Duit kopi (Malaysia)

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Duit kopi 🇲🇾
Malaysia map.png
Location: Malaysia
Definition: Lit. coffee money, a small sum of money given to a public servant as an inducement payment
Keywords: Malaysia Southeast Asia Euphemism Food Bribe Public service Vehicle Transport Fee-avoidance
Author: Christian Giordano
Affiliation: Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
Website: Wikipedia entry

By Christian Giordano, Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Duit kopi, a Malaysian term for ‘coffee money’, stands for giving money with an expectation of receiving a counter-favour, although generally not a monetary one. In Bahasa Malaysia, duit is a very broad term for money, cash in particular, and kopi is the local name for coffee. The term duit kopi is a metaphorical and metonymical formula for a brief informal transaction between two individuals who do not know each other. It is a euphemism since it reformulates the cruder term rasuah, the semantically more exhaustive but pejorative notion of corruption or bribe, into a more specific and more acceptable concept. Duit kopi does not point directly to a corruptive action, yet there is a logical contiguity between the two: an implication of an illegal monetary transaction. As a rule, this is a one-off event that will not occur again between the same actors.

An illuminating case is the relationship between drivers and the traffic police. Candid camera footage shot in Malaysia shows several examples of how drivers, especially those in heavy- duty vehicles, are pulled over by the police for an actual or alleged violation. A veiled encouragement to open negotiations for avoiding a fine may begin with the phrase ‘So, macam mana mau selesai?’, ‘How do we settle this?’. After a ritualized transaction, the two actors reach an agreement on the amount of the duit kopi to overlook the actual or purported violation, which will be lower than the potential fine. Duit kopi does not apply to serious criminal acts.

Foreign drivers, especially white European or American ones, are exempt from duit kopi due to an assumption that they do not speak the language and are unaware of local knowledge. Traffic police officers may either take no notice or pull them over and give them a peremptory lecture without a fine. Behind the ostensibly magnanimous gesture is a risk of losing face or fear that the foreigner may report them to a higher-ranking officer, thus publicly divulging open secrets to which the authorities turn a blind eye. The police officers’ behaviour toward foreigners is also steered by national pride. Giving the impression of requesting duit kopi, especially from a white person, could be interpreted as reconfirming old prejudices and stereotypes fostered by the British during the colonial domination of Malaysia. While the illegal practice of duit kopi is considered unethical, it is accepted, practiced and legitimated by local knowledge.

Based on their research in West Africa, Giorgio Blundo and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan distinguish seven basic forms of corruption: gratuity; commission of illicit service; string- pulling, favours and nepotism; unwarranted fee for a public service, levy or toll; ‘white-collar crime’; and misappropriation (2006)[1]. The Malaysian duit kopi may be regarded as a form of tax or toll that these authors have termed a ‘racket’ – a specific solicitation that is difficult to avoid[1]. Being an implicit imposition, it is expressed by means of everyday semantic codes and the request is perceived the payer as a parasitic strategy or as an unsophisticated way of cadging money.

The practice of duit kopi has clear semantic analogies with the French pot de vin and the African French argent pour la bière, argent du thé, argent du café etc.[1], and functional analogies with the Italian bustarella and the Greek fakelaki (see also mordida). Duit kopi, however, may also be perceived as a form of micro-extortion and has a pejorative connotation. Its negative repute is reflected in the phrase nak duit kopi lah tu, rendered as hey, listen, don’t give away coffee money – an earnest advice shared amongst close friends.

Malaysian phraseology regarding corruption is highly diversified. The expressions makan duit and lesen kopi are semantically related to duit kopi. Makan duit literally translates as ‘eating money’ (from makan, to eat) and stands for receiving or accepting a bribe, usually a small amount. Lesen kopi can be translated as licence coffee and refers to a ‘voluntary but compulsory’ incentive or gift in cash to obtain a driving licence[2]. These terms are typical of petty corruption phenomena, which James Scott defines as parochial corruption as opposed to market corruption[3]. Yet, differences inherent to this dichotomy should not be overemphasized since market corruption, too, is based on networks of personalized and informal social relationships that can be regarded as parochial.

Malaysia is declared as a multiethnic and multicultural country. Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups are the Muslim Malay majority (the children of the soil, the bumiputra), the Taoist- Buddhist-Confucian Chinese of Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew and Hainanese origin, and the Indian, mostly Hindu Shivaite Tamil (the non-bumiputra or immigrants). Despite its remarkable everyday tolerance, for which Malaysia is often regarded as a plural society, a society characterized by ‘two or more elements or social orders which live side by side, yet without mingling, in one political unit’[4], Malaysia is still an ethnically divided society, with permanent tensions, but no serious interethnic conflict[5]. The ethnic groups lead parallel social lives. Although Bahasa Malaysia is the national language and compulsory in the schooling system, the communities use their specific vernacular idioms, which may be highly diversified even within a single group. Ultimately, English remains the spoken lingua franca, though it often takes on local peculiarities so that it is also known as Manglish. Despite the remarkable cultural and linguistic diversity, the phraseology of the parochial corruption, such as duit kopi, used by all of the ethnic communities is generally expressed in Bahasa Malaysia. Some expressions may be enriched with specific terms, from Chinese in particular, thus generating syncretic and creolized forms[2].


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Blundo, G. and de Sardan, J.-P. O. 2006. ‘Everyday Corruption in West Africa’, in Blundo, G. and de Sardan, J.-P. O., Everyday Corruption and the State: Citizens and Public Officials in Africa. London and New York: Zed Books, 69-109
  2. 2.0 2.1 Wong Chun Wai. 2017. ‘Mind your Words, Please’, The Star, April 23, http://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/on-the-beat/2017/04/23/mind-your-words- please/#P6EM3q6bcIvafXHy.99
  3. Scott, James C. 1972. Comparative Political Corruption. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall
  4. Furnivall, J. S. 1944 [1939]. Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy. Cambridge: The University Press
  5. Giordano, C. 2012. ‘Celebrating Urban Diversity in a Rainbow Nation: Political Management of Ethno-cultural Differences in a Malaysian City’, in Pardo, I. and Prato, G. (eds.). Anthropology in the City: Methodology and Theory, Farnham: Ashgate, 135-154