Managing in Malaysia

Navigating a Land of Contrasts

Kuala Lumpur Skyline

Thrive when working and managing in Malaysia.

© iStockphoto/LP7

Malaysia is a land of contrasts.

The peninsula bordering Thailand is a cultural melting pot: skyscrapers sit next to Hindu temples and ancient mosques; and the alluring smells of street food tempt workers out of air-conditioned offices for lunch.

On the other hand, East Malaysia, located on the island of Borneo, contains lush rainforests, sea-green oceans, coral reefs, and mysterious indigenous tribes.

Together, these two parts of Malaysia, with a population of around 28 million people, create a diverse and beautiful country that's emerging as an important player on the world stage. Add to this a people known for smiling faces and sunny dispositions, and a region experiencing unprecedented growth and opportunity, and you'll find yourself in a country you might not want to leave!

If you've been assigned to lead a team in Malaysia, or if you're doing business with Malaysian people, it's important to know how to work successfully in this vibrant and diverse culture. This article explores how you can do this.

Note:

Malaysia's culture is diverse, and this article is meant as a general guide only. There are significant differences in values and expectations within the different states, so always use your best judgment when doing business here.

About Malaysia

Malaysia is a tropical country located in Southeast Asia. It consists of 13 states, and its largest city and capital is Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia is a federal constitutional elective monarchy, and the government is modeled on the U.K. parliamentary system. This is because Britain ruled the country up until 1957. Since then, Malaysia's economy has grown steadily and it's now an important country in the world economy.

Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia.

The primary language is Malay, but English is spoken widely. Mandarin is also common.

Most Malaysians are Muslim. This is important to keep in mind when managing your team members, so that you approach their needs and observances with sensitivity and respect. For instance, Muslims pray five times a day, and it's essential to show respect and sensitivity to this.

The weather plays a major role in life in Malaysia. The climate is very hot and humid throughout the year, and heavy monsoon rain often causes flooding, even in the major cities.

Different parts of the country have different monsoon seasons; for example, Kuala Lumpur's wet months are March, April, September, and November, while Malaysian Borneo's wet season lasts from November through February. Research the climate where you'll be working, and carry an umbrella or wear waterproof clothing daily during the local monsoon season.

Tip:

Many Chinese and Indian people live and work in Malaysia. Each of these groups has its own holidays, and its own business and social etiquette. It's best to learn more about these cultures, so that you can structure your approach appropriately.

See our articles on Managing in India   and Managing in China   for more information on working in these cultures.

Employment Law

All workers are guaranteed one day off each week; however, it's up to the organization to decide which day that will be. Most professional organizations keep a five- or six-day week, and, in most states, the weekend is on Saturday and Sunday.

Women get at least 60 days of maternity leave, so long as they have been employed by their organization for at least four months. There are also special "protections" for women: they're not allowed to work between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., or in any role requiring them to be underground. Generally though, women are treated as equals in the Malaysian workforce, and many women hold high-ranking positions in the government.

Vacations/Holidays

All employees are eligible for 10 days of paid vacation each year. However, Malaysia has one of the highest numbers of public holidays in the world. The following holidays are celebrated nationwide:

  • The Prophet Muhammad's Birthday (date changes each year – it's in January in 2013 and in 2014).
  • Chinese New Year – January or February (date changes each year).
  • Chinese New Year 2nd Day – the day after Chinese New Year (date changes each year).
  • Labour Day – May 1.
  • Wesak Day – May (date changes each year).
  • Agongo's Birthday – early June (date changes each year).
  • Hari Raya Puasa (date changes each year – it's in August in 2013 and July in 2014).
  • National Day – August 31.
  • Malaysia Day – September 16.
  • Hari Raya Haji (date changes each year – in October in 2013 and 2014).
  • Awal Muharram (date changes each year – in November in 2013 and October in 2014).
  • December 25 – Christmas.

Keep in mind that this is only a partial list of holidays that will affect you; Malaysia's individual states celebrate many more.

You'll also want to research the numerous religious events that Muslims observe; many of these, such as the holy month of Ramadan, will likely affect normal business patterns.

Tip:

You can see the full list of federal and state holidays that are observed in Malaysia on the Malaysian Government website.

Getting the Best From Your Team

As with other Asian cultures, the concept of "saving face" is critical in Malaysian culture. It's important to learn about the various situations that can cause people to "lose face," as this knowledge will help you work with your team in a culturally sensitive way.

For example, criticizing someone publicly, even when you consider it to be constructive, will likely cause a loss of face. Always give feedback   in private where possible.

Be careful what you ask your Malaysian team members to do; refusing a request from you may cause loss of face, so they may well accept a task or project even if they can't complete it. Take care to learn the unique skills of each person on your team, so that you can match the right person to the right job  .

It's unlikely that your Malaysian team members will disagree with you in front of others or challenge you in any way; doing this will also likely cause loss of face. For a leader looking for input or feedback, this can be frustrating at first. However, you can change your approach and ask for input on an individual basis; your Malaysian team members are far more likely to give their true opinion in private.

When you're in a group, watch people's body language   for clues to what they think. While your team members won't say "no" verbally, they will often use body language to communicate their opinion. They may also say no indirectly, using phrases such as "I'll try" or "I'll see what I can do."

When problems arise, try not to assign blame, which is another contributor to a loss of face. Instead, discuss what people can do to correct the mistake and move forward.

Malaysian people will often pause before answering a question. They want and need time to consider what you're asking; this is also a sign of respect. Show the same respect to your team by carefully considering a question before answering it.

It's possible that you'll be working with a mixture of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian people. People from these different cultures see loss of face, and what causes it, slightly differently. They will also have unique values and expectations.

Family and social life is extremely important in Malaysian culture. You can build trust with your team members   by talking about your own family and asking about theirs.

Also, learn how to manage your emotions at work  ; showing anger is frowned upon and will cause you to lose face with your team. You'll gain respect by staying calm and controlled, even in tense situations.

Business Etiquette

In business situations, Malaysian men often greet one another with a handshake. But men should not offer to shake a woman's hand; instead, they should nod and give a slight bow. Women should also not shake hands with men unless they extend a hand first; instead, they should nod and smile.

Don't be surprised if a Malaysian gives what you consider to be a "limp handshake." The typical handshake is a light touch, palm to palm. Malaysians will then touch their heart, essentially saying, "I am pleased to meet you from the bottom of my heart."

Elderly people are highly respected in Malaysia. When making introductions, always introduce people in order of age or seniority, and, generally, introduce women before men.

Always make firm appointments when you wish to meet with someone, and show up on time. Don't schedule appointments for Fridays, the Muslim holy day, because there's a good chance that some members won't be able to attend.

Business dress in Malaysia is modest and conservative for both men and women. In most business situations, men generally wear dark suits and white shirts. Women should wear modest skirts or slacks.

Additional Tips

  • Because of Malaysia's heat and humidity, there is a high risk of contracting diseases and illnesses transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and other biting insects. Food and waterborne diseases are also common. Research the risks, and take appropriate precautions while you're in the country.
  • Don't wear the color yellow or give any yellow gifts; this color is associated with royalty.
  • Use your right hand for everything, including passing items, eating, and shaking hands. The left hand is considered unclean in Malaysian culture.
  • Never use a single finger to point or gesture; it's considered very rude. Instead, use your entire hand or point with your thumb.
  • Because of Malaysian hospitality, you'll likely be invited home for a meal, perhaps several times by the same person. Always bring a small gift of pastries or good chocolate; and never bring alcohol or any item associated with pigs (including pigskin products). However, there are different social guidelines if you're invited to an Indian or Chinese person's home. Again, research these cultures to make sure that you treat your hosts with sensitivity and respect.

Key Points

Malaysia is a tropical country located in Southeast Asia. Since it became independent, the Malaysian economy has grown at a steady pace, and it's now an important country on the world stage.

When leading a Malaysian team, make sure that you understand the concept of "face"; this will play an important role in how your team approaches you and how you approach them. Never criticize or provide feedback to someone publicly; you should do this in private.

Also, control your emotions – you'll get more respect by staying cool and in control, especially during tense situations.

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