Johor Malay culture

The Johor Heritage Foundation band entertaining the
foreign guests with ghazal music
IWA JB membrs learn about Johor costumes, delicacies, traditional music and dances

The month of Syawal may be over but members of International Women’s Association (IWA) Johor Baru still enjoyed Malay customs and food usually served in the Hari Raya celebration.  Some 40 IWA members and their guests attended the event, hosted at the Rumah Limas Johor in the premises of the Johor Heritage Foundation or Yayasan Warisan Johor (YWJ).  Just as was customary when entering a Malay house, footwear was removed before the ladies stepped into the event hall designed within the structure of a traditional Johor house.

Leila Nordgren was encouraged to eat her meal using her
hand.  With her are Muhamad Fuad Radzuan [Right]
and Dzul Karnian Asmawi
The ladies gathered in the front verandah or anjung of the house while the catering staff rolled out woven mats overlaid with lengths of white table cloths in two rows across the wooden floor of the hall.  The serving dishes and drinks were for groups of five in the linear arrangement and it was exciting that they were not going to dine on any furniture but in the traditional way, on the floor.  While IWA President, Leila Nordgren, chose to wear a beautiful Baju Kurung to the event, members also dressed comfortably to sit on the floor.

The next two hours passed too quickly after YWJ Director, Hj Muhamad Fuad Hj Radzuan, welcomed the ladies and gave a brief introduction about YWJ, a semi-Government body and its aim to preserve and promote Johor Malay culture heritage through music, dance and theatre shows.  He was proud to say that Johor’s ghazal music and zapin dance have been showcased to packed and appreciative audiences locally and abroad.  While they are now preparing for a performance in Istanbul next month, YWJ has on-going cultural events here, to which he also invited the IWA members to enjoy.

A foreign guest rinsing her hands with water from a
traditional kendi, a piece of tableware consisting of a pot
and receptacle
Impressed by the ladies’ interest in Johor Malay culture, YWJ Assistant Director, Hj Dzul Karnian Asmawi, complimented them by declaring that this was the first time YWJ hosted a number of ladies who represented an international community in Johor.  He went on to introduce the features of the Rumah Limas Johor that has five or lima in Malay language, points in its roof with five spaces below, traditionally designed for specific purposes like the front verandah, rear verandah, family area, hall and kitchen.  Its high ceilings and open verandahs offer an airy ambience even though the structure here was slightly modified for use as a multi-purpose hall.

“We are delighted that our event is held in the Rumah Limas, a traditional Johor Malay house,” said IWA President, Leila Nordgren, as she thanked the YWJ for graciously accommodating them in spite of their busy schedules in organising cultural events.

IWA members enjoying a typical Hari Raya meal from
the floor in a traditional Rumah Limas Johor in YWJ
It was a new experience for most of the ladies to sit on the floor and probably only the Japanese ladies who have a similar tradition, felt at home sitting on the ground to enjoy their meal.  The ladies were introduced to each food item like the ketupat, rice cubes packed inside a woven palm leaf casing, sayur lodeh (vegetable stew), rendang (beef) and traditional condiments and sweets eaten on the first day of Hari Raya.  While cutlery was provided with the plates, Dzul Karnian encouraged them to try to eat the traditional way, with their hands.

Before starting to eat, the ladies were introduced to the kendi, a traditional piece of tableware with a pot and receptacle to collect water as hands are being rinsed.  During the meal, live entertainment was provided by YWJ’s ghazal band and zapin dancers.  As Shafie Ahmad, YWJ’s Cultural Officer, introduced the various instruments in the ghazal band, it was interesting to note that they also used the tabla (drums) and harmonium, musical instruments that are traditionally used in Indian music.

YWJ dancers demonstrating the Zapin Pulau that
originated from Mersing
Shafie explained that the origin of the name, Johor, is derived from the Arabic word Jauhar for “precious stone” or “gem.”  He said there are two forms of zapin dance – the Arabic and the Malay zapin – and YWJ dance professionals widely researched the zapin with dance practitioners in the various Johor districts and have identified 14 recognised types of zapin.  To demonstrate the distinct differences among the various types of zapin, the dancers performed the Zapin Pulau that originated from Mersing, followed by Zapin Pekajang (Johor Baru), the Zapin Tengelu (Mersing) which features energetic body twists, Zapin Lenga (Muar) and the Zapin Tanjung Labuh (Batu Pahat).

Male dancers performing Zapin Pekajang that has
its origins in Johor Baru
While members of dance troupes usually wear uniform costumes, Shafie explained that the dancers deliberately wore different outfits to showcase a variety of traditional Johor costumes or Busana Johor.  One of the dancers modeled the Baju Melayu Teluk Belanga for men, where a kain dagang or sarong is worn over the trousers but under the shirt in the typically Johor style of Baju Melayu berkain dagang dalam style.  In contrast, men may also wear the kain dagang over the outer garment in an alternative style of Baju Melayu berkain dagang luar, where the sarong is pleated at the front center and folded down twice with a neat, flat waistband.

Shafie Ahmad [Right] introducing the unique
Johor style of wearing the Baju Melayu
For the lady’s costume, the traditional kain dagang is a versatile column of fabric with multiple uses.  Shafie invited a female dancer to demonstrate how it has traditionally been used as a head covering to protect against the elements, a receptacle to carry firewood or fruits and for special occasions, it is an accessory to dress-up the ensemble.  Since the 1940’s selendang or shawls became fashionable and were used as head-coverings and an accessory especially for attending weddings and public events but by the 1950’s many ladies chose to replace the kain dagang with other head-coverings.

A model demonstrating the traditional use of kain dagang

YWJ dancers teaching the IWA members how to do the zapin dance

One for the album - YWJ personnel with members of IWA JB
The IWA ladies were also thrilled to learn interesting snippets about the traditional way the kain dagang was worn to differentiate between married and single men and women.  After they learnt more about Johor Malay culture, the YWJ dancers invited the ladies to try dancing the steps of the zapin and the joget with them.  Volunteers representing the United States of America, Japan, Russia and Korea enjoyed learning the traditional dances as the culturally enriching event drew to a close. 

The IWA JB invites women from the international community in JB to join them as members.  IWA membership queries should be sent to email:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 8 October 2012

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