You will gain an understanding of a number of key areas including:
Once you’ve read this guide, ensure the success of your Malaysia business venture by:
Location: Southeastern Asia. Shares borders with Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei.
Capital: Kuala Lumpur
Climate: tropical; annual southwest (April to October) and northeast (October to February) monsoons
Population: 32+ million (2019 est.)
Ethnic Make-up: Malay 50.4%, Chinese 23.7%, indigenous 11%, Indian 7.1%, others 7.8%
Religions:Muslim 60.4%, Buddhist 19.2%, Christian 9.1%, Hindu 6.3%, Confucianism, Taoism, other traditional Chinese religions 2.6%, other or unknown 1.5%, none 0.8%
Government: constitutional monarchy
Business Culture: Ranked 43rd in the Business Culture Complexity Index™
The Malay language is an Austronesian language spoken not only by Malaysians but all Malay people who reside in the Malay Peninsula, southern Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, central eastern Sumatra, the Riau islands, parts of the coast of Borneo, Cocos, and Christmas Islands in Australia.
It is also very similar to Indonesian, known locally as Bahasa Indonesia. In Malaysia, the language is officially known as Bahasa Malaysia, which translates as the “Malaysian language”. The term, which was introduced by the National Language Act 1967, was predominant until the 1990s when most academics and government officials reverted to “Bahasa Melayu,” which is used in the Malay version of the Federal Constitution.
Malaysia is a multi-cultural society. The main ethnic groups are the native Malays as well as large populations of Chinese, and Indians. When visiting the country it is clear that the ethnicities retain their religions, customs, and way of life. The most important festivals of each group are public holidays.
Although growing up, children are educated in the same schools and will eventually work in the same offices, few marry outside their own ethnicity. Families tend to socialize within their own ethnic group – all part of retaining their individual traditions and lifestyles.
Despite the ethnic differences, there are commonalities culturally speaking.
The family is considered the center of the social structure. As a result, there is a great emphasis on unity, loyalty, and respect for the elderly. The family is the place where the individual can be guaranteed both emotional and financial support. When one member of the family suffers a financial setback, the rest of the family will contribute what they can to help out. Families tend to be extended, although in the larger cities this will naturally differ.
Malays, Chinese, and Indians all strive to maintain face and avoid shame both in public and private. The face is a personal concept that embraces qualities such as a good name, good character and being held in esteem by one’s peers. The face is considered a commodity that can be given, lost, taken away, or earned. On top of this face also extends to the family, school, company, and even the nation itself.
The desire to maintain face makes Malaysians strive for harmonious relationships.
The face can be lost by openly criticizing, insulting, or putting someone on the spot; doing something that brings shame to the group; challenging someone in authority, especially if this is done in public; showing anger at another person; refusing a request; not keeping a promise, or disagreeing with someone publicly. Conversely, the face can be saved by remaining calm and courteous; discussing errors or transgressions in private; speaking about problems without blaming anyone; using non-verbal communication to say “no”; and allowing the other person to get out of the situation with their pride intact.
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:
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 hands on their hearts.
The Chinese handshake is light and maybe rather prolonged. Men and women may shake hands, although the woman must extend her hand first. Much older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect.
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.
Among all cultures, there is a general tendency to introduce:
The way names are used also varies between ethnicities:
The Chinese traditionally have 3 names. The surname (family name) is first and is followed by two personal names.• Many Chinese adopt more Western names and may ask you to use that instead.
Many Malays do not have surnames. Instead, men add their father’s name to their own name with the term “bin” (meaning ‘son of’). So Rosli bin Suleiman, would be Rosli the son of Suleiman.
Women use the term “binti”, so Aysha bint Suleiman is Aysha the daughter of Suleiman.
Many Indians do not use surnames. Instead, they place the initial of their father’s name in front of their own name. The man’s formal name is their name “s/o” (son of) and the father’s name.
Women use “d/o” to refer to themselves as the daughter of their father.
Here are some general gift giving etiquette guidelines:
Gift giving to Malays:
If invited to someone’s home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good quality chocolates.
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
Gift giving to Indians:
Within the business context, most Malaysian businesspeople are culturally-savvy and internationally exposes. Your experience may very well depend upon the ethnicity, age, sex, and status of the person you are meeting. The best approach is always friendly yet formal. A few tips include:
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 and indirect. 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.
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 behavior 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.
Meetings, especially initial ones, are generally somewhat formal. Treat all Malaysian participants with respect and be cautious not to lose your temper or appear irritated. At the first meeting between two companies, Malaysians will generally not get into in-depth discussions. They prefer to use the first meeting as an opportunity to get to know the other side and build a rapport, which is essential in this consensus-driven culture.