Business etiquette

Doing business in Malaysia

Business etiquette

Malaysia is a highly multicultural country and you will probably make business not only with Malaysians but also with Chinese and Indians. They all have different rules of conduct and what might be seen as approptiate by one group can be considered as offensive by the other.


The different rules for different ethnical groups already apply to handshakes. As Malaysia is a Muslim country, physical touch between sexes might be seen us inappropriate. Malay women do not necessarilly shake hand with men. To be on the safe side, wait for the woman to reach out her hand first. Only then is it appropriate to shake it. If the woman does not extend her hand, only bow slightly with your hand placed over the position of your heart to demonstrate respect.

When you shake hands with Chinese business partners, it is appropriate to shake hands with a woman, but wait for her to reach out her hand first. As for men, shake the hands only lightly but prolonged.

When being introduced to Indian business partners a nod and a smile might be sufficient, but shaking hands is allowed.

Dress etiquette

Men should wear a suit, with dark pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a tie. Women have slightly more freedom regarding their dress etiquette. They can wear skirts, trousers or a traditional dress. Revealing clothes are inappropriate. Garments, fully covering a woman's body, or headscarfes are very common.

Business meetings

When making appointments for a business meeting, avoid scheduling them to a Friday, as this day is reserved for Muslims to pray. Arrive in time for a meeting but be prepared to wait. Malays and Indians usually have a relaxed attitude to time while Chinese are normally punctual. This means for you: be punctual.

When having a first meeting with a party do not expect business decisions to be made. Initial meetings are usually used for builiding rapport as business relationships are based on familiarity and trust. They are always started with small talk. Personal questions are not very adequate but questions on hobbies or interests, sometimes also on family, are fine.

Malaysian culture, and this refers to business culture as well, is very hierarchical so make sure to treat persons of senior ranks with great respect.

When communicating be very polite. Under no circumstances should you show anger in public as this is considered very rude. Also, never criticize and embarass a colleague in front of a group. Do not say “no”, rather use forms such as “I will try”.

It shows good manners if you take a moment of silence before answering a question as this demonstrates that you are giving the question the appropriate consideration.

When entering a Malaysian home, always take your shoes off. Only use the right hand for eating or touching another person as the left hand is regarded unclean.

Business presents are not very common, but in some cases where you might have to make a gift pay attention to the Muslim rules. Do not give alcohol, pork meat or something made of pigskin.

Names and titles

As a general rule, address persons by their title and their surname as using first names is not very common. Many Malaysians, however, do not have surnames. They often use their father's name adding it to their surname with the term “bin” meaning “son of”. The term applying to women is “binti”. In cases where the surname is missing you can use the first name together with a “Mr.” or “Mrs.”

The same rule applies to Indians therefore use their first name together with a “Mr.” or “Mrs” or the respective title.

Address Chinese business partners with their title and their surname or simply with ”Mr” and “Mrs”.

Some Malaysians have been conferred a title by the government. These are usually “Tun”, “Tan Sri”, “Dato” and “Datuk”. If you know the title, use it!

Business cards

Business cards are usually first given out by the visiting party. When receiving or presenting a card, hold it with both hands. Hand your card facing your name upwards and when receiving it make sure you study it briefly before putting it away into your pocket or placing it in front of you on the table. Have your card translated into Malay or if you are meeting Chinese partners, translate it into Chinese as well.

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