The culture of Malaysia is a fusion of many different traditions, and the business world is a reflection of this. There is no such thing as a “typical” Malaysian company. There are traditional Chinese family businesses, Indian-run small to medium ventures, Western multinational corporations led by executives of many different ethnicities and others. What they have in common is a history of working across cultures and adapting to different styles of work. Malaysian business, on the whole, is global and cosmopolitan.
English is the official language of business, but being able to converse in a business contact’s native tongue is a big plus because, as an Asian country, Malaysia values the preservation of the ethnic community and its prosperity. Some local companies are still run like a family. Harmony and hierarchy are ranked higher than professionalism — sometimes, at the expense of it. A group mentality and absolute compliance with authority are highly demanded by local employees. The harmony of the team and a show of respect for higher management are sometimes considered more important than personal productivity. This is less true for multinational companies based here that run on tight schedules and closely track performance.
The typical Malaysian work contract stipulates a 48-hour workweek, eight hours a day. Officially, the workday usually runs from 9 am to 6 pm, with a one-hour lunch break. It’s not uncommon for employees to come in early, stay late and work weekends without overtime pay. Working extra hours is regarded as a sign that the employee is hardworking and dedicated. Malaysian companies value hierarchy; leaving before the boss is considered disrespectful and a sign that the employee is not hardworking enough. Working longer hours does not necessarily contribute to increased productivity, but it is a Malaysian way of maintaining “face.”
Punctuality is expected for all employees. Being late is considered defiant, disrespectful and lacking commitment. However, higher management is not expected to be punctual because it shows they are busy and engaged.
The dress code for a Malaysian office is straightforward. Besides the standard long sleeve shirts with ties, men can wear smart short-sleeved shirts to cope with the tropical heat, paired with a blazer for a more-formal touch when meeting clients. Women’s attire is flexible, as long as it is at least “smart casual” and not too revealing, as this would be extremely inappropriate for the country’s Islamic culture.
A typical lunch break is one hour, but on Fridays, everyone gets a two-hour lunch break so Muslim employees can go to the mosque for Friday prayers. Men are obliged to go to the mosque, but women are not. They can opt to do their prayers in private, and most women choose to do so in order to use their longer breaks for other purposes: meeting friends, shopping and doing errands.
In a business group, the most senior person is introduced first, with full professional and honorific titles, followed by a handshake. You can say Salam while shaking hand. A slight bow is a sign of respect and should be done when greeting a higher-ranked person.
Use of last names/titles
Your business contact might come from one ethnicity or a mix of many. It is very natural and expected to ask, “How may I address you?” if you are confused, so don’t be afraid to ask. Once they tell you their preferred way of addressing them, repeat with the Mr./Ms./Mrs. courtesy title as a show of respect.
Conducting a meeting or giving a presentation
Meetings should be arranged in advance but should not be scheduled for lunchtime, especially not on Fridays because it is a day dedicated for prayers for Muslims.
Meetings always start with an introduction. Generally, women are introduced to the men, and seniors and higher-ranked executives are introduced first. Seating position is very important; the host will sit on one side of the table, and the highest-ranked people should be sitting next to him.
Chinese meetings are always punctual and to the point. They would expect you to show up on time, do your homework and make it brief. Indian and Malay meetings are more relaxed with timing and usually start with small talk and “get-to-know-you” questions where personal details are expected to be shared.
If meetings are held at your own office, you should always greet the guests at the entrance to show respect. If meetings are held at their office, arrive on time, not early, because the hosts will not want to be caught unprepared; this could cause loss of “face.”
Audio-visual aids should be prepared in advance, but you should always have a back-up plan because projectors and computers don’t always work. Be fully prepared to give your speech/presentation without the slides.
Malaysians share a lot of similarities with their Asian neighbors. In business, there is an emphasis on being polite and diplomatic, as directness may be taken for rudeness or disrespect.
Malaysians prefer long-term business relationships and win-win solutions, so they typically will take some time to evaluate potential partners. Negotiations and business decisions often take longer than Westerners are accustomed to, as Malaysians wish to allow ample time to assess the risks. Negotiation is conducted in multiple rounds. First meetings are usually reserved for getting acquainted, so no shop talk is expected. Giving thoughtful business gifts and hosting lavish meals are an essential part of dealing with Malaysians, and Asians in general. The more exclusive the gifts and meals show how serious you are.
Malaysians value “soft-power” personalities who are considerate and subtle, yet unrelenting in their pursuits. You will not often hear them saying “no” directly; rather, they will find more diplomatic ways of expressing a negative. Non-verbal cues are very much a part of communicating here. Facial expressions, tone of voice and body language are taken as signs of one’s character. Silence is also a crucial element in communication, and you are expected to read between the lines.
Most old-school businessmen continue to rely on verbal contracts in business, so reputation and trust are taken very seriously and should be a top priority. Word travels fast within the community here, and once you have broken the trust, you will find it hard to conduct business.
With so many languages used concurrently for day-to-day business activities, English has become the unofficial “official” common-ground language for Malaysians. Traditionally, residents learn and use British English, but American English has seen its fair share of adoption in recent years. As a rule of thumb, stick to what you are comfortable using. There are no significant formatting differences for letters and emails. If you receive a written invitation, you should respond in writing. And never forget to use the full honorifics of the person with whom you are communicating.
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