Knowing how to say hello in Malaysia based on the time of day will help you break the ice with locals in a fun way while traveling in Malaysia. Although a simple "hi" or "helo" (local spelling) will work fine, practicing the greetings they use shows that you have an interest in learning a bit about the local culture.
Because of the cultural diversity, most of the people in Malaysia with whom you interact will speak and understand English well. Everyone certainly knows what "hello" means. Regardless, basic greetings in Bahasa Malaysia are easy to learn.
Unlike other languages such as Thai and Vietnamese, the Malaysian language is not tonal. The rules of pronunciation are very predictable and straightforward. Making life even easier, Bahasa Malaysia implements the classical Latin alphabet so familiar to English speakers.
The Malaysian Language
The Malaysian language, often referred to as Bahasa Malaysia, Malay, or simply "Malaysian," is similar to Bahasa Indonesia in many ways and is understood in neighboring countries such as Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore. Locally, the language is commonly referred to simply as "Bahasa."
Bahasa means "language" and is often used standalone when referring to the entire family of similar Malay languages spoken in Southeast Asia.
Malay (Bahasa Melayu) and variations are spoken by over 290 million people in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore. It's also used in parts of the Philippines and the southern part of Thailand. The words you learn in this flexible language will come in handy all over the region!
A country as diverse as Malaysia will inevitably be home to many dialects and variations of the local language, particularly the farther you travel from Kuala Lumpur. The local dialects in Borneo won't sound very familiar at all. Not everyone you meet speaks the same flavor of Bahasa Malaysia.
Pronunciation in Bahasa Malaysia
Unlike in English, vowel pronunciation in the Malaysian language generally, loosely follows these simple guidelines:
- A — sounds like "ah"
- E — sounds like "uh"
- I — sounds like "ee"
- O — sounds like "oh"
- U — sounds like "ew"
As in Indonesia, you say hello in Malaysia based on the time of day. Greetings correspond with morning, afternoon, and evening, although there aren't really hard guidelines for what time to switch over.
All greetings in Malaysia begin with the word selamat (sounds like "suh-lah-mat"), which also means "safe." Selamat is then followed with the appropriate phase of the day:
- Good Morning: Selamat pagi (sounds like "pag-ee")
- Good Afternoon: Selamat tengah hari (sounds like "teen-gah har-ee")
- Good Afternoon/Evening: Selamat Petang (sounds like "puh-tong")
- Good Night: Selamat Malam (sounds like "mah-lahm")
As with all languages, formalities are often simplified to save effort. Friends will sometimes greet each other by dropping the selamat and offering a simple pagi — the equivalent of greeting someone with "morning" in English. You'll also sometimes hear people shortening a greeting by simply just saying selamat.
Note: Selamat siang (good day) and selamat sore (good afternoon) are more commonly used when greeting people in Bahasa Indonesia, not the Malaysian language — although they will be understood.
Times of Day for Greetings
Even locals from different parts of Malaysia differ in their usage, so don't worry too much about when afternoon officially fades into evening. If you guess wrong, someone will probably reply with the correct greeting.
Informally, you should use selamat pagi (good morning) until the sun is getting really hot, around 11 a.m. or noon. After that, switch to selamat tengah hari (good afternoon). After the sun has peaked, maybe around 3 p.m., you can switch to selamat petang (good late afternoon or evening). Use selamat malam (good night) when you are leaving at night or going to sleep.
Generally speaking, Malaysians don't greet each other with selamat malam. You can continue to say selamat petang even at night until retiring for the day.
The Catchall Greeting
If all else fails or you are unsure about the time of day, a simple "hello" will work throughout Malaysia.
Generic greetings such as "hi" or "hello" aren't formal, but locals will often use them when greeting friends and familiar people.
You'll have more fun and be more polite by greeting people using one of the standardized greetings that are based on time of day.
Continuing the Conversation
After you say hello in Malaysia, be polite and ask how someone is doing. As in English, asking someone "how are you?" can also double as a greeting if you want to forego deciding on the time of day.
- How are you?: apa kabar (sounds like: "apah ka-bar")
Ideally, their response will be kabar baik (sounds like "ka-bar bike"), which means "fine" or "well." You should respond with the same if asked apa kabar? Saying baik twice is another way to indicate that you are doing just fine.
If someone replies to your apa kabar? with tidak baik (sounds like "tee-dak bike") or anything else that begins with tidak, they may not being doing so well.
Other Potential Greetings
When entering or returning, you could potentially hear these friendly greetings in Malaysia:
- Welcome: selamat datang
- Welcome back: selamat kembali
The expression for goodbye depends upon who is staying and who is leaving:
- Goodbye (if you are the one leaving): selamat tinggal (sounds like "teen-gahl")
- Goodbye (if the other person is leaving): selamat jalan (sounds like "jal-lan")
In the context of goodbyes, tinggal means "stay" and jalan means "travel." In other words, you are telling someone to have a good/safe stay or a good/safe travel.
For a fun way to say goodbye to a friend, use jumpa lagi (sounds like "joom-pah lah-gee"), which means "see you around" or "meet again." Sampai jumpa (sounds like "sahm-pie joom-pah") will also work as a "see you later," but it's more commonly heard in Indonesia.
Ordinarily, you would say selamat malam at the end of the day when leaving or going to bed. When actually going to sleep, you can say the final goodnight with selamat tidur. The word tidur means "sleep."
- Goodnight: selamat tidur (sounds like "tee-dur")