for using this word because in this part of the world, it refers to one’s behind!

8. Butuh. Malaysians, if you are in Indonesia and you find yourself in need of something, don’t bother using the word perlu (‘need’/’must’); use the word butuh instead, e.g. butuh uang (in need of money). Conversely, to all my Indonesian readers, please be careful in using this word in Malaysia because…erm…I was told it is a very, very vulgar term for the male genitals. Or something to that effect. I never really did find out because (i) it felt too awkward for me to ask people about this word and (ii) all my friends whom I did dare ask just giggled and answered “Something like that”.

9. Pantat. I was browsing an online forum about baby skin care one day and I got the shock of my life when I read one mother write nonchalantly about pantat bayi. You see, in Malaysia, this is a very, very coarse and vulgar word for the female genitals. In Indonesia, however, this word refers to what is known as buntut in Malaysia (see #7).

10. Seronok. This is the term that Malaysians use to mean ‘fun’ or ‘entertaining’. Unfortunately, in Indonesia, it refers to lewdness, e.g. foto seronok refers to ‘lewd pics’, which may not necessarily be your definition of fun.

11. Bareng. I once saw a roadside eatery that announced ‘Makan Bareng‘. I thought to myself, “Eat while lying down? Huh?”. I thought  the Indonesian bareng meant the same as the Malaysian baring (‘to lie down’). But no. Bareng means ‘together’. So makan bareng is ‘to eat together’.

12. Sore. I used to get perplexed with text messages that began with ‘Sore bu‘. Sore? Sorry? “Is he apologising?”, I thought. Silly me! Turns out sore in Indonesian means ‘afternoon’! Sore bu is just a shortened form of ‘Selamat sore, ibu‘ (Good afternoon, Ma’am). Uh, Indonesian friends, when you’re in Malaysia, please say petang instead of sore. Thank you!

13. Sikat. If you go into a mini market in Indonesia and ask for a berus gigi, don’t be surprised if all you get in return is a blank stare. ‘Toothbrush’ in Indonesia is sikat gigi. And sikat rambut means ‘hair brush’, not ‘comb’ as what we mean when we say sikat in Malaysia, my confused friends.

14. Lucu. You know how parents are always so proud to flash countless pics of their children at the slightest encouragement? Now, now, my dear Malaysian readers, please don’t feel offended when your Indonesian friends look at your child and comments ‘Lucunya!’. They don’t mean ‘funny’ as what we mean when we say lucu in Malaysia; in that part of the world, lucu means ‘cute’!

15. Sandal. If you forgot to pack your slippers in your bag to your Indonesian trip, don’t ask for selipar in the nearest shop. Ask for sandal instead. Because that’s how they refer to slippers there. Shoes and sandals are called sepatu instead.

16. Cocok. Cocok in Indonesia means ‘suitable’, despite its similarity in sound to the Malaysian cucuk, which means ‘to pierce’.

17. Bual-bual. If you want to sit and chat with your Indonesian friends, please remember to invite them to ngobrol-ngobrol over coffee or drinks. Do NOT, by any means, say bual-bual because that term means ‘to tell lies’ in Indonesia!

18. Kurang Manis. In Malaysia, it’s quite common to order a drink and request “Kurang manis ya?”, meaning ‘Please make it less sweet’. If you’re watching your sugar intake, make sure to remember this phrase instead: “Gula dikurangin ya?” (Please reduce the sugar, okay?). This is because if you say “Kurang manis” to your Indonesian waiter, he will only end up adding more sugar to your drink, thinking that you’re complaining that the drink is kurang manis (‘not enough sweetness’).

19. Kosong. Kosong in Malaysia means empty but when you’re in a Padang Restaurant, you’re asking for your favourite jus alpukat (avocado drink) and the waiter tells you ‘alpukat kosong‘, he only means they’ve run out of avocado. On the other hand, dear Malaysians, if you want to ask for air kosong (‘plain water’), ask for air putih instead. Or ask for Aqua, the brand name that has become the generic term for mineral water, as Colgate is to toothpaste.

20. Budak. It’s very common in Malaysia for people to refer to a child as budak and to children as budak-budak. Use this term with caution once you’ve entered Indonesia though because over there, budak means ‘slave’!

21. Kakak. This is a polite form of address, which means ‘older sister’, is used in Malaysia to refer to a woman who is slightly older than you. [NB: Much older women would be referred to as makcik (auntie); really old women are addressed as nenek (grandmother). If you’re not sure between kakak and makcik, kakak is safer, so as not to offend the person whom you are addressing.] In Indonesia, however, kakak can be used to address both an older man or an older woman. This term is not to be confused with the Indonesian kakek, which means ‘grandfather’!

22. Kereta. If a Malaysian tells an Indonesian (who’s not familiar with the Malay language) that he owns a kereta (‘car’ in Malay), the Indonesian is bound to be amazed. This is because kereta in Indonesia is likely to be interpreted to mean kereta api/keretapi, i.e. ‘train’. The Indonesian term for ‘car’ is mobil.

23. Sotong. If you want to order squid in Indonesia, do not use the word sotong, lest people think you want to eat sotong kurita (octopus). Ask for cumi instead.

24. Cili. You’d think the simplest word ‘chili’ would be the same in Malay and Indonesia. But no! Only Malaysians say cili; Indonesians say cabe. [NB: The letter ‘c’ in Indonesian and Malay languages are pronounced as ‘ch’, as in the word ‘chop’.]

25. Lumayan. Finally, when Malaysians say someone’s gaji (salary) is lumayan, they mean that person’s ‘salary is quite a lot’. Indonesians, on the other hand, would interpret gaji lumayan as ‘salary that’s just enough’ (cukup-cukup aje).

Now do you agree with me when I say that Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia are as different as day is from night? Perhaps one of these days, I’d actually sit down and write a handbook of such Malaysian/Indonesian terms.

Feel free to add in the comments section some other Indonesian and Malaysian terms that you know that might cause some misunderstanding :)

17 Responses to The Great Malaysian-Indonesian Divide

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *