Your guide to expat life in Malaysia

Working in Malaysia

There are plenty of opportunities for expats in Malaysia, particularly in its burgeoning IT, engineering, teaching and banking sectors. The local business culture has Western influences, so many expats find it easy to settle into their new work environment.

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Doing business

The country has a largely unified workforce that tends to follow Western codes of conduct. But you’ll do business with people from a range of ethnic backgrounds – mainly Malay, Chinese and Indian – so be prepared to adapt your behaviour and expectations.

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Business culture

Respect and deference to authority are defining characteristics of Malaysian business culture. That said, teamwork and collaboration are paramount, and every member of a company is valued.

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Malaysia has a diverse workforce comprising people from all over Asia, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with the cultural nuances of doing business in different countries across the region.


In such a diverse environment, maintaining harmony is important, and you should always be diplomatic, polite and respectful towards everyone you work with. It’s often good to use ice-breaking pleasantries before getting down to business.


If you work for a company where most employees are Malay, you may find that prayer sessions take place throughout the day. Some businesses in the provinces close on Fridays, and there’s an overall slowdown during Ramadan.

Management style

Although there’s a strict hierarchy in Malaysian businesses, the management style is holistic and balances the need for success with cooperation. Managers do their jobs with subtlety and aim to save face – both their own and that of their employees’. Reprimands are often given by a third party.

Saving face

As in many Asian countries, the concept of saving face is important. You should always try to contain your emotions and avoid confronting or embarrassing business associates in public. If you disagree with someone, take it up with them in private.


Meetings usually start on time, but there can be a lot of small talk and personal digressions. Be patient and don’t try to hurry anyone.

Fast facts

Business language

Malay is the official language, but English is widely spoken in business circles.

Business hours

Usually from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.


Malaysian businesspeople dress formally and conservatively. Men tend to wear dark suits, while women choose trouser suits or smart dresses and skirts. In a predominantly Muslim country, modesty is key.


The standard business greeting is a handshake, but some local women may prefer a slight nod of the head. It’s usually best to wait for the other person to initiate the greeting and then follow suit.


Gifts are occasionally exchanged when you meet someone for the first time. To avoid embarrassing a new acquaintance, it’s best to receive a gift from them first and reciprocate at a later date. Always accept a gift with both hands, and don’t open it in front of the person who’s given it to you.

Gender equality

Malaysia is generally considered to be an easier place to do business as a woman than many other Asian countries. Women are ostensibly viewed as equals in the workplace and often rise to senior positions.

Expat salaries

While your earning potential in Malaysia may not be as good as in other popular expat destinations, salaries are still well above the global average.

Ask questions about the company culture and how your job duties will change. Negotiate for commiserate salary.

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Always remember to ensure you are aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.

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