Some quick tips to beginning a meeting successfully in Malaysia:
As Malaysia is a melting pot of different cultures, it’s best to dress conservatively until you are certain of the level of formality required.
For men, suits are usually worn but often without a jacket or tie at less formal meetings due to the hot climate. For more formal situations, it’s customary to wear a suit and tie.
For ladies, standard business clothing incorporates dresses, blouses and skirts and trouser suits. It’s important to be respectful to Muslim and Hindu beliefs, and, therefore, it’s advisable to wear blouses that cover the shoulders and upper arms and skirts which cover the knee. Occasionally when visiting some offices or government buildings, this is compulsory.
Tip: Some smaller offices may require you to remove your shoes when entering. Slip on shoes make this quicker!
While it is common especially in Europe and America to greet someone with a firm handshake, in Malaysia, due to its numerous ethnicities and religions, the form of greeting can differ somewhat.
Generally when greeting a member of the Chinese or Indian community it’s common to greet with a handshake although occasionally you may instead be met with a short bow, in this situation, it is best to bow your head in return and greet with a smile.
Malay women would not usually shake hands with members of the opposite sex. Unless they initiate a handshake, it’s best to greet them with a smile. Malay men have no qualms with shaking the hands of someone of their own gender but would hesitate again when it comes to someone from the opposite sex. Again, wait and see if they initiate the handshake, else a simple smile would suffice.
Tip: If you’re unsure of how you should greet someone, let them take the lead.
The exchanging of business cards is a very important ritual at any first meeting in Malaysia. Always be sure to accept business cards with your right hand (as left hands are considered dirty for the Malay or Indian community) or both hands for the Chinese community. Review the card fully before placing somewhere safe. If you struggle with names, leave the cards on the table in front of you for easy reference (just don’t get caught checking!)
Tip: If you aren’t sure how to pronounce the name of the person you are meeting, just ask! Due to the vast number of different cultures in Malaysia, it’s quite common to hear “how shall I address you?”
Malaysian culture highly values the importance of building relationships and developing trust. This is often apparent throughout meetings, as many may begin with a polite chat between participants on how their business is performing or even what they’ve eaten for breakfast.
It’s worth investing this little extra time to get to know your business associates, they are often looking to see if you are someone trustworthy who they can rely upon to do business with.
Tip: Food is always a popular talking point in Malaysia with ‘have you had your breakfast’ being a very common ice breaker. Your Malaysian counterpart will be very impressed if you’ve eaten a local dish for breakfast!