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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

Why do Malaysian always say “On the Way...” ?

Who hasn’t gone native in Malaysia and used this very versatile phrase? Odw : getting ready to go or odw: be there in 2 minutes.

Malaysian time has a very “rubberlike” nature. Here being accommodating and flexible matters more than being punctual.

Why is that so?

Looking back on the history on Malaysia, one could say that the wealth and grandeur of Malacca was built on patience and waiting. In a country, where trade and business relied mainly on the good will of the winds and the monsoon, it only seems natural that people understand that there is no point in pushing for time and deadlines, things will happen when they are meant to happen, the winds will turn when they are meant to turn.

This understanding of time is closely linked to the concept of living in harmony with nature and God or higher spirit, “Man plans, but in the end it is God who decides”. Man can work hard and set time frames, but in the end one must accept with fatalism if things get delayed or don’t happen as planned.

Malaysians see time in a poly-chronic manner – It is Ok to do several things at the same time, they would rather be In time than On time, they understand that things can get delayed or take longer than initially forecast and that’s OK.

How does that translate on a day-to-day basis?

When setting up a meeting with friends, the assumption tends to be that one needs to reconfirm the meeting to be sure that it will happen, rather than assume it is firm and only call if one can’t make it. For example, an American or a German might get upset if you don’t show up for a meeting set 2 weeks ago, a Malaysian will find it odd if you don’t call, email or SMS to reconfirm that same meeting and wonder if the meeting is still on or if you are too busy and cannot make it.

The nonchalance of clerks or shop attendants to answer customers’ needs, can also surprise the outsider who comes from a place where time is money.

But then, if time is not seen as a commodity then it cannot be wasted. I have often seen conferences, symposiums, and events, where people had to wait for VIPs to arrive. It never triggers any sense of discomfort or impatience from the audience. People use this time to catch up with friends, acquaintances or business partners while waiting for the event to start. Time wasted ?or Time put to good use in networking, connecting and building relationships?

Contactors and maintenance workers are often unspecific about their time. Usually they tell their client the day they will come , and at most whether it will be morning or afternoon. But it is almost impossible to pin them down for a precise time. They know how many clients they can see in a day, and that is what they can plan. However the process and when exactly they are going to service each client is unpredictable. In addition, it is important to allow time and flexibility for the unforeseen event to be accommodated.

How to handle time at work?

A common complaint I hear from Anglo-Saxon expatriates is that Malaysians cannot start meetings on time: if a meeting is at 10, why do people only arrive after 10, meaning the meeting slowly starts at 10:10? Because that is the practice in Malaysia and the time prior to the meeting is used for informal communication. Unless the person who calls for the meeting makes it clear that the meeting will start at 10 sharp, the Malaysian practice will take place.

Meeting deadlines is often another cause of concerns. A deadline is a very impersonal concept, and therefore most Malaysians do not relate to an abstract deadline. However, once it is put into context, once it is clear that a deadline is important because it will have repercussions for specific people if it is not met, only then does the deadline makes sense.

A Thai client of mine complained that his Malaysian partner would often change the agenda of a meeting at the last minute and that others replaced the people that were supposed to attend without prior notice. In Malaysia very few things are set in stone. An agenda that has been set is open to accommodate necessary changes until … the moment the meeting starts. This is why relationships and network are important; to avoid the surprise of a new agenda and new faces when the meeting starts, one needs to keep constantly connected with the Malaysian counterpart and build close enough relationships so that you will be able to obtain the information ahead of time.


The reaction to Malaysian time will differ greatly depending on where you are coming from. French people may find the usage of time inefficient in Malaysia, while it will be acceptable to Filipinos. Just as Americans will find the usage of time in France very inefficient and unpredictable.

When in Malaysia, it is important to understand how time is perceived here and be able to explain why time matters more where you are coming from. Most of the time, Malaysians will be willing to accommodate your ways if you explain how much it matters to you, and if they don’t … learn to be flexible, patient and accommodating!

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