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The People

Malays are proud of their country, their ancestral background and their economic success. Ethnic tensions exist between Malays (60%) and Chinese (31%) over preferential quotas. Chinese feel these policies make them second-class citizens; Malays support these policies, which they feel are their only way to overcome traditional dominance. The Chinese dominate the business community and live in urban areas, while ethnic Malays generally inhabit rural areas.

Meeting and Greeting

  • Shake hands with men at business meetings and social events. Shake hands again when leaving.
  • Nod or give a slight bow when greeting a woman or an older person. Introduce higher ranking people or older people first. Introduce women before men.
  • Western women should greet Malay men with a nod of their head and a smile.

Body Language

  • Never touch anyone on the top of the head (home of the soul), especially a child. Avoid touching anyone of the opposite sex. Affection is not shown in public.
  • Use your right hand to eat, pass things and touch people. Do not pass objects with your left hand. Do not move objects with your feet or point at another person with your foot.
  • Giving a slight bow when leaving, entering or passing by people means, "excuse me."
  • A smile or laugh could mean surprise, anger, shock, embarrassment or happiness.
  • It is impolite to beckon adults.
  • Single fingers are not used for gesturing.
  • Hitting your fist into a cupped hand is obscene.
  • Hands in pockets signify anger.

Corporate Culture

  • Business cards are generally exchanged after an introduction.
  • Westerners are expected to be punctual for social occasions and business meetings. Call if you are delayed. Do not get frustrated if a Malay is late or your business meeting does not begin on time.
  • Business counterparts will want to get to know you personally before doing business with you.
  • Decisions are made slowly. Patience is required. Malays will probably involve you in polite conversation for a lengthy period before getting down to business. Discussions will be long and detailed.
  • A letter of introduction from a bank or a mutual acquaintance will help establish a business relationship. Without an introduction, your request for a meeting might be ignored.
  • Once an agreement is reached, don't be surprised if counterparts try to renegotiate, even after a written agreement has been drafted. Malays view written contracts as less important than personal trust. Expect requests for escape clauses.
  • Malays will pressure you to make concessions, but won't give up much themselves in the beginning of negotiations. Plan on several trips.
  • Malays admire good etiquette and do not appreciate bluntness. They are polite and go for the soft sell.
  • Listen carefully to Malays. They will avoid saying things directly. You must learn to read between the lines.

Dining and Entertainment

  • Entertaining is an important part of doing business. Most business entertaining is done in restaurants.
  • Most important meetings are followed with lunch or dinner. Be sure to reciprocate any dinner with a dinner of equal value.
  • Spouses may be invited to dinner when the meal will not involve business discussions. Do not bring spouses to a business lunch.
  • Drinks are offered and accepted with both hands. Drinks are not served before dinner.
  • Malays use only their right hand to eat, pass, touch or handle anything. Never use your left hand to eat.
  • Food is cut in bite size pieces, making a knife unnecessary. Hold the spoon in your right hand and the fork in your left hand. Push your food onto the spoon with the fork and eat from the spoon. When finished, put the fork and the spoon on your plate.
  • Allow the host to order all dishes in a restaurant.


  • For business, men should wear pants and white shirts, with ties for executives. Conservative suits should be worn when meeting with government officials. You may be more comfortable wearing a jacket to a first meeting.
  • Women should wear sleeved blouses with skirts or pants.
  • Yellow is reserved for royalty.


  • Gifts are not exchanged at the first meeting, or in general, but have one with you in case you are given one. You should reciprocate with a gift of equal value if one is given to you. A dinner invitation can substitute for a gift.
  • Give company products with logo or gifts made in the U.S. (pens, books, desk attire). Do not give money, liquor, knives, scissors or images of dogs.
  • Giving or receiving gifts with both hands shows respect. Never use your left hand to give or receive a gift. Never open a gift in the presence of the giver.
  • Always bring a small gift for the hostess when invited to someone's home. Give fruits, sweets, perfumes or crafts from you home country.

Helpful Hints

  • Malays judge people by who they are rather than what they do. Family background, social position and status are all important.
  • Never smoke around royal family members. Many are in business and may be in attendance at meetings.
  • Compliment sincerely, but expect Malays to deny out of modesty.
  • Show respect for the elderly and never smoke around them.
  • Understand that Malays believe that successes, failures, opportunities and misfortunes result from fate or the will of God.
  • Don't be surprised if Malays ask personal questions about your income, religion, etc. You may ask the same questions. There is no obligation to answer these questions.

Especially for Women

  • Women are generally accepted in business, where they hold many influential positions.
  • It is perfectly acceptable for a woman to invite a Malaysian businessman to dinner. She may or may not invite his wife.
  • Women may dine alone in hotel restaurants or bars.
Adapted from material compiled by Window on the World, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. Originally based on material contained in the "Put Your Best Foot Forward" series of books by Mary Murray Bosrock.
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