Differing Concepts of How to Show Respect When Working in Malaysia

Developing the awareness of how respect is shown in Malaysia and adapting your methods, can result in you getting the best out of your Malaysian colleagues without unnecessary stress and irritation.

Martha:         “Everyone, I’m throwing a birthday party for my daughter this Saturday at my house. Would you be able to come and join the celebration?”

Wai Ling:      “I might have something to do on that day. If I can, I’ll try to make it.”

Martha:         “OK sure, let me know as soon as you can. What about you Raja and Lina?”

Raja:              “I don’t think I have anything planned….so maybe I can go.”

Lina:              “I’ll have to check with my husband first. Shouldn’t be a problem, I think.”

Martha:        “Great! See you all on Saturday!”


Saturday comes around and Martha discovers that none of her Malaysian colleagues have turned up for her daughter’s birthday. She is upset and feels disrespected at being lied to, as she felt that they had verbally agreed to join her daughter’s birthday celebration. Had they all said no, she would have lessened the amount of food that she prepared.

When conducting cross-cultural training programs, one of the most common complaints we receive from participants is the perceived lack of respect shown among colleagues from differing cultures. Naturally as human beings, each of us expects to be treated in a dignified, kind and respectful manner as such actions provide evidence that we are valued as individuals. However, it is important to note that respect can be subjective depending on where one originates from. What is considered disrespectful in one culture may actually be viewed as being respectful in another culture. As an expat living and working in Malaysia, how can you ensure that you do not misinterpret your local colleague’s actions as being disrespectful? How can you also adapt your behaviour to Malaysia’s cultural value systems to remain respectful at all times?

  1. The absolute truth vs white lies. The concept of saving face is a deeply ingrained notion in Malaysian society, so much so, that Malaysians may sometimes rather tell you a white lie than publicly embarrass you with a rejection. In the example above, Martha’s local colleagues were trying to indirectly hint at their refusal to her invitation as they feel it is a more respectful approach rather than directly saying no to her. For most Anglo cultures, a direct lie to one’s face (white lie or not) may be highly unacceptable and can lead to loss of trust in the relationship. Therefore, understanding the cultural reasons for why Malaysians may sometimes do so and the various ways Malaysians say no may spare you from overreacting to awkward situations like the one above.
  2. Speaking up vs keeping silent. When Malaysians choose to keep quiet instead of contributing their ideas or constructive feedback, do you automatically assume that they are disrespectful and have no opinions of their own? You’ll likely answer Yes if you come from a culture that freely expresses their opinions and actively challenges ideas during discussions. However, Malaysians will often consider the hierarchy that is present in the room and will respectfully defer answers to the most senior ranking in the room. When you become actively aware of the dynamics in the group, you can employ methods like anonymous feedback or feedback as a group to successfully obtain the response you need in a respectful manner.
  3. Getting the job done vs building a relationship. For many Anglo cultures, individuals show that they respect their role within the company when they get a task done in an effective and efficient manner. Taking the time to nurture relationships at the workplace may not be seen as the best use of one’s time. Within the Malaysian cultural context, however, taking the time to invest in relationships is an important step to building trust and respect among one another. Expat staff can show that they value and respect their Malaysian colleagues when they take the initiative to find out about their colleagues’ families and background, and also share their own history and personal experiences. When such a family-like relationship exist between co-workers, you will naturally get the most out of your local colleagues for any work-related tasks.

Without a doubt, it is crucial not to jump to conclusions about showing respect (or a lack thereof) based solely on our personal cultural viewpoint. Often, the saying “the opposite is true” can be applied when we find ourselves in situations that can lead to a cultural misunderstanding. Instead of championing the “this is how we do it back home” approach, developing the awareness of how respect is shown in Malaysia and adapting your methods can result in you getting the best out of your Malaysian colleagues without unnecessary stress and irritation. Our Global Mobility program as well as various cross-cultural training programs can equip you with the awareness and strategies to successfully navigate any cultural challenges you may face in Malaysia.

By: Boleh Blogger