Customary Conducts

Business Customs

In general, business customs in Malaysia do not differ fundamentally from those in the United States. Frankness, openness, and punctuality are all valued traits in business negotiations and dealings. Visiting business people should be sensitive to some religious and cultural practices, for example, Malay Muslims may feel uncomfortable in business/social functions where alcohol is served.


Business cards are frequently used in Malaysia. Offer and accept a business card either with both hands or with the right hand loosely supported by the left. Spend some time looking at the card as it is considered rude to put the card away immediately.


Some Malaysian names are difficult to pronounce and it is acceptable to ask the person how to correctly articulate his or her name.


There is a complex system of titles in Malaysia. Titles are given by either the Federal Government or by the individual states, and are very important in the business world. Royalty has a separate set of titles. If a person has a particular title (Tun, Tan Sri, Datuk), always address them by their title.


Handshaking in Malaysia is relatively uncommon. Although Malaysians are used to the Western handshake, do not be surprised if the handshake you receive in return is weak by American standards. In fact, do not extend your hand to a Malaysian unless he or she offers first. This is especially true for women.


As Malaysia is a Muslim country, the business community observes traditional Muslim rules. Muslims are required to pray 5 times daily. Most offices, hotels, and public places have a "Surau" where people can go to pray if they are too far from a mosque. Friday afternoon is the weekly prayer time at the mosque and Muslims leave the office for Friday afternoon prayers. Remember this when scheduling appointments or trying to reach someone by telephone.


The salam is the Muslim equivalent of a handshake. A younger person usually offers the salam by clasping the hand(s) of the elder. This is usually followed by a verbal greeting of “Assalamualaikum” (Peace be upon you).

A non-Muslim should note that in Islam, physical contact between the opposite sex is discouraged. Thus, a non-Muslim should not be unnecessarily alarmed if a member of the opposite sex does not reciprocate their offer of a handshake.


The salam often goes a step further between a younger and a respectable older person (parents, teachers etc); the younger person offers the salam first, then kisses the older person’s hand as a sign of respect.


Peculiar to Malays (who make up the majority of Muslims in Malaysia) is the touching of the left side of one's chest after the salam. The hand is retracted gently after the salam, then placed over the heart to symbolize sincerity.

The use of fingers to eat

Among the Indian and Malay communities in Malaysia, it is common practice to place food, such as rice and cakes, into the mouth using only fingers, without the use of cutlery. The right hand is used, as it is considered a taboo to use the left, which is kept for less clean functions such as cleaning oneself after a visit to the toilet.


Hands are washed before meals. In Malay homes or restaurants, a kettle filled with water for washing purposes is commonly placed on the dining table. A tray to hold the water is placed underneath the kettle.

Leaving footwear outside

When visiting Malaysian homes, it is customary to remove and leave footwear outside the house before entering, unless the owner of the house states otherwise. The majority of Malaysians do not wear footwear within their homes, as shoes and slippers are likely to bring dirt inside with them. This practice is especially significant in Muslim homes for common areas such as the living room are used for group prayers. Also, in Malay homes, meals are often taken while seated on the floor. This practice is also applicable when visiting places of worship.

Malaysian time 

If it's noon in London it must be 8pm in Kuala Lumpur. Yes, to the world, Malaysian time is GMT +0800, but to locals and seasoned visitors, "Malaysian time" takes on a whole different meaning. It can be said with some certainty that Malaysian time is plus but never minus (i.e., expect things to generally start a little past their scheduled time, or people to get to an appointment just a teensy bit late.)


How little and how teensy depend on many factors, mood and traffic among them. ‘Early’ is for the birds, and worms are not on our list of favourite foodstuff around here anyway.

The generally accepted ‘plus factor’ in calculating Malaysian time is fifteen minutes to half an hour, although if it is a Chinese wedding dinner then you can add another hour to that. In fact, it is generally thought that the time stated on the wedding invitation is actually the time guests should leave their respective homes for wherever the dinner is being held.


Malaysian timing is one reason why we always seem to be driving in a hurry. Face it, if we all leave 15 minutes earlier than we usually do for our appointments, we would not only get there on time, but there would be fewer ‘beasts’ on the road too. People have tried to beat the system by scheduling their events half an hour earlier than the desired start time, so that people will arrive just in time. It works … some of the time.

Open House 

Unique to Malaysia is the “open house” concept where during the various cultural and religious festivals, friends, families and even strangers would visit the homes of those who are celebrating the festival, to wish them well and enjoy the feast prepared by their hosts. Definitely a worthwhile experience!

Balik Kampung 

Loosely translated, ‘balik kampung’ means to go back to one's hometown. However, it is most applicable when used to describe the annual pilgrimage of city folk to their respective hometowns during festive seasons. It's not uncommon to find cities like Kuala Lumpur turning into ghost towns during Hari Raya Puasa and Chinese New Year due to this yearly exodus. The feeling of desolation in cities is magnified when festivals fall close together, such as Kongsi Raya (Hari Raya Puasa and Chinese New Year) although this happens only occasionally.

The 'Mamak Stall' Culture 

The Mamak stall has become a permanent fixture in many parts of Malaysia, especially within the state of Selangor, particularly in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. It is exceptionally popular among young adults and teenagers who look at these stalls as a clean (arguably so) and safe place to gather with

friends to while the night away. One can call it an option to clubs and discos, or rather the only option after the clubs and discos close. One thing is for sure, it has brought about a new city trend, a unique Malaysian culture, one that demonstrates the fact that cities like Kuala Lumpur, never really go to sleep.


The term "Mamak" is widely used, though it is not considered a polite term, to describe Indian Muslims. However, the term "Mamak stalls" is not exclusively used to describe food stalls owned by members of that community. Rather, it has taken a wider meaning, due to its popularity, describing outdoor stalls of similar fashion that remain open till the wee hours of morning. Most Mamak stalls open for business at about 5pm and remain open till way after midnight. It is not uncommon to see a row of stalls taking up more than just the allocated sidewalk space, with plastic chairs and tables covering a portion of the adjoining lanes or road. Examples of food served at Mamak stalls include Roti Canai, Nasi Lemak, Murtabak, Mee Goreng, Nasi Kandar and of course, the ever-popular Teh Tarik.

What-lah is this all about? 

When you speak to a Malaysian, you will notice the suffix ‘lah’ frequently occurs in a conversation. What is all this, then?


‘Lah’ is a suffix in Bahasa Malaysia that is meant to add emphasis to a word or phrase. ‘Just do it’ for example, would roughly translate into ‘Buat sahaja’ but more forcefulness would be obtained by adding the suffix (e.g. Buatlah sahaja). If someone knocks at the door and you invite them in, the polite way to say that would be ‘Sila masuk’, or ‘Please come in’. However, if you have said it once and the person is still knocking, you just say ‘Masuklah’ for emphasis and to tell the blur case that you heard him in the first place. There are thousands of other examples but we hope you get the drift.


The suffix has been absorbed into English in the local vernacular, more commonly in the peninsula than over in Sabah and Sarawak, and is used millions of times a day throughout the country, sometimes purposefully, sometimes for no reason at all. When you fail to show up for work on time and the boss chews you out, a typical defence might be ‘Sorry boss, tired-lah.’ If someone is getting a little too uptight about something, the appropriate caution to him would be ‘relax-lah’ or ‘steady-lah’, which urges the person to calm down.


While purists continue to mourn the so-called "dilution" of spoken English with such colloquialisms, it is part and parcel of Malaysian life and nothing seems able to dislodge it. Stuck-lah!


Some of the many applications of "lah"



Malaysia Boleh! 

The phenomenal growth of Malaysia under the leadership of its fourth Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir has brought about a patriotic sense of achievement amongst its people. The Government has led the way to show that Malaysians can excel in whatever they put their minds to, and this, to say the least, has produced a society that tries to outdo itself (sometimes at ridiculous levels, if truth be told) in the endeavours it pursues.


Embodying this spirit is the slogan ‘Malaysia Boleh!’ which means ‘Malaysia Can Do It!’. How this slogan came to be the ‘battle cry’ of a nation is rather sketchy but the general belief is that it was the slogan used by a health beverage company in its marketing campaign in the 80s.


It caught on and soon cries of ‘Malaysia Boleh!’ were heard, first only at sporting events like the Commonwealth Games and Thomas Cup Finals, then later everywhere else as it was embraced wholeheartedly by the people as a means to push themselves to endure and accept challenge, to set targets and to excel. The "Malaysia Boleh!" spirit has since produced many achievers and achievements, and has been a cornerstone of the success story that is the new Malaysia.



Dining Etiquette

Rice or rice-based dishes form the staple diet of a Malaysian meal. Various meat dishes and vegetables accompany a meal. It is the norm for a family or a group of friends to sit around a table with various dishes and help themselves from the spread. It fosters a closer sense of friendship whilst at the same time enabling diners to try different dishes than if they were to eat alone.


Malays, being Muslims, only eat food that is halal (permissible food items that are prepared according to Muslim rites). Pork or pork by-products are forbidden. When dining with a Muslim, respect their sensitivities by not ordering pork-related dishes or liquor. Intoxicating drinks in any form are prohibited in the Islam. The fingertips of the right hand are used for eating. A finger bowl is used for washing before and after.


The Chinese have no food prohibitions. Food is eaten with chopsticks. Everyone reaches out for choicest morsel with his chopsticks. So, be quick or use a fork or spoon when dining out with Chinese. You may feel squeamish about picking food where everyone has dipped their own chopsticks. To avoid this, take your portion and put it on the side plate. Slurping, belching and spitting fish bones, chicken bones or shrimp tails onto the table are normal Chinese customs. So is smoking at the table. Be tolerant. When finished, set your chopsticks on the table or on the chopstick-rest provided. Placing them parallel on top of your bowl is considered a sign of bad luck. Other than that, do not use chopsticks to spear food, and do not stick chopsticks into a bowl of cooked rice.


Indians place great emphasis on the hygiene of food (i.e. parts of lambs, chicken and fish such as feet, fins and offal are not eaten. Most Indians are Hindus. They do not eat beef as the animal is venerated in Hinduism because it gives milk, works on the field, gives manure for fuel and fertiliser and so on. Indians also do not eat pork, as pigs are natural scavengers. Furthermore, Hindus do not enjoy clams, shellfish, prawns and other crustaceans that live in shallow waters and the site of effluents. These restrictions may seem to limit variety, but the burst of vivid colours, spicy aromas, textures, flavours and creative ways with vegetables of the Indian cooking do make up for it. Similar to Malays, Indians use the fingertips of their right hand to eat.


Come on-lah; don't be like that-lah; please-lah


Shut up-lah; get out-lah; go to hell-lah



Fed up


Really fed up



Of course-lah; sure-lah


Take some more-lah






Dowan-lah! (A contraction of "don't want-lah")






Your head-lah