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Malaysia Business Etiquette

August 29, 2014 | Sharon Cheong

Malaysia is a melting-pot of various ethnicities. It is a multi-cultural society where the main ethnic group is the Malays, followed by the Chinese and Indians. These ethnic groups have retained their way of life, customs and religions that it is important to consider the ethnicity of your business associates when dealing with them.  The Chinese dominate the business sector and live in the urban areas such as Penang, Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, while most ethnic Malays live in the rural areas.

Meet and Greet

Most Malaysian business professionals are culturally-savvy and the best approach depends on their ethnic background, status, age and sex. A formal greeting is desirable: when in a group, introduce the most important person first.  Professional and honorific titles are used in business.

Address Malay men by adding their father's name to their personal name with the word bin (son of). For women, use binti (daughter of).

Traditional Chinese have three names. Address them surname first and then followed by the two personal names.

Indians do not use their surnames. They use their father's name before their personal name using a/l (son of) for men and a/p (daughter of) for women. Wait for your business associate to extend his hand for a handshake, more so in the case of women. It is an accepted norm to shake hands with men at social events and business meetings. You may shake the hands of a business associate with the traditional Malay greeting of Salam. When greeting a woman or an old person, a slight bow of the head is appreciated. If you are a woman, do not greet Malay with a nod and a smile.

Business Culture

It is customary for Malay business professionals to exchange business cards after the initial introductions. Use two hands or the right hand when presenting the business card. If you are meeting a Chinese businessman, have one side of your card in Chinese with gold characters. If you are meeting with a government official, have one side of your card in Bahasa. Browse the business card before putting it in your pocket or wallet to show respect.

Be punctual for business meetings and social events. If you are delayed, call your host.

A letter of introduction from a mutual friend or a bank helps establish a business relationship. Do not be offended if your business associate asks you personal questions. Malay business professionals prefer to know their business counterparts personally before doing business with them.  

Be patient. Malay businessmen have the tendency to take it slow in making decisions. They may want to converse lengthily before getting down to business. In most Malay business meetings, discussions are long and very detailed. Sometimes, renegotiation is demanded even after the contract has been signed. For Malays, personal trust is more important than written contracts.  It may take several business meetings before an agreement is closed. An escape clause might be requested to be included in the contract.

Gifting Malay Business Professionals

Gifts are not customarily exchanged at the initial meeting; but bring a gift anyway in case your business associate gives you one. You can also invite him for dinner in lieu of a gift. It is acceptable to give company products with logo. It is also preferred that your gifts are U.S. made. Money, knives, alcohol, scissors and images of dogs are taboo. Give and receive gifts with your right hand. Do not open the gift in front of the giver. If you are invited into a Malay home, make sure you bring a gift for the hostess. Acceptable gifts are perfumes, sweets, fruits, or any craft from your home country.

Business Dining and Entertaining

Most Malay business professionals do their entertaining in restaurants. Important meetings are mostly followed with either lunch or dinner to continue light conversation between you and the Malay business associate. It is polite for you to reciprocate the act. It is alright to bring spouses to the dinner invitation if no business matter will be discussed.  It is not a practice to bring spouses to a business lunch. The host orders the dishes to be served. Make a conscious effort to only use your right hand when handling food - eating, passing, serving food.

Business Attire

Malay business professionals wear white shirts, ties and pants. It is best to wear conservative suits when meeting with government officials. A casual jacket is alright for a meeting.  Women are expected to wear sleeved blouses paired with either pants or skirts. The color yellow is reserved for royalty, so do not wear yellow for business meetings and social events.

The business and cultural protocols observed in Malaysia seem daunting, but they are doable. Treat all Malaysian business counterparts with respect and you will not go wrong.

If you are interested in opening up a business in Malaysia, Servcorp can help you. Call them now.