Business Etiquette

Greetings – This is predominantly a Muslim country, so physical touching between sexes is not that appropriate. The best option is to wait and see how you are approached for greetings. Bowing slightly with your hand placed over the position of your heart to demonstrate respect can be more appropriate in Malaysia. You will find that there are official titles given to people of authority in the country. If you are meeting a government official in person or at a conference you may hear the terms in the box below. Do use them if you address these people, as a mark of respect.

Malaysians hold these titles in high regard. Among all ethnicities make sure you introduce yourself to older, higher ranking people first and women over men – this etiquette is a mark of respect.

Dress Code – Dress modestly and conservatively, as this is a country that has a high-respect for the Islamic faith. Revealing garments are inappropriate and rural areas are more conservative than city regions. Clothes that fully cover a woman’s body are common, as are headscarves. Light-fitting and lightweight clothes are advised since this is a hot, tropical country. There is rarely a need for a coat unless you are in the Central Highlands, Peninsula Malaysia or on Mount Kinabalu in Sabah. A short-sleeved shirt is not uncommon among men, with no jacket or tie for average office wear, although meetings and conferences are more formal with suits and ties.

Negotiations – Patience is a virtue when it comes to negotiations in Malaysia, which can mean many long hours and very detailed discussions.

Keep an eye out for non-verbal cues, whether it be body language, voice tones or expressions. There’s a lot that is indirect in Malaysian communications, whether you’re negotiating with Chinese, Malay or Indians. Not much is given away. Elements may be hinted at rather than making a statement directly. No individual or company wants to lose face, hence the indirect communication.

Business Cards – If you’re visiting someone in their office, at a conference or at an event then you are well advised to take a mountain of business cards. If you’re really keen, you may want them translated into Bahasa Malaysia or Chinese (Mandarin) on the reverse, depending on your audience. As with many countries in Asia, cards themselves have a soul. Receive and present them with dignity and both hands and receive them in the same way observing what’s printed. Place them carefully in a card holder or on the table in front of you. Don’t treat them candidly or flippantly.

Sealing the deal – It’s hard for someone to say ‘no’ in Malaysia, which again comes down to the issue of saving face. No-one wants to lose out or walk away empty handed if no deal is imminent. Rather than say ‘no’ directly it’s quite common for someone to say: ‘I will try’ or ‘I will see what I can do’. This allows everyone to maintain harmony in a relationship. What it doesn’t do is provide a direct answer, so you can never be sure if the deal’s been sealed. It also might buy time for a more consensual approach to decision making. In Asia, this is popular. By asking questions in round-about ways you can more easily judge whether the deal is on or not. Insight from third parties can also help.

Entertaining – The Chinese banqueting table in a restaurant or an invite to a Malay home are just two of the venues you might expect when it comes to business entertaining. Sometimes formal, other times intimate, over food is the best chance you’ll get to make better bonds on the business front. If invited to someone’s home for dinner, bring the host a present from your home country, pastries or quality confectionary. Never bring alcohol, especially to a Muslim house. You’re unlikely to be served alcohol although Malaysian Chinese do drink. Reciprocating the offer by inviting your previous host can be a way to further cement relationships. If your business partner is Malay do remember they will expect Halal food at the restaurant rather than a Chinese meal involving suckling pig.


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