Malaysia is a melting pot of various races. Its population of 18.2 million is made up of Malays, Chinese, Indians and the diverse indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak. Known for their legendary warmth and hospitality, the people speak Bahasa Melayu which is the national language, though English is widely spoken. Other main languages are Chinese and Tamil.  

Everyday etiquette is relaxed and straightforward. Visitors behaving courteously are unlikely to unintentionally give offense.

Seniority is greatly respected within Malay households. The eldest male of a family should be greeted first and frequently sits in the best or highest seat.

Pointing with a finger is considered to be extremely rude. Instead, the entire hand should be used to indicate a direction, but not a person.

Although no host will insist upon it, it is polite to remove one's shoes at the door of a house upon entering. It is also customary to do so upon entering a mosque or an Indian temple.

Comfortable and informal clothing is suitable during the day and recommended all year round because of the tropical climate. However, as Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, conservative dress is most appropriate. Women should not wear dresses, skirts or shorts that are too short. In cities, towns and villages, shorts are considered highly inappropriate. Do not dress in any manner that may give the impression that you are a "hippie," as "hippies" are banned from the country.

For formal occasions or evening wear, formal attire is expected. Men should wear a suit and tie or a long-sleeved batik shirt. Evening dresses or cocktail dresses are recommended for women.

Malaysians tend to be late for appointments yet expect others to be on time. Your contact will meet you at your hotel or at his or her office.

Meetings are often held during lunch or dinner. Malaysians are usually called by their given names preceded by Mr., Mrs., or Miss. The Chinese use their family names preceded by Mr., Mrs., or Miss. A firm handshake and a "hello" are suitable as a greeting. Muslims bring their hand to their chest after shaking hands, and you should follow suit.

Business cards are always exchanged and should be both given and received with both hands at all times. Study the card for a few moments before placing it in your pocket.

A suit and tie is suitable business attire for men, with the jacket removed on warmer days. Long-sleeved batik shirts are always acceptable. For women, a suit or blouse and skirt are best for daytime appointments.

The many cultures and religions of Malaysia may make giving a suitable gift a complicated issue. Never give liquor to a Muslim (alcoholic beverages are forbidden in the Muslim religion), or clocks, watches, knives or white flowers to a Chinese person (white flowers are associated with death in Chinese culture, and so are clocks, knives and watches - the word for time and death sound similar). A pen or a similar object having a company logo is probably the safest kind of gift.


The Malay Peninsula has been occupied for 6,000 to 8,000 years, and in Sarawak, which is across the South China Sea from the peninsula, remains have been found that may be 40,000 years old. The ancestors of the modern Malay people migrated from China perhaps as long as 4,000 years ago. The peninsula became a centre of trade between China and India, resulting not only in commerce but also in the exchange of ideas, religion, art, and models of government. Near the beginning of the Christian era, Malaysia was visited by Indian traders, and Buddhist and Brahman missionaries and Hindu colonists came to the area over the following centuries.

Malays and other indigenous groups account for about 60 per cent of the population, Chinese for about 31 per cent, and Indians for about 8 per cent. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, is by far the largest city and the only one that has a population of more than 1,238,000 (1995 Estimate). About 43 per cent of Malaysians live in suburban areas.

Malaysia is a multiracial society of indigenous Malays—called the Bumiputra, or “sons of the soil”—and immigrant Chinese and Indians. Each community guards its cultural identity, and a racial dimension is present in most aspects of Malaysian life. The Chinese, for example, resent the system (introduced in 1970 as part of the “New Economic Policy”) of positive economic discrimination in favour of the Malays, while the Malays believe that such discrimination is the only way they can overcome the traditional Chinese dominance in business.


Malay is the official language and is spoken throughout the country. The ethnic Chinese also speak one of various Chinese dialects such as Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Mandarin, or Min. On the island of Borneo, in Sabah and Sarawak, many indigenous languages are spoken. Most Malaysians are bilingual if not multilingual, and English is spoken in all but the most remote areas.


Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, although the constitution guarantees freedom of worship. Ethnic Malays are virtually all Muslim. The Chinese on the peninsula are chiefly Buddhist, with some Taoists, Christians, and Confucianists. Some Malays practise principles from all three. The Indians are generally Hindu, but some are Christian. In the states of Sabah and Sarawak, the denomination percentages are different. In Sabah, about 38 per cent are Muslim, 17 per cent Christian, and the rest follow indigenous beliefs. In Sarawak, where there are more Chinese, 24 per cent are Buddhist and Confucianist, 20 per cent Muslim, 16 per cent Christian, and the rest follow indigenous or other beliefs. Throughout Malaysia many people follow traditional beliefs and customs as well as those of their religion.


Education is considered the key to social status and success. School attendance is compulsory for 11 years (1995): six years of primary and three years of secondary education. After this, students may continue school for two more years in a secondary school or in a trade school. Most students are instructed in Malay and are required to learn English. Chinese and Indian students, however, may attend special schools where instruction is in the students’ native languages. These students generally spend an extra year in school because they must also learn Malay.

Secondary-school graduates (who have completed all five years of secondary school) may take an exam to enter two years of pre-university education. There are seven universities in Malaysia, and more than 30 other institutions of higher learning. Many Malaysians also study abroad; degrees from British, Australian, and American universities are valued. Adult correspondence courses are sponsored by the government.

Health and Welfare

Medical care is partially state funded by both federal and state governments. Health-care fees are low, and the government has sponsored national immunization, fluoridation, and hygiene campaigns. Problems still exist, however, and rural health care is not as good as in the cities, but facilities and care are constantly improving.