Malaysia cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
Malaysians that you will encounter will mainly come from three major ethnic backgrounds; Malay, Chinese and Indian. Malaysians, irrespective of their ethnicity, normally like talking about family. It is quite normal for someone to ask how many children you have and where is your spouse currently at or whether she is working. They will also be interested to know where you worked before and what type of work you have done and accomplished. Malaysians normally take deep pride in their country and will be deeply offended if they think foreigners look down on Malaysia as a backward, third world country. They will be extremely pleased if a foreigner has a certain amount of knowledge of the country and appreciates the local food, culture and music. Malaysians, in general, have a good sense of humour and enjoy a good joke. Jokes should be something known internationally and not pertaining to North America.
Firstly, it is important to note that Malaysia is a multicultural country. Malaysians are very friendly, but also reserved. The traditional Muslim greeting, Salaam, includes offering a handshake with your right hand and subsequently touching your heart while saying "Salaam alaykum". Hindus say "Namaste" or "Vanakam" when they meet and put their hands together in front of their chests as if in prayer, while Chinese generally shake hands.
The family is a good topic of conversation. Family life, for Malaysians, is often more important than personal advancement.
Subjects that touch upon sexuality or religions that are not practised by Malaysians may be offensive. Islam is Malaysia’s official religion and most Malaysians are Muslim. The Chinese population generally are Taoists or Buddhists and the majority of the Indian population is Hindu. There is a slight increase in Christianity in eastern Malaysia where many natives have been converted.
You will find that people will be different based on their ethnicity and gender when speaking to someone. When first meeting a Malay female, do not extend your hand for a handshake unless she does so first. A Chinese or Indian female normally will extend her hand for a handshake. As will Malay, Chinese and Indian males. Malaysians will generally stand closer than the normal Canadian distance when speaking to someone. They tend to touch more than Canadians especially when they get comfortable with the person they are talking to. It is really harmless and is just a sign of friendliness.
It is quite common to see men slapping each other on the back or draping their arms on somebody’s shoulder. It is not related to sexual their preferences.
Malaysians normally will maintain eye contact but this is not as important to them as Canadians think it is. Females would probably not maintain eye contact as long as a male due to their shy nature.
Malaysians can be quite animated when they are talking and there will be a lot of gesturing with their hands. They can be quite expressive and it will show on their faces. The tone of voice could get louder if they get excited with the topic of conversation. People are not usually direct and care should be taken when inquiring on certain matters. But since many have encountered foreigners before they are quite accustomed to a Westerner’s directness. However, do not expect them to be direct. Malaysians are very indirect and sometimes it is extremely difficult to comprehend what they mean. If you asked a question do expect an indirect and complicated response. You might need somebody’s assistance in translating what is really meant. Malaysians who have been abroad, especially the ones educated in Western culture, are direct and they could be used as an intermediary to translate if the responses aren’t clear.
During a conversation, you should respect the appropriate distance between yourself and the person to whom you are speaking. There should be a marked distance of about two feet between you. Nevertheless, you may sometimes see two Malaysians expressing affection by holding hands. In general, people of the opposite sex do not show public displays of affection or even discuss personal issues. Making eye contact with people of the opposite sex may be frowned upon since, as previously mentioned, Malaysians are very reserved.
In general, it is important for Malaysians to try to project an image of the "ideal self" (a term used in psychology). In psychology, the ideal self is when someone chooses to aspire to a certain model of behaviour; in this case a model respected by the Malaysian population.
Malaysians speak to parents, teachers, or foreigners in a low tone of voice to show their respect. They are courteous and discreet. Frankness is not a typical Malaysian characteristic.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are not common. Malaysians are generally conservative and reserved. It is more common to see displays of affection from younger people who reside in the bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur. People do not bat an eyelid if a foreigner does it as they assume it is the norm of a Western culture to publicly display affections. On the other hand, no form of public displays of anger is appropriate. This would be seen as "overdoing" something.
Public displays of affection or anger are very rare and are considered unacceptable.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Superiors normally wear dress shirts with ties. Casual shorts and t-shirts like in Canada are definitely unacceptable here! If you are sitting in a meeting with a group of managers and directors you are expected to wear a tie and if the meeting is held with CEO’s and Presidents a business suit is more appropriate.
Malaysians do not address their bosses by their first names. They address their bosses with a Mister or Madame. If the bosses have titles before their names then they are addressed by their titles. For example a number of CEOs and Presidents of companies have the title "Datuk". In this case the bosses are addressed as "Datuk". Colleagues could be addressed by a Mister/Madame so-and-so. If you are good friends with your colleagues you could be on first name basis.
People generally are not very punctual. Being late for a meeting or appointment is quite normal. The lateness is usually blamed on traffic congestion because Kuala Lumpur is a big city like Toronto and constantly has traffic woes. But if a superior is a stickler for being punctual, staff will respect this and will try their utmost to be punctual. The same goes for deadlines. If the superior is strict about deadlines, the staff will turn in their work by the deadline.
I do not find much difference regarding absenteeism compared to Canada. Absenteeism is probably higher in Canada than here. For the most part, Malaysians are a very hardworking lot and are usually committed to their jobs. They take pride in what they do and are willing to work hard, even if the remuneration is not that great but their job satisfies them and their bosses are considerate. Malaysians are not likely to complain about their salary, place of work and inconsiderate bosses or lousy colleagues.
Female workers are likely to be more productive than their male counterparts although a male is unlikely to ever admit this. This is especially so if the female is single. Even married with family female executives seemed to be more committed than their male counterparts. They are usually a great asset to have in any company.
How to dress
If you are a woman, wearing traditional dress will be appreciated and respected. Otherwise, wearing very conservative clothing would also be appropriate and the same thing applies to men.
Always address your colleagues with courtesy and respect since the way you approach people (no matter their rank) is a reflection of your integrity and respect for others. Malaysians are hard workers and expect the same from foreigners.
Preferred managerial qualities
Leadership, education and experience are the qualities that are most highly regarded in a local superior/manager. If the local superior is open to new ideas and concepts this is a large plus.
If the manager is an expat their regard will definitely change. Some of these qualities are expected of the expat. People will not express their views about their bosses. The expat should try his/her best to approach his/her staff on this matter. If the superior shows interest in the staff’s welfare, the staff will be more approachable and will probably start expressing their views about their bosses and their honest views on how things really are. If an expat keeps his distance from the locals then he will never find out how the staff view him/her. Keeping his distance means not socializing with the locals at all and keeping company with only the expat community. From my previous experiences with expats, most do not associate with local people after working hours. Their encounters with locals are only work related.
Qualities that are most highly regarded in a local superior/manager depend on the position that the person holds. In a private company, the emphasis will be on studies as well as experience and openness towards the Western culture. Many superiors/managers have lived abroad which is why they are often open-minded. It is common that a local superior/manager will have have gained international experience during his/her career. They know how to speak many languages and frequently this includes English.
When hiring expatriates, the criteria are not always the same. For example, an expatriate working in Malaysia will not need to know the local language although his educational background may be similar to that of the local manager.
Since Malaysians respect hierarchy, it will be difficult to know how your staff view you. You need to gain their trust to know their real points of view.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Decisions taken vary from one place of work to another. Business holdings usually have what they call a work-flow chart so decisions are usually based on each individual business’ organizational structure. Businesses that are owned by a majority shareholder usually have their decisions made right from the top especially if the decisions involve in committing huge sums of money. A lot of organizations simply love decision meetings. These meetings are usually attended by board of directors and managers and directors of the companies. Ideas could get generated from bottom up but this is not the norm. It is acceptable to go to the immediate supervisor if this is what has been decided from the very beginning.
Decisions are made by the supervisors/managers in question. It is best to go to colleagues for answers before approaching a supervisor. If you approach your supervisor directly, it may appear as though you lack respect for him/her as well as for your other colleagues.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Malaysia is a male-dominated society, although it is well accepted that women and men have equal opportunities. Women make up about half the workforce in Malaysia and although in recent years women have made tremendous leaps in acquiring high-level jobs, most top executive posts are still held by men. Women are well treated and respected but in certain matters of women’s rights, Malaysia has still a long way to go as compared to the West. At the workplace women and men work well together and are remunerated based on their abilities and not by gender.
Malaysia is a multi-religious society just like Canada. Islam is the official religion of this country but other religious beliefs are practiced freely. There are more churches than there are mosques. The four main religions are Islam (about half of the population), Buddhism (about 20%), Hinduism (13%) and Christianity. Catholics form the largest number of Christians, the bulk being in East Malaysia (on Borneo). Malaysians respect each other’s religious beliefs and do not tolerate forms of religious extremism in any of the religions. Most workplaces provide a small prayer room for Muslims since they pray 5 times a day and at least 2 of the prayer times fall during working hours. Regardless of their religion, Malaysians work well together and do not seem to have serious problems with their differences in the religious backgrounds.
Class exists in Malaysian society. For instance royalty is treated with deference here. People with titles are also treated differently although it is much resented by the bulk of the population who consist mainly of the middle class society. In recent years there has been a lot of hue and cry about changing these class divisions but not much has changed throughout the years. This class division is similar to Britain but you will find that people of the so-called higher class, like royalty and people with titles, do not work in a normal office so it is not likely that you will encounter them.
The 3 main ethnic groups generally work well together but from time to time certain problems arise due to their totally contrasting natures. Malays are usually suspicious of Chinese Malaysians and Indians. Malaysians of Chinese descent tend to be more aggressive in their approach towards business and are frequently geared toward being successful. Malays, on the other hand, due to history from the colonial days are slower in their approach. In recent years though, Malays have achieved quite a bit through government programs. The New Economic Policy (NEP) grants special privilege to the Malays and through this policy the economic level of this group has risen, although it still not quite on par with the Chinese Malaysians. These privileges and the differences in economic wealth between the races have caused some friction but the NEP has been generally well accepted; the Chinese have also gained from the NEP.
Once and awhile there will be some resentment: Malays will resent the Chinese worker especially if he or she is a hard worker. This is a rather difficult issue to understand but all these are related to local history. Perhaps reading the book called The Malay Dilemma by Dr. Mahathir Mohammad will clear some of the unanswered questions. You will find the Indians are more likely to sit on the fence: they do not take sides. They will lean where the wind blows.
In this patriarchal society there are a number of stereotypes about females. Men and women are assigned different tasks, which require certain gender-related attributes. It is becoming more common for women to be in the workforce, but their salary is often lower than that of men working at the same job.
Malaysia is an Islamic country and most Malaysians are Muslim. The Chinese practice Buddhism or Taoism, and the majority of the Indian population is Hindu. Christianity and other religions are also present and, thus, indicate the country’s ethnic diversity. Religion plays an important role in Malaysian society.
In Malaysia, the divisions between different economic classes are very marked and rarely do they mix with one another. Many Malaysians live in what North Americans would consider to be poverty-stricken conditions. The middle class,as we know it in Canada is not the majority.
The various ethnic groups in Malaysia live in harmony. For the most part, the diverse communities live separately from one another.
People prefer doing business with people whom they know personally. It is in the Malaysian’s nature to be friends with someone before doing business. They feel comfortable and trust the other party better if they know each other personally. In order to establish this kind of relationship both parties could go enjoy a good meal together for instance. The way to a Malaysian’s heart is probably through his stomach as most appreciate good food! Another good way is probably to enjoy a sport together like playing golf or a game of tennis or squash.
It is very important to establish personal relations with a colleague or client prior to doing business. These relations will help you become accepted in your professional environment. A certain degree of trust is required to establish personal relations.
In order to do this, you simply need to respect the person for who he/she is. Do not treat the individual as an instrument to get what you want, but as a person who is giving you invaluable assistance.
Privileges and favouritism
This is a rather tricky issue. This will actually depend on the individual. Most probably they will not expect an increase in pay or preferred treatment. Malaysians take great pride in doing a job well and being remunerated based on their abilities. This is part of "saving face" so if she/he was given preferred treatment because of his/her friendship with the expat boss, this is an act of "losing face". On the other hand, due to the personal relationship, they might try helping friends or family getting hired. This is most likely due to the helpful Malaysian nature more than expecting special treatment because he/she is friends with the boss.
Conflicts in the workplace
If there is a work-related problem with a colleague do confront him/her privately. Again here is the case of "saving face" since most people take great pride in their work and do not like to be reprimanded or reminded in public for their failures. You can tell if a colleague is having problems with you when they try their hardest to avoid you or they don’t seem to have interest in talking with you. Malaysians are not direct or forthright. If they have a problem they will never tell the boss directly. You could go on for months thinking that everything is fine until you hear from another party there is actually something wrong. You will probably find out about a problem from a third party. This is difficult for a Westerner to understand but this is the way they do it and probably cannot be changed so you might as well accept this reality if you are working in Malaysia.
As a Canadian, should a work-related problem develop with a colleague you should confront the person in private. As previously mentioned, respect the image they portray and expose the person’s "ideal self".
Motivating local colleagues
Generally, workers are motivated by the same things as Canadians.
First and foremost, a colleague will be motivated by financial factors as these are important for assuring the survival of one’s family. Therefore, employer loyalty is of utmost importance.
Recommended books, films & foods
Malaysia, Politics and Government by Ahmad Sarji Abd Hamid; Malaysian Contrasts by Marie Christine Dargen and John Briton; and Man in Malaya by BW Hodder.
Adibah Amin, Shahnon Ahmad
Putih; Lat the Kampong Boy—Lat is popular local cartoonist. Many of his works have been published and are available in many local bookstores. His cartoons have been made into movies and half hour shows.
Zainal Abidin, Sheila Majid, P Ramlee, Sharifah Aini, Sudirman, Aishah, Siti Nurhaliza
Nasi lemak, roti canai, mee goreng,mee rebus, rendang, satay
www.tm.net.my; www.thestar.com.my; www.malaysiakini.com.my; and www.malaysiatips.com.
Internet sites about Malaysia
http://www.chez.com/anamika/webasie.html; http://www.office-de-tourisme.com/html/26.htm; http://www.jaring.my/msia/newhp/general/; http://www.gksoft.com/govt/en/my.html and http://www.aloha.net/~oka/scm/page1.htm.
Malaysians like soccer and badminton. You could attend sporting events like Malaysia Cup (soccer) or the Malaysian Open (badminton). You could play with the local staff. There are concerts performed by local artistes. Listings of these events are normally in the local newspapers like The New Straits Times, the Star or The Malay Mail. News on the local channels is more likely to show the local events and happenings (channels RTM2, TV3 and NTV7). Most of the channels show American sitcoms and a number of other foreign shows from Hong Kong, as well as Hindi movies and Mexican telenovelas. Local comedy shows may not be of interest to a foreigner. If you would be willing to try the local fare and the "local café" (a hawker stall) you could get a good cup of tea called "the tarik". This is a concoction of aromatic tea with sweetened creamer and is extremely popular with the locals. Some of the local hawker fares you could try include roti canai, nasi lemak, satay, nasi ayam and mee goreng. The best cultural interpreter would be a local you befriend once you are in Malaysia.
To taste Malaysian dishes you can go to Chahaya Malaysia if you are in Ottawa.
Books written by Malaysians about their own culture include: Kua Kia Soong, 1993, Reforming Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Oriengroup. & Musa, M. Bakri, 1999, The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia, New York: To Excel Press.
Malaysia does not have national heroes. We do not glorify our forefathers like some countries do. We respect people who have contributed to Malaysia like certain sportsmen, ancient warriors and leaders. We have an ancient national hero; if you want to call it that and he would be Hang Tuah. He was a warrior during the Melaka Sultanate and the origins and history of Malaysia could be traced back to the Sultanate. Modern national heroes would be the first Prime Minister who worked hard to gain independence for Malaya from the Colonial British Empire. Also succeeding Prime Ministers who worked hard to make Malaysia the successful nation it is today. Malaysian Prime Ministers are well respected because of their great contributions to the nation.
Social and cultural practices in small towns or villages are very different from those in larger cities in Malaysia. In large cities, movie theatres feature very interesting Malaysian or Chinese films and the former are often subtitled. Malaysians seem to really enjoy karaoke. Another interesting thing to see is Malaysian opera (bangwawan). Upon your arrival it is usually easier to ask other foreigners for advice, but once you get to know people from the country it would be good to ask them for advice on cultural activities and it will bring them great pleasure to assist you.
Shared historical events with Canada
There are really no shared historical events between Malaysia and Canada that could affect work or social relations. The two countries have long shared cordial and friendly relations. The only recent event that would likely crop up in a conversation is the visa ruling imposed on visiting Malaysians to Canada by Canadian Immigration. Many Malaysians are saddened by this recent decision but respect it as Canada’s right.
The King (Sultan Syed Sirajuddin, the 13th Malaysian king) and the Royal Family are most definitely Malaysian heroes. It is interesting to note that the 12th king, Sultan Salahudding, who was well loved by the Malaysian population, died in November 2001. The people also greatly admire those who helped Malaysia win the war against communist forces in the 1960s. In Kuala Lumpur there is even a monument that commemorates the event. In current times, the actress Lina Teoh and the singer Nora are very popular as are the best national soccer, badminton, and squash players.
Malaysians tend to lump most white people in one category. They are foreigners who are assumed to be wealthy. This is harmful because any white man is considered "loaded" money wise and might be taken advantage of. During business dealings the cost might be over inflated due to this assumption.
It goes without saying that the events that took place in New York at the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 have created tension between Muslim countries and those that are on good terms with the United States. As a result, it is best to discuss the topic of terrorism only with people you trust and never make generalizations. Prior to this event, the Canadian and Malaysian governments did not have any particular issues with one another.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in Kuala Lumpur the second child of six. She was raised in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur and attended a small local school until the age of 12, at which point she continued her studies in the centre of the city. Thereafter, she moved to Carbondale, Illinois in the United States to continue her studies for four years. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Southern Illinois University. After graduation she worked with the Telecommunications Department in Malaysia for 11 years, where she met her Canadian spouse. Your cultural interpreter moved to Mexico for three years and then to Ottawa for two. She is currently living in Ipoh, Malaysia with her husband and three children.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Quebec City and is the third of four children. She grew up in the suburbs of Ottawa where she studied at the University of Ottawa in 1997. In 1999 she continued her studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. Since 1988, various academic pursuits and personal interests have taken her abroad to Cuba, France, Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, England, Belgium, Egypt, and Thailand. Your cultural interpreter has since lived in Malaysia for one year, and in January 2002, she returned to Montreal where she works in the field of life insurance and is studying on a part-time basis.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
You may disagree with or object to the content of some responses. This is to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the problems associated with speaking generally about an entire country and its people. We would encourage you to share your experiences; your contributions will help to make Country Insights a richer environment for learning.
The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.