Malaysian organisations can be quite diverse, with Malaysian, Chinese and Indian business cultures all holding significant influence. The result is a tendency towards hierarchical structures with rank and position important and decisions made at the top. However, Malaysians generally take quite a consultative approach and may seek a consensus of opinion within the business before making a final decision – so the process is not always the quickest.
As in many hierarchical business cultures, managers in Malaysia are sometimes viewed as parent figures by their employees, so it is not uncommon for managers to take an interest in the home and family lives of their staff. However, there remains a clear line of demarcation between the ranks, and interest does not typically represent friendship. The concept of maintaining face is important in Malaysia, so managers will usually avoid criticising their staff publicly and team members are usually very loyal to their managers. This unwillingness to lose face can be an obstacle in a collaborative environment though as people may be afraid to contribute an idea that is later rejected.
Although internationally aware and business-savvy, Malaysians are generally quite formal and polite, especially with unfamiliar people. Address contacts by their title and surname where appropriate, but be aware that many ethnic Malays use patronyms rather than surnames. In these cases you should address people by title and first name. If in doubt, take an interest and ask people how they prefer to be addressed.
It takes time to develop trust with contacts in Malaysia, so don’t be surprised if early meetings appear unproductive. You may find people initially reserved, but small talk about neutral topics and time spent in each other’s company can really help to develop the rapport you need to work together.
As a predominantly Muslim country, Malaysia has quite a conservative dress code. Men should wear a dark-coloured suit, a long-sleeved shirt and a tie, while women may wear skirts, trouser suits or dresses providing that they are modest. Revealing clothes are inappropriate. Malaysian women tend to wear garments that fully cover their body and headscarves are common, so make sure that you clothing choices will not make anyone else feel uncomfortable.
To show respect for people’s position within the hierarchy, try to greet the most senior people in a room first. Business people in Malaysia usually shake hands with each other, but depending on the culture and beliefs of different groups, it may not be appropriate to shake hands with female contacts. If a female contact does not offer to shake hands, a brief nod or slight bow is a polite alternative.
When working in Malaysia you will find that face is more important to local people than time. Many Malaysians would rather miss deadlines than put pressure on people to deliver. If you have a deadline that is paramount, you must keep reiterating it in a calm and polite manner. It is important to arrive at meetings on time, but don’t be surprised if you are then asked to wait because another meeting has overrun – Malaysian people find it hard to put an abrupt end to proceedings.
Business cards are usually presented by the visiting party at the beginning of a meeting. When receiving or presenting a card, hold it with both hands. When accepting a card, ensure that you take a moment to look at it before putting it away. Malaysian business meetings can be rather formal so it’s best to have a clear agenda worked out beforehand. Patience is certainly a virtue, as many Malaysians will pause for 20 to 30 seconds before answering a question. Don’t mistake this for an invitation to continue speaking – they are showing respect for the question by giving it due consideration before answering, and you should do the same. When negotiating, summarise frequently and always clarify details afterwards. Written contracts are not always considered the end of negotiations, with changes still occurring after agreements appear to have been reached.
Always be mindful of the concept of face as it will affect and inform your relationships with Malaysian contacts. Putting someone on the spot, showing anger, refusing a request or giving an outright refusal are all considered quite rude. As a general rule, remain calm at all times and be respectful of the people around you to ensure success.
Although Malay is the official language, English is widely used in business settings. Depending on the region and the nature of your business, you may also find Chinese dialects or languages from the Indian subcontinent in use, so check ahead to find out if translation will be required.