Malaysia is in every sense a young nation: a one-time British colony, it gained independence in 1957 and settled into its current physical borders six years later. Today the country boasts a young and fast-growing population of 27 million people.
Over the past three decades Malaysia has evolved into what is arguably Southeast Asia’s greatest success story. Out of a fragmented, poorly accessible and largely rural land dominated by crop plantations, its leaders – in particular the long-serving Prime Minister Dr Mahathir (1981-2003) – have built an industrialised and affluent economy. Malaysia is also widely admired for its track record of ethnic and religious tolerance – no mean feat, given the high concentration of economic power among its Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities (roughly 24 and 7 per cent of the population, respectively) relative to the Malay majority (at just over 50 per cent).
Today Malaysia remains an independent and thriving democracy in which political dialogue is based, in characteristic Southeast Asian manner, on consensus, moderation and consultation.
SUSPEND YOUR ‘THIRD WORLD’ ASSUMPTIONS
Many foreigners come to Malaysia harbouring romantic, preconceived notions of wild jungles and roaring tigers; at their most generous, they will concede that ‘things have a semblance of working.’ In reality, however, Malaysia is a wealthy and highly advanced country boasting state-of-the-art infrastructure, discerning consumer habits and a wealth of leisure facilities.
Embrace the local way of life The diversity of natural environments, cultural styles, festivities and food that inspired Malaysia’s popular ‘Truly Asia’ tourism slogan is indeed unique, and deserves to be relished.
Be flexible with time Events and functions tend to start up to 15 minutes late. Accept these delays as in keeping with the charming, unhurried Malaysian way of doing things.
Seek out personal contact Make friends. Knock on doors. Impersonal emails, faxes and electronic feedback forms will get you nowhere, and talk of rules and legal strategies will win you few friends. For Malaysians, things are not etched in stone. Rather, their partnerships tend to take on a style that is referred to as either abang-adik (literally ‘elder brother-younger brother’) or sahabat-sahabat (‘friends’ who can arrive at a fair solution to a dispute in the course of, say, a game of golf or a meal, without having to tackle the situation head-on).
Show sincerity and humility Be tactful, relaxed and courteous, especially when giving feedback. Never single out individuals in front of a group or make them feel ‘put on the spot’ in any other way. The Malaysian brand of humility applies throughout the ranks. When Hassan Marican, former CEO and President of Petronas, Malaysia’s petroleum juggernaut, stepped down in February this year after 21 years of service to the company, he wrote in a farewell letter to employees: ‘There would have been occasions when some of the decisions may have hurt some of you… I have endeavoured to be fair, reasonable and consistent. I offer you my apologies and humbly seek your forgiveness.’
Understand local, particularly Islamic, etiquette Malaysia’s Malay-Muslim majority has often been characterised as unusually tolerant, warm and possessed of a good sense of humour. Many Malay people have the ability not only to forgive but also to forget, truly and completely. But as is typical of the sometimes contradictory Malay sensibility, this fun-loving nature coexists with a devout, sometimes mystical religiosity and formalism. Therefore make an effort to understand local customs, including religious concepts such as rezeki (food, wealth and other gifts from Allah) and practices such as wudu (ritual washing before prayer).
Always be patient Life in Malaysia is not without frustrations. The country’s young history helps explain why, although the ‘hardware’ is in place, some of the ‘software’ – a culture of maintenance, a habit of planning and anticipating things, or even just respecting traffic regulations – is still a work in progress. Problems tend to be addressed as and when they occur and are best resolved in person – with, wherever possible, a smile.
Explore your adventurous side If you are naturally athletic, then you will do well to accept any invitations to Malaysia’s various country clubs and royal clubs, where one can indulge in a bit of polo or even cricket (complete with tea and scones). You might be amazed at how many doors this will open.
Be impartial Malaysia has never practised the politically correct variety of multiculturalism. Instead, the government has followed the credo: ‘If everyone is complaining, then that just means we are doing something right; because to be fair to all three major races, everyone has to give up something, even though we all want everything.’ Local people will commonly air their grievances with what are therefore complex political, media and education systems. Be aware of your foreigner status: listen patiently and try not to get involved.
Be prepared for some ‘passive resistance’
Be prepared for your ‘Any questions/comments?’ to be met with silence. ‘Makes sense?’ and ‘Is everything clear?’ will typically be answered with a simple ‘Yes.’ In many instances, these responses can betray shyness, a reluctance to speak up (and possibly overstep the line) in front of a group or supervisors, or perhaps an effort to save face (including yours).