Stately Etymology: Origin of State Names in Malaysia


In conjunction with the upcoming National Day celebrations, let’s take a look at the origin of Malaysia’s name and the names of various states in Malaysia.


(This article was originally published in Destination Malaysia Issue 8.)


Malaysia name origin

A paddy field in Kedah.

A name conveys identity and character, and may even contain some interesting origins and surprising backstories that many might not know.

The name Malaysia is generally used to refer to the nation, having been in formal use since 16 September 1963.

There are 13 states in Malaysia and three federal territories, each with their own names and unique customs.

The peninsula’s strategic location has enabled the area’s successive empires and kingdoms to benefit from the arrival of trading merchants from the Middle East, India and China.

Colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and eventually the British, the various Malay states were previously cloistered under the Federated Malay States, Unfederated Malay States and Straits Settlements before gaining independence in 1957 as the Federation of Malaya.

The South China Sea separates Peninsular Malaysia from Borneo Island, where the states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Federal Territory of Labuan lie. These states are situated in the northern parts of Borneo and their union under the Malaysia Agreement in 1963 signifies the birth of modern Malaysia.   

This confluence of historical events, culture, language and people has resulted in several lasting legacies — one of which is the endowment of names for Malaysia’s states and federal territories.


KEDAH: This northern state is steeped in ancient history. The earliest documented reference is found in a Tamil poem at the end of 2nd century AD, where ‘Kadaram’ is mentioned.


MELAKA: Legend has it that the founder of the Melaka Sultanate, named Parameswara, was resting under the Melaka tree (scientific name: phyllanthus emblica) after a hunting session. While resting, he observed a mouse deer and a dog nearby. The mouse deer managed to fend off the dog’s attack and pushed it into a nearby river. Inspired by what he had witnessed, Parameswara decided to name his new-found empire after the tree under which he was sitting.


Malaysia name origin

Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque in Shah Alam, Selangor.

JOHOR: Johor is mentioned in Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) as ‘Ganggayu’, a Javanese name for the state. However, the origin that is closer to its present name probably stems from ‘jauhar’ — the Arabic word for ‘gem’ or ‘jewel’. The Middle Eastern influence may have come from Arab traders who visited the state to conduct their business activities.


PAHANG: The Siamese were among the earliest settlers in Pahang due to the richness of tin ore deposits at Sungai Lembing. The name of the state may have been derived from the Siamese word for ‘tin’. The Arabs, Europeans and Chinese in the past called the state ‘Phang-hang’, ‘Paam’, ‘Fanhan’ and ‘Pahagh’ among others.


PERLIS: The smallest and northernmost state in Malaysia, its name perhaps originated from the northern Malay word ‘perlus’, meaning ‘to accidentally step into or fall through a hole’. This may be due to the marshy nature of the state’s land. 


PULAU PINANG: It’s widely believed that the island of Penang is so named due to its abundance of Pinang trees or areca palm (scientific name: Areca catechu).


PERAK: The name is the Malay word for silver, which is the colour of tin ore. The state is named as such possibly in acknowledgement of its plentiful tin reserves at that time.


SELANGOR: The name may have been derived from ‘Sarang Lang’, which means ‘Eagle’s Nest’ in Malay.



Malaysia name origin

A young man with a wau in his hands.

KELANTAN: Centuries-old Chinese records referred to the state as ‘Ho-lan-tan’ or ‘Chi-lan-tan’. A popular theory cites the name as a corruption of ‘Gelam Hutan’ (scientific name: Melaleuca leucadendra), a type of paperbark tree.

It’s also possible for ‘Kelantan’ to be an adulteration of ‘Kolamthana’. The etymology can be traced back to the northern Indian (Hindi) word of ‘thana’, meaning ‘land’ or ‘place’, while ‘kolam’ is a traditional picture art form.


NEGERI SEMBILAN: ‘Negeri’ is Sanskrit for ‘country’, ‘town’ or ‘district’, and ‘Sembilan’ means ‘nine’. In the olden days, the settlements were divided into nine districts and each was ruled by a ‘Batin’ (chief).


TERENGGANU: The name may come from ‘terang ganu’ (Malay for ‘bright rainbow’). Another possible origin comes from a tale apparently told by the state’s ninth Sultan, Baginda Omar. It is about a hunting party from Pahang who found an animal fang after venturing into southern Terengganu. When asked if he knew which animal the fang belonged to, the hunter was unsure and answered “taring anu” (Malay for ‘fang of something’).


Malaysia name origin

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah.

SABAH: The name is apparently used by traders who travelled between the Sulu Islands and Brunei from as early as the 15th century, although the origin of the word is unknown at that time.

The most often-quoted story is that the fruit of a banana plant the locals called ‘pisang menurun’ (scientific name: Musa acuminata balbisiana cultivar) is also known as ‘pisang saba’. The latter, with an ‘h’ added at the end due to the way it’s pronounced by the locals, probably gave the state its name today.


SARAWAK: The name may have come from ‘serawak’, an alloy containing antimony and sulphur that’s mined in the state.

An unverified but popular story among the locals says that the origin of the state name is purportedly an acronym of “Saya serah pada awak” (I give it to you) — words uttered by Bornean aristocrat Pengiran Muda Hashim when he gave the state to James Brooke.


KUALA LUMPUR: The full name is ‘Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur’. ‘Kuala’ means ‘river mouth’ or ‘estuary’, and it’s a frequent prefix for the country’s place names. ‘Lumpur’ means ‘mud’. From its birthplace at the confluence of the Rivers Klang and Gombak, the small tin mining town of bygone days grew and prospered, and the rest is history.


Malaysia name origin

Seafood is abundant in Labuan.

LABUAN: Historically, Labuan is an important port from as early as the time of the Majapahit Empire, the Brunei Sultanate, and the British Empire. Thus, the island probably got its name from ‘labuhan’, an Old Malay word for ‘an anchoring place’.


PUTRAJAYA: The administrative seat of the country, the Federal Territory of Putrajaya is named after Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, Malaysia’s first prime minister. ‘Jaya’, which translates as ‘success’ in Malay, is a common suffix for place names in Malaysia.


Like Yellow Pages Malaysia Facebook Page to get updates on other Merdeka Special stories.


And don’t forget to download Yellow Pages Malaysia mobile app on Google Play Store (for Android) and App Store (for Apple iOS) to gain access to a wonderful spectrum of homegrown brands.



Do you have something in mind?