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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

Whom you know…

In Malaysia, 70% of Internet users have a Facebook account. Malaysians have embraced social media with enthusiasm, as one more way to connect.

It is not unusual to hear in Malaysia “it is not what you know but who you know” that matters. Some expatriates looking for work in Malaysia have been unable to find a position despite their very adequate qualifications and the many letters they sent, while others with just a few phone calls to the right people have secured employment much faster.

Understanding the importance of relationships and networks is essential to function effectively in this country.

Why is that so?

Asian cultures tend to be group-orientated cultures. In such cultures is it very difficult to operate on your own. One can only be effective in relation to others. There is a great comfort in working within one’s community and it is much easier to connect to people through networks.

This was true in the old Malay kingdoms before the arrival of Europeans. In a feudal society, the sultan could only be respected if he had a large number of followers. This was more important than the territory that he controlled. Likewise the noblemen and “rakyat” (the people) gained status and protection by being under the wings of the sultan. This essential reciprocal relationship was the base of a harmonious and peaceful society.

Somehow the British policies in Malaya reinforced this strong sense of community. As they encourage Indian and Chinese migration to Malaya to support the tin and rubber industries. As they arrived in Malaya, each of these communities were left to organize themselves as they saw fit, each retaining a very strong cultural identity.

Naturally it then became easier if you were Chinese to do business with Chinese, with Malays if you were Malay and Indians if you were Indians.

Among the Orang Asli and Orang Ulu ( or Dayaks ) there are also many tribes and cultures, and although traditional living is vanishing in Sabah and Sarawak, there is still a strong sense of group and identity linked to each separate culture.

How does this translate into everyday life?

When meeting new people it is always helpful to identify common connections: school, friends, places, faith, or associations. This immediately establishes a mutual ground that fosters stronger relationships. Such a link would immediately open doors, as one then belongs to the group rather than being considered an outsider.

Although social clubs are a legacy from the British in Malaysia, they also provide one more venue for people to connect and build a shared history, that last over generations.

Joining groups and associations in Malaysia is a very effective way to establish long lasting friendships and a good way to relate to Malaysians.

On a more practical level, it is better to use contractors who have been recommended by a friend. They tend be more committed and will take into account their relationship to the person who recommended them as they complete their work.

Another aspect of the importance of networking is the concept of lending circles where a small group of friends come together to lend money to each other: every month each friend contribute an equal amount of money and that is then borrowed by one of them. The system goes on until everyone has had a turn. This is done without any written contract but only based on the trust that the friends have in each other and in their group. Very often the friends do have connections that makes the circle even stronger.

How does this translate at work?

Relationships at work are also of the utmost importance. Understanding the networks at play is decisive in concluding a deal or hiring the right person.

Many companies in Malaysia are family owned businesses. There it seems normal that the business owners would rely on family connections to find employees. But this strategy is also used by larger groups who ask for help from their employees to bring in new collaborators. A European company even launched an internal campaign on that theme: “Great people know great people: refer a friend and reap the rewards!” In a market with barely any unemployment and issues to hire talents, using networks and connections can be a very effective strategy. It not only brings worthwhile candidates, but also their commitment to the work will be reinforced by having a family member or friend already in the company.

Likewise when dealing with clients it is important to identify some common ground in order to build a strong relationship. Being referred by a common friend will help secure a first meeting. In a first encounter it is not unusual to spend some time gauging each other and sharing stories and histories of common acquaintances, sometime even quite remote. Then it will be important to identify some common interest or people that you know. These connections can make the difference between you and your competitor.


In Malaysia it is not only about being the most competent and skilled at doing a job. Malaysians consider that the relationship and network will also greatly enhance performance and effectiveness at work.

People will work better with people they respect and appreciate, and to whom they are one way or another related to. This is why, when coming to Malaysia, it is vital to dedicate sufficient time to understand the connections in the environment you are in.

Spend time to get to know people, do your homework before and after meeting someone for the first time. In order to perform in Malaysia one needs to belong … to a team, a group, a network.

So get ready and connected!

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