Customs Traditions & Etiquette of Malaysia

Malaysia is one of the larger countries in South East Asia, sharing a land border with Thailand and the island of Borneo with Indonesia and Brunei. A unique country with many people of varying ethnic backgrounds makes Malaysia a melting pot of different cultures, traditions, and customs – a fact that Malaysia and its citizens celebrate through the sharing of different foods, music, and activities. Visitors to the area with Explorient on the likes of our Malaysia Family Spectacular tour will easily encounter a number of different cultures in this welcoming and varied country, making the question around customs, traditions, and etiquette a bit muddled. That’s why we’ve put together this short guide to Malaysian etiquette and customs to help those who are planning a trip to the area get more prepared for their trip.

Malaysia – About

Malaysia’s location in between many different countries and on several old trade routes means that it’s always had visitors and explorers (if not conquerors) from many different places. The result is a combination of ways of life that are still evident today – with Indian, Chinese and a variety of other cultural influences in the traditions, customs, and food of the region. This can cause some confusion for visitors, so have a read through this short etiquette guide to Malaysia to help prepare yourself for this unique mixture of cultures in one country that you will get to experience when you visit with Explorient on our Malaysia and Borneo Spectacular Tour.

Saving Face, Building Face and Losing Face

The concept of saving, building and losing face is one of the main concepts of Malaysian culture (and indeed, in many southeast Asian cultures as well). The idea is that everyone has a reputation to uphold that can be tarnished or damaged through certain actions. Losing face, at least among westerners, usually occurs when a westerner yells at someone in public or generally behaves badly and acts like a fool. Building face occurs when you pay someone a compliment, give gifts and act courteous and respectful. This concept means that Malaysians (and many people from other countries) act with restraint to help protect their potentially fragile self-worth and social acceptance. It’s generally expected that westerners conduct themselves in a similar way to avoid losing the respect of the locals.

Greetings

As with a number of other cultures, one of the main ways to greet people in Malaysia is by order of hierarchy, with the most senior or eldest person being greeted first. Handshakes are customary between men only, with women and men a bow with one had on the heart is preferred. With women and women, sometimes a grasping of both hands by one person will occur. If in doubt, stick with the bow and hand on heart to avoid offending anyone.

Titles

Generally, titles are widely used and it’s possible that the title aunt or uncle will be used by those who are younger than you to indicate a sign of respect. Mr, Miss, Mrs and the like are usually preferred when meeting people for the first time, and even if you tell someone to call you by your first name, they may still call you “Mr or Mrs such and such”.

Smoking

It is considered disrespectful to smoke around an elderly person, but generally many Malays do not smoke due to religious reasons. Always check in advance if smoking is permitted if you are unsure.

Alcohol and Food

Generally, refrain from giving pork products to any Malay as they may be Muslim. Likewise, many will not be able to drink alcohol so this is also an item that you should refrain from sharing or giving as a gift due to the religious backgrounds of many. That being said alcohol is available for consumption in some restaurants as long as they aren’t run by Hindu or Muslim Malays.

Eating

Always use the right hand to eat food when no utensils are present. Typically food in Malaysia is cut small enough to not need utensils and as a result, there will usually be hand washing provisions at the table or nearby. It’s always considered bad manners to walk while eating so save that street food for an opportunity where you can sit down to enjoy it! It’s considered good manners in Malaysia to clear your plate when eating. However, if you’re invited to a meal at someone’s house, it may be acceptable to leave a small amount of food on the plate to signify you’re satisfied and full as well as to highlight the host’s generosity. Be sure to try all the delicious dishes on offer during your Romantic Malaysia Vacation with Explorient, a gorgeous and relaxing retreat that you won’t soon forget.

Giving and Receiving

Always give and receive items with both hands. If using one hand only – such as in passing an item – use only your right hand as the left is seen as unclean. In the case of gift-giving and receiving it’s considered polite to initially refuse a gift to show you are not greedy. Likewise, it’s also customary to not open the gift in front of the giver, which helps both parties to save face in case the gift is not well received.

Types of Food

It’s important to note that due to the many different cultural and religious backgrounds that Malaysia is home to that you may not be able to find certain dishes throughout the country. Fish is prominent, as is chicken, but pork and beef will be avoided by those of Muslim or Hindu backgrounds respectively. Be sure to try the local specialty Penang curry when you’re visiting the area on Explorient’s Penang Highlights tour. You won’t regret it!

Colors

When it comes to clothing it’s important to note that wearing yellow may be frowned upon as it’s the royal color in Malaysia. Black is also considered inappropriate for clothing. When it comes to things like gift wrap, lighter, bright colors are preferred – such as pastel blues, pinks, and greens. Try to avoid blue and white as these are used in mourning. For Malays, yellow should be avoided due to its royal association, but for Chinese Malays and Indian Malays yellow is acceptable.

Gender Respect

It’s important to remember that Malaysians may be uncomfortable having close associations with those of the opposite gender due to the cultural and religious separation between the genders in Malaysia.

Honest Curiosity

Malaysians are curious people, especially when it comes to foreigners. Expect to field a lot of questions about your family, job, country and about your life in general. To be polite, it’s considered good manners to reciprocate the queries and to ask the person similar questions. Prepare yourself to answer a few of the same questions from many people you might happen across on your Malaysia Highlights tour with Explorient.

Compliments

Compliments and flattery are well received by Malays and they particularly enjoy hearing how their hospitality is being received. However, any compliments or flattery should be done with sincerity as it can cause your host or friend to lose face.

There you have a couple of the points of etiquette, customs, and traditions you will find throughout Malaysia during your time in the country. With many things to remember due to the varying cultural backgrounds, hopefully, this guide will help prepare you for what you should keep in mind in terms of etiquette for the various people you may encounter. Enjoy!