Malaysian Hierarchy-Learned at Home

Asian Family Hierarchy

The Malaysian hierarchical approach to leadership is generally first learned at home within the family and extended family.

When I was very young, one of the most difficult things I had to learn was how to correctly address my multitude of aunts. In Chinese culture, there are specific titles for each family member. I couldn’t just call them Aunt Jane or Aunt Mary. I had to learn the Hokkien words for aunts number 1 through to 8. It started with Eldest Aunt (tua kor), Second Aunt (gi kor), and so on until the Eighth and final Aunt (pei kor) on my father’s side of the family. I used to get terribly confused with Second Aunt (gi kor) and Fifth Aunt (gor kor), especially since I had a poor grasp of the Hokkien dialect. And mind you, ‘kor’ is merely the term for the aunts from the paternal side of the family! Don’t even get me started on the aunts on the maternal side, which have to be called ‘ee’. Addressing any of them by name was highly frowned upon. However, my Australian cousin visited recently and did just that. I confess that I shuddered. But I understood that this is the result of the fact that we both come from very different cultures – he being from the more egalitarian Australian society, and I having been brought up in the hierarchical Malaysian culture.

Although this extremely specific way of addressing one’s relations is most common among the Chinese, Malaysians in general often use honorifics when addressing senior members of their family. For example, Malays would refer to their elder siblings as ‘abang’ (elder brother), or ‘kakak’ (elder sister). Tamil-speaking Indians would say ‘annaa’ (elder brother) or ‘akkaa’ (elder sister). Chinese would say ‘ge ge’ (elder brother) or ‘jie jie’ (elder sister), and they wouldn’t just stop there. As mentioned earlier, they would have to start with Eldest Brother/Sister (‘ta ge/jie’), Second Brother/Sister (‘er ge/jie’), all the way till the last child.

This really demonstrates the hierarchical nature of Malaysian society. The fact that it begins with the family — the basic building block of society — shows how intrinsic hierarchy is to us Malaysians. And when people grow up in this culture, it inevitably influences them when they grow older, whether in family life or at the workplace. Just as a Malaysian would rarely ever address a senior member of the family by name, that same person would never dream of using his/her boss’s first name as they would not want to cause offense.

Malaysians are also sensitive to titles and positions within an organization. This can be related to the family, where an older sibling would have more authority than a younger one, with the parents occupying the highest positions of authority. Also, it is generally found that older ones occupy higher positions, similar to how older members of a family are given more responsibilities. This is true even if younger ones actually have better abilities or skills than the older ones. In Malaysian society, older ones are almost always viewed as wiser and more experienced, even though this might not necessarily be the case.

As we have seen, the hierarchical nature of Malaysian families is so intrinsic to Malaysian society that it is even seen in the workplace. A better understanding of this matter through cultural training will be of great help in getting along with colleagues and employees, and avoiding the causing of offence.


By Boleh Blogger