Malaysia is a colorful tapestry of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, along with many other smaller ethnic groups representing many religious beliefs and speaking many regional languages. The culture largely brings together the traditions and values of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic religions to form a society that emphasizes hierarchy, emotional restraint and indirect communication to save face and maintain harmony in daily life.

Traditional Malaysian Worldview

Group Orientation
Family is considered the center of the social structure.  Emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly is a unifying value of most Malaysians, whether Malay, Chinese or Indian.

The Concept of Face 
A good name, good character, and being held in esteem by one’s peers, extends to the family, school, company, and even the nation itself.  Strive for harmonious relationships. Causing an individual to lose faceharms relationships.

High Context 
The context of an interaction and one’s place in a group/community determines the type of verbal and non-verbal communication between individuals. Implicit messages are more important than words.

Vertical hierarchical structure where authority is directed from the top. This comes from the Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

Successes, failures, opportunities and misfortunes sometimes result from fate or the will of God or another force beyond human control.

Cultural Notes

  • Malays and other small indigenous groups are referred to as Bumiputras (sons of the soil) and make up approximately 60% of the Malaysian population, followed by Chinese (30%) and Indians (10%).
  • Traditionally, educated Malays worked in government positions, Chinese were largely in business and Indians were in a variety of professions including law, medicine and journalism.

Effective Strategies for Working with Malaysians

  • You will gain respect through being diplomatic and displaying good manners.  Politeness is highly valued in Malaysia.
  • If you disagree with someone or need to say “no”, use indirect statements and avoid saying “no” directly.  Alternatively, say something like “that would be very difficult.”  Being too blunt with communication style shows disrespect.
  • Take time to build personal relationships first before focusing on tasks, and adopt this mindset into planning and budgets. First meetings are largely used to get to know your business counterparts in Malaysia.
  • It is important to be punctual for all appointments, even though your Malaysian counterparts might not.  This shows respect. Schedule appointments with as much lead time as possible.
  • Be patient with decision making. Decisions are often delayed and the final decision will not be made until several more meetings. It is common for business people to request additional time for a variety of reasons. While this may be perceived as “stalling,” it is a way for people to consider the decision. and find a way to politely raise objections if they arise without causing confrontation or losing face.
  • Understand that most Malaysians are risk-averse, with Malays and Indians more so than the Chinese. They can also be fatalistic, believing that if a deal is meant to happen, then it will happen.

Cultural Assumptions

  • Respect for family, group and community
  • Deference to authority and acceptance of hierarchy
  • Acceptance of fate
  • Relationships are key to happiness and success
  • Both knowledge and intuition drive wisdom
  • Self-discipline
  • Modesty and humility
  • Education is a key to social status and success
  • Identity comes from ethnic group, island and region
  • Respect for ritual and Islam (for most of the Malay population)

Traditional Malaysian Communication Style

Imply/ suggest what is said. It is often necessary to read between the lines and look for non-verbal cues to understand what is being said.

High Context
The way one communicates with another depends more on the nature of the relationship, status of individuals, setting of the interaction and other contextual factors.

Respect for authority, humility and face-saving are important. Use of titles and following the protocol for greetings are expected.

Emotionally Restrained
In order to maintain harmony, most Malays will not display emotion openly in a business setting. Indian Malaysians may  be more likely to show emotions when deeply engaged in a topic. Laughter may be used to hide embarrassment or discomfort.


Guidelines for Communicating with Malaysians

  • Malaysians tend to rely on non-verbal communication (i.e. facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc) to express themselves.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Malaysians may laugh at what may appear to outsiders as inappropriate moments. Laughter is often used to conceal uneasiness and does not mean they are taking the issue lightly.
  • Showing outward signs of anger or other strong emotion in business is considered inappropriate and immature and can erode trust.
  • Show humility and be prepared to politely decline compliments.
  • Understand that Malaysians may ask personal questions, but that you are not obligated to answer them. You may also ask personal questions, but should avoid asking about spouses.

Non-Verbal Dynamics

Shake hands and give a slight bow with men at business meetings and social events. Shake hands again when leaving.  Nod or give a slight bow when greeting a woman or an older person. Introduce higher ranking people or older people first. Introduce women before men.  Western women should greet Malay men with a nod of their head and a smile.

Never touch anyone on the top of the head (which is considered the “home of the soul”), especially a child. Avoid touching anyone of the opposite sex. Affection is not shown in public.  Use your right hand to eat, pass things and touch people. Do not pass objects with your left hand. Do not move objects with your feet or point at another person with your foot.

In public, space is less of a physical concept: people bump into each other in the street and push others in lines; people create a sense of space in their minds rather than physically. The elderly are given more physical space as a sign of respect.

Business Practices

PROBLEM SOLVING There is reluctance to bring attention to problems; it may take a long time to identify problems. Problems are addressed by the group with final solutions from the top; individuals are not singled out.
MOTIVATING PEOPLE Motivation comes largely from feeling part of a team effort and by receiving the respect of the group/team. Monetary rewards are often more important to Chinese employees, while Malays and Indians prefer an organization to look after their well-being and offer opportunities for personal development.
APPRAISING PERFORMANCE Indirect; group performance is more the focus than individual performance. A solid group makes sure that all individuals are seen to be contributing.
PERFORMANCE EXPECTATIONS Ability to maintain good personal relationships with the supervisor, the team and outside associates may be as important as technical expertise and more important than meeting deadlines.
NEGOTIATING, PERSUADING Developing a trusting relationship is required before negotiations can take place. Initial meetings may not directly address the issues, but will talk around them in order to gain a sense of the “character” of the company and its employees. Detail, fact-based analysis delivered in a polite, steady manner is expected. Pushy behavior will erode trust.
DECISION MAKING PROCESS Hierarchical with most decisions coming from a few people at the top. Decisions are formulated slowly in a very calculated manner and may take several visits to finalize. Process is both fact-based and intuitive. Contracts may not be final and can be re-negotiated.
PARTICIPATION IN MEETINGS Formal and scheduled in advance. Visitors are expected to be on time even though meetings may start late. Interruptions should be expected. Subordinates unlikely to speak unless asked. Indirect approach to asking questions and seeking information. First meetings will focus on building relationships rather than accomplishing tasks.
Deference and obedience is expected in exchange for paternalistic direction. Employees expect supervisors to make decisions and show an interest in their personal and professional lives. Supervisors expect subordinates to carry out directives and offer input only as requested.
HIRING Who an employee knows can be as important as what s/he knows. When hiring and dismissing, the employee’s relationships with other employees, outside business associates and the community must be considered. Education, family background, and ethnicity contribute to hiring decisions.
CUSTOMER RELATIONS Based on long-term relationships. Customers become part of the company’s extended “family.” Competition based on price alone is rare.