Being a guest or host in Malaysia
In the last couple of decades, Malaysia went from a successful producer of raw materials to a multi-sector economy. These days, this country offers a unique combination of old traditional culture and new technology innovations. The thriving Malaysian market makes it increasingly valuable for those who are entering into business in Malaysia to be aware of the cultural dimensions that shape this country.
Malaysia is a country that is strongly connected to its religion. It has almost all the world’s biggest religions, including Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism. Religion has a strong connection with ethnicity in Malaysia, with most Muslims being Malay, most Buddhists being Chinese, and most Hindus being Indian. With such diversity, it also shows you how important religious identity is. The population of Malaysia is 60% Muslim; therefore, the government is most concerned with the Islamic practices, with debates on things like limits on the availability of alcohol, gambling, and the use of state funds for building mosques. However, conflict and tensions between all religious communities are very uncommon.
During a business setting, the way you greet someone normally depends on the ethnicity of the person you are meeting. The Malays are aware of the Western way, so a handshake is normal, although this does not mean that the Malay women will shake hands with men. Instead, the man will place his hand on his heart and make a bow to the woman. Overall, greetings must be formal and denote proper respect.
Business cards are always exchanged after the initial introduction. Take into consideration that depending on who you are meeting, you should always have a translated version of your information on the back of the card. For instance, if you are meeting with a Chinese, you should translate your business card in Chinese on the back. For Malays, have your card translated into Malay, etc.
A huge part of the population practices Islam, and for that reason visitors should dress modestly and respectfully, especially in rural areas. When going to a business meeting it recommended for men to wear long trousers, no shorts and dress shirts. For women it is important to wear long skirts and to cover their shoulders. When visiting metropolitan cities, such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang, with larger non-Muslim populations, attitudes are more liberal.
It is common for the most senior person of your team enter the meeting room first, which allows him or her to greet the most senior Malaysian first. The reason behind this is that it not only shows respect towards your Malaysian counterpart, but most importantly it also shows that you value the hierarchy within your company. Leaders always sit opposite from each other around the table. Companies often have their teams seated from the highest to the lowest rank. Meetings always start with a welcoming speech, in which the speakers show their appreciation to the other party, this will be followed by some small talk, which will end when the most senior Malaysian feels comfortable to move on to business discussions.
A very important element in the Malaysian culture is keeping face. Someone can “lose face” by openly criticizing someone, putting someone on the spot or doing something that brings shame to a group or individual. This is considered negative behavior in the Malaysian culture. Therefore, “saving face” is crucial to the Malaysians, especially in a business context. This will be done through laughter to mask one’s real emotions including nervousness or even shyness.
Overall, it is important to know the religion of the person or group you will be visiting and doing business with. Knowing their religion will already give you an idea of what their customs will be, also in terms of the interaction between men and women, for example. Being an Asian country, Malaysia automatically falls into the well-known category of countries in which not “losing face” is very important. Also, comparing the interaction between men and women to that in Western countries, Malaysia shows a huge difference. You can conclude that Malaysians find showing respect and honoring hierarchies very important and that they do that in their everyday life.