How to Do Business in Malaysia
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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.
- 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
- 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
- Hands in pockets signify anger.
- 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
- Listen carefully to Malays. They will
avoid saying things directly. You must learn to read between
Dining and Entertainment
- Entertaining is an important part of
doing business. Most business entertaining is done in
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Always bring a small gift for the hostess
when invited to someone’s home. Give fruits, sweets, perfumes
or crafts from your home country.
- 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
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
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