Malays, Chinese and Indians in Malaysia practice customs associated with their ethnic group. According to destination-asia.com: “The culture in Malaysia is as varied as the diversity of its people. Malaysians are viewed as polite and helpful people with a sunny disposition that matches the hot tropical climate. Visitors behaving courteously stand little chance of unintentionally giving offence, but if visiting rural areas and especially someone’s private home, it helps to know something about the local norms. [Source: destination-asia.com ]
Kuala Lumpur follows a normal week but the conservative state of Kelantan follows the Muslim week. There, schools, government offices and business are closed on Friday, the Muslim sabbath.
Do’s and Don’ts: 1) Do smile when you greet people.It is normal to see people in the tourist industry to greet visitors by placing their right hand over the left breast. This gesture means: “I greet you from my heart”. 2) Do dress neatly when entering places of worship. It is advisable for ladies when entering places of worship to wear long sleeves and loose pants or long skirts. 3) Do pay careful attention to your attire if you’re female. Wearing hot pants and vests on the islands where Malaysians are used to foreigners has become accepted, but it may invite harassment elsewhere. At mainland beaches, bring a wrap-around as well as a swimsuit so you won’t feel conspicuous; Malay women usually go swimming fully dressed and some keep their scarves on.
4) Don’t bring up the topic of ethnic relations in Malaysia or the political system: They are both sensitive subjects. As a tourist, it is best not to criticize the government or the Malay royal families. You may hear Malaysians criticize their own government, but you do not need to take sides; just listen and feel free to talk about your feelings about your own government. 5) Do be wary that same-sex relationships are a taboo subject in Malaysia. Gay and lesbian travellers should avoid any outward signs of affection, including holding hands in public. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia.
Malays greet each other with a salaam, in which two individuals each extend both hand and grasp both their hands somewhat like a double handshake. The gesture is used when saying goodbye. The salaam is only used when greeting men. It is normal to see people in the tourist industry to greet visitors by placing their right hand over the left breast. This gesture means: “I greet you from my heart”. [Source: The Traveler’s Guide to Asian Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti. International etiquette expert: Mary Kay Metcalf of Creative Marketing Alliance in New Jersey]
Men should not shake hands with women unless the women extend their hands first. Different ethnic groups address each using different names. To avoid confusion, ask a person how they want toe be addressed.
Malays should be addressed with a Mr., Mrs. or Miss first followed by the family name (which comes first). Thus Anwar Ibrahim would be greeted as Mr. Anwar. In the case of the wife, both her family name and her husband’s family name is used. Anwar’ wife. His wife Azizah Ismail would be greeted as Mrs. Azizah Anwar.
According to destination-asia.com: “Don’t offer to shake hands unless you know that your acquaintances are fairly westernized. Even then, let them offer to shake hands first and never shake hands with a woman unless they offer to do so first. The traditional greeting or salam resembles a handshake with both hands but without the grasp. The Chinese handshake is light and may be rather prolonged. Many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect. [Source: destination-asia.com]
According to kwintessential.co.uk: “Greetings in a social context will depend upon the ethnicity of the person you are meeting. In general, most Malays are aware of Western ways so the handshake is normal. There may be slight differences though and a few things to bear in mind include: 1) Malay women may not shake hands with men. Women can of course shake hands with women. Men may also not shake hands with women and may bow instead while placing their hand on their heart. 2) The Chinese handshake is light and may be rather prolonged. Men and women may shake hands, although the woman must extend her hand first. Many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect. 3) Indians shake hands with members of the same sex. When being introduced to someone of the opposite sex, nodding the head and smiling is usually sufficient. 4) Among all cultures, there is a general tendency to introduce: a) the most important person to the lower ranking person; b) the older person to the younger person; c) women to men. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk]
1) Don’t eat while walking. 2) Avoid using left hand. “Koran states the right hand is more honorable.” 3) Public displays of affection between different sexes is frowned upon. 4) Show respect towards elders. 5) Don’t cross your legs in front of an older people and don’t step over someone with crossed legs who is sitting down. 6) Don’t pat someone on the head. 7) Don’t gesture by pointing. 8) Placing the hands on the hips indicates anger. 9) Malaysians often laugh when embarrassed. 10) Don’t expose the soles of your feet. Never put your feet on a table. 11) In some situations don’t wear yellow (it is the color of royalty) and don’t wear black.
Take your shoes off and dress appropriately when entering a mosque or Hindu temple. Men wearing shorts, are sometimes given robes at the entrance. Women should have their knees and arms covered. Inside a mosque don’t walk in front of someone who is praying, don’t touch the Koran and never sit or stand on prayer rug. Ask for permission before taking photographs.
Publicly humiliating someone in Malaysian culture is considered unforgivably bad manners. When Prime Minister Mahathir dragged Anwar Ibrahim’s name through the mud it was considered by many Malaysians to be the ultimate violation of Malaysiam ethics.
According to destination-asia.com: “Hugging and kissing is considered inappropriate behaviour so refrain from doing so, no matter how fond you become of someone, especially someone of the opposite sex. Intimate behaviour in public is a definite no-no, too, particularly in rural and less liberal areas. In traditional homes, it is rude to cross your legs when you sit down in front of the host, particularly for women. Don’t touch the head of an adult and don’t point the bottom of your feet at anyone. [Source: destination-asia.com]
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and visitors should dress respectfully, particularly in rural areas. Wearing trousers or a long skirt, not shorts, and covering the shoulders is recommended but not essential. In more metropolitan areas such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang, with a significant non-Muslim population, attitudes are more liberal.
Always use the right hand to pass or accept anything. The left is traditionally “dirty” because of its washroom connections. Pointing with the finger is considered very rude and the whole hand is used to indicate a direction, but never a person. To point to a person, close the right hand into a fist with the thumb on top and then point it at the subject.
Mosques and shrines are often not open to non-Muslims. Those that do welcome them expect them to be appropriately dressed: no shorts, short skirts, revealing halter tops or exposed shoulders. Mosques that allow women often require them to at least wear a head scarf. Some require them to cover their entire bodies, except the face, hands and feet, and not wear trousers. Sometimes mosque provide women who don’t have one with a head scarf. Sometimes they have robes for men wearing shorts.
The Muslim faithful are expected to remove their shoes and wash their feet in a sacred basin before they enter the mosque. If no water is available Muslims are supposed to wash themselves with sand. Foreigner visitors s can usually get away with just removing their shoes and are not required to wash their feet. In any case, make sure you feet or socks are clean. Dirty feet in a mosques are regarded as an insult to Islam. In large mosques you remove your shoes and place them on a shelf with a number.
Inside a mosque don’t walk in front of someone who is praying, don’t touch the Koran, never sit or stand on a prayer rug and never place a Koran on the floor or put anything on top of it. Also, don’t cross your legs in front of an older people and don’t step over someone who is sitting down Show respect, remain quiet and stay out of the way. Taking photographs is frowned upon.
See Muslim Customs factsanddetails.com
Malaysians are generally punctual. Sometimes they ask a lot of personal questions.
According to kwintessential.co.uk: “As an extension to the need to maintain harmonious relations, Malaysians rely on non-verbal communication (i.e. facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc). Such a communication style tends to be subtle, indirect and. Malays may hint at a point rather than making a direct statement, since that might cause the other person to lose face. Rather than say “no”, they might say, “I will try”, or “I’ll see what I can do”. This allows the person making the request and the person turning it down to save face and maintain harmony in their relationship. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk]
If you are unsure about the affirmative response you received, you may want to continue the discussion, re-phrasing the question in several different ways so that you may compare responses. If the response was given because the Malaysian did not know how to respond in the negative without causing offense, this may come out. Alternatively, they may have someone else give you the bad news.
Silence is an important element of Malaysian communication. Pausing before responding to a question indicates that they have given the question appropriate thought and considered their response carefully. Many Malaysians do not understand the Western propensity to respond to a question hastily and can consider such behaviour thoughtless and rude.
Malaysians may laugh at what may appear to outsiders as inappropriate moments. This device is used to conceal uneasiness. Do not show anger in public as it makes Malaysians uncomfortable and creates a feeling of powerlessness. There is a greater chance of achieving a good outcome if you are calm, whereas little is resolved by shouting.
Malays like to entertain at home more than at restaurants. Guest often begin eating soon after they arrive. It is part of the Muslim hospitality thing. People often drop by unannounced.
Malaysians take their shoes off and leave them on the front porch before entering a house. Don’t have holes in your socks. Inside home do not touch the Koran or sit or stand on a prayer rug. In eastern rural areas men often eat separately from women.
People often sit on he floor. When sitting in the floor women should tuck their legs underneath them and men should sit cross legged. Don’t step over someone’s cross legs.
There are often buckets of water in the toilet. Malays and Indians wash themselves every time they go to the bathroom. Sometimes only cold showers are available. Some people take two or three showers a day because of the humidity.
According to destination-asia.com: Malaysians remove their shoes at the door before entering a home. You can always tell if there is a get-together at someone’s home by the number of shoes and sandals scattered around the front door. Likewise, never enter a mosque without removing footwear. [Source: destination-asia.com]
As for gifts: something from your country or fruit or chocolate is always. Don’t give pork or alcohol. People usually don’t open their gifts in the presence of giftgivers. Otherwise gifts are usually given keeping in mind whether the recipients are Malays, Chinese or Indians.
According to destination-asia.com: For Malays: If invited to someone’s home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good chocolates; Never give alcohol; Do not give toy dogs or toy pigs to children; Do not give anything made of pigskin; Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning; Avoid yellow wrapping paper, as it is the colour of royalty; If you give food, it must be “halal” (meaning permissible for Muslims); Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large; Gifts are generally not opened when received. [Source: destination-asia.com]
For Chinese: If invited to someone’s home, bring a small gift of fruit, sweets, or cakes; Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate a desire to sever a relationship; Flowers do not make good gifts as they are given to the sick and used at funerals; Do not wrap gifts in the traditional mourning colours of white, blue, or black and it is best to wrap gifts in the happy colours of red, pink, or yellow; It is best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky; Gifts are generally not opened when received.
For Indians: If you give flowers, avoid frangipani as they are used in funeral wreaths; Money should be given in odd numbers; Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large; Do not wrap gifts in white or black; Wrap gifts in red, yellow or green paper or other bright colours as these bring good fortune; Do not give leather products to a Hindu; Do not give alcohol unless you are certain the recipient drinks; Gifts are generally not opened when received.
According to [Source: kwintessential.co.uk: Gift giving to Malays: If invited to someone’s home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good quality chocolates.• Never give alcohol.• Do not give toy dogs or pigs to children.• Do not give anything made of pigskin.• Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning.• Avoid yellow wrapping paper, as it is the color of royalty.• If you give food, it must be “halal” (meaning permissible for Muslims).• Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large.• Gifts are generally not opened when received. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk]
Gift giving to Chinese: If invited to someone’s home, bring a small gift of fruit, sweets, or cakes, saying that it is for the children.• A gift is traditionally refused before it is accepted to demonstrate that the recipient is not greedy.• Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate a desire to sever the relationship.• Flowers do not make good gifts as they are given to the sick and are used at funerals.• Do not wrap gifts in mourning colours – white, blue, or black.• Wrap the gifts in happy colours – red, pink, or yellow.• Elaborate gift – wrapping is imperative.• Never wrap a gift for a baby or decorate the gift in any way with a stork, as birds are the harbinger of death.• It is best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky.• Gifts are generally not opened when received.
Gift giving to Indians: If you give flowers, avoid frangipani as they are used in funeral wreaths.• Money should be given in odd numbers.• Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large.• Do not wrap gifts in white or black.• Wrap gifts in red, yellow or green paper or other bright colors as these bring good fortune.• Do not give leather products to a Hindu.• Do not give alcohol unless you are certain the recipient drinks.• Gifts are generally not opened when received.
Malays and Indians often eat food with their hands. Some restaurants don’t have any utensils at all to give their patrons. Instead each table comes with a water pitcher that is used to clean the hands after the meal. Most meals come with pancake-like bread that is used to scoop up the food which is usually something that resembles stew.
Malays eat with only the first two of their fingers, not their entire hands. Muslim Malays have traditionally used their left “dirty” hand to take care of wiping their dirty and other “unclean” bodily functions. As a result, Muslim Malays never eat or touch someone with their left hand.
People are generally served a plate with rice on it. Using a serving spoon they dish themselves food from serving bowls at the middle of the table. Don’t touch the serving spoon to your plate and pass dishes by holding them with your left hand and supporting them with your right hand palm down.
Westerners are often offer ed forks, spoons and knives. When Malaysians eat with Western utensils they usually hold their spoon in their right and hand and fork in their left hand and push food with the fork onto the spoon and eat with their right hand using the spoon.
People often sit on the floor when they eat and wash their hands from a bowling before starting to eat. Don’t blow your nose, clear your throat loudly. Refusing food is considered bad manners. Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have the custom eating any time they feel like it.
Etiquette at the dining table of a royal family members: 1) Do not eat or drink before His Majesty has done so; 2) Avoid opening your mouth widely when putting food into your mouth. When chewing your food, your mouth should be closed. Do not talk when your mouth is full; 3) Make sure that the cutlery is used correctly and do not make too much noise. Leftovers should not be left on the tablecloth; 5) After eating, the cutlery should be arranged neatly and not scattered about; 6) If food is stuck in your teeth, avoid picking at it with your fingers. Use a napkin to cover your mouth when you remove it; 7) Cover your mouth with a napkin when you are coughing or sneezing; 8) Avoid yawning or belching loudly; 9) Do not pick your ears, scratch your body, stretch yourself, and crack your knuckle, during the dinner; 10) Do not raise your head or rest both elbows on the table; 11) For women, when seated at the dining table, the handbag should be hanged using a handbag holder and not placed on the table even if it is a small handbag. [Source: malaysianmonarchy.org ]
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015