Etiquette and Customs in Malaysia

Etiquette and Customs in Malaysia

Meeting and Greeting

Greetings in a social context will depend upon the ethnicity of the person you are meeting. In general, most Malays are aware of Western ways so the handshake is normal. There may be slight differences though and a few things to bear in mind include:

? Malay women may not shake hands with men. Women can of course shake hands with women. Men may also not shake hands with women and may bow instead while placing their hand on their heart.

? The Chinese handshake is light and may be rather prolonged. Men and women may shake hands, although the woman must extend her hand first. Many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect.

? Indians shake hands with members of the same sex. When being introduced to someone of the opposite sex, nodding the head and smiling is usually sufficient.

Among all cultures, there is a general tendency to introduce:

  • the most important person to the lower ranking person.
  • the older person to the younger person.
  • women to men


The way names are used also varies between ethnicities:


  • The Chinese traditionally have 3 names. The surname (family name) is first and is followed by two personal names.
  • Many Chinese adopt more Western names and may ask you to use that instead.


Many Malays do not have surnames. Instead, men add their father’s name to their own name with the term “bin” (meaning son of). So Rosli bin Suleiman, would be Rosli the son of Suleiman. 

Women use the term “binti”, so Aysha bint Suleiman is Aysha the daughter of Suleiman.


Many Indians do not use surnames. Instead, they place the initial of their father’s name in front of their own name. The man’s formal name is their name “s/o” (son of) and the father’s name. 

Women use “d/o” to refer to themselves as the daughter of their father.

Gift Giving Etiquette

Here are some general gift giving etiquette guidelines:

Gift giving to Malays:

  • If invited to someone’s home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good quality chocolates.
  • Never give alcohol.
  • Do not give toy dogs or pigs to children.
  • Do not give anything made of pigskin.
  • Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning.
  • Avoid yellow wrapping paper, as it is the color of royalty.
  • If you give food, it must be ?halal? (meaning permissible for Muslims).
  • Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large.
  • Gifts are generally not opened when received.

Gift giving to Chinese:

If invited to someone’s home, bring a small gift of fruit, sweets, or cakes, saying that it is for the children.

  • A gift is traditionally refused before it is accepted to demonstrate that the recipient is not greedy.
  • Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate a desire to sever the relationship.
  • Flowers do not make good gifts as they are given to the sick and are used at funerals.
  • Do not wrap gifts in mourning colours – white, blue, or black.
  • Wrap the gifts in happy colours – red, pink, or yellow.
  • Elaborate gift – wrapping is imperative.
  • Never wrap a gift for a baby or decorate the gift in any way with a stork, as birds are the harbinger of death.
  • It is best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky.
  • Gifts are generally not opened when received.

Gift giving to Indians:

  • If you give flowers, avoid frangipani as they are used in funeral wreaths.
  • Money should be given in odd numbers.
  • Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large.
  • Do not wrap gifts in white or black.
  • Wrap gifts in red, yellow or green paper or other bright colors as these bring good fortune.
  • Do not give leather products to a Hindu.
  • Do not give alcohol unless you are certain the recipient drinks.
  • Gifts are generally not opened when received.

Business Etiquette and Protocol in Malaysia

Doing business in Malaysia

Meeting and Greeting

Within the business context most Malaysian businesspeople are culturally-savvy and internationally exposes. Your experience may very well depend upon the ethnicity, age, sex and status of the person you are meeting. The best approach is always friendly yet formal. A few tips include: 

  • Initial greetings should be formal and denote proper respect.
  • If in a team, introduce the most important person first.
  • Many Malays and Indians are uncomfortable shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex.
  • Foreign men should always wait for a Malaysian woman to extend her hand. Foreign women should also wait for a Malaysian man to extend his hand.
  • To demonstrate respect Chinese may look downwards rather than at the person they are meeting.

It is important that professional titles (professor, doctor, engineer) and honorific titles are used in business. Malays and Indians use titles with their first name while Chinese use titles with their surname.

Business Card Etiquette

  • Business cards are exchanged after the initial introductions.
  • If you will be meeting Chinese, have one side of your card translated into Chinese, with the Chinese characters printed in gold.
  • If you will be meeting government officials, have one side of your card translated into Bahasa Malaysia.
  • Use two hands or the right hand only to exchange business cards.
  • Examine any business card you receive before putting it in your business card case.
  • The respect you show someone’s business card is indicative of the respect you will show the individual in business. Act accordingly.
  • Never write on someone’s card in their presence.


As an extension to the need to maintain harmonious relations, Malaysians rely on non-verbal communication (i.e. facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc). Such a communication style tends to be subtle, indirect and. Malays may hint at a point rather than making a direct statement, since that might cause the other person to lose face. Rather than say “no”, they might say, “I will try”, or “I?ll see what I can do”. This allows the person making the request and the person turning it down to save face and maintain harmony in their relationship.

If you are unsure about the affirmative response you received, you may want to continue the discussion, re-phrasing the question in several different ways so that you may compare responses. If the response was given because the Malaysian did not know how to respond in the negative without causing offense, this may come out. Alternatively, they may have someone else give you the bad news.

Silence is an important element of Malaysian communication. Pausing before responding to a question indicates that they have given the question appropriate thought and considered their response carefully. Many Malaysians do not understand the Western propensity to respond to a question hastily and can consider such behaviour thoughtless and rude.

Malaysians may laugh at what may appear to outsiders as inappropriate moments. This device is used to conceal uneasiness.

Do not show anger in public as it makes Malaysians uncomfortable and creates a feeling of powerlessness. There is a greater chance of achieving a good outcome id you are calm, whereas little is resolved by shouting.

Business Meetings

  • It is a good idea for the most senior person on your team to enter first so that he or she is the first to greet the most senior Malaysian. 
  • This gives face to both parties as it demonstrates respect towards the Malaysian and shows that you respect hierarchy within your company. 
  • It is customary for leaders to sit opposite each other around the table. 
  • Many companies will have their team seated in descending rank, although this is not always the case.
  • Expect the most senior Malaysian to give a brief welcoming speech. You need not reciprocate.
  • There will be a period of small talk, which will end when the most senior Malaysian is comfortable moving to the business discussion.
  • Meetings may be conducted or continue over lunch and dinner. 
  • Meetings, especially initial ones, are generally somewhat formal. Treat all Malaysian participants with respect and be cautious not to lose your temper or appear irritated.
  • At the first meeting between two companies, Malaysians will generally not get into in-depth discussions. They prefer to use the first meeting as an opportunity to get to know the other side and build a rapport, which is essential in this consensus-driven culture.