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Malaysia is a diverse, welcoming society that is accepting and friendly towards foreigners, especially in matters of business. The country's success in this arena is demonstrated in its rankings in numerous international business surveys – most notably, the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020, where Malaysia was ranked 12th out of 190 countries. Malaysia particularly excelled in the areas of dealing with construction permits and protecting minority investors, achieving second place in both categories.
Expats planning on doing business in Malaysia should ensure they understand the cultural complexities associated with this ethnically diverse country. Although the Malaysian business world has largely succeeded in establishing a unified ethos, it is important for expats to realise that they might deal with people from a broad range of backgrounds – Malay, Chinese and Indian being the most common. Conduct might need to be adjusted accordingly, depending on who one is doing business with at the time.
Officially, the language of business is Malay, but English is widely spoken and commonly used.
Business hours are generally from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
The dress code for business in Malaysia is typically Western, with smart, formal clothes being worn. Men generally wear white shirts and ties (jackets to be worn to meetings). As Malaysia is home to a large Muslim population, women should dress more conservatively than they might back home.
Greetings may vary depending on who one is greeting, but generally the standard greeting between men is a handshake. When men greet a woman, sometimes a light nod of the head is sufficient, or a handshake. It's best to wait for the woman to initiate the greeting.
Sometimes gifts are exchanged when meeting someone for the first time. However, it might be a better idea to receive a gift first, and then to reciprocate, rather than to be the one to initiate the gift-giving process. Always accept gifts with both hands, and do not open them in the presence of the person who gave them. When reciprocating with a gift, make sure that it's wrapped and of about equal value to the gift that was first received.
Women are ostensibly viewed as equals in the Malaysian workplace, and can often rise to senior positions.
Business culture in Malaysia
The defining characteristic of business culture in Malaysia is respect and deference to authority. Authority figures are viewed as such less because of the powerful positions they hold and more because they possess the skills, wisdom and temperament to foster harmony and cooperation within their organisation.
While business structure in Malaysia remains hierarchical, teamwork and collaboration are encouraged, with all members of the organisation being valued. The Malaysian style of management, it follows, is less goal-driven and more holistic than in many Western cultures, with managers taking a personal interest in the wellbeing of their employees.
Acting from a sense of duty is also important within the Malaysian workplace, and expats will be expected to work hard without the promise of added incentives or personal credit. Working within a team and accomplishing communal goals is imbued with great importance.
Business etiquette in Malaysia is marked by sensitivity and diplomacy. The golden rule is never to cause another to 'lose face' in professional company – the willful, or even careless, humiliation of even a subordinate is considered malicious in the Malaysian business world. Expats should always endeavour to protect the pride and honour of professional associates. If there is a strong disagreement to air or a complaint to make, do it privately.
Business meetings in Malaysia usually convene on time, but can be subject to a lot of small talk and personal digressions. Don't get impatient as this is seen as an important function of meetings in Malaysia.
Business cards are usually exchanged upon meeting new associates. Give and receive cards in the right hand, supported by the left, and never fold or put away a card without looking at it first. Expats should be sure to have their personal details printed in both English and with an additional language (usually Chinese or Malay) on the reverse side of their business card while in Malaysia.
Dos and don'ts of doing business in Malaysia
Do show respect and deference to authority figures
Do remain polite and respectful in all situations
Do relish the opportunity to work within a team toward communal goals
Do keep an open mind and be willing to learn
Don't be impatient or aggressive
Don't be self-aggrandising or arrogant