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THE SECRET TO DOING BUSINESS IN MALAYSIA
by Gobala Krishnan, IAHBE Staff Writer
One of the most important aspects of business etiquette in Malaysia and Singapore is the diversity and complexity of cultures and subcultures you'll need to understand, in order to not stand out like a sore thumb. The uninformed business traveler may find the rules to doing business in Malaysia starkly different, even when compared to Malaysia's closest neighbors like Thailand and Indonesia.
Being in the strategic center of historical friends and business partners such as India and China—and not to mention the British empire's role in the development and liberalization of the country—Malaysia's main population consists mainly of three major populations: the Bumiputera (Malays) 65.1%, Chinese 26.0%, and Indians 7.7%. Although some basic rules apply to all people when doing business in Malaysia, special care needs to be taken when addressing each ethnic population's individual customs, beliefs, and business etiquette.
On a general note, you may find business owners and associates in Malaysia tend to do business only with friends and people they trust or like, so it is an important point to understand and practice some simple tips when interacting or negotiating with a Malaysian business person.
GUIDE TO DOING BUSINESS IN MALAYSIA
One common mistake most people make is to address a Malaysian by his/her last name. In Malaysia, especially among Malays and Indians, most people tend to have only one name, with middle names a rarity, and the last name usually being the name of a person's father. Although it may be common practice in the Western world to formally address a person using his or her last name, in Malaysia doing so can obviously be considered rude, since you would be addressing your business partner's father. Instead, the safer option would be to stick to a person's first name, even in formal situations.
Naming patterns is a small but nevertheless important point to note. The Chinese usually have their surname up front, followed by their actual name, which are usually two words. Addressing a Chinese by his/her surname can be considered rude unless you have a strong existing relationship or you're actually requested to do so. The Malays are known by a given name followed by "bin" [son of] or "binti" [daughter of] plus his or her father's name. Indians traditionally do not have surnames. Instead, both males and females use the initial of their father's name first, followed by their own name.
When completing contracts or any type of business form in Malaysia, a column for "last name" is usually not required. Using the "first name" and "last name" option would only create confusion, if anything, since some names consist of more than three words. Some Malaysian names can also be difficult to pronounce. So, if in doubt, clarify the pronunciation with your Malaysian counterpart.
When conducting meetings or making introductions, most Malaysian men are open to handshakes, but it pays to be careful when dealing with the opposite sex. When making introductions to Malaysian women, only offer your hand if a handshake has been initiated by the other person. Otherwise a polite smile and nod will do.
When passing around your business card or receiving it from others, these important points need to be followed:
1) When you get a card, don't just shove it into your pocket or bag. Instead, study the card for a while before putting it away. Not paying attention to the card before putting it away may be considered rude by your Malaysian hosts.
2) When giving your card to a Malaysian, always present it with the print facing upwards, with both hands if possible.
3) It is best if your card is printed in English, with a Chinese version on the back, since most Malaysian businesspeople tend to be Chinese.
NEGOTIATIONS AND DECISION MAKING
On your business trip to Malaysia, you may come to realize just how polite and hospitable Malaysians can be. While that's a really a good thing, the other side of the coin is that the same politeness is often carried forward to business.
One glaring aspect of it is that you will hardly hear anyone say a direct "No" when negotiating a business deal. Even if they really mean to say "No," it's usually in the subdued form of "I'll have to think about it" or "That sounds good, but...". It's important that you take these hints and start your conversation on another path. In other words, when you hear you Malaysian counterpart hesitating, it's time to switch to Plan B.
Another point to note is that deals are rarely concluded on the first meeting. It's better to take your first meeting with a Malaysian business person as an introduction and relationship-building experience, and follow-up with at least another meeting before you can expect the deal to be closed. Establishing a productive business relationship requires a long-term commitment, and even when the deal is closed, you can expect some further negotiations to take place. In Malaysia, unlike in the U.S. or most western countries, negotiating even after a contract has been signed is perfectly normal.
Generally Malaysians tend not to express their feelings openly, so avoid being emotional or letting off steam in public. Keep your cool and refrain from showing that you are upset. According to Executive Planet (http://www.executiveplanet.com/), "Losing face," that is, being embarrassed or losing control of one's emotions in public, has negative consequences in the Malaysian society. Therefore, avoid embarrassing your Malaysian host by any means necessary. Malaysians will tend to look upon you as a confident person, and feel more comfortable dealing with you, if you keep your anger or frustration under control and your emotions out of the public eye.
SPECIFIC TRAITS OF THE MAJOR ETHNIC POPULATIONS IN MALAYSIA
As I mentioned, Malaysia is a multicultural society, and even if you have been to China or India, you may find that the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia are quite different. The infusion of the separate cultures has led to a more "Malaysianized" subculture that applies to everyone. However, individual differences do exist, and anyone who wants to do business in Malaysia can take good heed of these general guidelines:
Malays - The Malays tend to be quite governed by and bonded to Islam and the rules of the religion. It is important to note that Islam is the official religion of Malaysia. In any event, with Malays, alcohol and alcoholic beverages are not encouraged. The same goes for pork, which is altogether forbidden by Islam, and the presence of dogs, which are considered "dirty" by the religion. Exposing too much of your skin is also considered taboo, so dress moderately and appropriately.
Chinese - The Chinese make up much of the business world in Malaysia. They can be considered superstitious when concerning dates and numbers, so expect quite a few changes to the plan. Some numbers, especially four and 14, are considered bad for business, and will be avoided at all costs. Many Chinese in Malaysia speak English, but they don't get too hung up on the grammar and pronunciations. Their version of English is often called "Manglish" or Malaysian English.
- The Malaysian Indians have traditionally held posts as government officials,
lawyers, and educators. The majority of them speak proper English, albeit
with a heavy Indian accent. Cows are sacred to the Hindu Indians, and
having beef at meals should be avoided. If you're not sure if your business
counterpart is a Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian, it won't hurt to ask.
Indians usually have the worst punctuality problem among the three populations,
and "Indian Timing," a catch phrase and joke in Malaysia, usually
means anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour late.
Doing business in Malaysia is quite an interesting experience when you follow the basic guidelines mentioned above. Always plan your trip in advance, and allow a gap of one or two days between your arrival and departure to get to know your Malaysian counterparts better and focus on building the relationship first. It would also be very beneficial if you had a key contact person or business partner in Malaysia, either as an intermediary, representative, or as a guide.
SOURCES AND ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Department of Statistics
Commercial Service Malaysia
- ASEAN Business Council
Gobala Krishnan is a staff writer for the IAHBE, and an Internet marketer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His Website is at http://www.gobalakrishnan.com