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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

CI In Conversation #5 - How to Better Understand Your Malaysian Indian Colleagues

To celebrate Deepavali (or is it Diwali..?) last year, Ravinder Kaur and Raj Kumar Paramanathan agreed to share some insights about the many Indian cultures of Malaysia.

Dr. Marcella Lucas joined us to provide an outside perspective and shared her own observations interacting with Indian colleagues and friends during her many years working and living in Malaysia.

Here is a short summary of what we discussed. Listen to the full discussion here.


Origins of Indian people in Malaysia

  • Most Indians in Malaysia came from South India and Sri Lanka. Many are of Tamil descent, but also Malayalee and Telegu. They are mostly Hindus. Some also came from the north, notably the Punjabis who are often Sikhs.

  • Many have been in Malaysia for 3 generations or more.

  • Some came from the Indian Colonial civil service such as Civil Defense to work in offices, many came as laborers to work in the plantations and rubber estates, and some came as traders.

Life in the rubber estates

  • Life was tough. The workers never left the estate, as all was provided for them: food, schooling, entertainment...

  • Like many migrants, they had to work hard to survive. These hardships created a drive for the younger generations to pursue education and leave the estates.

  • Parents were willing to make sacrifices to ensure their children got an education. Many of today’s behaviours within the Indian community are anchored in that history.

  • The experience was different for those who came to work in offices and already spoke very good English.


Despite the diversity within the Indian communities of Malaysia, what are the common traditions and the common values among Indian people here?

Respect for elders (7:42)

  • Great respect for parents and elders

  • Children must take care of their aging parents

  • In the workplace this translates as trust, respect, deference to hierarchy

Family ties and Responsibilities (10:49)

  • Close knit family ties with close and extended family

  • Helps keep the traditions and language alive

  • Duties and responsibilities towards close and extended family


  • Heavy emphasis on the importance of education for both boys and girls.

Sense of Sacrifice

  • Parents willing to sacrifice for the education of their children.

  • Individuals willing to sacrifice for the success of the group.

  • Decisions often do not lie with one individual only . Even though that may seem a personal decision to a western eye, they are influenced by many other people within the family and event community.

  • Individual choices are bound to the importance of building trust and maintaining relationships.

Collectivism and Harmony (9:32)

  • The regard for the group is a double edged sword: - People can rely on family and networks. - But this also reinforces the potential shame you can bring about for yourself and for the group.

  • The need to maintain harmony leads to avoiding conflicts, a tendency to “beat around the bush”, and hesitation to express negative opinions.

Spirituality and Karma (13:51)

  • Strong belief in karma

  • Spirituality is very much a way of life yet many Indians keep their spiritual life under the radar. It is a personal matter that doesn’t infringe on public space (example of fasting days that non-Indians may not be aware of)

  • The law of karma prepares people to be more resilient.

  • Asking tactful questions about spirituality, with an inquisitive mind, is a good way to understand the Indian community.


Impact of traditional Indian values impact on today’s workplace.

Need to be recognised and treated fairly

  • There's a silent cry within the Indian community to be treated equally and not to be discriminated against.

Need to fit in

  • That may result in a tendency to be subservient and a lack of proactivity. As a result Indians co-workers are sometimes seen as willing to take orders.

  • They tend to be humble as they may lack confidence to make their own decisions until they are sure to have a “safe space” and a chance to develop trust and confidence.

How to address this trait:

  • Give them challenging assignments, prepare them and coach them to be independent, and give them a chance to highlight their individuality.

Reserved yet expressive

The impact of education

  • The local education system doesn’t allow for much vocal individual expression, so many Malaysians grow into this habit and take it into the workplace.

  • “There's this DNA in us that, you know, we shouldn't speak too much, we should actually be silent, we shouldn't be too assertive. So sometimes this is a contradiction, which is happening among us, within ourselves, and also the workplace.”

In the workplace

  • As people get into the multinational workplace, they adapt to the corporate values that often encourage transparent conversations, merit and performance.

  • People change if they have managers that make them feel safe, encourage personal development, and coach them.

So why may non-Indians think that Indians are vocal and expressive?

  • In a safe space Indians can be very vocal and assertive, able to speak up when they find the space. If it is not safe however, then they hold back.

  • They can be vocal in smaller settings and shy with larger crowds.

  • They may find greater safety and comfort in MNCs but Malaysian companies' cultures are also evolving.


  • Building trust is about mutual respect. Yet few people know about the Malaysian Indian communities (the food and fasting, the festivals,..)

  • To get the best out of your Indian colleagues, leaders should invest a lot in building trust with them. Because due to their background and history, they might worry about not being given a chance to grow.

  • In the Indian community and maybe more in the Asian community, trust is not automatically given: I will trust you after you have worked to build my trust. Hence one needs to work at building this trust by first trying to understand Indian colleagues values, culture and preferred behaviors.

What is very different from Dutch values

  • Choice of the family is more important than individual preference.

  • Trust needs to be earned and is not given automatically.

  • Only when trust is established can we have open and transparent communication.

So Deepavali or Diwali?

It’s both!

If you want to impress your North Indian friends, then it’s Diwali, and if you want to impress your South Indian friends or Sri Lankan friends, you say Deepavali (Deepa is Lamp And Wali is light).

I hope these few thoughts will give you a desire to engage more authentically with your Indian colleagues and learn about their many cultures.

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