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by The Expatriate Lifestyle Editorial Team 2 Jun 2013

Doing business anywhere in the world demands one thing—common sense. But of course, business tactics vary from country to country. There is the myth that one cannot do business in Asia without paying off people.

Yes, it does happen, but it need not. And if you get to understand the way things are done in Malaysia, negotiating business deals can be a breeze. Learning the local way of business and expected office environment is crucial to fitting in and succeeding within the realm of commerce in Malaysia.

In this section, we include tips for proper conduct and decorum within the workplace, information for job seekers—freelance, contract or otherwise—and, finally, necessary information about visas, work permits and labour law.


Appointments and Meetings

Frequent meetings are a very large part of this friendly, face-to-face culture. Malaysian executives are accustomed to attending many meetings, so schedule them in advance but also call ahead to confirm.

Dress Code

As a foreigner, you should dress more conservatively until you are sure of the degree of formality expected. Standard formal office wear for men is smart, dark trousers and a long-sleeved shirt and tie, without a jacket. Many businessmen though wear a short-sleeved shirt with no tie.

Standard business attire for women includes dresses and light-coloured jackets, long-sleeved blouses and skirts. Women must be sensitive to Muslim and Hindu beliefs, and, consequently, should wear blouses that cover at least their upper arms. Skirts should also be knee-length or longer.


Addressing Malaysians properly can be difficult, especially for Westerners unfamiliar with the naming patterns of the country’s various ethnic groups. Find out before a meeting the full name and title/s of the person you will be meeting.

When you are being introduced to a Malaysian woman, be sure to shake hands with her only if she has extended her hand. If she does not extend her hand, a smile and a nod will be the gesture you should use to greet her. Out of deference, give a slight bow to elderly people you encounter.

Pounding one fist into the palm of the other hand is another gesture that Malays frequently consider obscene and that should be avoided. Standing with your hands on your hips is always perceived as an angry and aggressive posture.

When passing an object, reaching for something or touching someone such as shaking hands, do so with your right hand. The left hand is considered unclean and should not be used in contact with others to eat or to pass things. This rule applies even if you are left-handed.

After the necessary introductions are made, offer your card to everyone present. Present your card with both hands. Give your card to the recipient with the print facing him or her.

The recipient will also accept your card with both hands, then carefully examine it for a few moments before putting it away in a card case or pocket. When a card is presented to you, you will also be expected to go through this procedure. After receiving a card, never hastily stuff it into your back pocket. Moreover, do not write on another person’s business card.


Malaysian English can be a funny dialect to the unitiated. English is widely spoken and understood here, but as with the ubiquitous rojak culture resulting from its multi-lingual and multi-cultural population, the English-based creole spoken here is a mix of different languages fondly referred to as Manglish with its own phonology, lexicon and grammar. An informal dialect used in casual everyday conversations, it is peppered with vocabularies from Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese or Tamil. The suffix 'lah', which is common in the Malay and Chinese languages, also has a common presence in Manglish.

Being able to speak some form of Manglish will humour the locals, but bear in mind that proper English is used during formal occasions such as business meetings or job interviews to demonstrate professionalism. In text, Standard English with proper grammar and spellings is used in business writings and documents; Manglish is considered inappropriate and unprofessional in professional dealings.


The very nature of expatriates means that most are in Malaysia following work commitments. Usually expats working here will already be under contract with an international company and are in Malaysia either working at an overseas branch or are in the country to establish one.

As such, finding work is rarely a concern; most expatriates are posted to a new location once the job is complete.

However, should you find yourself in Malaysia without an employment contract, either as one contract comes to an end or having followed a spouse to the country, searching for a job follows a fairly universal process.

CVs are the common application document though increasingly popular, particularly among larger organisations the world over, are job/company-specific application forms.

Expats, however, could find securing a job difficult as organisations will have to apply for a work permit in order to employ a foreigner. Therefore, applicants must be both highly qualified and vastly experienced in order to secure a work permit. Employers will be hesitant to accept applications unless they are confident of a successful permit request.

Nevertheless, finding work once in Malaysia is not uncommon and expatriates should not be put off by the work permit application process; if an employer values your employment, they will usually do their utmost to push the process through.


It is unusual for expatriates to be working in Malaysia on a freelance basis. A number of factors mean that such work is typically difficult to come by and without satisfactory financial gain. For example, work permits rely on applicants working under contract with a recognised employer and so freelancers, legally, cannot obtain such a certificate.

However, it is not uncommon for relatives of work permit holders in Malaysia to do small amounts of freelance work, either voluntarily or for small amounts of undeclared cash. Having said that, rates in general for freelance work are low in comparison to international employment.

The other option for short-term employment is a temporary employment permit—sometimes known as a visit pass—which is valid for up to one year and allows free employment without some liberties afforded to full work permit holders (such as dependent passes for family workers).

Full contract work, on the other hand, follows a closer model to that found internationally. Companies will first officially outline the job and the details of your contract in an offer letter which should be read thoroughly before you agree to its stated terms. Upon agreement, you can begin work while your final contract is drawn up.

Employment with a local company usually involves a three-month probation period which can be further extended to six months. Following this period, providing it’s been satisfactory for both parties, your employment will be officially confirmed and the contract must be signed.


Labour law, like many other laws in Malaysia, can be both confusing and complicated to grasp. Therefore, should you require clarification or advice regarding any legal situations, it is always best to seek the assistance of a qualified lawyer that is familiar with local legislation.

However, there are a number of clearer issues that could affect all employees in the country. Local labour law, for example, dictates that all employees must be entitled to at least eight days annual leave; that standard paid maternity leave runs for 60 days; and that while no minimum wage exists for Malaysians, the minimum monthly salary for foreigners holding a work permit is RM 3,000.

Despite this, many expatriates employed by international companies will find that they are subject to less stringent rules and are entitled to considerably longer annual leave, for example, than Malaysian law outlines.

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