Malaysia’s population is both ethnically and culturally diverse. The three largest ethnic groups are Malays, Indians and Chinese, each with their own distinguishing social customs and religious practices. Malays account for more than half the population, and lead a calm life governed by the authority of elders and a strong sense of respect and manners.
Don’t Kiss in Public
Public behaviour is important in Malaysian culture. Hugging and kissing are foreign among non-family members of the opposite sex, so refrain from doing so no matter how fond you become of someone. Contact is okay with someone of the same sex, as it is strictly interpreted as brotherly or sisterly love and friendship. Often you might see two males holding hands; this only means friendship in Malaysia.
Don’t Lose Your Temper
Generally, any open display of anger or outrage, however well deserved, will be met with disdain in Malaysia. You should always try and conduct yourself with integrity in order not to lose face or, if in a disagreement, to give face, allowing your Malaysian counterpart to retain dignity. The best way to resolve a disagreement or to challenge someone is through composure. Malaysians by nature tend to be quite relaxed, calm and humble, and you should adopt the same attitude when in their country. When in a difficult situation, state your grievances as privately and subtly as possible. The likelihood is that your Malaysian counterpart will seek to resolve any quandaries if he is treated with this level of respect.
Don’t Put Your Foot in It
Avoid pointing your feet in another person’s direction or moving anything with your feet – it’s considered disrespectful. Also avoid propping your feet on anything, such as a desk. In traditional homes, it is rude, particularly for women to cross their legs when they sit down in front of the host.
Don’t Always Shake on it
Don’t offer to shake hands unless you know that your acquaintances are fairly westernized. Even then, let them offer to shake hands first. Never shake hands with a woman unless she offers to do so first. Some Muslim women prefer to acknowledge introductions to men by merely nodding and smiling. The traditional greeting, or salam, practiced in Malaysia resembles a handshake with both hands but without the grasp. The man offers both hands, lightly touches his friend’s outstretched hands, and then brings his hands to his chest to mean “I greet you from my heart.” The visitor should reciprocate the salam.
To point with your forefinger is considered very rude. Instead indicate people or objects with the thumb of the right hand, with four fingers folded underneath. Don’t put your hands in your pockets in public either, as it may draw suspicion.
Don’t Talk about Tricky Topics
It’s wise not to bring up the topic of ethnic relations in Malaysia or the political system; they are both sensitive subjects.
Do Respect Your Elders
You should respect any formal hierarchy or seniority that becomes evident to you in Malaysia. Family is central to Malaysian life. As such, elders and particularly senior family members should be treated with honour and esteem. It is not uncommon to see younger people bowing their heads as a sign of respect when passing an older person. Challenging a figure of authority in public would be regarded as completely improper and would most likely render you utterly disrespectful and dishonourable in the eyes of your Malaysian counterparts.
Do Eat with Your Right Hand
Malaysians often eat out at restaurants. If you choose to join them, you should be mindful that eating with your left hand is deemed very bad etiquette. This is because, as is common with many Muslim influenced cultures, the left hand is reserved for more crude bathroom-related purposes, so to be seen eating with your left hand would be thought of as dirty and uncouth.
Do Bring a Present
If invited into a Malaysian home for dinner, it is customary to bring a small gift for your host or hostess. Any food or beverage would be gratefully received, and a souvenir from your home country would also be met with much gratitude. Because a lot of Malaysians are Muslims, remember to avoid such gifts as knives, pork or pigskin products, perfumes with alcohol, underwear and other personal products. Remember that you should offer your gift with your right hand. Likewise, any gifts that you receive should be taken with your right hand.
Hospitality tends to be warm, lavish and informal in Malaysia. Drinks and snacks are always served to guests. Never refuse.
Do Respect the Hearth
Remove your shoes when entering homes. Malaysians remove their shoes at the door to keep the house free from dirt. You can always tell if there is some kind of get-together at someone’s house by the number of shoes and sandals scattered around the front door.
Do Observe Souls of Every Age
The head is considered to be the home of the human soul and it’s therefore not appropriate to touch the top of any person’s head.
Do Dress Sensibly
Pay careful attention to your attire when visiting Malaysia, especially if you are female. Wearing shorts and vests on the islands, where Malaysians are used to foreigners, is fine, but might attract harassment elsewhere. Malay women usually go swimming fully dressed and some keep their scarves on. While you wouldn’t be expected to do the same, it’s best not to draw attention to yourself. It is normal for women to wear long sleeves and loose trousers or long skirts when entering a place of worship. Some mosques provide robes and scarves for female visitors. Do remember to take off your shoes when entering temples and mosques.