Introduction to Malaysian Culture Customs and Etiquette
Here is a list of Malaysian Culture and Customs for first-time travelers to Malaysia.
Malaysians are friendly, speak English, and are hospitable to travelers. If you are a first-time traveler, you will encounter a lot of friendly smiles and helpful tips on the best foods to eat in the country.
Malaysians are very proud of their national dishes and often will point you to a nearby eatery and tell you the best dish to order.
Malaysian Culture Customs and Etiquette
Malaysia is the leading Southeast Asia nation to rank highest regionally and the top 5 globally in mobile social media usage. According to Hootsuite and We Are Social, Malaysians spend a daily average of eight hours and five minutes online!
Up to two hours and 58 minutes is attributed to social media consumption.
75% of the internet users spend their money via e-commerce with 58% spending on mobile commerce platforms.
So don’t worry about being disconnected from the rest of the world when you travel to Malaysia.
Most people speak English
Generally, Malaysians do speak good English.
Malaysians speak English fluently and can communicate well with another English speaker confidently.
English is still the lingua-franca in the professional and business world so you not have any problems communicating with the locals.
For areas with a lot of tourists, it is only natural that the locals can speak fluently in English.
Malaysian Culture Customs
Malaysians consume content in English both in reading and watching English TV programs, especially American shows.
We are at ease with British and American culture.
Culturally most Malaysians practice has their mandatory afternoon tea which may be a local snack with a “teh Tarik” instead of a traditional English tea.
Greetings in Malaysia
Generally in the West, handshakes are acceptable for both men and women.
Bowing is the traditional greeting in East Asia.
You may nod or give a slight bow with your hand over your heart when being introduced to a Malay woman or an older person.
Don’t offer to shake hands unless you’re certain that your acquaintances are westernized.
The traditional “salam” can be used. This greeting resembles a handshake with both hands but without the grasp.
The man offers both hands, lightly touches his friend’s outstretched hands, and then brings his hands to his chest to mean, “I greet you from my heart”.
The visitor should reciprocate the salam by doing the same.
Often a handshake should only be initiated by ladies.
Some Muslim ladies may acknowledge introductions to gentlemen by merely nodding and smiling.
More importantly, smile when you greet people.
Direct Approach in Everything
Malaysians are friendly, straight forward people; they are direct in their approach and will tell you exactly what they think.
Malaysians are also quick to tell each other if one behaves foolishly.
You may hear a Malaysian tell a road hog, “kopi license ar?” about human intervention and eradicate the kopi-o license culture – where a learner driver pays “duit kopi” (under-the-counter bribe) for a ‘guaranteed to pass’ packages in the old day.
This system has been eradicated now with an automated system for driving tests.
Food is the national obsession
Malaysians commonly greet each other with the phrase ‘Sudah makan?’ (Have you eaten already) instead of a “How are you?”
Everything in Malaysia revolves around great food, eating, cooking, blogs, videos, and social media.
Just about anyone and everyone in the county will whip out their mobile phone to snap a photo of the, well… food!
In Malaysia, there are more blog on food than about anything else.
Locals often eat out, few cooks at home, and when they do eat at home; usually, it’s the weekend dinner.
Everybody eats out every night; Malaysian love food and late-night suppers!
Malaysians enjoy a culturally diverse cuisine from a Mamak food (a blend of Indian and Malay fare) to Nyonya dishes (a mix of Chinese and Malay flavors).
If you’re invited to a buffet you will find Western salad and local curries with Chinese dishes jostle for space with cream cakes, local kuehs, and fruits.
Malaysians enjoy feasting while practicing “Muhibbah” goodwill with other races.
In Malaysia, it’s just as normal to eat with your bare hand as with your fork and spoon or chopsticks.
It is the norm to eat Nasi Lemak, Roti Canai, crispy KFC, and prawn crackers with your right bare hand.
Always use your right hand for eating, shaking hands, giving, and receiving objects.
In case that you unwantedly use your left hand or if your right hand is not free, it is polite to say “sorry for left”.
Do not eat with your left hand, which is considered unclean.
Your left hand is reserved for less-savory things.
If you are left handed, using cutlery with your preferred hand is not considered rude.
The right forefinger is not used to point at places, objects, or persons.
Instead, the thumb of the right hand with four fingers folded under is the preferred usage.
Visiting a Malaysian at Home
It is polite to call before visiting a home.
If you are invited to a dinner in a Malaysian’s home, bring along a “Buah Tangan” a souvenir or small gift.
You may bring gifts such as seasonal fruit, candy, or chocolates and say that they are for the children.
They offer drinks to guests. It is polite to accept even if you drink a little.
For Chinese homes, do not bring any sharp or cutting instrument because these symbolize severing the relationship.
Don’t bring flowers because they are usually given to the sick and are used at funerals.
If you’re visiting a Muslim family, please do not bring anything that is not “Halal” or kosher.
Never give alcohol or anything made of pigskin.
Don’t give toy dogs or toy pigs to children. This includes perfumes that contain alcohol.
For Hindu families, do not bring beef or beef product.
Visiting a Mosque, Temple or Church
Some mosques provide robes and scarves for female visitors.
Taking photographs at places of worship is usually permitted but always ask permission beforehand.
Toasting is not a common practice in Malaysia.
The country’s large Muslim population does not drink alcohol.
No shoes indoors
Malaysians practice shoes off the culture.
Wearing shoes indoors is rude, offensive, and just plain dirty.
Please remove your shoes and leave it at the shoe rack even if your hosts tell you to keep your shoes on.
If they are bare feet, please do the same.
Everyone drinks Milo in Malaysia
All Malaysians bond over Milo (pronounced as ‘my-low’).
This chocolate-and-malt beverage is integral to Malaysian existence that when we travel overseas, we will bring along our Milo sachets.
If you order a chocolate drink in the local food courts and coffee shops, the waiter will say,” You mean hot Milo?”
Malaysians love Milo in all forms, iced Milo, Milo jelly, and the ultimate, Milo Dinosaur.
Milo Dinosaur is a Malaysian beverage, composed of a glass of iced Milo with undissolved Milo powder added on top of it.
Visiting a Malaysian in a Hospital
As Malaysians, we are trained from young to bring along gifts when visiting the sick or infirm.
We prefer to bring tinned biscuits or Milo instead of fresh flowers, plants or fruits as gifts.
Tin or packet dried food can be taken home without bringing back germs.
In Malaysia and Asia, the preference for light skin has more to do with class than race.
The fairest of them all, Snow White is a beauty ideal.
Malaysia is a nation obsessed with rigid beauty ideals and being fair-skinned.
In Malaysia, a “Puteri Lilin” (candle princess) is someone who can’t stand being in the sun for too long.
Just as a candle melts in the sun, she’d melt from the heat.
Being a “Puteri Lilin” itself is not entirely a compliment; it means that the candle princess is fragile and delicate and must be taken care of.
Among the Malaysian Chinese community, fair-skinned girls are considered “pretty”.
The girl will avoid the sun like the plague, for fear of appearing darker.
A tanned complexion is historically associated with laborers and farmers.
The rich had fair skin as they didn’t have to work on the fields.
These women will not go out without their UV coated umbrella, SPF 100 sunscreens, and huge sunglasses and hats.
You can meet some with golf visors, huge brimmed hats in the wet markets.
When they drive they will wear fingerless elbow gloves.
‘Rain’ is not a problem
Malaysia enjoys a tropical monsoon climate – hot and humid with a bit of rain throughout the year.
Even in the middle of the dry season, you can experience a sudden heavy downpour, which is gone as quickly as well.
During the monsoon period, it can rain continuously for days.
This doesn’t mean that you should avoid Malaysia during these months.
Other parts of Malaysia are dry.
Nothing quite beats the sound of a thousand bullets hitting your roof early in the morning when you are cozy in bed.
When was the last time you washed your car? No wonder it rains now!
Even when the wind howls, the thunder reverberated in the air, and the lightning cracks across the sky,
Malaysians just call it “rain.”
Malaysia Boleh (Oh yes, we can!)
Malaysians’ enduring Boleh spirit is the root of the country’s pursuit for superlatives – biggest, longest, highest, and innately starve for recognition.
Malaysians do like achieving records as a nation.
We believe we can do anything and everything, from breaking all sorts of records as a way of “winning attention” and gaining recognition.
The Malaysia Book of Records (MBOR) has all sorts of feats that may be a result of Malaysia Boleh’s spirit so of which is an incredible way to overcoming the odds and obstacles to make it.
Malaysians love having the tallest twin towers KLCC, the longest bridge Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge and the Kuala Lumpur Tower 7th tallest freestanding tower in the world that an antenna that increases its height to 421 meters (1,381 feet)
Squat toilets still exist in Malaysia
In Malaysia, squat toilets are still available, even in shopping malls.
Don’t worry there is also normal western type sitting toilets in the other cubicles.
A squat toilet is used by squatting, rather than sitting.
Most foreigners who have never encountered this will often hold onto the piping at the front to balance themselves.
If you’re traveling on the Malaysian highways, you will come across the rest area which has both squat and normal toilets and showers stalls too!
Shop till you drop
Malaysians love nothing more than shopping.
There is even an annual Great Mega Sale, All Malaysia Sale, Warehouse Sale, and even a Blockbuster Sale!
There are websites for All Sales Calendar & Schedule of Sales.
Literally, you can shop from morning until you go to bed.
Start at the wet markets and continue to the shopping malls which typically open until 10 p.m. on weekdays and even up to midnight on weekends.