Malaysian Culture


Primary Author
Nina Evason,

Basic Etiquette

  • Give or receive anything with two hands. If something must be passed with one hand, use the right hand. In accordance with Islamic principles, the left hand is reserved for cleansing one's body and should not be used alone to give or receive objects.
  • It is disrespectful to smoke around an elderly person.
  • Avoid touching or passing objects over the top of someone's head. For some, this is considered to be the most sacred part of the body.
  • Pointing, especially with one's right hand, is considered to be poor manners. If you need to point to someone or something, use your right thumb with your four fingers folded underneath.
  • Do not walk over someone’s crossed legs or cross your own in front of elders.
  • When walking past an elder, Malaysians may bow or bend slightly so that their head is lowered below that of the elders out of respect.
  • Consider that some Malaysians do not drink alcohol due to Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist principles.
  • It can be impolite to smoke cigarettes around Malays as many do not smoke for religious reasons.
  • Malaysians generally have a relaxed approach to time. This varies between , and also between the cities and rural areas, with Malaysian Chinese generally being more punctual than other groups. However, people generally start events later than the scheduled time.


  • Though hosts may specify a time for a visit, they do not always expect guests to arrive at the designated time. Punctuality is generally not important and it is common for people to visit without prior arrangements.
  • Shoes should be removed before entering a person’s home. There are commonly large collections of shoes outside some public buildings that indicate you should follow suit and take yours off as well.
  • Offering a small gift for the hostess, such as fruits, sweets or crafts, will be greatly appreciated. These gestures are known as 'buah tangan' – “fruit of the hands”.
  • Hosts will often prepare refreshments, such as tea, coffee and snacks. Wait for the host to indicate you may eat and then graciously taste the refreshments on offer.


  • Since it is common for food to be cut in bite-size pieces, knives are rarely used when eating.
  • People often eat with their hands. Restaurants may not provide utensils but instead place a water pitcher on the table so everyone can wash their hands before using them to eat.
  • Always wash your hands before eating or serving food to a Malaysian.
  • The right hand should be used to pass food to your mouth and offer it to others.
  • If at a restaurant, the host generally orders all the dishes.
  • Leaving a small amount of food on your plate at the end of a meal indicates it was filling and satisfying. If you empty your plate entirely, you can expect the host to take it as a hint that you need another serving.
  • It is considered bad etiquette to walk whilst eating.
  • Malay Meals: It is common practice to eat with one's hands or with a spoon and fork. Generally, pork is avoided.
  • Malaysian Chinese Meals: Common eating utensils are spoons and forks, or chopsticks. Do not leave chopsticks in the rice bowl or place them vertically. This is considered bad luck as it is reminiscent of practices regarding incense during mourning.
  • Malaysian Indian Meals: Eating with a spoon or with one's hands is common. Most Malaysian Indians will avoid eating dishes that contain beef.

Gift Giving

  • Gifts are given and received with both hands as a sign of respect.
  • It is polite for a recipient to initially refuse a gift before accepting it. This demonstrates that they are not greedy.
  • Be careful to watch for signs that a recipient does not want to receive the gift. Malaysia has a culture of reciprocation by which people feel a moral obligation to return favours and acts of kindness. If you give a gift that is overtly grand, a Malaysian may feel ashamed if they cannot reciprocate such a gesture.
  • Gifts should not be opened immediately when they are received or in front of the giver. This avoids the loss of on either end of the exchange if the recipient is not happy with the present.
  • Avoid giving money to your Malaysian counterpart as a gift. If doing so, it should count to an even number.
  • Do not give knives or scissors as gifts as they represent the severing of relationships.

Malay Gifts

  • Do not give gifts made out of pigskin or containing alcohol.
  • Gifts with images or likenesses of dogs or pigs are inappropriate.
  • If food is given, ensure that it is prepared to standards.
  • Do not wrap gifts with white wrapping paper, as it symbolises mourning and death. Yellow is the colour usually reserved for royalty and should be avoided.

Malaysian Chinese Gifts

  • Flowers are generally not favourable gifts as they are typically given to the sick or at funeral ceremonies.
  • Give gifts in even numbers, as odd numbers are considered unlucky. However, never give gifts that the recipient can count four of. See Other Considerations for an explanation of Chinese superstitions.
  • Avoid wrapping gifts in black, white or blue. These colours are typically associated with mourning. Red, pink and yellow are associated with happiness, and are good colour choices for gift wrap.

Malaysian Indian Gifts

  • Do not give leather products or alcohol if your Malaysian Indian counterpart is Hindu.
  • If you give flowers, avoid the frangipani as it is used at funerals.
  • Red, yellow and green are appropriate wrapping paper colours. It is thought that these colours bring good fortune. Alternatively, avoid black and white wrapping.

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