Malaysia Cultural Awareness

Culture Overview

Importance of the Malay Language

While Malay (Bahasa Melayu) is the national language, given Malaysia’s cultural diversity, it is not unusual for Malaysians to be more proficient in English and their culture’s language (Chinese, Tamil, etc) than in Malay. Therefore, do not assume that having a Malaysian employee means that they will be able to fill out a government form that is in Malay or are able to translate English to Malay proficiently.

Given that most government servants are Malay, it is important that your startup has at least one fluent Malay speaker to handle interaction with government agencies. This is not only a communication issue, it appears that issues get resolved efficiently and more quickly with a Malay speaker, especially if the speaker is an ethnic Malay.

This is especially true for foreign corporations who are often surprised to find that while MIDA, Khazanah, or MDeC government officials are often near-native speakers in English, other offices of the Malaysian government are not.

Racial Income Inequality

In Malaysia, Chinese Malaysians are highly represented in the white-collar workforce and enrollment in higher-education. In a 2012 Malaysian Department of Statistics report, it was found that the average Bumiputera (a racial category that mostly includes Malays) household income is 30% lower than a Chinese household’s income.

Because of this, luxury brands tend to target localization only in Chinese and in English (where it is assumed that high-income Malays understand English). However, in recent years, there has been a shift to Malay as well.


Don’t Assume English Fluency

While most Malaysians understand basic English, it is important not to assume that everyone in a meeting is fluent in English. The choice of words and clarity in speaking is important. Keep in mind that given the typical Malaysian culture (similar to Indonesia), many will be reluctant about asking for clarifications or admit difficulty comprehending the English language.

Meetings Can Take Time

When meeting with high-level officials (private and public, but most often public), groups do not directly discuss the business issue immediately — unlike in American and Australian cultures — but rather it is a lengthy social ritual of teas and kuehs (Malaysian cakes), and will often involve late night dinners. Attempting to rush such a meeting, especially the ritual tea portion will often be perceived as rude and pushy.

Western influence

Despite efforts to promote Malaysian brands and products, foreign (Western brands, especially) food/fashion/vehicles/movies/etc. do very well here despite their premium prices. For example, McDonald’s and KFC can be found at practically every town and city while Starbucks is gaining popularity in the urban areas.



Cultural Similarities

Singapore vs Malaysia

Comparing Singapore and Malaysia as a whole is not trivial as the latter has a more diverse population with different degrees of modernization, population density and economic activities.A more appropriate comparison would be comparing a developed city like Kuala Lumpur with Singapore.

However, in general, most of the cultures adopted by the Malaysian Malays, Chinese and Indian are very similar if not identical to what is adopted by their Singaporean counterparts.

Singapore: Kiasu and Kiasi

It is common to hear Malaysians mock Singaporeans for suffering from kiasu. Kiasu, a Hokkien term literally meaning “fear of losing”, means taking extreme (often very selfish) measures to be financially successful.

However, for foreign entrepreneurs, this does not mean that kiasu is completely nonexistent in Malaysia. Kiasu can still be seen, especially among Chinese Malaysians, but not to the extent of Singapore. This is not surprising given that Singapore is 74% Chinese, while Malaysia is only 26% Chinese.

In contrast to kiasu, kiasi means “afraid of death” and is used to describe extreme fright of taking risks. Again, this term is commonly used to describe Singaporeans but is also present in the Chinese Malaysian community. It is predominantly expressed in social mores (not wanting to be seen as different) and also in business decisions (as it may lead to “losing face”).

Face & Asian Culture

Like other Asian cultures (China to Indonesia), the idea of “saving face,” (a cultural idiom of preserving the appearance of one’s social standing and ego to others) is a very important part of social interaction. The idea of “saving face” (or sometimes “losing face”) determines everything from how meetings are conducted (subordinates will rarely offer an idea or opinion that contradicts the boss) to how criticisms are handled (even the gentlest criticism can be seen as highly insulting if done in front of others).

Because of “face” culture, when building an open company culture (especially needed for Agile management environments), it is critical to make sure that employees understand that sharing ideas (some that may contradict their superiors) and voicing concern (often done in “public” meetings) is done with and in respect for each other and the business.

Also, foreign entrepreneurs need to understand how “face” impacts negotiations and disputes. It is important that, in outwardly appearance, each side must either appear to be “winning” their respective points or even refrain from commenting on business dealings to any outside parties. The actual terms or consequences of the negotiation must sometimes be handled off the record, away from the public eye and media.

Indonesia & Pleasing Authority

The Indonesian cultural tendency of never saying “no” or never contradicting authority figures in public also appears in Malaysia. In Malaysia, it is common for an employee to always answer “yes” or rather “Boleh” (“Can” in English) regardless of the questions asked and the actual understanding or capability of the employee.

A strong company culture can address this by emphasizing the need for an open dialoglue, the ability to express opinions without creating conflict, and also asking employees to walk through their answer rather than simply answering “yes” or “can”.



Cultural Surprises

Multi-Cultural Nature of Malaysia

While there is definitely a sense of a national cohesive Malaysian culture, there also exists the cultural heritage of the three dominant ethnic groups - Malay, Chinese, and Indian - making it important to keep in mind that work and communication styles can differ greatly due to ethnic and religious backgrounds among the each ethnic subgroup of Malaysians.

Workday Scheduling & Time Management

  • There is a tendency to not be punctual for meetings (e.g., if you organize a conference for 9:00 am, don't be surprised if attendees start flowing in at 9:15 am, anticipating that the event might actually start at 9:30 am). However, this does not suggest that an event organizer should start their events later than scheduled.
  • A few states (Johor, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu) work from Sunday to Thursday. All other states work from Monday to Friday.
  • Long working hours does not translate to high productivity. It is not uncommon to hear about local employees staying in the office past 7 or 8 pm. However, long hours in the office don’t necessarily mean increased productivity, but rather could simply mean that an employee is waiting for rush over to be over.
  • Because of the multicultural nature of the country (there are 14 states), there are multiple holidays depending on which state you are in and which religion you deal with. For example, the Hindu festival Thaipusam is only celebrated in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Perak, Penang, and Selangor. Sometimes, various states will have their own holiday, like the Federal Territory Day which falls on 1st of February or the Sultan’s birthday of each respective states. See a list of Malaysian holidays here.

Emphasis on Social Hierarchy

  • A lot of senior politicians or C-suite executives are invited to officiate various lavish events to give higher visibility/credibility to an event.
  • There exists a variety of titles (honorary or hereditary) used before one's name. For example, you might see a name like "Tan Sri Tengku Razali", which consists of both "Tan Sri" (honorary) and "Tengku" (hereditary). The safe bet would be to ask how one wants to be addressed.
  • Being an Asian country, Malaysians tend to be more respectful of their elders and superiors, however in Malaysian, this idea can be expressed in extreme ways. This is mostly relevant to government-linked organizations. Promotions are usually given to people who hold seniority by serving the longest, instead of on merit based performance. Even Fortune 500 companies like Petronas adopts these ideals.

Muslim Population Surprises

  • Muslim men attend prayers at mosques between 12-2 pm on Fridays. This might not be the best time to schedule meetings.
  • Muslim employees may need to excuse themselves for about 20 minutes during office hours to perform their daily prayers. This shouldn’t disturb day-to-day work or scheduling of meetings.
  • A Muslim will typically refrain from going to a restaurant which serves pork and/or alcohol.
  • Productivity levels tend to drop during the fasting month.* If there is an event held at a bar/disco/pub, most Muslims will generally decline to attend.* If the events are being held at at a hotel or a mall-based establishment, chances of Muslim attendance are better. Places like Zouk or Telawi Street Bar (single solo premises) have lower chances of Muslim attendees.
  • Some Muslims refrain from any completing any tasks or employment that promotes liquor/rave parties/gambling/bidding (example: websites that promotes Hennessy VSOP). The best way to approach this situation is to simply ask if they are comfortable completing an assigned task. They might not say anything unless asked, and being open with issues like these will forge better understanding and foster positive morale between the management and Muslim employees.
  • These are generally off-limits to devout Muslims: liquor/alcohol/gambling/bidding

Chinese Population Surprises

  • Chinese tend to celebrate Lunar New Year which falls between January and February
  • Productivity and timeliness might take a hit during the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival

Indonesian vs. Malay Language

There is a common misconception among non-Malay and non-Indonesian speakers that Malay and Indonesian languages are the same. Though both languages share the pronunciation of certain words, they have completely different meanings in each respective language. This assumption can cause confusion between Indonesians and Malaysians speakers. They are not the same language.

For example, the word bisa in Indonesian means “can” (similar to boleh in Malay), but “to poison” in Malay. Another example is percuma means “free” in Malay and “useless” in Indonesian.


Travel-Related Surprises

  • Taxi drivers can be very selective about taking you to your desired destination. In addition, they might try to take advantage of you by charging exorbitant prices. When possible, try to use taxi services such as Uber or MyTeksi instead.
  • There exists Ladies-Only parking lots and train coaches in many urban areas (mainly for the convenience and safety of women).