Customs And Etiquette



Malaysia is a multi-racial country consisting predominantly of three races: the Malays or Bumiputera (Princes of the Soil), the Chinese and the Indians. Although the multi-racial aspect may not in itself be anything unusual, the unique feature here is that these three ethnic groups can live side by side (and they have been doing so for a long time now) yet still keep their own separate and individual identities.

The Bumiputera people form Malaysia's largest ethnic group. Since they are considered the country's "hosts", a heavier emphasis has always been placed on their traditions, culture and etiquette, in particular, those of the Malays. This is still the case today. Bumputera groups consist of the Malays (originally from the northern plains of Asia), the Orang Asli (the aborigines), and the Malay-related people. The Malay-related people come from the neighbouring Indonesian islands. Also in this category are the Bajau people of Sabah. Malay-related people are considered Bumputera because they share a common racial background and, above everything else, because they practise the same religion (Islam) as the Malays of the Malay Peninsula.

There is also a non-Malay Bumputera category which consists of ethnic groups found in Sabah and Sarawak. These non-Malay Bumiputera people are basically of the same racial stock and are considered the indigenous people of the region (North Borneo). Non-Bumputera groups consist primarily of the Chinese and the Indians. Much smaller communities of Arabs and Eurasians also exist. Islam, brought over primarily by Indian and Arab traders in the thirteenth century, became a major religion of he Malays when th4e mighty rulers of Melaka adopted it as their religion. It has thus played a predominant role in shaping Malay society and the Malay way of life.

The Chinese and Indians came as immigrants in the nineteenth century. Economic development was very rapid in Malaya during that period. In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese and later the Dutch arrived. Inter-marriage between the Europeans and the non-Muslim people of Malaya, especially in Melaka, resulted in a unique ethnic group called the Eurasians. The Eurasians today mostly embrace the Roman Catholic faith, carry Portuguese or Dutch surnames, and have become an important minority with the biggest community still found in Melaka. The other Eurasians of Malayhsia are first generation offspring from marriages between a Malaysian and a European, for example, the child of a Malay father and an English mother. The British Occupation (after the Second World War) brought a significant amount of Western influence into Malaya.

Malaysian culture today is a healthy mix of five distinct cultures - its own indigenous culture as well as Islamic, Chinese, Indian and Western cultures. A Malaysian can safely say that they are very proud to have such a rich and unique blend of traditions and cultures. aThere may be countless things to observe, but this is what makes Malaysians truly the people of Malaysia: a people from different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds who all have a healthy respect for each other.

The foreigner who has to live in Malaysia would be rather unrealistic if he/she felt he/she could live in a country such as this without having a little knowledge of its local customs and etiquette. This Web site then is an attempt to provide the foreigner with basic but important guidelines when living in (or visiting) Malaysia. This Web site is not a detailed in-depth study of the traditions and/or cultures of the main ethnic groups in Malaysia. The main aim is to give the foreigner a simple, easy-to-read, easy-to-understand Web site which provides handy and useful information about the Malaysian way of life and how the visitor/reader is to behave and respond in various situations without going into too detailed or complicated explanations. 

First of all, the following are some important Malaysian customs which provide a basic guide to table manners. Next, short explanations of major religious and cultural festivals are given with tips on appropriate gifts and dress for these festivals. Evetns such as births, birthdays, marriages and funerals are also discussed. suggestions for gifts and appropriate dress for these occasions ae given. Finally, let us discuss in greater detail proper forms of address. This is of great importance to the visitor because Malaysia has a most complex system of titles! The visitor would do well to know some of them by heart as he/she would need this knowledge in his or her day-to-day mingling with Malaysians.

Let's hope that this Web site will answer most of the visitor's questions regarding Malaysians and as a whole.


The Malays

While the Malays are very generous and forgiving with foreigners/visitors who make Malay faux pas, those who do not make such blunders will be highly admired and respected. Here are some guidelines one might want to be aware of when in the presence of the Malays.

Upon visiting Malay homes

The first thing you would probably notice is that all Malaysians will take their shoes off before entering a Malay house. The reason for this is that when Malaysians perform their prayers with their guests, they usually do so in the living room. Therefore, should they wear their shoes inside, the shoes would soil the living room floor, making it unsuitable for prayers (Muslims pray on a mat laid out on the floor). Your Malay host would probably insist that you leave your shoes on, as foreigners are not really expected to follow this Malay custom. Should you, however, insist that you take them off, your action will be very much appreciated. You will also note that this custom is true for Chinese-Malaysians, Indian-Malaysians, and Eurasian-Malaysians as well. More often than not, most non-Malaysian friends take off their shoes before entering their own houses or the houses of their non-Malay friends.

Introductions Malay style have no hard-and-fast rules but you will notice that, with the Malayhs, age takes precedence over almost everything else, i.e. a younger Malay person would very likely make the first move to salam (shake) an older Malay person's hand.  

The Malay handshake (salam)

Unlike the Western handshake, which is a rather vigorous up and down movement where both parties grip the other's hand firmly, the Malay handshake is a simple palm-to-palm touch. Sometimes, only the fingertips brush against each other. The important part of this gesture is the bringing of the hand (one or both) back to the heart or the lower part of the face - the nose and mouth. This signifies that your greeting has been accepted with sincerity. Some Western press have described some of Malaysian leaders as having limp handshakes. This is often not the case; instead the person in question is very likely shaking hands the Malay way. Also, sometimes the salam is only exchanged between people of the same sex.  Always assuming that people are ready for prayers (i.e. they have performed their ablutions which forbids touching people of the opposite sex, unless closely related by blood), the touching of the palms would mean they would have to inconvenience the other person into taking his or her ablutions (air sembabyang) again.

Some do's and don'ts

The had (from the bottom of the neck up) is considered sacred in Eastern culture. Foreigners please remember that under no circumstances should you touch the head of your Malaysian friend without permission . Even if you see an insect on your friend's head, it is best that you let him/her know about it rather than attempt to remove the insect yourself! An affectionate gesture like a pat on the head (even to a child) should also be avoided. The question of head touching can be that serious!

Is kissing allowed/acceptable between members of the opposite sex who are not married or related to each other? The answer is that should approach this act with caution! Note that such an act of intimacy is not common among some Malay people and that such an action on your part may cause a lot of unnecessary embarrassment. Assess the situation thoro9ughly before you offer your cheek or you yourself lean forward to place a kiss on the cheek of your Malay friend. Please do not be offended if your Malay friend moves away (especially if he/she is of the opposite sex from you) but simply try to accept that this can be an alien tradition which some Malays will not accept for religious or cultural reasons.

The usual Malay way when entertaining people of both sexes is that the men will be invited to sit together and the ladies will be invited to sit together, i.e. the opposite sexes are segregated. It may seem strange to a foreigner but this is the way of life in Malaysia. The more modern Malays would probably do away with this sort of segregation but even these more modern Malays would most likely bow down to tradition when their guests consist of the older generation. Alternatively, a hostess may segregate only the older Malays and leave the younger ones to mingle.

For more traditional functions (e.g. a traditional birth or a traditional wedding) people are invited to sit on the floor. Although there are no rules for the men, foreign ladies lease note that the following are not the correct ways of sitting down in a Malay house:

. with your legs crossed
. with our legs placed straight in front of your body
. squatting

The proper way of sitting (Malay style) is as follows: you would sit with your two legs neatly tucked against your seated body (left or right side is fine) with the feet facing away from people (as much as possible). If you can somehow manage it, tuck your feet under the hem of your dress. If you have brought a present with you to give to your Malay hostess, don't be disappointed if she puts it aside and leaves it unopened. We have always been taught not to open a gift in the presence of the giver. We only open our gifts when we are alone. Could it be that by doing it this way we spare the giver the embarrassment of seeing the look of dismay on our faces should the gift be less than what was expected? But seriously, it has something to do with modesty on the part of the recipient; whether the present is good or not, we are indicating that it has been received with thanks and whatever is inside the package is not as important as the thought that went with it.

Should you wish to point at anything (you would probably want to do this during a wedding ceremony) you would use your thumb and not your forefinger. The correct way of doing so is to make a soft fist with your right hand. Place your thumb directly above this fisted hand. Only then do you point. If you can help it, never ever use your left hand in Malay company! Foreigners may well be puzzled as to why the left hand cannot be used. The reason lies in tradition. It is a Malay custom that we wash ourselves each time we defecate and the left hand is used for this. Symbolically then, the left hand is considered unclean. Therefore, for all manner of gestures such as waving or pointing where only one hand is needed, only the right hand is used.

Even if you find yourself in a very modern Malay home with very broad-mined people, please bear in mind that crossing the legs at the knees is considered rude in front of older Malay people and is absolutely forbidden in front of senior Malay royalty! If you wish to send a note of thanks to the hostess the next day after being entertained by all means do so. Little gifts or a bouquet of flowers are quite acceptable.

The Non-Malays

The fact that we have gone to rather great lengths to discuss some important Malay customs in detail does not mean that the other main ethnic groups have done away with their own traditions and culture. Far from it.

Upon visiting non-Malay homes

the foreigner already knows the reasons why we take our shoes off before we enter a Malay house. It has also been mentioned that this custom is practised by the non-Malays as well. Though it may not be for religious reasons, the question of cleanliness is probably the issue here. As the Malays would appreciate it if a foreigner were to observe this particular custom, so would the non-Malays. Segretion of the sexes exists primarily in Malay homes but it is fairly safe for us to say that Malaysian women (indeed most Asian women) often feel more at home in the presence of other women than they would with men, especially foreign men. This is even more so with women who were brought up following traditional Eastern teachings. Indian women, in particular, are still highly conservative (especially the unmarried ones) and it is very likely that they would sit separately from the men, particularly at Indian functions.

Gestures of greeting

Shaking hands with the opposite sex for non-Malays is something that is dictat4d more by culture than religion. A handshake is not really a common form of greeting with Chinese-Malaysians (just a smile and a nod will do). Neither it is very widely used within Indian-Malaysian groups, whose usual greeting is the palm to palm gesture (as in prayer), the two palms, touching each other, are brought to chest level and the head is bowed towards the palms. The important point here is this: whatever race one belongs to, respect for elders is of utmost importance! From the time we are able to understand, we are consistently reminded that, no matter what should happen we never forget out manners towards people older than we are! rudeness towards older people is a social offence considered intolerable in Malaysia, as it is throughout the rest of the Eastern world.

Therefore, whether by tradition, race, religion, or culture, a Malaysian person is always expected to greet an older person in the appropriate fashion. When we enter a Malaysian home, it is customary for us (if we happen to be younger) to greet all the older people first. It is not proper for us to wait for these older people to approach us and greet us instead.

Some do's and don'ts

The question of kissing (in greeting/farewell) between a foreigner and a Malaysian (non-Muslim) is something that should be left to the situation one finds oneself in. Because of conservative upbringing, one does not have to be of any particular race or religion to shy away from such an action. If your Malaysian friend is relatively broad-minded and is fairly exposed to Western culture, then a casual kiss is bound to be perfectly alright. However, it you take into consideration all the other aspects of Eastern culture and upringing, your discretion is called upon before you kiss the cheek of your Malaysian friend.

Although the Chinese are not terribly particular as to how one should sit on the floor, kneeling is simply not done except for the following two reasons:

1. if one is in the act of prayer, or

2. if one is in the act of asking for forgiveness.

Other than for these two reasons, kneeling is considered degrading, and the person kneeling can suffer 'loss of face' - something that every Chinese would want to avoid.  

The Foreigner As Host

Food that is taboo

People, in general, should be sensitive towards the religious and cultural beliefs of other people. While we are not asking the foreigner to embrace the religious laws and cultural traditions of the country he/she finds himself/herself living in, the foreigner should, nevertheless, be aware of certain things. In Malaysia, food is one such thing. When a hostess plans her dinner menu, she must have her guest list within reach. If she has invited Malays, she must take care not to serve pork. If she has invited Indians, she must find out whether they are vegetarians, and so it goes on. It is useful for a hostess to remember that Malays are generally Muslims as well. As Muslims, religious obligations dictate they should only eat food which is balal (permissible according to Muslim laws'). This simply means that any meat consumed must be from animals that have been slaughtered as prescribed in the Holy quran, in much the same way those of the Jewish faith consider what is kosher.

One of the things a Muslim is forbidden to eat by religious laws is pork - in any form or shape! While a Malay guest would not dream of imposing on his/her hostess and would probably sit very quietly through a dinner that included pork, it is felt that its totally unforgivable on the part of the hostess (especially if she already knows) to subject her Malay guest to such discomfort. If you are inviting Indians, find out if they are Indian-Muslims. If they are not, they might be Hindus, which could very probably mean they are vegetarians. Non-vegetarian Hindus do not normally eat beef (the cow is a sacred animal in Hinduism). some Chinese too may be vegetarians and many others may abstain from mutton and/or beef. How would a foreigner cater for all these different needs? In this case, it is advisable to leave out food that is forbidden by religious laws (e.g. pork and beef) and serve a variety of other food like lots of vegetables, chicken, and fish. This will please guests who are vegetarians as well as guests who do not eat mutton or beef.

In Malaysia, the need to provide different types of "acceptable" food at any one meal is probably the main reason why buffet lunches and dinners were more popular than formal, sit-down affairs. After all, when entertaining buffet-style, it is possible for the hostess to offer sufficient variety to satisfy even the most difficult of guests, wehereas sit-down lunches and dinners somewhat limit the options. Nonetheless, even though there are simple choices at buffets, it is again advisable that a conscientious hostess should take the trouble to inform her guests which foods may fall under the category of 'forbidden'. For Muslims, the term to use is baram. If it is a sit-down dinner a foreigner is organising. It is suggested inviting not more than a dozen people. In this way, a certain amount of control can be exercised when planning the menu.

The other thing that a foreigner has to be aware of is the serving of alcohol. This is a very sensitive issue - one that one would not even dare to begin to discuss! Suffice it for the foreigner to know that alcohol is considered baram (forbidden) to Muslims in general. Whether or not she (the hostess) wants to serve it to her non-Muslim guests is, however, left to her own discretion.

Language problems

While language is becoming less of a problem for foreigners entertaining Malaysians, nonetheless, there might still be that one rare occasion when a certain amount of skilful social manoeuvring is required for instance, should a hostess be aware that the spouse of her guest-of-honour does not speak any English (or whatever the language the other guests speak), it is only courteous to try to meet this particular person's linguistic needs as best as possible. One way to do so is to make sure one - or preferably both - of her or his dinner partners (i.e. person seated on either side of this important spouse during the meal) is/are able to converse in the language that she/he is comfortable with and/or only speaks. Even though a hostess may have to go against protocol when opting to please her special guest, once the reasons are explained to the person displaced from his or her appropriate seat, there is no doubt that the 'victim' will very graciously give his or her consent.

Hospital Visits

An Australian friend remarked on how surprised he was to discover, upon visiting a Malaysian friend in hospital, that the patient wasn't the only occupant of the room, i.e. the patient's wife had apparently 'checked-in' as well. The friend then asked whether this sort of situation is normal practice with Malaysians - the reply: it certainly is. The only explanation here is that, because of Malaysian upbringing, it is expected of Malaysians to be there for and/or to take care of their loved ones wherever the need arises. It is irrelevant whether that care takes place at home or, in this particular case, in the hospital. consequently, foreigners will undoubtedly note that rooms to Malaysian hospitals are generally large enough to accommodate a pullout bed or a sofa. some hospitals will even allow their patient and his or her "guest" the use of a room with two beds. Unless and if there is urgent need for the extra bed in question (i.e. for the use of another patient), don't be surprised to find a spouse, a parent, or some other companion, occupying this other bed for the entire duration of the patient's stay in hospital.


Eating with Fingers

Malays and Indians traditionally use the fingers of their right hand for eating. However, no one expects a foreigner invited to a local-style meal (no cutlery) to be an expert at eating with fingers! Nevertheless, below are some useful guidelines to follow when you find yourself in a situation where using your fingers is the only way to eat:

1. Always remember to wash your hands first. If you are invited to a Malay wedding (or any other celebration) you will find a water vessel (kendi) either at your table or being passed around.

2. Meals are always eaten with your right hand! Being left-handed is no excuse.

3. Even though you are eating with your fingers, you will find that serving spoons are provided for all the dishes being laid out. Since the fingers of your right hand will be soiled while eating, you are permitted to use your lft hand when using the serving spoons, although we always say 'excuse me' (minta maaf) first.

4. When it comes to dessert, you may well find that you still have to use your fingers. since dessert eaten with the fingers is usually dry, do wash your hands before starting your dessert. If it is some sort of pudding with a sauce or syrup, spoons will definitely be provided. You would wash your hands at the end of a meal using the kendi again.

Since the kendi has to be passed round from person to person, the polite thing to do is to wash your hands using a minimum amount of water! Some Malaysians do not find this very satisfying! Therefore, some of them always go out armed with a large supply of wet tissues (the ones packed for babies are ideal) which of course makes them the most popular people at the table when they begin to pass them around! The other thin a foreigner should be made aware of is that it is not considered impolite for a person to leave the table once he/she has finished his/her meal. In many of the larger households (the same can apply during meals at big functions), a person leaves the table as soon as he/she is done so that he/she can make way for the other people waiting to eat. 

Eating masi daun pisang

Traditionally, southern Indians eat off banana laves. A variety of food including curries, vegetables and sauces are placed around a pile of rice. Dessert is usually served on the same banana leaf as used for the meal itself. To indicate that you have finished your meal, you fold your banana leaf in half. some Indians say that if it is for a festive occasion (wedding) or if the food is very good, you fold the banana leaf towards you. If it is for a sombre occasion (funeral) or if the food is less than satisfactory, you fold the banana leaf away from you. This action may differ from clan to clan. At the end of the meal, you have to get up to wash your hands as there will be no kendi (as at Malay meals) passed around. Eating with your left hand or with cutlery is discouraged. The banana leaf is usually divided into three pieces. The honoured guest gets the end piece. When placed in front of the guest, the narrow side is placed on the left, the wider side on the right. The reason the banana leaf is placed in this manner is so that the right side (as you eat with your right hand) will have more food.

Eating with Chopsticks

No matter what anybody has to say about this matter, It is felt that you cannot thoroughly enjoy a Chinse meal unless you know how to handle chopsticks! Unlike at Malay meals, left-handers are allowed to use their left hand.

Before your host or hostess begins eating, he or she may first pick choice pieces, with his or her own chopsticks, to give to you. This is a way of showing that you are an honoured guest. For those who are very health-conscious, an extra pair of chopsticks may be used just for this purpose. Chopsticks should never be crossed. Neither should they be stuck vertically into your rice (placed in a small bowl) or any other food so that they resemble joss-sticks. The end of the chopsticks which should be put in your mouth should be pointing away from you when you put them down or place them on their holder or stand. How would a foreigner know which end of the chopsticks is the end that enters the mouth? Well, the narrower or slightly tapered end is the one that goes inside your mouth!

Chopsticks may or may not be changed for clean ones during the meal but you will definitely get a different taste for dessert. Unlike at Western meals, where there is a definite indication when your meal is finished, with a Chinese meal there are no hard-and-fast rules. It is best to place your chopsticks back onto the holder (or stand) or leave them on the side of your plate. Would you bring your bowl of rice to your mouth or would you lean forward to bring your head towards the bowl which remains on the table? Traditionally, it is customary that the first gesture (i.e. bringing the bowl to the mouth) is acceptable. What is not acceptable is to loudly slurp and suck the rice into your mouth. The correct way would be to use your chopsticks to transfer the food from the bowl to the mouth, even if the distance is minimal!

Eating with Fork and Spoon

Traditionally, the Malays and Indians would eat their food using their fingers and the Chinese would eat theirs using their chopsticks. However, for a long time now, especially in public eating places (hotels and restaurants) Western cutlery had appeared in most Malaysian table settings. The Malaysians have, however, slightly adapted the actual cutlery settings and arrangements, as well as the use of certain kitchen utensils, to suit their needs.

The rice spoon is one such kitchen utensil that Malaysians have embraced as their own. although it was once only found in countries where rice is the staple food. For those who are not familiar with the rice spoon, it is about the size of a dessert/pudding spoon. It is not as large as a serving spoon nor is it round like a soup spoon. It is placed on the right side of your plate You would eat the rice as you would your dessert, holding the spoon in yo9ur right hand and your fork in your left hand. As a concession to your being a foreigner, a fork and spoon may be provided for you but your glass would probably remain on the left. Having already said that it is doubted a Chinese meal could be thoroughly enjoyed unless you can actually manoeuvre your chopsticks properly, a foreigner can still eat Chinese food with a spoon.

You will probably find two types of spoons already on the table. The first is a long silver spoon and the second is a short spoon which can be used to scoop up anything from soup to chili sauce. When in difficulty, a foreigner woiuld be excused if he/she used either one of these two spoons to help him/her along.

Common Embarrassing Situations

Although Asian, Arab, and African children are taught basic discipline and table manners as they grow into adulthood, differences in culture often lead Westerners to perceive our behaviour during (and after) meals as lacking in decorum and finesse. This misperception arises when one measures other cultural practices by Western standards only. By the same token therefore, one only hopes that Westerners are generous enough to acknowledge that some of the things they accept as polite and befitting might not necessarily be so perceived by their hosts and hostesses. For instance, to a Westener, to slurp and to burp are considered both rude and terribly unbecoming, and thus should never happen in polite company, whether in private or public. However, there are communities within Malaysia's multi-racial, multi-cultural population where slurping (especially one's noodles or soup) is considered the only way to really enjoy one's meal, and therefore is acceptable behaviour at meal times. As for burping, many Malaysians consider this gesture a complimentary indication at the end of a most satisfying lunch or dinner.

Because of conflicting social norms such as these, misunderstandings may well arise. Imagine if you will, a Westerner who sips daintily on his or her soup, who sits quietly all throughout the meal, and then just as quietly finishes up. To an Eastern person not exposed to Western ways and who therefore expects a more "vocal" response from his or her guest, all this silence and quietness must seem very strange indeed. As a r4esult, this behaviour can very well "miscommunicate" into a situation whereby the Eastern host or hostess feels his or her guests have not enjoyed their food at all.

While in Malaysia, a foreigner is likely to be invited to many Malaysian meals. Obviously, there will come a time when you (the foreigner) will bite into something that you simply cannot swallow. What do you do with that piece of "offending" food? If you are eating Chinese food with chopsticks, very often you will be provided with a side plate where it is expected that bones and other inedible bits of food be placed. In this case it is suggested that you discreetly put the piece that did not agree with you among the other scraps on this side plate. If a side plate is not provided, as may happen when your Chinese host is more Westernised and thus provide a fork and spoon and a plate instead of chopsticks and a rice bowl, then you may put the unwanted piece of food on this plate. It would not be odd for you to do so.

Nowadays, if you are eating a Malay or Indian meal, especially in a restaurant, you would normally find you do have a side plate, which is there for you to use as you will. However, if it is Northern Indian food you are eating, the side plate may be used for bread (e.g. naan, paratha, puri). Even so, it is still perfectly acceptable to put the piece of inedible food on this side plate, or even on the dinner plate itself. However, out of deference to those sitting near you, it is suggested that you try and hide, or find some way to camouflage, whatever it is that didn't agree with you.   

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