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Business Culture in Malaysia and What You Need to Know to Succeed

July 20, 2015 | Sharon Cheong

Malaysia has become an Asian success story due to its vibrant economy. Their success has come through years of hard work and good planning.  The government responded well and quickly to the economic downturn of a few years back and the Malaysian economy has fully recovered. This has led many businesses all over the world to seek out an offshore presence in the country. One of the main things business people are concerned about is the business culture in Malaysia. It does have a very old and unique culture and heritage and the residents are proud of their historical significance. 

Malaysia has a wide ethnic diversity and several different races have melded together over centuries of time to form the current population. Of these, the three largest groups are Indians, Chinese and the local Malays. Today, though these races do live harmoniously, they are very distinct and it's important to know a few things about each group's history. Since there is a diverse cultural make-up, the various business dos and don'ts will differ depending upon the nationality. There are some common threads running through these three ethnic groups that can help to make the job of determining business culture principles a bit simpler.

The Influence of Islam

Malaysia is predominantly Islamic, but their religious beliefs generally do not affect the flow of business. The work day may be punctuated with prayer in some offices, however Kuala Lumpur maintains more Westernized philosophies and some companies will be open on Saturday morning. Ramadan is the month of fasting and is still observed throughout the country so business dealings, including government departments may run a bit slower during Ramadan. 

Business Meetings 

A business meeting will often begin with some light chatting where people are just getting to know each other. There's usually no real work done during a first meeting. The people of Malaysia stress getting to know each other over accomplishing big business deals. This can be frustrating for western business executives who are in a hurry to close a big deal. It generally takes several meetings to build up strong relationships and move forward with closing your deal. Always remain calm during meetings and do not use overly animated body gestures or loud speech. Be patient and show respect to the elders. Business decisions take time. 

Showing the Proper Respect 

Malaysia is a hierarchically-oriented country where elders are usually shown proper respect. This is also true of people in higher company positions, such as managers and supervisors.  They are viewed as wiser with better skills. Respect is generally not given to anyone who is overly direct or confrontational. This is seen as improper or uncivilized behavior. Never directly reprimand a business partner or anyone at a meeting. This should be done later by a third party. If an individual loses face during a meeting, they are humiliated and it will be difficult to regain trust. 

Miscellaneous Malaysian Practices 

Be subtle if you must respond to a question with a negative reply. Malaysians prefer working in the afternoons or evenings to mornings. Touching someone of the opposite sex in public is taboo. The head is considered sacred; never pass anything over someone's head. For instance, if you need to pass a folder or document to someone, be sure it is not passed above the head. Feet are considered the lowest part of the body and unclean, therefore never touch anyone with your foot or point to anything using your foot. 

Crossing your legs in front of Monks or elders is also forbidden. Never point at someone across the table from you at a business meeting. Pointing the finger is embarrassing, as is waving the hands. These are seen as gestures that say you are angry. Smiles are welcomed in all types of situations and can be seen as friendly and reassuring. 

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