With a range of modern conveniences, a highly multicultural society and a local population that is generally friendly and welcoming to newcomers, expats are unlikely to experience extreme culture shock in Malaysia during the initial settling-down process.
Nevertheless, there will be aspects of an expat's new life that may take some getting used to. Perhaps the biggest adjustment newcomers may face in Malaysia is religion. Most of the population is Muslim and adheres to conservative Islamic customs. Another major element of culture shock that foreigners may have to contend with is getting used to the hot and humid equatorial climate.
Cultural diversity in Malaysia
Malaysia has a diverse range of immigrants and ethnic populations, and locals are used to dealing with people from very different cultural backgrounds. The three most common ethnic groups in Malaysia are Malay, Chinese and Indian. These, along with many other indigenous groups, combine to form a unique melting pot of cultures, cuisines and traditions.
Religion in Malaysia
Around two thirds of the Malaysian population practise Islam. This can have an impact on everyday life, especially for women, who should try to dress conservatively. It's also not unusual to hear the call to prayer in the early hours of the morning and throughout the day. Prayer times may also affect business meetings and social gatherings.
Expats are not obliged to adhere to Islamic traditions and are free to practise their own religion. That said, they should always show respect for local customs and act and dress conservatively to avoid offending local sensitivities. This is especially important during Islamic holy times such as Ramadan.
Climate in Malaysia
The climate in Malaysia is ideal for a beach holiday or a getaway, but 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 days spent inside air-conditioned buildings. It’s important that expats allow time for their bodies 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.
As a result of this cultural nuance, the Malaysian communication style is not always direct. For example, Malaysians may give a vague answer to a question in order to avoid giving a negative answer. This may be frustrating for those who are used to a more direct communication style, particularly in a business environment, and expats need to learn to exercise patience.
Language barrier in Malaysia
Malaysia’s official language is Malay, which is written in both Latin and Arabic script. Due to the country's history as a British colony, many Malaysians also speak English, which is generally considered the language of business in Malaysia. Other languages spoken in the country are a testament to its cultural heritage and include 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. In contrast, Muslim women may be uncomfortable shaking hands or making physical contact in public with a man who is not part of her family. When greeting 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 gaze when greeting as a sign of respect.
Local cuisine in Malaysia
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 hurdle to overcome will be dealing with the sheer variety available.
►For more on the Malaysian job market, see Working in Malaysia
►Do some research around the different housing options in Accommodation in Malaysia
"The one big difference from anywhere we’ve lived is that things happen slowly here, anything from ordering food, to checking out at a grocery store, to people showing up to work on time!" Read more about Emily's expat experiences in Malaysia.
Are you an expat living in Malaysia?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Malaysia. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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