A lesson in Malaysian culture, for foreigners

Today, we take a peek into a briefing session for the wives of foreign diplomats who have just set foot in Malaysia. This briefing session is to help these wives of foreign diplomats to better understand Malaysian culture and to avoid embarrassing situations or diplomatic booboos.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

Ladies, ladies, ladies, let’s get down to business.

Welcome to Malaysia. You are going to be here for at least two years and to make your stay here enjoyable and free of sticky situations, we shall take you through a crash course in how to understand Malaysian culture.

First of all, there is no such thing as a Malaysian. What we have are four groupings labelled as Bumiputera, which is another word for Malay; Chinese, spelt C-I-N-A and pronounced Chee-Ner; Indians, sometimes referred to as Keling or Hindu by the Bumiputera; and the lain-lain or ‘others’. We, I’m afraid, do not fit into any of these four categories. The Bumiputeras call us ‘Mat Salleh’ while the Chinese refer to us as ‘Kwai Loh’.

Now, while I said there is no such thing as a Malaysian, the Indians and Chinese will insist you refer to them as Malaysians. The Indians, however, would argue that they are Indians and will talk about Indian rights and Indian interests. But, while they claim to be Indians, you must not call them Indians. They will get very offended. You must call them Malaysians. And the same goes for the Chinese.

For the Malays it is even more complicating. They insist they are Bumiputeras, which means ‘sons of the soil’. But they will demand you refer to them as Melayu and they will argue about things such as Ketuanan Melayu, which means Malays as Lords, and other such rhetoric. But never mind, over time you will begin to understand how Malaysians think, which will eventually give you the impression that they can’t really think.

Each grouping has its own culture when it comes to gatherings. Chinese culture is quite straightforward. They love lavish dinners and young half-naked women dancing and singing on stage while they eat. The Malaysian government has officially adopted this as Chinese culture and you will notice that all government-sponsored gatherings will be of the like.

Malay gatherings are not as sexy. They always start their gatherings by screaming ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ and which will end with the kissing of little curved knives that are called keris, pronounced ‘Chris’. Being Muslims, they are not allowed to have young half-naked women publicly singing and dancing on stage. Most of these things are done behind closed doors and away from the public eye.

Indian culture, when it comes to gatherings, is less sexy or militant. Normally, they will invite the President of the Malaysian Indian Congress to grace their gatherings and they will sing his praises, hug him, and kiss his hand. Sometimes, they go into frenzy and will wail and throw slippers at him. It, of course, depends on what time of the day it is to see which ritual the Indians would adopt.

You will never see a Chinese chauffeur. While most of the big and lavish cars are owned by the Chinese, their chauffeurs are always either Malays or Indians. The same goes for security guards. They are all either Indians, Malays or lain-lain, never Chinese. We assume this is because the Chinese do not trust their own kind to drive their cars or to handle their security.

When entering a Malaysian home you must take off your shoes. This appears to be the one and only thing that all four groupings share in common. When you invite Malaysians to your home you will notice that they will also take off their shoes before entering. So it is advisable to place a shoe rack outside your house in the event you wish to invite Malaysians over to your home.

Religious holidays are synonymous with the handing out of little packets that contain money. The Chinese will hand out red packets and the Malays green packets. The Indians do not appear to share this Chinese and Malay custom of handing out packets of money on religious holidays. However, they will never refuse receiving it if you offer them one, especially during an election.

The official language for Malaysia is not constant and keeps changing. It used to be Bahasa Kebangsaan and then was changed to Bahasa Melayu. Then, for a short while, the government adopted Bahasa Baku as the official language. Now, the official language is Bahasa Malaysia. Actually, all four are the same except for the spelling, which changes each time they switch over.

Therefore, there is no such thing as a Malaysian language per se. So, maybe this is the problem the government faces in establishing an official language for Malaysia. Most of the Malay vocabulary is borrowed from the Thai, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, Arabic and English languages. I was told there are only five or six words that can be regarded as originally Malay.

The federal government is led by three main political parties within the ruling coalition called Barisan Nasional. You will notice, however, that the names of all three of these parties — Umno, MCA and MIC — are in English. None are in the Malaysian national language. Nevertheless, all these three parties are very passionate about defending the Malaysian national language even though none of them use the Malaysian national language in their party names.

Okay, that ends our first lesson in how to understand Malaysian culture. Tomorrow, we shall talk about other aspects of Malaysian culture and traditions, such as the education and economic policies of this country and the quota system attached to these policies. The education quota system is actually quite easy to understand. In certain institutions of higher learning, 100% of the students are Malays and none of the other groupings are allowed places in these institutions.

We hope, by the end of this three-day crash course, you will be able to understand Malaysia better. Invariably, you will discover that Malaysians are quite difficult to comprehend. They say one thing but they mean the opposite. For example, when you invite them to join you for dinner, they will say ‘no thank you’. Actually, they mean ‘yes please’. And if you take that to literally mean ‘no thank you’ they will get very upset and consider you sombong or pompous.