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Malaysia Customs & Etiquettes


Malaysia is a multi-cultural society. The main ethnic groups are the native Malays as well as large populations of Chinese, and Indians. When visiting the country it is clear that the ethnicities retain their religions, customs and way of life. The most important festivals of each group are public holidays.

Malaysian society is remarkable due to its openness to diversity. The blunders of an outsider are tolerated, a charming dividend of Malaysia's cosmopolitan heritage. Yet this same diversity can present challenges for Malaysians when interacting in public. Because there is no single dominant cultural paradigm, social sanctions for transgressing the rights of others are reduced.

Although growing up, children are educated in the same schools and will eventually work in the same offices, few marry outside their own ethnicity. Families tend to socialise within their own ethnic group – all part of retaining their individual traditions and lifestyles.

Despite the ethnic differences there are commonalities culturally speaking.

The family is considered the centre of the social structure. As a result there is a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. The family is the place where the individual can be guaranteed both emotional and financial support. When one member of the family suffers a financial setback, the rest of the family will contribute what they can to help out. Families tend to be extended, although in the larger cities this will naturally differ.

Malays, Chinese and Indians all strive to maintain face and avoid shame both in public and private. Face is a personal concept that embraces qualities such as a good name, good character, and being held in esteem by one's peers. Face is considered a commodity that can be given, lost, taken away, or earned. On top of this face also extends to the family, school, company, and even the nation itself.

The desire to maintain face makes Malaysians strive for harmonious relationships.

Face can be lost by openly criticising, insulting, or putting someone on the spot; doing something that brings shame to the group; 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. Conversely, face can be saved by remaining calm and courteous; discussing errors or transgressions in private; speaking about problems without blaming anyone; using non-verbal communication to say "no"; and allowing the other person to get out of the situation with their pride intact.

Malaysians view time in a more relaxed sense for the most part. They put more emphasis on people, relationship, rather than set schedules and deadlines.

Meeting & Greeting

Greetings in a social context will depend upon the ethnicity of the person you are meeting. In general, most Malays are aware of Western ways so the handshake is normal. However, Malay women may not shake hands with men. Women can of course shake hands with women. Men may also not shake hands with women and may bow instead while placing their hand on their heart. The Chinese handshake is light and may be rather prolonged. Men and women may shake hands, although the woman must extend her hand first. Many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect. Indians shake hands with members of the same sex. When being introduced to someone of the opposite sex, nodding the head and smiling is usually sufficient.

The Chinese traditionally have three names. The surname (family name) is first and is followed by two personal names. Having said that, many Chinese adopt more Western names and may ask you to use that instead.

Malays do not have surnames. Instead, men add their father's name to their own name with the term "bin" (meaning ‘son of’). So Najib bin Razak, would be Najib the son of Razak. Women use the term "binti", so Mona binti Fandi is Mona the daughter of Fandi.

Many Indians do not use surnames. Instead, they place the initial of their father's name in front of their own name. The man's formal name is their name "s/o" (son of) and the father's name. Women use "d/o" to refer to themselves as the daughter of their father.

Among all cultures, there is a general tendency to introduce:

the most important person to the lower ranking person;
the older person to the younger person;
women to men.

Communication Style

Malaysians prefer standing at least arms lengths from one another. Two to three feet is normal. When conversing with friends and close acquaintances this distance is a bit shorter. Amongst friends and close acquaintances of the same sex, there is some touching during conversation. Avoid touching between men and women while conversing.

Malaysians tend to favour direct eye contact over indirect. However, they may view overtly direct eye contact as suspicious and threatening. Females tend to prefer more indirect eye contact when dealing with men.


People beckon one another by extending an arm and making a scratching motion with their fingers. Beckoning or pointing with a finger is considered bad form. Using your thumb with the rest of your fingers clenched in fist is the way to go. Always use your right hand only to pass or receive an object. Since the left hand is used to cleanse the body, it is considered inappropriate for use in receiving gifts, giving money, pointing directions, or passing objects.

Avoid touching or passing object over the top of anyone’s head as it is viewed as the most sacred body part.
Pounding your fist into the palm of the other hand may be an obscene gesture to some people. The surfer's “hang loose” sign may be an obscene gesture to some people.

Gift Giving Etiquette

Appropriate gifts when visiting an ethnic Malay home include, sweets, fruits, and perfumes that are not alcohol based. Also:

• do not give toy dogs or pigs to children;
• do not give anything made of pigskin;
• avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolises 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 Malaysians from Chinese background:

• if invited to someone's home, bring a small gift of fruit, sweets, or cakes, saying that it is for the children;
• a gift is traditionally refused before it is accepted to demonstrate that the recipient is not greedy;
• do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate a desire to sever the relationship;
• flowers do not make good gifts as they are given to the sick and are used at funerals;
• do not wrap gifts in mourning colours – white, blue, or black; wrap the gifts in happy colours – red, pink, or yellow;
• never wrap a gift for a baby or decorate the gift in any way with a stork, as birds are the harbinger of death;
• it is best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky.

Gifts are generally not opened when received.

For Malaysians from Indian background:

• 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.

Gender Issues

Malaysia tends to be a patriarchal society and although women make up a decent part of the workforce, they are still second to their male counterparts in responsibilities, salaries, and status.

Given that a large part of is Muslim, it is best for women to avoid revealing clothing and heavy make-up.

It is okay for women to dine alone in restaurants but avoid going to bars and clubs alone if possible.





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