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Doing Business in Malaysia

Malaysian business people are generally culturally savvy and internationally exposed. The best approach is to be friendly yet formal. It's a good idea to follow their lead to avoid offending or alienating business contacts.

Market Key Facts

Key Source Regions/Cities

Kuala Lumpur, Subang Jaya, Klang, Johot Bahru, Georgetown

Direct Routes into New Zealand

Kuala Lumpur - Auckland


Malaysia Airlines

Leave Entitlement

14 days per annum


29,628,392 (July 2013 est.)


Bahasa Malaysia (official), English, Chinese (Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan, Foochow), Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Panjabi, Thai


Malaysia Ringgit (MYR)

Total Outbound Travellers

Outbound travel from Malaysia increased from 4.3 million in 2000, to 6.6 million in 2009
(2010+ data unavailable)

Peak Booking Periods

Pre-Chinese New Year, March / September (Consumer Travel Fair - MATTA) pre-Hari Raya (end August/early September), Pre-school Holidays (May, August, October/November)

Peak Travel Periods

Mid November to December, and the last week of May until the first week of June.

Data sources:
CIA World Factbook (Currency, Language)
www.singstat.gov.sg (Total Outbound Travellers, Population)

Doing Business in Malaysia

As a multi-cultural society (main ethnic groups are the native Malays as well as large populations of Chinese, and Indians), the concept of 'face' is very strong in Malaysia.

Face is a personal concept that embraces qualities such as a good name, good character, and being held in esteem by one's peers. Face is considered a commodity that can be given, lost, taken away, or earned. Face can be lost by openly criticising, insulting, or putting someone on the spot; doing something that brings shame to the group; challenging someone in authority, especially if this is done in public; showing anger at another person; refusing a request; not keeping a promise or or disagreeing with someone publicly.

Conversely, face can be saved by remaining calm and courteous, discussing errors or transgressions in private, speaking about problems without blaming anyone, using non-verbal communication to say "no", and allowing the other person to get out of the situation with their pride intact.

Meetings and Greetings

  • Initial greetings should be formal and denote proper respect. If in a team, introduce the most important person first.

  • Many Malays and Indians are uncomfortable shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex. Foreign men should always wait for a Malaysian woman to extend her hand. Foreign women should also wait for a Malaysian man to extend his hand.

  • To demonstrate respect Chinese may look downwards rather than at the person they are meeting.

  • It is important that professional titles (professor, doctor, engineer) and honorific titles are used in business. Malays and Indians use titles with their first name while Chinese use titles with their surname.

  • Business cards are exchanged after the initial introductions.

  • If you will be meeting Chinese, have one side of your card translated into Chinese, with the Chinese characters printed in gold.

  • If you will be meeting government officials, have one side of your card translated into Bahasa Malaysia.

  • Use two hands or the right hand only to exchange business cards.

  • Examine any business card you receive before putting it in your business card case. The respect you show someone's business card is indicative of the respect you will show the individual in business. Never write on someone's card in their presence.


As an extension to the need to maintain harmonious relations, Malaysians rely on non-verbal communication (i.e. facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc). This communication style tends to be subtle and indirect.

  • Malays may hint at a point rather than making a direct statement, since that might cause the other person to lose face. Rather than say "no", they might say, "I will try", or "I'll see what I can do". This allows the person making the request and the person turning it down to save face and maintain harmony in their relationship.

  • If you are unsure about the affirmative response you received, you may want to continue the discussion, re-phrasing the question in several different ways so that you may compare responses. If the response was given because the Malaysian did not know how to respond in the negative without causing offence, this may come out. Alternatively, they may have someone else give you the bad news.

  • Silence is an important element of Malaysian communication. Pausing before responding to a question indicates that they have given the question appropriate thought and considered their response carefully. Many Malaysians do not understand the Western propensity to respond to a question hastily and can consider such behaviour thoughtless and rude.

  • Malaysians may laugh at what may appear to outsiders as inappropriate moments. This device is used to conceal uneasiness.

  • Do not show anger in public as it makes Malaysians uncomfortable and creates a feeling of powerlessness. There is a greater chance of achieving a good outcome if you are calm, whereas little is resolved by shouting.

Business Meetings

  • It is a good idea for the most senior person on your team to enter first so that he or she is the first to greet the most senior Malaysian. This gives face to both parties as it demonstrates respect towards the Malaysian and shows that you respect hierarchy within your company.

  • It is customary for leaders to sit opposite each other around the table.

  • Many companies will have their team seated in descending rank, although this is not always the case. Expect the most senior Malaysian to give a brief welcoming speech. You need not reciprocate.

  • There will be a period of small talk, which will end when the most senior Malaysian is comfortable moving to the business discussion.

  • Meetings may be conducted or continue over lunch and dinner.

  • Meetings, especially initial ones, are generally somewhat formal. Treat all Malaysian participants with respect and be cautious not to lose your temper or appear irritated. At the first meeting between two companies, Malaysians will generally not get into in-depth discussions. They prefer to use the first meeting as an opportunity to get to know the other side and build a rapport, which is essential in this consensus-driven culture.

Want to know more about doing business in Malaysia?

Visit the New Zealand Trade & Enterprise website