Good Manners International: Malaysia

Excellent manners in business encounters are becoming growingly important, especially on an international level. In our new series Good Manners International, from now on we regularly introduce you to the business manners in one of our top SELLBYTEL hub locations.

Frequently, business deals fail because of a lack of mutual understanding between different cultures. So this time, we introduce you to the key business manners and etiquettes in Malaysia, home to one of SELLBYTEL’s key global hubs: Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia constitutes one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant economies, the fruit of decades of industrial growth and political stability. Its multi-ethnic, multi-religious society encompasses a majority Muslim population in most of its states as well as an economically powerful Chinese community.

The following article makes use of a number of key categories to discuss the most central and relevant business situations in which excellent manners are decisive.

Business Meeting: Greeting

The correct approach may depend on the ethnicity, age, sex and status of the person you are meeting. The ground rule is: be friendly and formal.

With Muslims, a “Salam Aleikum” (may peace be with you) is used for greeting. In the morning, you specifically say “Selamat pagi” (Good morning), “Selamat petang” (Good day), “Selamat malam” (Good evening) and “Selamat tinggal” (Goodbye).

Professionals usually shake hands when starting a business meeting. The handshake should not be too firm, though, as this can be seen as offensive. In some traditional Muslim businesses, it might be considered inappropriate shaking hands with a female professional. Instead, a nod with a friendly smile is recommendable. It is also common to give and receive business cards. The card should be received and presented with both hands as a sign of respect.

It is further suggested to always address business people by their professional titles and last names. Typically, first names are not used.

Business Meeting: Small Talk

You should aim at maintaining a professional atmosphere in an initial business meeting, but also develop rapport with your business partners by engaging in small talk and avoiding rushing to “get down to business.” Plus, you should refrain from talking about religion and politics, or questioning local customs in a negative way.

Getting to know your counterpart is an essential intro to discussing a deal in Southeast Asia. So it might well be that your first meeting will involve mostly general conversations. Stick to small talk and general topics until your counterpart signals his/her readiness to talk business. Popular topics include travel, sightseeing, business in your country and food. Malaysians usually signal their willingness to get down to business by asking specific questions about your product or company. Each time you revisit the market, take time to update your counterparts on what’s been happening and make sure to socialize with them before talking about business issues.

Business Meeting: Language, Tone, Gesture and Mimic

The official language in Malaysia is Malay (called “Bahasa Melayu”). In addition, there are a number of different Chinese dialects, such as Tamil. The common business language, however, is English.

While in some cultures it is acceptable to be aggressive and demanding in the boardroom, this is frowned on by most Malaysians. They believe in doing business peacefully and expect others to speak in a low tone during meetings. Showing anger or impatience causes embarrassment.

As an extension to maintaining harmonious relations, Malaysians rely on subtle and indirect non-verbal communication (i.e. facial expressions, tone of voice, body language). They tend to hint at a point rather than making a direct statement, as this might cause the other person to lose face.

Silence is an important element of Malaysian communication. Pausing before responding to a question indicates that you gave the question appropriate and careful thought. Responding hastily could be considered thoughtless or even rude.

Business Meeting: Negotiation

The process of negotiating business tends to be lengthier than in Europe, for instance. Thus, it is essential to demonstrate patience to maintain a good relationship with your Malaysian counterpart. It is unusual to present gifts during the negotiation process. This might be seen as a way to hurry the decision.

Business Meeting: Meals

Depending on where you are invited to, you may eat with sticks, cutlery or with your hands. In every case, you should only eat or pass food to someone else with the right hand, because the left hand is seen an impure.

Alcoholic beverages are served at all restaurants and bars. The national beers “Tiger” and “Anchor” are popular specialties and should be tasted by all means.

Business Meeting: Dress Code

In Malaysia, men are recommended to wear business trousers and white shirts, with ties being a must for executives. Conservative suits should be worn for meetings with authorities or government officials. Women ought to wear sleeved blouses with skirts or pants covering the knees. The color yellow is reserved for royalty. Hence it should be avoided.


Finally, we hope that this series will give you some useful ideas on how to present yourself and make the best possible impression on your next business visit in Malaysia!

Please also visit our SELLBYTEL Group website for further information on our business in Malaysia.

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