Language Lesson: What to call people

You can get around in Penang, Malaysia fairly well if you’re a monolingual English speaker.  Almost everyone has some degree of English ability.  But that isn’t true of the rest of the country, and it isn’t going to help you get to know people here.  You should consider getting to know one of the other languages that are spoken here.  A good choice would be Bahasa Melayu. An early way to get into the community and into the lives of people who live here is to know what to call them.

These terms are for Malay. [A note about pronunciation.  The vowels are pronounced like Spanish vowels.  The letter ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’.]

Encik – can be used for all men.  Formal situations.

Pacik / Macik – used for men / women older than 50 years old.  Formal situations.  This is the recommended term to be used by children with adults.

Tuan / Puan – used for men / women who are already married, usually aged 40+.  Less formal than Pacik / Macik.  In formal situations, Tuan / Puan can be used with younger married people.  If you are unsure, this is the safest thing to call people.  It assumes the least in terms of the other person’s age, station, relationship to you, etc.

Cik – used for people who are younger than you and unmarried.  This is a formal term.  This is often used when the age difference is unclear.  And can also be a way to compliment someone, that is, saying they look younger than they are.  Safe to use in government offices or other professional venues, like banks and offices.

Abang / Kakak –  used for close friends who are older than you.  This is significantly less formal than the previous terms.

Adik – used for people who are younger than you and in informal situations, like with close friends.  Can be used for sales persons in stores. Do not worry if you are corrected.  It might not be that you made a mistake, it could be something else.  They might prefer that you use their first name (Mr. Smith is my father), or they might have some other preference.


In school, children call teachers Cikgu which is a shortened form of Cik guru.