Culture Shock in Malaysia
Even the most seasoned expat knows that culture shock is a very real concern, particularly for those travelling with their family. Culture shock in Malaysia is unlikely to be an extreme element in the initial settling down process. Malaysia is a country offering a range of modern conveniences, with a very multicultural society and local population that is generally friendly and welcoming to newcomers.
Nevertheless, there will be aspects of one’s new life that may take some getting used to. Perhaps the biggest aspect of a new life in Malaysia is religion. Most of the population is Muslim, and adhere to conservative Islamic customs. Another major element of culture shock that expats may have to contend with is getting used to the hot and humid equatorial climate.
Malaysia's cultural make-up
Malaysia has a diverse range of immigrants and ethnic populations, which means that everyone is different, and most people are used to dealing with those from very different cultural backgrounds. The three main ethnic groupings in Malaysia are Malay, Chinese and Indian and, along with many indigenous ethnic groups, they blend to form a unique melting pot of cultures, cuisines and traditions.
Religion in Malaysia
Although Malaysia does not have only one official state religion, almost half of the population practices Islam. This will obviously impact on everyday life; sometimes in small ways such as hearing the pre-dawn call to prayer at the local mosque, or in more significant ways, such as experiencing stares and discrimination, particularly when wearing slightly more revealing clothing. Expats are not obliged to adhere to Islamic traditions, and are free to practice their own religion; however, they should always show respect for local customs and act and dress conservatively to avoid offending local sensitivities. This is especially important during Muslim holy times such as Ramadan.
Climate in Malaysia
The climate in Malaysia is ideal for a beach holiday or a getaway; however, living and working in the humidity and heat can be draining. Those who enjoyed an active outdoor lifestyle back home may take a while to adjust to having to spend much of the day inside air-conditioned buildings. It’s important to allow time for one’s body to acclimatise to the weather.
Saving face in Malaysia
Saving face is a central aspect of Malaysian culture; Malaysians strive to build harmonious relationships and it is imperative to avoid public shame or embarrassment. Expats should always treat their Malaysian counterparts with respect and should never argue or show anger towards another person in public. Should there be a problem, it is better to discuss it in private.
Related to the matter of saving face, the Malaysian communication style is not always direct. Malaysians may not always give a direct answer to a question in order not to offend anyone. This may be frustrating for those who are used to a more direct communication style, particularly in the corporate environment, and expats need to learn to exercise patience.
Language barrier in Malaysia
Malaysia’s official language is Bahasa Malaysia. It is written in both Latin and Arabic script. As a legacy of its past as a British colony, many Malaysians also speak English, which is generally considered the language of business in Malaysia. Other languages spoken in Malaysia are testament to its cultural heritage, including Cantonese, Mandarin and Tamil.
Meeting and greeting in Malaysia
Showing respect to others is an important aspect of Malaysian life and it’s essential to greet people properly. A handshake is a standard greeting in Malaysia between men. However, Muslim women may be uncomfortable shaking hands or making any physical contact in public with a man who is not part of their family. When expat men greet a woman, it’s best they let her take the lead in extending her hand first; otherwise a simple nod of the head and a smile will suffice. Direct eye contact may be avoided and some Malaysians lower their eyes when greeting as a sign of respect.
Malaysian cuisine reflects its diverse cultural heritage, with Indian, Chinese and Malay flavours dominating. Most food will seem familiar to those coming from Western countries, and perhaps the biggest culture shock hurdle to overcome will be dealing with the shear range of choice available on a day-to-day basis.