Traditional Malay Medicine

Intangible Cultural Heritage

Traditional Malay Medicine

Traditional Malay Medicine comprises the practices, approaches and knowledge of health and healing that are associated with Malay culture and passed down through generations.

The human body is believed to constitute four elements- fire, earth, wind and water. The semanagat (soul substance) of a person determines an individual’s susceptibility to various illnesses.

In addition, there is the concept of dichotomy of “hot” and “cold”. Food can be categorised into “hot”, “cold” and “neutral” groups, and they affect the body fluids and immunity functions of a person differently. It is only when all four elements as well as the “hot” and “cold” aspects are balanced, that optimal health can be achieved.

Geographic Location

Traditional Malay Medicine is practised in regions with Malay communities, including in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Communities Involved

In Singapore, practitioners include those who offer herbal remedies and urut (traditional massage techniques) practitioners. Members from the Malay communities as well as other communities look to these traditional medicinal practices for their medical treatment and for improving their well-being.

Associated Social and Cultural Practices

The practices of Traditional Malay Medicine involve a combination of animist, Hindu and Islamic traditions. Healing may involve rituals, physiological aspects such as massage and bone-setting, as well as the use of medicine that are derived from plants, animals and minerals. Practitioners may also hold specialised knowledge related to women’s health, men’s health or traditional medicine such as jamu (herbal medicine).

Experience of a Practitioner

Ms Siti Nurhuda binte Saleh runs a stall in Clementi selling bunga rampai (floral potpourri) and jamu ingredients. Her knowledge in jamu was primarily self-taught; she had travelled to markets in Yogyakarta and Solo in Indonesia to source for ingredients and observe the processes of jamu-making.

Most of her customers for jamu are at least 30 years old. She notes that jamu may not appeal much to the younger generation likely because of their lack of awareness and jamu's bitter taste. However, Ms Siti Nurhuda shares that her younger sister and her niece are learning to make jamu.

Present Status

Though there are various competing approaches in health and healing in today’s society, there has also been increasing awareness and appeal of jamu and urut beyond the Malay and Muslim communities. There are also practitioners who continue to maintain these traditional medical practices as a marker of cultural identity.


Reference No.: ICH-037

Date of Inclusion: April 2018; Updated March 2019


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Jamia Azdina Jamal, Zakiah Abd. Ghafar and Khairana Husain. “Medicinal Plants used for Postnatal Care in Malay Traditional Medicine in the Peninsular Malaysia”, Pharmacognosy Journal, 3 (24), 2011.

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Suhaili Osman, “Traditional Malay medicine as a contested modality of knowledge”, Curatorial Talk, Culture Academy, National Heritage Board.