Signs of respect and status are everywhere in Malaysia: from the police escorts on the streets and the special treatment reserved to VIP at official functions ( VVIP signs can even be spotted in Kuala Lumpur!) to the numerous titles and honorific that are common in Malaysia: Dato, Tan Sir, Toh Puan … and the long titles of the sultans of Malaysia.
Some expatriates used to a flatter societal structure find it difficult to accept this respectful treatment and interpret it as a sign of submission. They keep asking their staff to call them by their first name, and often get the answer “Yes Boss!” without realizing that it is as unnatural for a Malaysian to call them “Bob” as it is for them to be called “Boss”!
Why is that so?
In the study conducted 30 years ago by Hosftede on cultural dimensions, Malaysia scored as the most hierarchical society in the world. Clearly in Malaysia, it is essential to know where one stands in society. As Dr Asma Addullah puts it “ A place for everyone and everyone in its place”. The Malay society was traditionally a feudal society with a very clear distinction between the aristocracy and the Rakyat (the people). Until today, the term Rakyat is still used – often as opposed to the elite or the royalty, giving people a very clear notion of where they stand. Likewise, in a Chinese family, roles are very clearly defined. No two members of a family carry the same “title” and the way one person addresses another member of the family states without ambiguity the position of the both persons within the family.
The clan system was equally important in building an organized and hierarchical society. Malaysians of Indian origin have also inherited a strong sense of hierarchy and deep respect for parents and elders. Until today it is not unusual that people follow the decision of their parents even in the choice of their spouse. Malaysian society is evolving quickly, but these behaviors are still deeply anchored in most Malaysians regardless of ethnicity, age or gender. Even though the younger generation is calling for more equality, less cronyism and more meritocracy, this doesn’t, at all, mean doing away with the respect for age and status.
How does that translate in everyday life?
When meeting someone for the first time, it is wise to have a good look at the name card to spot any title or enquire about the person before addressing him or her. One should always use the title of a person when addressing them in public. Omitting the use of a title can sometimes lead to awkward situations. “Saya makan garam lebih dulu” (I have tasted salt before you did): This Malay saying emphasis the importance of respecting older people’s knowledge and experience. Another Malaysian saying goes “ You can express a disagreement to your parents once, but if they don’t accept it, it is better to forget about it.” Both have the same message: don’t disagree with your parents, as they are older and have more experience than you. It is therefore not advised to go against their opinion and it is wise to follow their recommendations.
Showing respect and avoiding disagreements with older people, parents, teachers, superiors is a sign of good upbringing. In Malaysia, children and young people often refer to older friends of the family as Uncle and Aunty. This is a mark of politeness and it shows respect for the older people. Observing the protocol that surrounds the 9 Sultans of Malaysia, helps to feel and understand the aura that still surrounds the Sultans, and the importance given to status and birth.
How does that translate at work?
The respect that is shown in a family and with the royalties, also applies to a boss in work environment. In Malaysia, the leader is seen and respected as an omniscient father figure. Hence it is very difficult for subordinates to argue with the boss or sometimes even contribute new ideas as this could be perceived as a lack of respect. As a father would, a leader needs to show the way, giving team members and employees a sense of strength and confidence. A hesitant leader will be less appreciated than a strong leader. The leader is expected to have all the answers and make all decisions. (The challenge though is to check with all the stakeholders, in a subtle manner, that they agree with the decision, prior to announcing it!)
However, the respect one gets as the boss also comes with duties and responsibilities.
First of all to be respected, a boss must be experienced, knowledgeable and competent. But what will make a real difference between a good and an outstanding boss is how the boss relates to employees and team members. It is essential to establish sincere relationships with all team members. When asked what attitude they would like to see in expatriate colleagues, Malaysians mention the following:
Show more respect for hierarchy
Show that you care
Speak from the heart
This might sound odd and out of place to a western manager, but in Malaysia, caring and looking after team members are among the top qualities required from a leader. Authority, to be effective in Malaysia, needs to go hand in hand with care and concern for one’s team.
To live and work well in an highly hierarchical society, it is essential to understand one’s position in society. A foreigner, especially if coming from an egalitarian cultural background, will find it challenging to accurately position himself in the Malaysian society. When in doubt, the best course of action is be humble while accepting the signs of respect that one receives from Malaysian friends and colleagues. And don’t forget to show an equal respect for the Malaysian people one encounters