When in Malaysia: A Guide to Cultural Etiquette

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When visiting a foreign country, it is always important to gain an understanding of their culture and to respect it all times. A little bit of research in advance will provide you with a good foundation.

Malaysia is an Islamic state but it also has an extremely multicultural society as the predominant cultures are Malay, Indian and Chinese. This means it is a melting pot of ethnicities and religions and can make it difficult to know how to behave with members of each culture. However, good etiquette is often simply a combination of common sense and a basic understanding and respect for the local culture.

Here are some etiquette tips to ensure you are aware of yourself and don’t offend anyone whilst travelling in Malaysia.

Introductions and greetings

The traditional Malay greeting in is the ‘salam’ and can be described as a handshake with both hands but without the grasp. Never extend your hand for a traditional handshake unless first offered by your counterpart. As more of the country (especially cities such as Kuala Lumpur) becomes more westernised, handshakes are becoming more commonplace.

Importantly, don’t attempt to touch a woman to greet them, as usually a bow (or a nod and smile) is sufficient. However, if a woman first extends her hand for a handshake then it’s fine to do so.

If given a business card, receive it with two hands and take a moment to read it before putting it away. This is a show of respect.

Dress code

Due to the predominantly Muslim culture, tourists should dress in a conservative manner, particularly in more rural areas and always when entering a mosque. Women should wear loose clothing that covers the legs, arms and shoulders. A headscarf can also be worn to show further respect for the culture.

Shoes should always be removed when entering a mosque and also when entering a Malaysian host’s home.

Body language

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Being aware of your actions is important as what we may deem as normal can be offensive in Malaysia. Pointing with the finger is considered rude in Malaysia so directions are often given using an open hand or using the thumb. It is also considered rude to sit opposite a host with your legs crossed (especially for women).

It is also considered rude to touch an adult on the head or show the bottom of your feet to anyone.

When out in public, be careful not to express intimacy, even if it’s in the form of a simple hug or kiss. Due to the Islamic nature, this type of contact is extremely frowned upon.

Food and drink

When out for a meal and passing something along, always use the right hand. The left hand is considered to be reserved for bathroom functions. Also, be very conscious of your company and never often a Muslim peer any alcohol or pork (they also require a restaurant to be certified Halal). Hindus do not eat beef so keep this in mind when ordering and selecting a restaurant, depending on your company.

Tipping is not necessarily customary in Malaysia as most establishments include a service charge, but if you feel that you have received great service a small tip for your waiter will always be appreciated.

In the end, most etiquette comes down to common sense, no matter what country you find yourself in. Observing and practicing a genuine respect for the local culture will always shine through and help you determine what may be right or wrong. Worst case, keep an eye on the locals and you will soon realise what is considered appropriate, if you find yourself in any doubt.

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