How do Malaysians do business? A look into Malaysian Business Communication Styles

Written by Nur Shazwani Roslan

In a recent survey of the top 20 countries to invest in, Malaysia made it to the number 4 position, and the best part is, for once, we triumphed over Singapore which was placed in fifth position.

Kuala Lumpur now rapidly becoming a destination of choice for global organisations Photo courtesy of InvestKL

According to Business Insider report in March 2018, the top 20 list was a result from a global poll by World Bank, which gathered responses from 6,000 global business decision makers, which countries they chose as the best to invest in. Malaysia was described as “a highly skilled workforce” and “pro-business government” which were the main deciding factors for foreign direct investment. Kuala Lumpur is now rapidly becoming a destination of choice for global organisations who are looking to establish an Asian head office. In fact, more than 5000 companies from over 40 countries have established operations in Malaysia.
With this continuing trend, doing business in Malaysia sound like good business sense for companies to come in here. Having said that, it is pertinent to look into the business communication culture in Malaysia. As an investor who is now considering to make a move to Malaysia one of the question you should ask yourself is, what type of communication style can you expect from such a mixed-race culture?

Malaysia is a multicultural country

First of all, before looking into the communication part, it is best to understand the business culture in Malaysia. Briefly, it is important to note that Malaysia is a multicultural country that you will encounter will mainly come from three major ethnic backgrounds; Malay, Chinese and Indian. It is a complex mix of different ethnicity all working and living together. This mix has produced a very distinctive local business culture which you need to understand before starting to build relationships and sell your good or services. Traditionally, the Chinese ran most business activities in the country but changing demographics and pro-Malay legislation have altered this picture over the past few decades.

Here are some pointers of the general working practices in Malaysia

First Meeting

  • When meeting your Malaysian counterparts for the first time, a firm handshake is the standard form of greeting.  However, you should only shake hands with a Malaysian businesswoman if she initiates the gesture.  Otherwise a nod or a single bow is appropriate.
  • With such an array of cultures in Malaysia addressing Malaysians properly can be difficult.  It is advised to find out in advance how you should address the person you are to meet.  Generally speaking, a Malaysian’s first name is individually given while the second and sometimes third name indicate those of the father and the grandfather.  In some cases the words ‘bin’ (son of) or ‘binti’ (daughter of) can be added after the given name.
  • Gifts are not usually exchanged as they may be perceived as a bribe but in the event that you are presented with a gift, it is customary to accept it with both hands and wait until you have left your Malaysian colleagues before opening it.  Be sure to reciprocate with a gift of equal value in order to avoid loss of face.Face
  • In business setting, Malaysians are influenced by the cultural value of saving face. Face of a person is very important as losing face of another person in a conversation by embarrassing them is considered to be very impolite. Therefore, Malaysians prefer to give bad news in indirect ways through the use of coded messages, which may be difficult to pick up on. Malaysian communication styles are characterised by extreme forms of politeness and diplomacy.For that reason, we will hardly hear the word “No”.The underlying drive is to ensure the preservation of the existing harmony within a group or to develop a sense of harmony with new contacts. Thus communication can, at times, seem overly formal, especially true when carrying bad news or when giving information to superiors.


  • English is widely spoken and very many people have a near-fluent command of the language. Superficially, therefore, communication is generally much easier than in some other countries in the region.
  • If your business in Malaysia requires interaction with Malaysian government officials, ensure that all communication takes place in the language of Bahasa Malaysia.  The majority of transactions and correspondence with Malaysian companies, however, will generally be conducted in English

Value of time

  •  When scheduling business meetings in Malaysia one must take into consideration the importance of prayer times in this predominantly Muslim country.  Fridays are a particularly religious day of the week and if possible meetings should not be scheduled on this day.
  • Attitude to punctuality varies according to which nationality you are doing business with.  The Chinese expect punctuality whereas both ethnic Malays and Indian business people have a more relaxed attitude towards time.  As a general rule, you will be expected to be punctual so it is advised to arrive to business appointments on time.It is often good to spend time going through the social conversations before discussing any actual business issues.
  • This ice-breaking is a vital part of the relationship-building process and its importance should never be underestimated. Irrespective of their ethnicity, Malaysians normally like talking about family. Suitable topics of conversation would be family, sports (especially football), your impressions of Malaysia, your organisation, future plans. It is quite normal for someone to ask how many children you have and where is your spouse currently at or whether she is working.

    Malaysia is a potential business destination

Finally, bear in mind that Malaysians are very friendly, but also reserved. However, be aware that what is said is not necessarily what is meant. Look for the coded-meaning behind all communication. Best of luck!

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