In an ideal world, the ethnicity of the person sitting across the table shouldn't matter. In Malaysia it sorta does. Malaysia's melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and indigenous races, each with unique quirks, is a potential cultural faux pas minefield for the hapless foreign traveller. Luckily Malaysians are a pretty forgiving bunch - but it's a good idea to know the basic cultural dos and don'ts to make a great first impression.
2. Whoa…"relak lah".
Meetings can sometimes be lengthy with a lot of small talk. Westerners who are focussed on doing a transaction quickly might be seen as pushy or impatient - take time to form relationships first. Being too direct may be interpreted as rude or disrespectful. Like people anywhere in the world, Malaysians like to do business with people they know and trust. Don't underestimate the need to establish a relationship before any real business can commence.
3. Business card etiquette.
Business cards or 'name cards' as they are called in Malaysia are essential meeting accessories. All meetings are preceded with an almost ceremonial exchange of name cards. A Malaysian will offer her name card holding it with both hands, face up towards you. Accept it respectfully with both hands and read it, before offering your card in the same manner. Place all collected name cards face up on the table in front of you where you are seated, for the duration of the meeting.
4. Food business.
In all business encounters food will be involved. It may be as simple as 'kuih' (local cakes) served during the meeting, it could be an offer of lunch at a nearby restaurant, or it may even be excessive hospitality in the form of an elaborate dinner washed down with abundant alcohol followed by a karaoke session. In any case, Malaysians love their food and they love to see foreigners enjoy it too. Do partake of the hospitality, and in some cases don't expect to do any serious business until after a lunch or dinner.
5. Be punctual - but don't expect everybody else to be.
In a country where the daily temperature range is only a few degrees (from sizzling to sweltering), where amazing food is a constant distraction, and where the mother of all downpours can erupt at any time and turn already bad traffic into an ankle-deep parking lot, it's no wonder that Malaysians don't really take an appointment time that seriously. They even have a name for it - "Malaysian time", which refers to the rubbery nature of timekeeping in Malaysia and helps explain why meetings often start late or last longer than scheduled. Don't get uptight about waiting a half hour in the reception for the boss to appear, or waiting an hour for a VIP to arrive at an official dinner, before the meal can be served.
6. How many meetings can you schedule in a day?
For a start forget about scheduling anything before 10am. In case you haven't noticed, in Malaysia everything starts late and ends late - shops open around 10am to 11am and close when customers stop coming in - usually around 10pm. A safe estimate is two meetings a day, maximum three. There are just too many variables to schedule more than that - possibilities of extreme traffic, extreme weather, extreme lunches and the effects of "Malaysian time" can torpedo the best-planned schedule.
7. Shaking hands etiquette.
Not all Malaysians shake hands like Westerners. A customary Malay handshake is a gentle clasp - no shaking - then releasing and placing the hand gently over the heart. A foreigner would not be expected to do the same, but anticipate it - don't squeeze and shake the arm off your Malay counterpart who might be giving you this traditional form of greeting. Most Malaysians will probably reciprocate with a regular handshake, but do anticipate the other type. Also, for some conservative Muslim woman (likely to be wearing a "tudung" or headscarf) it is inappropriate to hold the hand of a stranger in a handshake. Rather than risk her having to awkwardly decline to shake your hand, it's probably a safer bet to just greet her with a smile and nod of the head, and wait for her to offer a hand first.
8. "I showed up in a suit and everybody was wearing Hawaiian shirts!"
That's not a Hawaiian shirt - it's a traditional batik shirt, worn tucked out, which is considered formal attire for Malays in particular, or for any race attending a formal function. Business attire for meetings is suit and tie for men, skirt and blouse for women. Evening functions can be more casual and you can dispense with the tie. Women should be aware of Muslim sensitivities when dealing with Malay counterparts, ensuring clothes are modest and not revealing.
9. Understand and respect the concept of “face”.
Many Asian cultures pay great importance to the concept of “face”. It relates to maintaining a status level in the eyes of peers. Giving your client face is important in business and social life. Causing a business counterpart to lose face would be a deal-breaker. It's mostly common sense, but be careful to never criticise anyone in front of their peers; avoid sarcasm or jokes at the expense of a business counterpart (which may be perfectly harmless in western society); never treat a business counterpart as a subordinate; praise business counterparts for their great work in front of their colleagues - genuinely.
10. Apa khabar?
English is widely used as the medium for conducting business meetings in Malaysia. However, knowing a few local words will go a loooong way as an icebreaker, and will gain you respect for having made the effort. Some more conservative organisations such as government agencies might be more comfortable conducting a meeting in Bahasa Malaysia. In which case you will need to have a local colleague or ally, familiar with the business dealings, to interpret. Also, if a business counterpart is not fluent in English, forcing a meeting in English might not be giving him face - if they are seen to be struggling to understand proceedings. Although English is widely spoken and near-fluently by many people, some meanings can still slip through the cracks due to unfamiliar accents or colloquialisms, on both sides of the table. It's best to follow up with a contact report to make sure everybody is on the same page.
11. Expect to bargain over price.
For a Westerner, the quoted price usually is the price - for a Malaysian it's a starting point for negotiations. Always allow some room in your costing to give your Malaysian counterpart a discount. Having no room at all to move in a price negotiation is a deal breaker. It is ingrained in Malaysian culture to expect a small victory in any negotiation, as well as being great 'face' for the victor. Malaysians never pay the opening price for anything - they love a bargain, and probably love the chase for it even more.
12. Safety and Security issues.
Don't assume vehicles will stop at junctions when crossing streets. Don't make yourself a target for thieves by wearing expensive jewellery or watches. Avoid carrying briefcases or handbags in the street. Try to walk with a group at night and don't venture off well-lit streets. Be very careful of the deep, open monsoon drains, which are everywhere. Many a foreigner has come to grief at the bottom of one (including the author), which will absolutely bring your business trip to an abrupt end.
About the author - Melbourne-based Steve Bristow spent 20 years in Malaysia - 4 years as a consultant for broadcaster TV3, followed by 16 years as a co-founder and manager of three media production businesses in Kuala Lumpur. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org