Cultural Challenges in Malaysia

The world, despite being made “smaller” through the ease of travel and also the ability to “visit” a location online whilst in the comfort of your own home, can still surprise us with its wonders and awe. Whether in the hustle bustle of Kuala Lumpur, or the sight of the majestic Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, and all the way to the living historical city of Malacca, expatriates can be assured of a fulfilling time in Malaysia. To also get the best of your stay in Malaysia, it is best to understand the cultural challenges and differences so that you can avoid any faux pas.

It is our differences that makes travelling interesting but below are a few tips that can assist you during your stay in Malaysia:

Greeting Someone

While it is common especially in Europe and America to greet someone with a firm handshake, in Malaysia, due to its numerous ethnicities and religions, the form of greeting can differ somewhat. Malay women do not usually shake hands with members of the opposite sex and only if they initiate the handshake, the acceptable way to greet them is to smile and bow slightly. Malay men have no qualms with shaking the hands of someone of their own gender but would hesitate again when it comes to someone from the opposite sex. Again, wait and see if they initiate the handshake, else a simple bow would suffice. In the business circle however, this is less restrictive.

The Chinese community however is more open to a handshake greeting regardless of gender and this would also apply to the Indian community though the cultural Indian way to greet someone is to put their hands together in front of them and nod their heads.


English is the business language and is very common especially in Multi-National Companies (MNC). Being a former British colony, English is understood in Malaysia especially the urban areas of the Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur & Selangor) and also Penang. Learning a few common words in Malay would assist you greatly especially in rural areas. It would also help to break the ice and is a great conversation starter. As a testament of the cultural melting pot of races in Malaysia, languages like Mandarin, Tamil, Cantonese, & Hokkien are also widely used.


Malaysians, as with most Asians are generally non-expressive in their communication styles (except when stuck in trafficJ) and this could be frustrating especially in business meetings. This is due to the concept of saving face which means the need to, “…preserve their established position in society, taking action to ensure that one is not thought badly of by his or her peers.” In that sense, when someone disagrees with a suggestion for example, they will not directly reject the suggestion but try and seek to mediate a better solution. Non-verbal communication is another way that Malaysians differ from Europeans and Americans. Whilst pointing with the index finger is considered acceptable to expatriates, it is considered rude to Malaysians who prefer to use their thumb with a clenched fist to indicate with their hands. Do not also touch the head of a Malaysian as this is considered impolite.


As Malaysia is a tropical country with temperatures reaching up to 35 °C, it is wise to use protective accessories like a hat and sunglasses, and also use light coloured, cotton clothing. Malaysia is a secular country but with Islam as its official religion. Due to this, it is best to show respect for local customs and dress conservatively especially in rural areas. The list above is of course not exhaustive but it a basic guide to better immerse yourself into the lifestyle of Malaysia. Don’t see this as a restrictive but as a way to enjoy your experience in your temporary new home. As we say in Manglish (English-based creole spoken in Malaysia which you will certainly pick up in no time), don’t worry lah!

Written by: Jeremy, Relocation Consultant at Pathfinder Relocation Services