Working in another country forces you to step outside your comfort zone, which opens up opportunities to develop new skills and have new experiences. It also introduces you to a culture that is foreign to you. As you navigate through a new environment, pay close attention to some of these aspects of working in Malaysia. You will soon be able to determine for yourself how accurate; or not; this information has been as you gain first hand experience and insight into a culture so different from your own.
High context culture – In high context cultures such as Malaysia, meaning is often more explicit and less direct than in many Western cultures. This means that words are less important and greater attention must be given to additional forms of communication such as tone of voice, body language, eye contact and facial expressions. In Malaysia, because business is personal and based on trust, developing relationships rather than exchanging facts and information is the main objective of communication. Direct answers, particularly negative ones, are avoided in order to prevent disagreement and preserve harmony; two very important aspects of Malaysian culture.
Business attire – Dress styles in Malaysia range from the traditional to the very modern. To avoid offence, long sleeve shirt and tie for men should suffice for most business meetings. Women can wear pants or skirts. A jacket is often necessary for evening cocktails or other events.
For women, if you choose to wear clothing which exposes your shoulders, wear a jacket or wrap and decide what is appropriate on arrival as each company may have a different dress code. When in doubt, observe what your colleagues are wearing or check with your in country support team.
If you receive an invitation with the wording ‘Long sleeve batik’, it refers to a men’s silk shirt made from Malaysia’s batik material. The standard alternative is lounge suit (business wear or early evening for women) unless otherwise stipulated.
Forms of address – Malaysians are often very formal until they know you well. They will normally call you Mr, Mrs or Ms unless you insist otherwise.
You may also hear Malays being referred to in local terms:
- Encik – Malay men (unmarried / married)
- Tuan (Haji) – For Muslim men, if they carry a title of Haji, they are addressed as ‘Tuan Haji’
- Tuan – If an individual is in a position of high authority, on official duty.
- Cik/Puan – Malay women (unmarried / married)
Deciphering Chinese, Indian and Malay names can be a challenge so check the appropriate form of address with your host, or else ask the individual how they prefer to be addressed.
Note: Many prominent business people have also been given titles such as Tan Sri, Dato’ or Datuk. In addressing them, one should always use these titles. Whether you use first name or surname with the honorific will vary depending on race. To be on the safe side, just call them by the title (eg. Tan Sri or Dato’) until you are sure what is appropriate.
Greeting / handshake – When meeting your Malaysian counterparts for the first time, a firm handshake is the standard form of greeting. However, you should only shake hands with a Malaysian businesswoman if she initiates the gesture. Otherwise a nod or a smile of acknowledgement is appropriate.
Business cards – Usage and exchange of business/name cards is standard in all business introductions in Malaysia. Cards should be handed over to another person with two hands and vice versa. Treat the card with dignity.
Eating with Malaysians – Malaysians are extremely hospitable. Food is a Malaysian pastime and a part of standard business. Accept a little bit of any food that is offered to you.
Malays are generally Muslim and follow a halal diet. They do not eat pork or drink alcohol. Most Malaysian restaurants are halal. Most Indians do not eat beef, and some are vegetarian. If you are arranging a set meal for a number of races, include lots of vegetables, chicken, lamb and fish (in place of pork and beef).
At many events, particularly official events, alcohol will not be served.
Saving Face – As with most Asian cultures, a vital element of Malaysian culture is the concept of ‘face’. In Malaysian society, to ‘lose face’ is to be embarrassed in public, which is perceived negatively. Malaysians will use a number of methods in order to ‘save face’. Laughter, for instance, is often used to mask one’s true feelings and can hide numerous emotions including nervousness, shyness or disapproval. Saving face is particularly crucial in business contexts, as causing your Malaysian counterpart to lose face may influence the outcome of future business dealings.
Gifts – Gifts are not usually exchanged as they may be perceived as a bribe. However, in the event that you are presented with a gift, it is customary to accept it with both hands and wait until you have left your Malaysian counterparts before opening it. Be sure to reciprocate with a gift of equal value in order to avoid loss of face.
Communications style – Malaysians often communicate in an Eastern or cyclical style. Often it feels that they are taking a long time to get to the point. Malaysians avoid confrontation. Yes does not always mean yes.
- Avoid being too abrupt or direct.
- Slow down – remember they are often communicating in a second language.
- Be patient – you will get a better understanding of the situation if you avoid interrupting and driving your point. It takes practice and discipline but it’s worth the effort.
There are many cultural rules that you will hear. However, it is also important to note Malaysians are a highly international race, with extensive exposure to foreign cultures and will not expect foreigners to know every nuance of their culture.
Malaysian business etiquette
- DO remain polite and demonstrate good etiquette at all times.
- DO take time to establish and develop positive business relationships with your Malaysian colleagues.
- DON’T be surprised if your Malaysian counterparts ask what you may consider to be personal questions. In Malaysia, asking people about their marital status for example, is not uncommon and is viewed as an acceptable approach to initial conversations.