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The Modern-Day Malaysian Family: 14 Notable Shifts  

The International Day of Families observed annually on May 15th, serves as a platform to foster awareness about family-related issues. In Malaysia, like in many other countries in the region, family dynamics have evolved significantly over time. 

The societal landscape gradually underwent a transformation fueled by increased access to education and economic advancement, prompting shifts in societal norms and redefining marriage and family formation patterns.

While marriage was once nearly ubiquitous, there has been a noticeable increase in divorce rates. Over time, Malaysians have also transitioned away from the traditional “more the merrier” family model towards smaller, more diverse family structures. 

Source: Unsplash

Educational achievements, particularly among women, have been instrumental in this shift, leading to delayed marriages and prolonged periods of singlehood, consequently impacting population growth. 

Additionally, urbanisation has expanded the pool of potential partners, evidenced by the rising prevalence of interethnic, intermarriage, and transnational marriages. Let’s take a look at some statistics as we observe the evolution of families in Malaysia. 

#1: Single Parent Families Are Underreported And The Gender Bias 

Single-parent families in Malaysia, primarily led by single mothers, have seen fluctuations in numbers over the years due to divorce, separation, or widowhood. 

In 2020, 161,227 single mothers were registered with the Women Development Department, though likely underreported[1]. This number decreased from 235,240 in 2010 but increased from 130,249 in 2000[2]

It’s important to note that data specifically for households headed by single fathers is not available, indicating a focus on single motherhood within the available statistics. These figures shed light on the challenges and dynamics within single-parent households in Malaysia, underlining the need for support systems and policies to address their unique needs.

#2: Sandwich Families Are Norm

In Malaysia, the sandwich family structure, characterised by two parents residing with their children and one or more grandparents in the same household, represents a significant proportion of elderly living arrangements. 

According to the 5th Malaysian Population and Family Survey conducted by Lembaga Penduduk dan Pembangunan Keluarga Negara (LPPKN) in 2014, 70.1% of the elderly population in Malaysia lived in arrangements beyond cohabitation with their spouses or living alone[2]. However, the specifics of these living arrangements were not detailed in the findings. 


This suggests a prevalent presence of intergenerational households where both children and grandparents rely on the parental figures for support and care, highlighting the complex dynamics and caregiving responsibilities within Malaysian families.

#3: Bigger Cities, Smaller Families

As more families moved away from the extended family arrangement into the nuclear family living arrangement, household sizes began to shrink. Smaller-sized households are becoming a norm.

The most recent census data from Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM)  in 2020 revealed that Kuala Lumpur and Penang had the smallest average household sizes, with 3.5 persons. Conversely, Kelantan recorded the highest average at 4.8 persons per household, followed by Sabah (4.7 persons) and Terengganu (4.1 persons)[3]

#4: Household Sizes In Malaysia Are Shrinking

There is a noticeable trend of declining household size in Malaysia, indicating a shift towards having fewer children. The average nuclear household, which includes two parents and their children, decreased from 4.5 in 2000 to 4.1 in 2010[2]

Similarly, the average extended household, where two or more adults with familial ties reside under one roof, also saw a decline over the same period, dropping from 6.2 in 2000 to 5.8 in 2010[2]

These shifts likely reflect changing family dynamics and societal preferences, impacting various aspects of daily life and resource allocation.

#5: More Than 50% Of The Nation’s Population Are Married

Traditional family formation in Malaysia has long been centred around marriage. However, since the 1970s, a shift has been observed in Malaysian society, with marriage becoming less ubiquitous. 

Emerging trends include delayed marriage and opting for non-marriage, accompanied by a decline in parental involvement in arranging unions[4]

As of 2020, approximately 13.7 million people (55.5% of the population) are married, with the highest numbers recorded in Petaling Jaya, Selangor (1 million), Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur (891,000), and Johor Bahru (776,000)[3].

Marital patterns have significant implications for a nation, influencing not only population growth but also fertility rates, female labour force participation, income inequality, and various facets of family life[4]. The rate of marriage in Malaysia has been on a steady incline since 2016. However, in 2020, likely attributed to the pandemic, lesser marriages were registered[5]

#6: Age Gaps Reducing In Married Couples

Between 1991 and 2010, spousal age gaps narrowed in Malaysia, reflecting changing societal norms. By 2010, the gap had reduced to 3.7-3.9 years across ethnic groups, except for other Bumiputera at 4.4 years[5]

The smallest age gap was in developed areas like Klang Valley, and the largest age gap in eastern regions like Sabah [5]

Most marriages saw husbands older than wives in 2010, with one-third having husbands 1-3 years older, up 6% from 1991[5]

The percentage of husbands seven or more years older than their wives decreased from 30% to 24%. Only 9% of marriages were age-matched, and 13% had older wives[5]

Factors like education, societal attitudes, and gender equality influenced these changes, contributing to economic development.   

#7: Women Are Marrying At A Later Age

For decades, Malaysian women have been marrying younger than men – this trend has not changed. However, women are now marrying at a later age. While men’s average marriage age has stayed around 28 years old, women’s average marriage age increased from 22 years old in 1970 to 26 years old in 2021[6]

This pattern suggests evolving societal norms and dynamics, reflecting changes in education, career opportunities, and cultural perceptions of marriage roles over time.

Statistics also show that Chinese women and men entered marriage 2 years later than their Malay counterparts and Indians are in between[5].

#8: Evolution Of Muslim Divorce Rates Since 1950s

During the 1950s, the Malay population in Peninsular Malaysia faced notably high divorce rates, with Kelantan having one of the world’s highest rates at 26.3[7]. This phenomenon stemmed from various factors, including parent-arranged marriages aimed at safeguarding family reputation by avoiding premarital pregnancies.

However, women were not coerced to remain in unsuitable marriages, as divorces were deemed less damaging to family honour compared to premarital pregnancy scandals. 

By 1965, divorce rates in Kelantan and Terengganu were twice the national average for Malays and four to five times higher than in more urbanised states like Selangor, Malacca, and Johor. The highest rates occurred in the poorest, most rural, and least educated regions, where parent-arranged marriages and polygyny were prevalent. 

However, in the late 20th century, Malay divorce rates experienced a significant decline until 2001, with a crude divorce rate of 1.09 per thousand. This downward trend was predominantly driven by social and economic shifts rather than legal reforms. 

Factors such as delayed marriage, increased autonomy in spouse selection, improved living standards, and growing societal disapproval of divorce—particularly championed by women’s advocacy groups—were instrumental in this decline. Additionally, discussions surrounding the Islamic Family Law Act of 1984 also contributed to shaping attitudes towards divorce[7].

Today, Muslim divorces stand at 46,138 in 2022[8].

 In 2022, the three states that recorded the highest increase in divorce rate in Muslim marriages include Sabah (94.5%), Perlis (83.5%) and Kedah (11.36%)[8]

#9: Non-Muslim Divorces & Sabah Recorded The Highest Increase In Divorce Rates In 2022

The Chinese and Indian community at the time, viewed divorce as disgraceful, explaining the lower divorce rate recorded in the 1970s at 0.02 per thousand population, less than one-hundredth of the rate registered by the Malay community[7]

Divorce rates in Malaysia in the past five years have exhibited an increase indicating a shifting in marital dynamics in Malaysia.

The rate of divorce of non-Muslim marriages currently stands at 16,752 in 2022, a 36.4 percent increase from 12,286 in 2021. Three states that registered the highest divorce cases are Selangor (3,562), Sarawak (3,006) and Johor (2,751)[8]

#10: Spousal Misunderstanding Cited as Primary Cause of Divorce

Based on National Population and Family Development Board findings, the top two cited reasons for divorce among married couples aged 35-39 in the country are lack of understanding and infidelity[9].


  • 56.2% of men divorced due to lack of understanding from their spouse
  • 11.8%  due to infidelity
  • 10% due to interference from in-laws 


  • 38% due to lack of understanding
  • 20.5% due to infidelity
  • 15.2% due to irresponsibility
  • 10.4% due to abuse, infertility, involved with crime 
  • 6% due to interference from in-laws
  • 4.7% due to financial problems 
  • 2.8% due to refusing a second wife

#11: Decline In Polygamous Marriages In West Malaysia And Sabah

According to data from the Syariah Judiciary Department, provided by the Religious Affairs Ministry, polygamous marriages in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah saw a notable decline in 2023, totaling 1,609 compared to 3,064 in 2019. Unfortunately, data for Sarawak, which is compiled separately, was not immediately available[10]


Previous years’ data were sourced from various authorities. For instance, the Syariah Courts reported that between 2010 and 2016, 8,808 cases of Muslim husbands applying for polygamy were approved[11].

Additionally, in 2016, polygamous marriages were recorded on the Thailand border. The Malaysian consulate in Songkhla, Thailand documented 4,178 polygamous marriages in 2016, marking an increase from 4,081 in 2015 and 3,831 in 2014[11].

Potential reasons for the decline in polygamous marriages include financial constraints and the economic slowdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns have been raised about husbands’ ability to adequately support multiple wives financially and provide them with equitable treatment. This apprehension may stem from uncertainties regarding income stability and the practicality of maintaining multiple households[10]

Additionally, the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic has likely exacerbated financial insecurities, dissuading men from pursuing polygamous unions due to dwindling incomes[10].

#12: Birth Rates Hit A 50-Year Low In 2022

Malaysia saw a big drop in how many babies each woman (family) has, hitting a 50-year low in 2022. From 2011 to 2021, all major ethnic groups had fewer babies. Chinese families had the fewest, with only 0.8 babies per woman aged 15-49, while Malay families had the most with 2.2 babies [12]

Since 2013, the average number of babies born per woman throughout her reproductive life needs to be increased to replace herself and her partner. This means that on average, a women (family) need to produce at least 2 children for the population to stay healthy. 

As of 2022, on average, women are only producing 1.6 children in their lifetime[13].

#13: Rise In Childless Families

The prevalence of childless families in Malaysia has seen a modest increase over the past decade. Defined as households comprising couples who either choose not to have children or face difficulties in doing so, the percentage of childless families rose from 7.0% in 2004 to 8.4% in 2014[2]

This trend is partly attributed to changing societal norms, with more couples aged 15-49 opting to delay or forgo parenthood, often due to later marriage. 

Data from the 5th Malaysian Population and Family Survey (MPFS-5) highlights a rise in the proportion of women without children after 5-9 years of marriage, particularly among those marrying later in life. For instance, the percentage of women without children after marrying before age 20 was 2.9%, compared to 18.8% for those marrying after age 28 in 2014[14]

Alongside personal preferences, economic factors such as the rising costs of education and financial constraints also influence decisions to limit family size, underscoring the multifaceted nature of the choices individuals make regarding family planning in Malaysia.

#14: Steady Increase In Cross-Culture Marriages

Cross-cultural marriage rates in Malaysia have shown a steady increase over the years, rising from a mere 1% in the 1980s to approximately 11% in 2019[15]. This trend signifies a growing acceptance and prevalence of marriages between individuals from different ethnic backgrounds. A survey conducted in Sabah in 2020 revealed an even higher cross-cultural marriage rate of 38.6%, showcasing regional variations in such unions within Malaysia[16]

Source: pexels

Moreover, tertiary-educated women are notably more inclined to engage in interethnic marriages, with a rate twice as high as those with no schooling (48% vs. 21.8%), suggesting that higher levels of education may foster greater openness to interethnic relationships and marriages[15].

Explore our sources:

  1. N.H.Abdul Rahman. (2021). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and policy response on single-parent families in Malaysia. Fulbright Review of Economics And Policy. Link 
  2. Malaysian Population Research Hub. (n.d). Understanding Malaysian Families of Today. Link 
  3. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2021). Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 2020. Link 
  4. Jones, G. & Tey, N.P. (2021). The Changing Marriage Institution in Malaysia. Institutions and Economies. 
  5. Tey, N.P. (2021). The Changing Spousal Differentials in Socio-demographic Characteristics in Malaysia.Institutions and Economies. Link
  6. Tey, N. P. (2007). Trends in delayed and non-marriage in Peninsular Malaysia. Asian Population Studies, 3(3), 243-261.
  7. Jones, G. (2021). Divorce in Malaysia: Historical Trends and Contemporary Issues. Institutions and Economies.
  8. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2023). Marriage and Divorce Statistics, Malaysia, 2023. Link 
  9. Bernama. (2023). Ignorance, cheating main reasons for divorces in Malaysia. New Straits Times. Link 
  10. Saieed, Z. (2024). Polygamy down sharply, in line with incomes in post-pandemic Malaysia. The Straits Times. Link
  11. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) (2017). ANNEX 1 – Data on Polygamy. Link
  12. Free Malaysia Today. (2022). Malaysia records lowest number of births in a decade. Link 
  13. Kasinathan, S. (2023). DOSM: Malaysia’s total fertility rate for 2022 reaches lowest in 50 years. Malay Mail. Link 
  15. Lai, S.L. (2021). The Changing Educational Gradient in Marriage: Evidence from Malaysia. Link 
  16. Tey, N. P. (forthcoming). Marriage trends and patterns in Sabah. In N. P. Tey,S. L. Lai, & K. L. Chan (Eds.), Population and Family in Sabah. Sabah,Malaysia: UMS Press.

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