SOME HANDY RULES
Malaysians tend not to open gifts immediately, or at least not in front of the giver. So, don’t be offended if they don’t rip the wrapping paper off straight away and shriek with delight. They are just being polite.
When passing the gift, it should always be done with the right hand, though it is better to use both. Similarly, when receiving a gift, it should always be received with both hands. Also, if you are visiting someone’s house, always turn up with a token gift.
MALAYS AND MUSLIMS
When giving gifts to Muslims, it is important to keep in mind that they have very strict rules about halal (permissible by Islam) products. If you are giving food, be sure to check for the halal logo on the packaging or, if in doubt, ask the shop owner.
Similarly, this extends to other products. Are those shoes made of pig skin? Again, a big no-no. Muslims also cannot consume alcohol. This is easy in some ways (don’t buy give a bottle of whisky), but what about perfume? Does that contain alcohol?
If you are taking toys for children, be aware that you are better to steer clear of cuddly dogs or pigs, and, in terms of wrapping paper, the colour white represents death to Muslims so is better avoided. Red and green on the other hand are good choices.
Chinese people have a thing for numbers and if you’re giving an item which involves a quantity, it should be in even numbers as they believe odd numbers are unlucky. However, don’t give an item in a quantity of four (the Mandarin word for ‘four’ is strikingly similar to the word ‘death’ - this is the same reason why you won’t see a Level 4 in lifts).
Don’t give cutting utensils, clocks (which means you are counting down the time until they die), handkerchiefs or shoes (it means they will run away).
Also, flowers are generally only given to the sick or used at funerals, not for gifts. In terms of wrapping paper, the colours white, blue or black should be avoided, while red, pink or yellow are good.
Finally, never wrap a gift for a baby or decorate the gift in any way with a stork - the birds are the harbinger of death. Yikes.
Wrapping papers should be in bright colours like yellow, red or green. White and black should be avoided. Hindus do not consume beef (the cow is a sacred animal), so related products should be avoided.
Alcohol can be given, but only if the recipient drinks. If you give flowers, avoid frangipani as these are used in funeral wreaths. When giving money, it should be in odd amount: RM11, RM51, RM101, for example.
USE THE FOURS, LUKE
Four top tips to make you a Jedi master in everyday life in Malaysia.
1. Say hello, wave goodbye
When meeting Muslims or Indians of the opposite sex, let them take the lead. A simple nod and a smile is a pretty common introduction, so don’t offer a handshake unless they initiate it.
This isn’t usually the case in a business setting, but it is best to play it safe and mirror their greetings. Speaking of which, business cards are often given with both hands and should be received likewise.
2. Give a little respect
While it might be the norm in many countries to wear shoes (clogs, stilettoes, fishing waders, whatever floats your boat) indoors, in Malaysia it’s a definite faux pas.
Shoes must always be removed when entering a home as a sign of respect. Some small offices practice this as well, especially if they are situated in a shop lot. See if you can instantly guess the number of people in the house by taking one glance at the number of shoes outside. You're so going to do this now, aren’t you?
3. It’s a cover up
It is best to dress formally or in long clothing, particularly when visiting a Muslim home. Avoid wearing shorts or short skirts when visiting someone, unless there’s a need for it (a pool party or barbecue, for example).
The same goes for places of worship and government buildings. Some places even provide robes and scarves for female visitors as they are required to cover their hair, arms and legs at places of worship, for example. If you want to take photographs there, it is best to ask permission beforehand.
4. Your right hand, man
It is always polite to call beforehand when visiting someone’s home. When eating, particularly if you are using your hands, the right hand is always used as the left is considered unclean, even when handling common utensils.
Drinks are offered and accepted with both hands, and it is always polite to accept, even if you aren’t feeling particularly thirsty. That doesn’t necessarily apply if the waiter asks: “Can I bring you another bottle of Cabernet Blanc?” sadly.