Malaysia’s population is an amalgamation of varying ethnic backgrounds, with a social core consisting of the Malays, Chinese and Indians as well as the many indigenous communities of Sabah and Sarawak. This results in a unique and inspiring blend of cultures, which is evident in its people’s costumes, crafts, food, entertainment and social conduct.
In Malaysia, visitors will discover a wide range of customs and practices as a reflection of its vast and diverse cultural landscape. These may be similar or different to the ones practised by the same ethnic groups in other parts of the world. This booklet is a guide for visitors on the proper social decorum and acceptable social norms when in Malaysia.
Greetings & Introductions
In Malaysia, greeting someone with a normal handshake is generally acceptable. But generally, especially among more conservative quarters of society, a smile and a polite nod of acknowledgment towards the person you’re greeting or being introduced to is the most favoured gesture. It is not customary for handshakes to be exchanged between two people of different genders, especially among Malays.
To play it safe, when greeting or being introduced to a member of the opposite sex, wait for the other person’s reaction. If they nod their heads in acknowledgment, then a nod from you would suffice. If they extend their hands towards you for a handshake, only then is it alright to reciprocate. Malaysians are generally conservative in nature, so a hug and a peck on the cheek are not necessary, unless they start it first.
The ‘salam’, which is a unique Malaysian handshake especially among the Malays, is quite common when meeting and greeting each other in this country. Unlike the Western handshake, which is firm and vigorous, the ‘salam’ is a gentle touch of each other’s hands with both palms, often finishing off with one or both hands brought to the chest or the mouth, signifying the sincerity of the ‘salam’. The ‘salam’ is normally exchanged only between members of the same sex.
Here, it is also customary to introduce the younger person to the older person, and for the younger person to greet the older person first. It is also quite common for the younger person to kiss the older person’s hand in a ‘salam’.
Addressing a Person
Malays do not have surnames, so it would suffice to address them by their first names. In formal situations, the first name may be preceded by a ‘Mr.’ (or ‘Encik’ in Malay), ‘Mrs. / Ms.’ (or ‘Puan’ in Malay), or ‘Miss’ (or ‘Cik’ in Malay).
Chinese can be addressed by their English names (if they have one), their own names (which usually comes after the surname) or in formal situations, by a ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs. / Ms.’ or ‘Miss’ followed by their surnames. For instance, a lady with the name ‘Cindy Tan Mei Ling’ can be addressed by ‘Cindy’, ‘Mei Ling’ or ‘Miss Tan’
Indians can also be addressed by their first names, and may be preceded by a ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs. / Ms.’ or ‘Miss’ in formal situations.
It is also important to note that when it comes to addressing someone with social titles or ranks, it is appropriate to address them by these titles or ranks, such as ‘Datuk’, ‘Tan Sri’, ‘Dato’ Seri’, ‘Tun’, ‘Tengku’ or ‘Professor’. Political dignitaries are usually conferred additional titles such as Yang Berhormat (YB) and Yang Amat Berhormat (YAB). The precedents ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs. / Ms.’ or ‘Miss’ are not necessary when addressing a person with social titles or ranks
Before a Visit
Prior to your visit to a local’s home, it is advisable that you call them first to inform them of your intention to visit. Malaysian hosts are particular about serving their guests food and drinks during a visit, so informing them beforehand gives them time to prepare something for you, their guest.
The most commonly acceptable gifts to bring for your host are foodstuff such as chocolates and fruits, but do ensure that they are in accordance with the host’s religious belief. As a rule of thumb, in Malaysia, Malays are generally Muslims, while Chinese and Indians are generally Buddhists and Hindus respectively. That means no non-Halal foodstuff for a Malay host, including alcoholic drinks, pork-based food and liquor-laced goodies, and no cow-based food and products for an Indian host, as cows are considered a sacred animal in the Hindu community.
Don’t be offended if the host does not open your gift immediately and puts it away after receiving it. In Malaysia, it is considered impolite to open a gift in front of the person giving it. This is to avoid any potential embarrassment or awkward situation in case the gift is not to the recipient’s taste and liking.
Before Entering a House
Malaysians generally go barefooted in their homes for hygienic reasons. Remove your shoes and leave them at the door or a designated area before entering a local’s home
Food & Drinks
It is normal practice for a Malaysian host to serve their guests food and drinks – even cooking an elaborate meal for them. It is only polite to accept whatever is being served to you. Second helpings or more are fine at the dinner table – most locals would even take it as a compliment, that you enjoy what they have prepared for you.
Malays and Indians normally use their right hand to eat with, while Chinese use chopsticks. However, if you are not comfortable with eating the local way, it is perfectly fine to ask for a fork and a spoon from the host. However, please note that the right hand must still be used to bring the food to your mouth.
When visiting a tribal longhouse or an aboriginal village, it is often customary for them to serve rice wines locally referred to as ‘tuak’ to their guests. It would be polite to accept. However, Muslim visitors can politely decline by citing religious reasons to the host
Sitting on the Floor
In some Malaysian households, especially in a Malay or an aborigine’s home, it is customary to sit on the floor. Gentlemen sit with their legs crossed while ladies sit with their legs neatly folded and tucked to the side
The Right Hand
The right hand is to be used in the act of giving, receiving and gesturing, particularly in a Malay household. It is considered impolite to use the left hand, unless both hands are used to give or receive something. So is pointing with one’s forefinger. Instead, use the thumb of your right hand with the other four fingers neatly folded into a fist underneath.
In Malaysia, open houses are a nationwide tradition during religious festivals, particularly during Eid-ul Fitr or better known locally as Hari Raya Aidilfitri. This festival celebrates the arrival of the Syawal month in the Muslim calendar, after a month of fasting during the Ramadan month
Open houses normally occur throughout the month of Syawal, especially during weekends, where the host would prepare a feast and invite people to come over and enjoy them. It is the norm for packets of money to be handed out to the elderlies and children during this time. The same goes for open houses during Chinese New Year, where red packets of money are given by the elderlies and married couples to children and singletons.
Open houses are also held during Deepavali and Christmas, although not throughout the month like Eid-ul Fitr. Aside from these religious festivals, cultural festivals particularly among the ethnic communities of Sabah and Sarawak are also openly celebrated with guests encouraged to join in the fun. These include Tadau Kaamatan and Gawaii Dayak Festival.
SOCIAL CONDUCTS IN PUBLIC PLACES
Dressing in Public
Malaysians are generally conservative, so it is advisable for visitors to dress modestly when you’re out and about in public places. When entering government premises, do not wear shorts, skirts, torn jeans, sleeveless tops or plunging necklines.
When visiting mosques, do ensure that you are decently covered from top to toe, including the arms and legs. Ladies are advised to cover their head with a scarf inside a mosque’s premises. Remove your shoes before entering the mosque and keep noise to a minimum. Some mosques provide robes and headscarves for ladies to cover themselves with when visiting their premises. Noise should also be kept to a minimum when visiting other places of worship, with some also requiring shoes to be removed before entering.
Nudity and half-nudity in public places are prohibited here and in certain cases punishable by law. This includes going topless or naked on public beaches and wearing a bikini in shopping malls.
Speech and General Behavior in Public
It is important to mind one’s language and manners when in this country. Foul language and rowdy behavior are very much disapproved here. Visitors should avoid controversial speech and behavior which are potentially offensive to Malaysians’ cultural and religious sensitivities, which includes swearing in public, openly criticising or belittling someone’s religious faith or cultural beliefs, participating in illegal assemblies and making insensitive remarks about the country, its people and religion in social media.
Extreme public displays of affection are generally frowned upon in Malaysia. This includes groping, French kissing and nuzzling. When meeting with a local in public places, don’t lean forward for a kiss on the cheek or an embrace, unless they initiate it.
While smoking is not illegal in this country, some places prohibit smoking within or around its premises, for example hospitals, government offices and places of worship. Bringing drugs into the country, no matter how little, is a criminal offence – so is the public consumption of illegal substance.
CORPORATE & FORMAL PROTOCOLS
It is important to be mindful of professional and awarded titles and social ranks, if any, when addressing the other person. Handshakes are usually exchanged with members of the same sex only, unless the person of the opposite sex extends his or her hand to you first. It is also customary to introduce the person of a lower rank to the person of a higher rank.
It is customary to exchange business cards after the initial introduction. The cards are usually handed over using both hands or with the right hand supported by the left. It is polite to spend some time studying the card upon receiving it.
For men, formal attire consists of either a dark-coloured business suit, a long-sleeved batik shirt or a traditional costume. For women, the appropriate attire for formal occasions comprises business suits and traditional costumes. Short sleeves or sleeveless tops, as well as shorts and skirts above the knee, are best avoided.
OTHER TIPS & GUIDELINES
Tipping is not necessary in Malaysia as most hotels and restaurants already include a 10% service charge and 5% government sales tax in their bills. However, you can tip if you so wish to show your appreciation for an exceptional service.
Hypermarkets, supermarkets and most retail outlets have fixed prices for their goods, which are displayed on the products. However, haggling or bargaining for the best price is acceptable at markets and bazaars.
Generally, the taxi fares here are based on a prepaid coupon system or a metre, with surcharges for after-midnight and phone-booking services. However, you may find that taxis in some areas, especially within the outskirts or in small towns, do not use either method to set their rates. If such is the case, it is important for you to agree on a price with the taxi driver first (haggling is allowed) before boarding the taxi to avoid unwanted surprises