Malaysian Communication Styles

Malaysians prefer to give bad news in a very circuitous way through the use of coded messages, which may be difficult to pick up on. Malaysian communication styles are characterised by extreme forms of politeness and diplomacy.

The underlying drive is to ensure the preservation of the existing harmony within a group or to develop a sense of harmony with new contacts. Thus communication can, at times, seem overly formal or protocolistic – and this is especially true when carrying bad news or when giving information to superiors.

It is often good to spend time going through the social pleasantries before discussing any actual business issues. This ice-breaking is a vital part of the relationship-building process and its importance should never be underestimated. Suitable topics of conversation would be family, sport (especially soccer), your impressions of Malaysia, your organisation, future plans etc. Topics to avoid might be politics, religion and ethnic tensions in Malaysia.

‘No’ is a difficult word and is therefore rarely heard. Malaysians prefer to give bad news in a very circuitous way through the use of coded messages, which may be difficult to pick up on. When unsure of the exact meaning of what has been said, try to ask a few open questions to draw out further information. It is probably safest to assume that anything other than a definite ‘yes’ followed by detailed plans is really a ‘no’. Most Malaysians working in any kind of international role speak fluent English and indeed fluency in English is seen as a mark of prestige. Most people will also speak their own native language and also Bahasa Malayu, which is used as a bridge language across the various ethnic divides.

A brief overview of some key concepts to consider when doing business in Malaysia

Written and Produced by Keith Warburton

Free Download


Malaysia often appears very near the top of the tree in the ‘Best Country to Invest in’ league tables. With a highly skilled, well-educated workforce and a pro-business government Malaysia attracts high levels of foreign direct investment and Kuala Lumpur is rapidly becoming a destination of choice for global organisations who are looking to establish an Asian head office. In fact, more than 5000 companies from over 40 countries have established operations in Malaysia and that trend looks set to continue.

It would appear then that lots of global organisations consider doing business in Malaysia to be an attractive proposition. You should ask yourself why you haven’t considered Malaysia as a potential market if you are still to make that move. Political stability, great infrastructure, a highly motivated workforce and ideal geographic location make doing business in Malaysia sound like good business sense.

Yet Malaysia is a complex mix of different ethnicities all working and living together. This mix has produced a very distinctive local business culture which you need to understand before starting to build relationships and sell your good or services. Traditionally the minority Chinese section of society ran most business activities in the country but changing demographics and pro-Malay legislation have altered this picture over the past few decades. How have these changes impacted on day-to-day business dealings in Malaysia? What type of communication style can you expect from such a mixed-race culture? How do traditional hierarchical mindsets fit with the more modern matrixed approach used by so many foreign capital companies? You need to think about these things before you arrive in Kuala Lumpur rather than on the plane home. Don’t leave things to chance; do some homework.

This country profile provides an overview of some of the key aspects of Malaysian business culture in a concise, easy to follow-format. The document includes information on:

  • Background to business
  • Business Structures
  • Management style
  • Meetings
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Women in business
  • Entertaining
  • Top tips