Malaysian etiquette and customs

Malaysians are generally extremely hospitable people and only too happy to welcome guests into their country. That said, as with all cultures, there are a few social faux pas which many visitors are unaware of any so unwittingly cause offence. Malaysia is a diverse nation with a large proportion of ethnic Indians, Chinese, Europeans and Malays. However, tourists should bear in mind that this remains an Islamic state and so a conservative dress and behaviour should be practiced.

Foreigners should not dress provocatively, especially when visiting cultural monuments of religious buildings such as temples and mosques. Women especially should take care to keep their shoulders covered and avoid wearing bikinis outside the beach areas. Topless sunbathing is always forbidden no matter how alone you may be.

Men are generally fine in Western attire for most situations, but shorts are considered disrespectful if touring religious attractions and a shirt is always advisable if attending a government department such as an immigration office

Although things may be a little more relaxed in the cities and places used to an influx of tourists, boisterous behaviour such as getting drunk and shouting will definitely cause offence. Being publicly intoxicated is illegal in Malaysia so be careful that a night of revelry does not end with jail cell hangover. And women should be especially careful when drinking, as inebriated staggering down dark streets can be misinterpreted by some local men as a lack of moral values, and unwanted advances can result.

Western introduction formalities have been adopted by Malaysians with a firm handshake and swapping of business cards quite the norm. Continental-style kissing on the check should be avoided unless initiated first by your Malaysian companions. Those coming to Malaysia on business will probably be expected to don a suit for meetings and perhaps wear a tie. This can be excruciatingly uncomfortable given the heat and humidity, but luckily practically all office buildings are air conditioned so any discomfort will be reserved for outdoor forays.

When being entertained by Malaysians in formal occasions one should take special care not to offend your hosts by recanting risqué jokes or overfamiliar touching. Arguments should certainly be avoided, as should expressing strong religious or political comments. Especially with a language barrier, it is easy to have your sentiments misinterpreted and so quite innocent pronouncements can have unfortunate repercussions.

Visitors to Malaysian homes should remove shoes as a sign of respect, and similar reverence should be paid when out in the natural environment such as during visits to beaches or the national parks.

Demonstrating impatience or ire with Malaysians is taboo and is not the best course of action for resolving frustrating situations. And romantic displays such as heavy petting should be reserved for the bedroom only.

Although homosexuality is officially illegal in Malaysia there has been a marked emergence of a  pink scene in the big cities. However, the hesitant toleration of homosexual behaviour is not universal and so gay tourists travelling through the country should probably not openly display their sexuality.