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.
The Concept of Face
Malaysia’s population of Malays, Chinese and Indians all strive to maintain “face” and avoid shame both in public and private situations. Face is a personal concept that embraces qualities such as good character, and being held in esteem by one’s peers. Face is also considered a commodity that can be given, lost, taken away, or earned. On top of this, the concept of face also extends to the family, school, company and even the nation. Consequently, the desire to maintain face inspires Malaysians to strive for harmonious relationships.
Face can be lost by openly criticizing, insulting, or putting someone on the spot; doing something that brings shame to a group or individual; 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.
In contrast, face can be saved by remaining calm and courteous; discussing errors or transgressions in private; speaking about problems without attributing blame; using non-verbal communication to say “no”; and allowing the other person to get out of a tricky situation with their pride intact.
Meeting and Greeting
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.
Malays: Men add their father’s name to their own name with the term bin (meaning “son of”). Likewise, women use the term binti.
Chinese: The Chinese traditionally have three names. The surname (family name) is first and is followed by two personal names.
Indian: Many Indians do not use surnames. Instead, they place the initial of their father’s name in front of their own name similar to the Malay custom of using the term a/l for men (son of) and a/p for women (daughter of) and then their father’s name.
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.
Dressed for success
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.
A step in the right direction
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.
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.
Gift Giving Etiquette
General etiquette guidelines
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.
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.
Meet and greet
Within the business context, most Malaysian business people are culturally-savvy and the correct approach may depend on the ethnicity, age, sex and status of the person you are meeting. As always, the best approach is always friendly yet formal. A few tips include:
The initial greetings should be formal and denote proper respect; if in a team, introduce the most important person first; many Malays and Indians are uncomfortable shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex; it is important that professional titles (professor, doctor, etc.,) and honorific titles are used in business.
Business card protocol
Business cards are exchanged after the initial introductions and if you are meeting Chinese people, have one side of your card translated into Chinese, with the Chinese characters printed in gold. If you are meeting government officials, have one side of your card translated into Bahasa Malaysia. When presenting a card use two hands or the right hand to exchange business cards. Also, examine any business card you receive before putting it in your wallet or card case. This etiquette is important as the respect you show someone’s business card is indicative of the respect you will show the individual in business.
Do’s and Don’ts
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t even think about buying or transporting illegal drugs, there’s a mandatory death penalty for trafficking (possession of 200 grams of marijuana is considered to be trafficking). The death penalty is mandatory for those convicted of trafficking, manufacturing, importing or exporting more than 15g of heroin, 30g of morphine; 30g of cocaine; 500g of cannabis and 200g of cannabis resin. Possession of these quantities is all that is needed for someone to be convicted. For unauthorised consumption, there is a maximum of 10 years jail, a heavy fine, or both.