Doing Business in Malaysia

Doing business in Malaysia - newspaper and glasses

Expats planning on doing business in Malaysia should research some of 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 understand that they might deal with people from a broad range of backgrounds (Malay, Chinese and Indian being the most common) and expectations and conduct might need to be adjusted accordingly, depending on who one is doing business with at the time.
Overall though, Malaysia is a diverse, welcoming society and is accepting and friendly towards foreigners. The ease with which one can do business in Malaysia is demonstrated in its rankings in numerous international business surveys. Malaysia came 18th (out of 189 countries) in The World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2015. Malaysia particularly excelled in the criteria of trading across borders and protecting investors.

Business culture in Malaysia

Business culture in Malaysia

The defining characteristic of business culture in Malaysia is respect, and deference to authority. Moreover, 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.

Thus, 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 some Western cultures, with managers taking a personal interest in the well-being 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 glory. Employees will be expected to derive pleasure from working within a team, and accomplishing communal goals.

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 wilful, or even careless, humiliation of even a subordinate, is considered malicious in the Malaysian business world. One 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 – 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 another language (usually Chinese or Bahasa Malaysian) on the reverse side of their business card while in Malaysia.

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); while women – since Malaysia is home to a large Muslim population – should dress more conservatively than they might be used to doing at home.


Doing business in Malaysia: Fast facts

Business language: Officially, it remains Bahasa Malaysia, but English is widely spoken and commonly used in business

Hours of business: Generally Monday to Friday, from 9am to 5pm

Business dress: Conservative, formal, smart

Greeting: Greetings may vary depending on who one is greeting but, generally, the standard greeting between men is a handshake. When greeting 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.

Gifts: 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 in 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.

Gender equality: Women are ostensibly viewed as equals in the Malaysian workplace, and can often rise to senior positions. Malaysia is, by all accounts, an easier place in which to do business for women than many other Asian countries.


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 from the new management styles you may encounter

  • Don't be impatient or aggressive

  • Don't be self-aggrandising or arrogant

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