Malaysia presents the visitor with a myriad of different cultures within its business world. There are, however, certain key similarities which bind the country together.
As Malaysia is very ethnically diverse, try to do as much research on your potential contacts as possible before entering into negotiations – these factors can have a telling impact on how things proceed.
Although the government has positively discriminated in favour of ethnic Malays, the Chinese and Indian business communities still play a pivotal role in the Malaysian business world.
Most business structures tend towards the hierarchical with information flowing to the top and most decisions being made by key senior management figures.
It is important to ensure that you are dealing with the key senior figures as a great deal of time can be spent debating issues with people who may play little part in the decision-making process.
The manager is expected to manage and to make decisions. Subordinates may feel uncomfortable when given vague, non-specific instructions.
Tasks may remain undone, unless specific instructions are issued from the boss – even if it is apparent that the task needs urgent attention.
The boss/subordinate role can be likened to the father/son relationship. The boss is expected to take an interest in the overall well being of subordinates. In return for this concern, subordinates will offer diligence and loyalty.
Individual aspirations are seen as secondary to the needs of the group. Rewards and motivation come from group success.
Meetings can be lengthy, starting with a great deal of relationship- building small talk. It is not unusual for initial meetings to focus solely on non-business related issues.
Relationships must be firmly established before business can commence. Do not underestimate the need to allocate time and resource to the relationship-building aspect of a project.
The aim of most meetings is to develop or enhance the relationship. This is generally achieved through promoting a harmonious atmosphere. Do not destroy the harmony through being overly pushy when trying to reach a decision.
Do not be surprised if meetings start late or last longer than had originally been scheduled. Build delays into your timetables.
All of the major cultures you may encounter when doing business in Malaysia are basically group-oriented. It is important to take into account the needs of the whole group rather than any one individual. Singling out an individual for praise or specific reward could cause that individual embarrassment within the group.
Politeness and diplomacy are prerequisites when doing business in Malaysia. Directness can be misconstrued as rudeness and is seen as the behaviour of people who lack respect. (And those people will not, therefore, be worthy of respect themselves.)
It is difficult for people to say no or to deliver bad news. Don’t always take the word ‘yes’ to mean ‘I agree’. It could be merely an affirmation of understanding.
English is widely spoken and very many people have a near-fluent command of the language. Superficially, therefore, communication is generally much easier than in some other countries in the region. However, be aware that what is said is not necessarily what is meant. Look for the coded-meaning behind all communication.
When giving gifts, be sensitive to the cultural background of the recipient. Is your contact a Malay Muslim or of Chinese origin?
Be aware of the special requirements of the majority Muslim population with regard to such issues as prayer, diet and fasting.
Women will encounter fewer difficulties when working in Malaysia than in countries such as Japan or Korea.
Written and Produced by Keith Warburton
This country profile has been produced to give a short overview of some of the key concepts to bear in mind when doing business with contacts in Malaysia. It is intended to be an aid to business people who have commercial dealings with counterparties in the country but should not be seen as an exhaustive guide to this topic or as a substitute for more substantial research should there be a need.
With this in mind, we have covered the areas which are key to a better understanding of the cultural mindset underpinning business dealings in Malaysia and which are, quite often, extremely different from the approach and thought processes associated with business in other parts of the world.
Therefore this briefing note is broken into short, bite-sized sections on the following topics: