Why Don’t Malaysians Like Asking for Help?

Understanding why Malaysians don’t generally ask for help, can enable you to know how to get the best out of your staff.

Katrina*, a Danish national, is here in Malaysia for a 2-year expat assignment to assist in standardizing the company’s policies and procedures on a global scale. After understanding how a particular process is done in Malaysia, Katrina explained how it is done on a Group level and provided suggestions on the improvements that can be made. She ended her presentation with the statement: “Please let me know if you need assistance and I’m happy to help at any time.” Two weeks later, no one had yet approached her for any help even though they clearly hadn’t implemented the suggestions she had given. She asked, “Do I continue to wait for them to ask me, or shall I proactively give them the help that I believe they need?”

Have you experienced a similar situation before? If you come from a culture that values a direct form of communication, you may struggle to understand why Malaysians do not simply employ a clear and straightforward way to express their uncertainties and ask for help. Are they shy? Are they afraid? Or are there deeper cultural related reasons for their behavior? Here are some interesting points for you to consider.

The risk of losing face. In a society that places great emphasis on maintaining one’s reputation and good name, publicly asking for help may cause both the requestor and the one being asked to lose face. It implies that the one being asked failed to explain the topic well enough to be understood and could thus lose face in front of everyone. On the other hand, the requestor could also lose face by appearing to be incompetent and foolish for needing further assistance.

The Malaysian education system. While Western education systems emphasize creativity and promote analytical and critical thinking by encouraging the use of questions, the 11-year compulsory education for Malaysians is exam based and focus is on students absorbing information from their teachers without much questioning or debate. Teachers are viewed with authority and classroom discussions are far less interactive, often resulting in a mindset of ‘just following and accepting what we are told without question.’

A collectivistic culture. Malaysians place a high value on interdependence and creating harmony and group cohesion within their community. As such, they may view a person originating from another culture as an outsider and this is sometimes further propounded by some who may have a measure of an inferiority complex to those from Anglo cultures. The tendency would then be for Malaysians to consult one another for more information rather than seeking help from someone they view as outside of their own culture or community.

In view of the above, how can international employees work around this situation? Firstly, instead of singling out individuals you feel require your help (and thereby causing them to lose face), you can try arranging for a group session to provide tips or advice that can ultimately benefit everyone. Secondly, encourage questions by allowing an adequate amount of time for your Malaysian colleagues to understand and prepare for the topic. Allowing anonymity when collecting responses can help tremendously as well. Thirdly, try hard to be liked by your Malaysian counterparts by taking an interest in their family, having lunch together at the local food stalls and if you are able to, learning a little of the local language. Attempting to integrate into the local culture will endear you to your Malaysian counterparts, breaking down any cultural barriers that might have otherwise been there. Our various cultural training programs can assist in this regard by helping you develop cultural intelligence and the right skill sets to work smart and communicate effectively within a Malaysian cultural context.


By:  Boleh Blogger