5 Quirky Aspects Of Malaysian Work Culture

Every country has their quirks in cultures and practices. With Malaysia being the cultural melting-pot that it is, distinctive features of its’ working culture have been noted, some of which may make you go “that’s so us lah!”.

1. Don’t worry, I’ll do my best!

The culture in Malaysia is simple. If you hire someone to do something, you will be assured that they will do their best. What they don’t tell you is how qualified they are for their job. It doesn’t matter what you’re asking them to do however, the response is always the same.

The natural Malaysian humility is a double-edged sword. Knowing that the person will do their best can put you at ease, but there’s a difference between doing their best and actually getting the job done.

Western countries tend to prefer when employees give the affirmation that the job will be completed no matter what. “Yes, it will be done”, is very different from “I’ll do my best”. So if you’re from a different culture, you may be in for some surprises when it comes to crunch time.

2. Showing Up Late To Work

Let’s face it, whether we mean to or not, hardly any of us arrive on time to work. The policy may be that work starts at 9, but occasionally showing up at 10 is perfectly fine (by occasionally, I mean multiple times in a week!).

Most of the time, the excuse revolves around getting stuck in traffic – which is, by all means, a perfectly valid reason if your commute involves the highways. In reality, most of us just have trouble getting out of bed in the mornings (and then we get stuck in traffic, but who’s really keeping track?).

While this may be part of our culture, it’s one that our neighbours down-south would be perplexed by. In Singapore, if a train runs a minute late, there would be a public execution the next day. Well, not literally, but you get the point.

Likewise, meetings in Malaysia are hardly ever punctual unless absolutely necessary.

“Aiya, 2.00pm he said what. Now only 2.15, we go in 5 minutes.” – some Malaysian employee, probably.

3. The After-lunch Nap [restrict]

Being raised in Malaysia means understanding that our nasi (rice) is the most important thing. Of the Chinese, Malays and Indians, we can be certain that all can agree that nasi is the most important part of a meal. How to makan kuah je lah?

In many parts of Asia, rice is a staple. It’s easy to grow, harvest and provides a high yield, allowing it to be a cheap and filling food source.

What is not inherent to Malaysians, however, is portion control. If you’re anything like me, you’ll understand that the nasi takes up 70% of the plate. Coupled with our typical buffet-styled  Chinese mix rice, nasi kandar or nasi campur, packing on the pounds is a simple task.

So what happens next? We go into a food-coma. For many Western countries, this type of feasting happens on occasion, so the term may not sound as familiar. For Malaysians, this is every day.

Scientifically, getting jacked up on rice means that our blood sugar levels come crashing down right after. Post-lunch, most of us are unable to focus and try to sneak in some down-time to recover from our daily feast.

But fret not! If you’re working in a more liberal environment, your employers are more than likely to understand the post-lunch nap (although not much can be said about your reputation after, so be discrete!).

4. Yes Boss! Yes ma’am!

Before delving into this, do understand that Malaysia is a “high power distance” country. Meaning, that there is a substantial gap between employee and employer.

It’s fairly common to refer to superiors as just ‘boss’ and ‘ma’am’. It’s common for people in lower places of power to just keep their head down and be respectful to authority, even if they do know better.

This may come as a shock to outsiders from low power distance countries. For example, in America, it is your right to voice your opinion, and collaboration is highly valued in a work environment. In more conservative work places here, you may be disciplined or even fired for questioning or being disrespectful towards your boss.

Thankfully, as we move into a modernized community, Malaysia has begun to adopt and integrate the start-up culture into the work environment. This is most evident in the newer companies and start-ups that exist in Kuala Lumpur but is still fairly new. With time, we can expect a positive shift in our views of power, and with it a flatter hierarchy in work places.


While I tried to write this with a touch of humor, do know I meant no offence to my fellow Malaysians. If anything, our more laid-back approach to work life  is endearing to me. Life isn’t always about work and business.

Rather, I believe it is a mere part of our life, and knowing that most Malaysians value their outside life over work can be a supportive element for those who wish to escape the rat-race.

Every country has its own culture, and, in the current millennia, it is interesting to watch how this social paradigm shifts in accordance to globalization. Perhaps our culture here may change, but I sincerely hope we maintain a few key elements that makes our work culture distinctive of the rest.

Actionable Takeaway:

Eat less rice, you’ll find you won’t be caught in the afternoon daze! Fun fact, the Spaniards have a little thing called Siestas , where, as part of their culture, they take a nap in the afternoon after a meal. Sound familiar? Maybe the Spanish have it right.


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