Books Malaysia Review Travelling

Malaysian Customs and Culture

Get ready for visiting Malaysia by learning about the customs and culture of this amazing multicultural country

Our upcoming trip is going to involve quite a lot of family time and, as I have never been to an Asian country, I started wondering about cultural differences. My first idea was to ask Daniel’s mom – after all she’s been through this before, and also her first visit to Malaysia was during the honeymoon. However, she had only one piece of advice: don’t run around naked, everything else should be fine.

(Question to myself: do I want to know how she came to realise that? Daniel thinks it was a joke…)
Assuming that it can’t be as easy as that (and being my geeky social scientist self) I bought an e-book on the subject: the “Culture Smart!” series issue about Malaysia. It is written by the British anthropologist and sociologist Victor T. King who is the professor of South-East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds.

Malaysian Customs and Culture

Malaysian customs and culture, bookAll in all, it is a pretty good book: interestingly written and covering a wide range of topics (e.g. values and attitudes, religion, etiquette and dress, housing and family life, language etc.). For each of the topics the author expands on the peculiarities of each of the three main ethnicities – the Malays, the Chinese, and the Indians. By the end of the book I felt like I have bits and pieces of information on a lot of issues, yet barely any in-depth information on anything in particular.

Perhaps the problem is that I’m just not the intended target-group of this book? After all, I’m not an Anglo-American businessman moving to Malaysia. Information about the choice of restaurants for business dinners depending on the ethnicity of my partners, or the tips and tricks for training a local maid are definitely not among the things that I need to know.

Below is a little selection of tips from the book.

General advice

  • Since social harmony and respect are very important, it is very rude to openly express negative feelings, e.g., to openly complain about service in a shop or a restaurant
  • Yet, unless you have gotten to know people, they will not correct you or tell you that you’re doing something inappropriate (expect cool politeness instead)
  • The conception of time is rather flexible: referred to as “rubber time” (well, at least by the Malays)
  • Malaysia is a shopping paradise but, especially in markets and small shops, shopping also means haggling – even if prices are marked, doesn’t mean they’re fixed! (damn, I’ve never been good at it…)


  • Never refuse food!
  • If someone invites you, you will never ever be allowed to pay
  • Breakfast is usually a warm meal
  • Noisy eating is not only ok but also seen as a sign of appreciating the food (I am getting a mental image of my mom telling me not to slurp the soup…)
  • In some restaurants its common to just throw all food rests on the table (I can do that… I guess)


  • Do not point with index finger to people or animals (right way: point with the thumb instead, bending it slightly with the fingers folded into the palm)
  • The right way to summon a person: hold the hand out, palm downward, move the fingers together toward the body
  • Avoid passing things with the left hand
  • Firm handshakes are impolite (this would be sooo hard for a Latvian man)
  • Try not to show the soles of your shoes or feet
  • And last but not least, kissing or touching in public between members of the opposite sex should be avoided (even on honeymoon?)

Let’s see how useful all of this will be in the end. Reading surely was interesting. On a side note though, one can notice that the book is written by a Brit: clear advice is given on the kind of jokes that are appropriate AND it’s noted that socialising with the Chinese and the Indians might be easier than with the Malays – after all, one cannot meet the latter for a “relaxing drink” at a bar or a restaurant!


Cover photo: A market trader in Kota Bharu, Malaysia. Flickr Creative Commons photo courtesy jamesmellor

Get ready for visiting Malaysia by learning about the customs and culture of this amazing multicultural country
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