Basic Malay Phrases for Expat Families

Simple Malay for Expats: Learning the Local Language in Kuala Lumpur
Living in Kuala Lumpur

As a first-time expat in Malaysia, it’s important to learn basic phrases in the local language to feel closer to the community and have the opportunity to interact with those around you in a respectful way. 

Learning the local language can help you broaden your knowledge, learn something new and better understand the culture. 

Below you’ll discover 10 basic Malay phrases to politely interact with locals. 

How are you = Apa khabar 

(apah ka-bar)

Similar to conversations back in the UK, it’s always polite to check in with friends with this phrase or just use it to get to know someone new. The common response to this in Malay is “khabar baik” which translates to “good news”, but ultimately means “I am fine”.


Please = Tolong 


When asking someone a question, it shows a great deal of respect to follow your inquiry with “tolong” and of course the Malay term for “thank you” (see below).

“Tolong” is also used for the word “help”.


How much = Berapa


When buying a coffee, new clothes or visiting any street markets, this term will be quite useful. You can simply ask, “Berapa” and then the individual you’re speaking with can hold up their fingers or use a calculator to show you the price. 


Can you speak English = Bolehkah anda berbahasa Inggeris

(Bo-LEH-kah ahn-DAH ber-ba-HAH-suh ING-grees)

Though speaking in Malay with the locals shows a great deal of respect, you may not know that many words. Asking this question will show if you can jump back into your mother tongue. 


Where is the toilet = Di mana tandas

(DEE muh-nuh TAHN-das)

Toilets - in most cases - are available in public places. Rather than trying to hunt one down looking for that familiar sign, why not use this basic Malay phrase to make your life a little easier? 


Thank you = Terima kasih 

(te-ree-mah ka-seh)

Gratitude is of extreme importance to Malaysians. This is something that will quickly become apparent the moment you set foot in the airport.

Whether it’s your Grab driver, the barista or just someone who held the door for you, make sure to use this term of appreciation. 


You’re welcome = Sama-sama 

(saa-ma saa-ma)

As mentioned above, gratitude - and being polite in general - is of great importance to Malaysians. When someone says, “Terima kasih”, be sure to respond with, “Sama-sama.” 

It’s also common to just use a single “sama”. 


I don’t understand = Saya tidak faham 

(saa-yah tee-dak faa-haam)

The importance of this phrase cannot be stressed enough. Though many Malaysians understand English, there are of course some who do not. If one of those individuals start up a conversation with you, politely say this phrase and they will understand that you don’t speak the language. 


Yes/no = Ya/tidak

(yah)  (tee-dak)

As with what you’re used to in the UK, the Malay terms for “yes” and “no” are used frequently throughout the day, so it’s important to remember these words. 


Goodbye = Selamat tinggal 

(S'LAH-maht TING-gahl)

Though people in Malaysia are familiar with the English term “bye”, this is a more formal, respectful way to bid farewell. 

Beyond researching to help both you and your children learn basic Malay phrases, it’s also important to enroll them in an international school with a strong language program, committed to teaching the local language. 

At our international school, all Foundation Stage children will attend two Bahasa Malaysia lessons every week. From Year 1, parents can select from Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin or French for their child to study. If Malaysian students choose Mandarin or French, they must take part in our 'Essential Bahasa' programme and attend a Bahasa Malaysia compulsory lesson every week.

A strong language program is just one aspect you should look for when choosing an international school for your children. Want to discover what else should be on your checklist? Click the button below. 

This article was brought together with the help of Culture Trip and our Modern Foreign Language curriculum.