Malaysian Culture 101


The first thing you need to know about Malaysian culture is that their really isn’t just one culture.  There are at least three in Peninsula Malaysia or as it’s usually referred to, West Malaysia, and several tribal cultures in East Malaysia located within the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

Within West Malaysia we have Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures.  In fact even within these three distinct ethnic groups there is great variation.  However, there are several intrinsic characteristics to Malaysian culture that transcend all the earlier mentioned diverse groups.

All Malaysians generally love their food.  Food as you will read in almost any travel guide is truly the passion of all Malaysians.  And like its people, Malaysia has a great variety of food.  Some other things Malaysians would agree on is that education is a fundamental to success in life.  So families and government spend freely in the pursuit of a “quality” education.  Lastly, the majority of Malaysians hate traffic jams and will do all they can to avoid them.  In fact the topics of food and “jams”, as they are referred to here, dominate a large majority of what Malaysians talk about in daily conversation.

Culturally speaking, Malaysians are a very hierarchical, cautious, indirect and collectivist culture.  You will find some variations within the different racial groups on the importance placed on relationships in business and negotiations, with Chinese being a more task based culture here than their Mainland Chinese brothers.  Malay and Indian business culture will require a foreign business partner to first establish a trusting relationship, before the conversation or negotiations can move into a more serious business objective.

The key to successful relationships while working with Malaysians is found in 3 key things:  Love their food, take a sincere interest in their family and learn a bit of each of the local languages.  This will tremendously endear you to your Malaysian colleagues and make your time a rewarding experience you will never forget.