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7 Traditional Games In Malaysia That You Should Know About

Malaysia has numerous rich traditions and cultures. And the various games we played in our childhood make up part of those traditions.

These days, more and more people are playing electronic video games. And because of this, the traditional games of our parents and grandparents are in danger of fading away forever.

As such, we must preserve the knowledge of these traditional games and ensure that they are passed down to the younger generations.

#1: Congkak

Source: The Star

Perhaps the most iconic of all of Malaysia’s traditional board games. Congkak (from congak, the Malay word for “mental arithmetic”) is the local variation of the mancala game whose history likely stretches back to the days of Ancient Egypt! Since then, variations have turned in India, Indonesia and Singapore.

Originally considered a game for girls, congkak has since become a game that everyone can play. The game involves two people sitting in front of each other, using wooden boards with 16 to 18 sides carved out in two rows[1].

In the 16-hole version (which is more widely used) seven holes are designated as “houses” in the “kampong” (village) while the last two larger holes are “rumah” (storehouses) located on either end of the block. The number of seeds (counters) per hole is tied to the total number of houses per village. As its name suggests, the game is all about mental calculation with each player mentally calculating their next move in advance in order to score the most points. But of course, having fast and agile hands is also an advantage. Whoever has the most points at the end of the game is declared the winner[2].

#2: Batu Seremban

Source: HappyPreggie

Batu Seremban, a.k.a. Selambut (five stones) is the local version of jacks; this traditional game involves 2 or 5 players and is usually played with a few round stones or pebbles, which can be substituted with triangular or round cloth bags filled with saga seeds. Its simplicity makes it a game that can be played anywhere and everywhere from public parks to the school playground[2].

Players take turns tossing a “batu” into the air and must quickly collect the stones on the ground before catching the tossed stone as it lands. If you manage to do this five consecutive times in one turn until there’s no stones/bags on the ground, you survive. If you fail, you’re eliminated. The last one standing is declared the winner[2]. Naturally, speed and agility are important skills to have when playing this game.

#3: Gasing

Source: Going Places

Ever played Beyblade? Well, here’s the version your parents and grandparents played. The gasing is a type of spinning top believed to have been introduced to Malaysia by Middle-eastern traders doing business in Melaka. Gasing was a very popular game during the reign of the Melaka Sultanate and even today, it is still the most renowned traditional game in the state of Melaka, where gasing competitions are still held[3].

The name is a portmanteau of two Malay words: “ga-” or “ka-” refers to kayu or wood, the main material used to make a gasing, and “-sing” refers to pusing or spin, the moving quality of the gasing[3].

There are many different types of gasing, with Malaysia alone being home to over 100 variations. Many of these tops have their shapes inspired by things in nature: for example, gasing jantung is derived from the shape of a banana heart, a popular ingredient in Malay cooking while gasing leper is based on the fruit of the berembang tree which is often used to make gasings in coastal Malaysia[4].

Gasing was a fun, popular pastime for farmers who believed that playing the game brought bountiful harvests. After a hard day’s work tending to the harvest, it was common for farmers to relax by challenging each other to a game of gasing[4].

Playing Gasing is no easy feat; it requires great skill, strength and speed. First comes wrapping the rope around the finger or hand properly. The end of the rope should be tied around the wrist or the pinky finger, to ensure the rope doesn’t unravel. Next, wrap the rope around the top. Since it has a smooth surface, some players roughen the top side to get more grip. The rope has to be winded neatly and tightly for more precision, power and spin. A firm launch ensures that the top keeps spinning for a long time[5].

Even today, there are two popular competitions for gasing players to test their mettle: “Last man standing” and “Knockout”. In “Last Man Standing” or “Gasing Uri”, the last person to spin the longest wins. In the “Knockout” or “Gasing Pangkah”, one must knock the top against their opponents to disrupt their movements. Both sides will then scoop up their tops and see who will outlast the other[5].

#4: Guli

Source: HappyGoKL

Guli or marbles is one of the simpler games that one can play back in the Kampung days, suitable for both boys and girls aged between seven years old to twelve years old[1].

Usually played on a flat open surface with a one-metre diameter circle drawn on the ground and marbles made of glass, clay or limestone placed on the surface[6], and involving no more than 5 players, the object of this game is to take turns flicking your own marbles at the other players’ marbles in order to knock them out of the circle[7].

The game ends once there are no more marbles left inside the circle anymore and the winner usually gets to keep all of the won marbles for himself. Despite its simplicity, guli is a game that requires good hand-eye coordination in order to be able to hit each and every marble accurately[7].

#5: Bottle caps

Source: HappyPreggie

Another simple game, known either as ceper or tutup botol (bottle caps), that originated in the 1970s and is a favourite with young boys. As the name suggests, it is played using five metal bottle caps and requires two or more players.

The game begins by determining which player starts first, placing all five bottle caps on their palm. The player will then toss all of the caps up into the air and must attempt to catch as many bottle caps with the back of their hand before tossing the caps up again and repeating the process. One bottle cap is worth two points and the player with the most points can begin the second part: spinning the bottle caps in the air, before using the bottle caps to hit one another[6].

Like most other traditional games, ceper is a test of people’s dexterity and accuracy, with the winner being determined by the total number of bottle caps successfully weighed and the amount of points obtained[1].

#6: Wau

Source: Weird Kaya

Kite-flying is one of the most famous traditions in Malaysian culture and was enjoyed by many for hundreds of years.

Even today, flying the wau or traditional kite is a popular activity in the rural areas of the country especially in Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and Kedah, where farmers will go kite-flying to destress after the harvest season[2].

There are three types of wau: Wau Bulan which is named for its crescent-like tail shape, Wau Jala Budi or known as a woman’s kite which takes the curves of a woman and Wau Kucing, named after a shape resembling a cat that is sitting from the rear corner[7]. These kites are decorated with traditional Malay motifs, some of which were in fact inspired by wood carvings! In order for a kite to be considered a true traditional wau, it must have a floral motif called the Ibu or ‘Mother of all Life’ in its centre[8].

Much like Gasing, there are also competitions for kite-flying. The winning metrics differ, including choosing the highest-flying kite, the kite that makes the best melodious sound, the most skilful player in flying the kite, the kite with the most beautiful drawing, the most colourful kite and the kite that flies in the straightest manner[2].

But besides leisure, the wau also played a more practical role in rural Malaysia. Originally, a tape or line which vibrates in the wind — known as a hummer — would be attached to a bow at the nose of the wau. At night, farmers would fly a kite or two before retiring to a shack serving as a rest spot in their rice paddies. Besides helping the farmer to doze off at night, the sound of the hummer was believed to frighten away evil spirits. Some even used the patterns of sound to forecast the following day’s weather![8]

#7: Country flag eraser battle

I’m sure most of you had those novelty erasers with country flags printed on them back in the 90s and early 2000s. And you’ve always been too scared to use these erasers to rub out your mistakes since they’re so pretty. So, what did you do with them instead? Why, play games with them of course!

This simple game was popular with primary schools in both Malaysia and Singapore and was the reason why children kept collecting all those country flag erasers. To play, two players will first set their flag erasers either on opposite ends of the table or side by side. The aim of the game is to have one of the flags land on top of the other eraser[9].

Players will take turns to nudge or flip their eraser towards the opponent’s eraser. When one of the erasers successfully lands on top of the other eraser, the player who owns the eraser on top wins the game! Depending on the player, this might also mean that the winning player gets to keep both erasers[9].

It may be simple but this game still kept dozens of Malaysian and Singaporean schoolchildren entertained.

Keeping These Games Alive

Visitors enjoy the traditional game of ‘baling tin’ during the Butterworth Fringe Festival 2018 at Jalan Jeti Lama in Butterworth, Penang. Source: The Star

As our world modernised, so did the games children play. These days, children are glued to their smartphones and computers, ignorant of the much simpler games that entertained their parents and grandparents.

This was what heritage researcher Dr Kuah Li Feng found out when she co-curated the “Mai Main” street fest on the streets of George Town in 2021, beckoning young and old to come and try their hand in 23 traditional games including baling selipar (slipper throwing), nondi (hopscotch), tudung tin (bottlecaps), gasing and animal chess[10].

What we found was that for people in their 30s or younger, some had never played many of the games.

Those who grew up in rural areas did play some of the games but this really wasn’t the case for those living in condominiums. Young kids who attended the festival, as well, were not familiar with the games. – Dr Kuah Li Feng, heritage researcher[10]

Penang has recognised the need to preserve the knowledge and memory of these traditional games and reintroduce them to the younger generations. Arts-ED, a community-based cultural education organisation, is one example having produced research for Unesco on traditional children’s games played in the state. 

Aside from that, grassroots programmes like “Wa Wa Warisan” in 2019, involving 120 students from seven primary schools in Penang through a four-session engagement process, taught children the old games and encouraged them to innovate games for themselves.

Arts-ED has been using games in cultural education and to promote intergenerational and intercultural exchanges. We also want to make it relevant to the young people today as culture changes according to time. – Chen Yoke Pin, Arts-Ed senior manager[10]

More recently, digital mediums have been sought out as a means to modernise traditional games and make them more appealing to a computer-focused generation.

Do you know that there is now a video game version of the country flag eraser game? Created by an aspiring game developer going by the handle of Linteractivity on Reddit and Twitter, the inspiration for this game came after Linteractivity saw a post on the r/Singapore subreddit, which is likely to have been this particular post reminiscing the hobby[11].

Computer and video game technology has also been utilised to create 3D virtual versions of guli and congkak[12], and digital versions of traditional board games such as dam haji and dam kapit are also available to download on smartphones and tablets[13].

Although these digital and virtual versions of Malaysia’s traditional games now exist, they still don’t beat the original, physical versions. As such, parents should consider introducing and teaching their children about the games they grew up on in order to ensure these simple games from simpler times continue to live.

Explore our sources:

  1. H. Zulkefly. (2018). Malaysian Traditional Games. Locco. Link.
  2. J. Tham. (2022). 5 Malaysian Traditional Games That You SHOULD Know. WeirdKaya. Link.
  3. S. Amin Farid. (2022). 10 Things You Should Know About: Gasing. Arts Equator. Link.
  4. J. Santos. (2015). Keeping The Traditional Game Of Gasing Alive. Going Places. Link.
  5. Southeast Asia. (n.d.). Gasing, From Children’s Game To Professional Sport. Link.
  6. HappyGoKL. (2021). 5 Traditional games from Malaysia. Link.
  7. HappyPreggie. (2023). These Are The 6 Best Traditional Malaysian Games For Children To Play At Home. Link.
  8. My Best Kite. Link.
  9. C. Soh. (2021). How To Play Flag Erasers: Battle Your Way To The Top. Little Day Out. Link.
  10. A. Filmer. (2021). Malaysian traditional games are a big part of the nation’s intercultural dialogue. The Star. Link.
  11. G. Zhen Tan. (2019). Mobile game lets you battle S’pore & M’sia country erasers like it’s primary school all over again. Mothership. Link.
  12. N.M. Suaib, N.A.F. Ismail, S.B. Sadimon & Z. Mohd Yunos. (2020). Cultural heritage preservation efforts in Malaysia: A survey. IOP. Link.
  13. N. Chepa & W.A.J. Wan Yahaya. (2016). REALITY AND CHALLENGES OF MALAYSIAN DIGITAL TRADITIONAL GAMES. Journal of Engineering Science and Technology. Link.

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