Entrepreneurial spirit in Malaysia has always been strong, especially in attracting foreign entrepreneurs to bring their business acumen to this small but proud Southeast Asian nation. Malaysian culture is different in its own right and navigating its cultural melting pot can be tricky even for other Asian nationals.
Conducting business with a decent understanding of its multi-racial and multi-religious make up gives one a big advantage over another who might inadvertently offend the locals. In addition, social constructs practiced in West and East Malaysia are different as well.
Build Relationships First
If you are not from Malaysia, dipping your toes in these entrepreneurial waters requires finesse and personal effort first. Don’t assume to show up all business-like and expect a smooth-sailing journey ahead. Instead, you should try cultivating a healthy rapport with your counterparts and their liaison officers first.
Diplomacy and displaying politeness are great qualities to portray as well. As a popular quote goes, “good manners will carry you where money can’t”. Try to pick up words in the local lingo when greeting clients and ask if they have eaten. Just be doubly sure that pronunciation and correct words used.
The first few business meetings are typically used as a gauge of confidence, trust and sometimes even comfort level – before any real business is actually discussed. Since food culture is huge here, venture into trying local haunts and delicacies with clients, away from the comforts of a hotel. You bond quicker and better over such experiences and it shows effort on your part to accept local culture. You will find this is highly appreciated and trust has the chance to grow.
Another point to note is many successful Malaysians are bestowed titles. Get them right hierarchically. If they have more than one, opt for the one that holds the highest honor. And putting in sincere interest in pronouncing their names right will get you further than you might expect. Most importantly, never drop addressing them with titles – unless they explicitly request it.
Allocate More Time
After you have a rapport with local clients, you can start factoring in meetings where decisions, big or small, are made. More often than not, a tight timeline will not work; especially if you are dealing with a new client. Delays are common as business owners are still gauging risks and trust.
These meetings are also a channel to raise objections – without ugly confrontations, losing face or being disrespectful. Malaysians value indirect and non-verbal communications. For example, when disagreeing, don’t convey it bluntly. Use indirect methods like avoiding the question or showing a mild dislike to the suggestion. Such a practice can help put your clients at ease while showing respect.
Now, you should know that there is such thing known as ‘real time’ and then there is ‘Malaysian time’ – which includes an unspoken 30-minute waiting period. Typically your client might not be very punctual, but that does not mean you should be the same. Waiting for your client patiently is a sign of sincerity in doing business with them.
By and large Islam is Malaysia’s official religion. For men, allow women to extend handshakes first. If she doesn’t, just smile and nod. Women who are more conservative usually avoid physical contact with the opposite gender.
Dress etiquette applies to both genders. It is best to go with business attire and avoid revealing clothing. Traditional and cultural garb are encouraged as well.
Aside from that, certain business ideas that are beyond the borders of conservatism will face an uphill task to get started. Businesses with connotations of vice will often experience plenty of rejections from the authorities and traditional folk.
Fridays are often not ideal for important meetings. Muslims reserve it for Friday prayers. In some states like Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu, the weekend is on Friday and Saturday, making Sunday a working day. It is important to know what the practice of the state you’re dealing with is.
Non-Muslims practice their religions and beliefs freely – some days or festivals that are important to them may not appear in the official international calendars.
It is important to research thoroughly on the specific state you are doing business with, and familiarize yourself with the important dates. Try not to schedule meetings that will clash with these events. This is where the first meetings come in. Find out as much as you can indirectly about their sets of beliefs. Most Malaysians are also fatalistic – placing great importance on fate – if a deal or business decision is meant to be or not.
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