Malaysia’s culture is as varied and diverse as the people living in it. With a mix of Malays, Chinese, and Indians living in the country, each ethnic group can be identified not only by the way they dress or look, but by the traditions that they adhere to up to this day. Malaysians are viewed as polite and endowed with a friendly disposition. Although the people living in the big cities are used to western visitors and their behavior, it still helps to know something about the local norms.
The Malaysian population strives to maintain “face”, which is a personal concept that puts emphasis on good qualities such as good character, and maintaining a sense of esteem among family, friends, and colleagues. Face can be lost if someone is criticized or insulted, especially in public. The same holds true if someone is humiliated or if an authority figure is challenged publicly. It can also happen if a request is denied or a promise is not kept. Many foreigners have inadvertently caused someone to lose face simply because of lack of knowledge of the social graces and etiquettes in Malaysia. Here are some things that you can do to make sure that you don’t commit the same mistake.
Don’t offer to shake hands unless you’re certain that your acquaintances are westernized. If this is the case, let them offer to shake your hand first, and don’t shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first. The traditional greeting, the salam, may also be used. It’s a handshake with both hands, but without grasping the hands. You may also nod or give a slight bow with your hand over your heart when being introduced to a Malay woman or an older person. More importantly, smile when you greet people.
Kissing and hugging is considered inappropriate behavior so avoid doing so, no matter if you’re on vacation with your significant other or even if you’re on your honeymoon.
Be aware that same-sex relationships are still a taboo subject in Malaysia. Gay and lesbian travelers should avoid showing any signs of affection towards their partners if they wish to avoid scandalizing people. Even holding hands in public is not allowed. Keep in mind that homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia.
Never touch anyone on the head, especially if it’s a child. For Malaysians, this is the home of the soul.
Always use your right hand to eat, pass objects or touch people. The left hand is considered unclean. Also, never move objects using your feet or point at another person using your foot.
Watch your gestures. In traditional homes, it is rude to cross your legs when seated in front of the host, more so if you are a woman. Never beckon to adults, and don’t use a single finger to point—use your hand instead. Don’t put your hands inside your pockets because this signifies anger. Above all, never hit your fist into a cupped hand. To the Malays, that’s an obscene gesture.
Malaysia is a predominantly Moslem country; thus, visitors have to be dressed respectfully. Wearing long pants and long skirts is essential, and covering up the shoulders is a must. If you’re a woman, you must pay particular attention to your sartorial choices. Although wearing shorts and tank tops on the islands where Malaysians are used to seeing foreigners are the norm, it might invite harassment somewhere else. Bring a wrap-around or a cover-up as well as a swimsuit if you plan to go swimming. Malaysian women usually swim fully dressed, and some even keep their head scarves on.
If you are invited to dine at a Malaysian home, you may bring gifts such as pastries or chocolates and say that they are for the children. Never give alcohol or anything made out of pigskin. Don’t give toy dogs or toy pigs to children, nor should you give any sort of cutting instrument because these symbolize severing the relationship. Don’t bring flowers because they are usually given to the sick and are used at funerals.
The Malays only use their right hand to eat, pass or touch any food. Never use your left hand while you’re eating. If you’re worried about how you’re going to cut your meat, don’t worry. Food has already been cut into bite-size pieces, so you can push the food with your fork on the left hand towards the spoon in your right hand. Don’t spear things with your fork, that’s considered eating with your left hand.
Drinks will be offered with both hands and should be accepted in the same way.
People who go to Malaysia for business will do well to know about the business protocols in the country to help their transactions or negotiations run smoothly.
Most Malaysian business people are internationally exposed. Your best bet is to approach in a friendly but formal manner. Greetings should be done formally. If you’re going as a team and you’ll be meeting with another team, have the senior person on your team enter first so that he or she will be the first person to greet the most senior Malaysian. Once everyone’s inside the room, make sure to introduce the person who has seniority first. Many Malays and Indians are uncomfortable shaking hands with the opposite sex, so if you’re a woman, you can smile and incline your head in a slight bow.
Business cards will be exchanged after the initial introduction. You might want to consider having a different set of business cards printed for this trip. If you’re meeting with the Chinese, have one side of your card translated into Chinese, with the Chinese characters printed in gold. If you’re meeting a government official, have one side of your card translated into Bahasa Malaysia. Take care to examine any business card you receive before putting it in your business card case. Never place them inside your wallet, because you normally put your wallet inside your back pocket and sit on it. Once you do that, you already caused the person who gave you the card to lose face. It’s also rude to write on the card in the presence of the person who gave it to you.
It is customary for leaders to sit opposite each other at the table. The senior Malaysian will usually give a short welcoming speech, then this will be followed by some small talk. The senior Malaysian will then take the lead when it comes to discussing business.
It’s normal for more meetings to follow the first meeting because the initial meeting is often used as an opportunity to get to know the other side and establish a relationship, so be patient.
Other helpful hints
Malays judge people by who they are rather than what they do for a living. Family background and social status is very important to them.
If you’re going to give a compliment, do so sincerely. Also, don’t be surprised or offended if they ask rather personal questions such as your income, your religion, and other things of the same nature, though there is no obligation to answer these questions. However, you may also ask the same type of questions.
Never bring up the topic of ethnic relations in Malaysia or its political system. Both are still very touchy subjects. Don’t criticize the Malay royal family, although you could sometimes hear the locals complain about them. Don’t take sides, instead, just listen.
Last but definitely not the least, don’t even think about buying or transporting illegal drugs. There’s a mandatory death penalty for trafficking, manufacturing, importing or exporting drugs. Possession of drugs is enough to get anyone convicted, so stay out of trouble and just don’t do any of these things.
When in a foreign land, oftentimes, the best way to get to know about the custom is to be observant and to communicate in a polite and respectful way. Being informed and being aware will help you have a safe and hassle-free vacation, and interactions with the locals will be a pleasure, both for you and for them.