First Time Visiting Malaysia? Get To Know These Things First

For most people, one reason for choosing a workplace is the proximity of their work location to their home. This also applies to Filipinos who look for work abroad; thus, making Malaysia and Singapore and Hong Kong ideal locations for overseas Filipino workers.

However, the location is not exactly everything. Other factors such as cultural resemblance, way of life, and cost of living are also considered. In this guide, we will spotlight what every expat, including OFWs, should know about Malaysian culture.

First Time Visiting Malaysia? Get To Know These Things First

Here’s What Every Expat Should Know About Malaysian Culture

Malaysian culture is eclectic, with influences from both the east and the west. Malaysia is a wonderful melting pot of traditions and practices spanning decades, with a varied population spanning diverse ethnic groupings. This, paired with western sensibilities, creates a one-of-a-kind dichotomy that is a treat to behold. Here are some of the most important things you need to know about Malaysian culture if you’re travelling or working here for the first time:

Language in Malaysia

The Malay language is an Austronesian language spoken not just by Malaysians but also by Malay people on the Malay Peninsula, southern Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, central eastern Sumatra, the Riau islands, parts of Borneo’s coast, and the Cocos and Christmas Islands in Australia.

It is also quite similar to Indonesian, which is known as Bahasa Indonesia in the country.

The language is officially recognized in Malaysia as Bahasa Malaysia, which translates as “Malaysian language.” The phrase was used until the 1990s when most academics and government officials reverted to “Bahasa Melayu,” which is used in the Malay version of the Federal Constitution.

Malay Culture and Society

A Cultural Melting Pot

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country. The largest ethnic groupings include the indigenous Malays, as well as considerable Chinese and Indian populations. When travelling through the country, it is evident that ethnicity has retained their beliefs, cultures, and way of life. Each group’s most important festivals are public holidays.

Even though children are educated in the same schools and eventually work in the same offices as they grow up, few marry outside their own ethnicity. Families tend to socialize within their own ethnic group – all in the name of preserving their own traditions and lifestyles.

Despite ethnic variations, there are cultural similarities.

Group Orientation

The family is seen as the social structure’s focal point. As a result, a strong emphasis is placed on unity, loyalty, and respect for the elderly. The family is the only area where an individual may be certain of both emotional and financial support. When one family member experiences a financial setback, the rest of the family will pitch in to help. Families are typically extended, though this will naturally vary in larger cities.

The Concept of Face

Malays, Chinese, and Indians all work hard to keep their faces and prevent public and private embarrassment. Face is a personal idea that encompasses attributes such as having a good name, having excellent character, and being respected by peers. Face is regarded as a commodity that can be given, lost, revoked, or earned. On top of that, this face extends to the family, school, company, and even the entire country.

Malaysians seek for healthy relationships to keep their face.

Face can be lost in various ways, such as:

  • openly criticizing, insulting, or putting someone on the spot;
  • doing anything that brings embarrassment to the group;
  • publicly questioning someone in power;
  • displaying anger at another person;
  • declining a request;
  • failing to honor a commitment;
  • or publicly disagreeing with someone.

Face, on the other hand, can be saved by:

  • remaining cool and courteous;
  • resolving mistakes or transgressions privately;
  • speaking about difficulties without blaming anyone;
  • utilizing nonverbal communication to indicate “no”; and
  • allowing the other person to leave the scene with their pride intact.

Social Etiquette and Important Traditions Observed in Malaysia


Being a multi-cultural country, names are used differently based on ethnicity:

Chinese: The Chinese have three names that have been passed down through generations. The surname (family name) comes first, then two personal names.

Many Chinese people adopt more Western names and may request that you use them instead.

Malays: Many Malays have no surnames. Men, on the other hand, join their father’s name to their own with the phrase “bin” (meaning “son of”). So Rosli bin Suleiman would be Suleiman’s son Rosli.

Women use the phrase “binti,” therefore Aysha bint Suleiman is Suleiman’s daughter.

Indian: Surnames are not used by many Indians. Instead, they put the first letter of their father’s name in front of their own. The man’s formal name is their name “s/o” (son of) and their father’s name.

Women use “d/o” to refer to themselves as their father’s daughter.

Meeting and Greeting

In a social setting, greetings will vary depending on the ethnicity of the person you are meeting. Most Malays are aware of Western customs; therefore, a handshake can be expected. There may be minor changes, and here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Malay women are not permitted to shake hands with men. Of course, ladies can shake hands with other women. Men should not shake hands with ladies and should instead bow with their hand on their chest.
  • The Chinese handshake is light and can be rather lengthy.
  • Men and women can shake hands, but the lady must first extend her hand. As a sign of respect, many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting.

There is a general tendency among all cultures to introduce:

  • the most important individual to the lower-ranking person
  • the older individual to the younger individual
  • women to men


First Time Visiting Malaysia? Get To Know These Things First

Gifts are typically given to express thanks, such as to express gratitude for a welcoming act. You should bring a small present if you are invited to someone’s home.

Here are some common standards for gift-giving etiquette:

Gift-giving to Malays:

If you are invited to someone’s home for supper, bring pastries or high-quality chocolates for the hostess.

  • Never gift alcohol to anyone in Malaysia.
  • Toy dogs and pigs should not be given to children.
  • Nothing made of pigskin should be given.
  • Avoid using white wrapping paper because it represents death and sadness.
  • Yellow wrapping paper should be avoided because it is the color attributed only to the royals.
  • If you distribute food, it must be “halal” (meaning permissible for Muslims).
  • Gifts should be given with the right hand only, or both hands if the item is large.
  • Gifts are typically not opened after they are received.

Gift-giving to Chinese:

Bring a little present of fruit, sweets, or cakes if you are invited to someone’s home, stating that it is for the children.

  • To demonstrate that the recipient is not greedy, a gift is usually declined before it is received.
  • Giving scissors, knives, or other cutting tools indicates a wish to end the connection.
  • Flowers are not appropriate gifts because they are typically given to the sick and used at funerals.
  • Gifts should not be wrapped in mourning colors such as white, blue, or black.
  • Wrap the gifts in bright colors such as red, pink, or yellow.
  • Gift wrapping should be elaborate.
  • Never wrap a baby’s present or decorate it in any manner with a stork, as birds are the bringers of death.
  • Odd numbers are unlucky, so it is recommended to present gifts in even numbers.
  • Gifts are typically not opened when they are received.

Gift-giving to Indians:

  • Money should be given in odd numbers.
  • Gifts should be given with the right hand only, or both hands if the item is large.
  • Gifts should not be wrapped in white or black.
  • Wrap presents in red, yellow, green, or other bright colors to bring good fortune.
  • No leather products should be gifted to a Hindu.
  • Don’t give alcohol unless you know the receiver drinks.
  • Gifts are typically not opened when they are received.

Other Useful Information

Residents enjoy being on social media – almost all the time!

First Time Visiting Malaysia? Get To Know These Things First

Malaysia is the leading Southeast Asian country in mobile social media usage, ranking first in the region and fifth internationally. Malaysians spend an average of eight hours and five minutes every day online, according to Hootsuite and We Are Social!

Social media consumption might take up to two hours and 58 minutes.

E-commerce accounts for 75% of internet usage, with mobile commerce platforms accounting for 58%.

So don’t be concerned about being cut off from the rest of the world if you visit Malaysia.

Malaysians know and enjoy good food.

First Time Visiting Malaysia? Get To Know These Things First

Malaysians frequently greet one another with the phrase “Sudah Makan?”

(Have you eaten yet?) rather than “How are you?”

Everything revolves around amazing food, eating, cooking, blogs, videos, and social media here in Malaysia.

Almost everyone in the country will get out their phone to take a picture of food.

Locals frequently dine out, few cook at home, and when they do, it’s mainly for the weekend dinner.

Every night, almost everybody goes out to eat; Malaysians adore food and late-night meals!

Malaysians enjoy a culturally diversified cuisine ranging from Mamak meals (a fusion of Indian and Malay cuisine) to Nyonya dishes (a fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisines).

If you are invited to a buffet, you will find Western salads and local curries competing for space with Chinese foods. With cream cakes, kuehs from the nearby area, and fruits.

First Time Visiting Malaysia? Get To Know These Things First

Indeed, visiting a charming country such as Malaysia can be a frightening experience at first. Still, with the right attitude and good working knowledge of how people behave socially, the experience can quickly become one of the best you’ll ever have!

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