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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

CI In Conversation #1 - What I wish my foreign colleagues knew about Malay culture

“If you are not able to understand or be interested in the local culture, you will make a lot of mistakes along the way.” Gilles Waeldin, President of the CCIFM.

The key to a happy and high performing workplace lies in having a deeper understanding and appreciation for one another. Cultural Impact’s talk series ‘In Conversation’ was initiated in this spirit, and looks to engage in meaningful, enlightening discussions that might benefit all members of a diverse team.

It was a pleasure to kick off this program with Dr. Asma Abdullah and Mohd Nadzrin Wahab and their experiences as Malays in the workforce..

Both Dr. Asma and Nadzrin have worked in Malay companies and non-Malay organisations. On every scale, it seemed that they were always faced with environments where their cultural assumptions were challenged.

For Asma, this happened when stepping into an American company that favoured outspoken confidence and considered her own Malay ‘qualities’ as character traits that needed to be work on. It became difficult to fully understand what it even meant to be Malay. To this day, there seem to be so many constantly changing definitions; is one Malay first or Muslim first? As a Malay Baby Boomer, Asma was taught to be soft-spoken, obedient and not to challenge her superiors. But this new American work setting demanded that she speaks up for herself, something which was initially difficult. She suddenly found herself having to articulate dissenting views and project herself. But then switching between foreign managers and Malay bosses, who both carry their own ethnic values into the workplace, can be challenging too.

Nadzrin’s own cultural assumptions were challenged when he stepped into University as a city-born KL Malay and, upon meeting Malays from other states, was forced to reconcile with the fact that Malays across Malaysia are not homogenous. He saw a significant difference between Malay students who came from outside KL and what he called, the ‘Bangsar Bubble’ Malays - Malays who exist within their own world and believe everyone in the world speaks English, he joked. Later, working in a multinational organisation, he had to rethink his social conditioning when he met for the first time an Israeli colleague (Malaysia as a country does not recognise Israel): “Should I be friends with this guy? My beliefs and views were challenged.” he says. But if you ask Nadzrin how he felt about it all his answer is enthusiastic: “ It felt amazing”.

However, he is quick to recognise that his experience is his own and may not be reflective of a very non-homogenous culture. When he asks his other Malay friends similar questions, their answers are often very varied. Some faced a lot of sexism and racism. Of course, a person’s experience in the workforce doesn’t just depend on the ethnic culture, but also on the company culture and the people in the organisation.

The tangible challenges posed by cultural diversity were further highlighted by Gilles Waedlin, President of the French Chamber of Commerce, who shared his own experience when he began working in Malaysia as a French man.

These unique environments and differing contexts forced them all to reconsider their own cultural identities and reevaluate their personal cultural dimensions in order to work successfully within diverse teams.

Talking about his experiences and own cultural encounters, Nadrzin laughs: ‘[Culture’s like this: I know it but I can’t explain it’. For Asma, not enough of us study our own cultures. Malaysians live in an incredibly diverse place. “We have a high tolerance for others but a low cultural literacy. We are not curious about our fellow Malaysians from other ethnic groups. We need to develop a vocabulary where we can discuss cultural issues in a sensitive and open manner.”

A particularly sensitive issue when talking about culture in this part of the world, is addressing the impact of religion on values and behaviours. Yet, in Malaysia it is impossible to separate Malay from Muslim, as the very word and identity is defined in the country’s constitution.. How then, can we have an open conversation on the impact of religion in the workplace , while respecting these sensitivities?

There is no simple answer to that question.

Like in every religion, there are practitioners and there are non-practitioners. The act of practicing which was once a personal act has become more and more regulated as the Government has begun to take a greater interest in how people practice their Islamic faith. According to Nadzrin, this mindset has trickled down. “People hence believe that you are allowed to call others out on how they practice their religion,” he says. “But [faith] is between you and God. People think they have the authority to tell you ‘go and pray’.” This social pressure has resulted in people feeling obligated to pray and practice in a particular manner. “Social structures are in place to allow you to practice together, as a community,” Nadzrin says. In an organisation, someone higher up might tell you if you should or should not pray, or if you should or should not wear a headscarf. Nadzrin talks of an academic who presented her research without a headscarf. The first question she was asked following her talk was ‘Why are you not wearing a headscarf?’

There is privilege that comes with being Malay and Muslim. There is also an unspoken, hidden expectation that you, as a non-Malay, should know about mainstream Malay culture. As such, it is not expected of you to schedule a meeting at 2pm on Friday because of the weekly congregational prayers for males. It is your job to understand better. “They believe that you should know,” says Nadzrin.

Asma returns to the definition of ‘Malay’ in Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution: a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, and conforms to Malay customs. If a Malay is not a Muslim, then the law can take over, and being Muslim comes with its own obligations and responsibilities. To non-Malays, Dr. Asma says, “I would expect people who come here to work to understand the Malay-Muslim culture as it is defined in the constitution”. Religion is influenced by culture and context. She encourages non-Malays to engage in conversations with their Malay counterparts who can answer the questions they might have in order to better understand their day to day rituals and obligations as Muslims. Without this discourse, people may not have access to the information they need in order to be successful in the workplace. And if people do not have the right information, they will be left to make their own assumptions, which may lead to misunderstandings and larger struggles down the road.

So in conclusion, what were the takeaways for the audience?

Dr. Asma pointed towards her 16 cultural dimensions framework which illustrate the possible spectrums different cultures exist on. Once you understand where the Malay culture stands on that spectrum, most of your questions will be answered.

Nadzrin summed up his thoughts aptly: “The easiest way to get to know Malays? Take them out for lunch.” Building relationships is key in Asia - you can’t talk well about your personal self, but your friends can. Your sense of self here is related to others and you are defined by the people around you. So make sure to get to know your Malay friends and the best way to do so is to take them to a mamak stall!

Bonus from the Chat room:

Responses by Dr. Asma Abdullah

Additional questions

I struggle to describe the Malay culture due to the diversity within it and its broad definition. I also feel that the older Malay generation was more open minded and “flexible” (e.g. intercultural marriages) than the younger one, and Malay culture was much more integrated 20 years ago. What are your thoughts on this, i.e. on the evolution of Malay culture itself?

Based on my experience the Malay society has evolved from being mainly an agrarian based to a modern and technologically connected setting of IR 4.0. While it took most industrialised nations 200 years to move from the Agricultural Revolution to our globally connected world, Malaysia managed to do it in a span of 50 years. While it is easy to change physical structures, internalizing new values can take a longer time.

Being a manager heading a multi-racial team (strategy), I find it more challenging to balance all three cultures and not feel you are favoring one race above the other. What is the common denominator that will bring all three together optimally? Is it food again?

While food is a common denominator, celebrating each other’s religious festivals, music, songs, and dances should be encouraged to promote intercultural understanding. While organizations tend to be task driven, managers can create a climate where employees are given the opportunity to express their emotions and matters of the heart to achieve greater teamwork.

What are the biggest evolutions in the Malay culture in the past 20/30 years ?

I have a chapter on the impact of Islamisation on Malays in Malaysia in the book Breaking the Silence. I believe it is the shift to becoming more Islamic in terms of symbols, rituals and values among the Malays in organizations and the government sector. For example most public events by the Government will begin with a prayer. This was not the case 30 years ago.

My generation grew up learning to speak English, but as we nationalised the education system from the 1980’s, most Malays are now more comfortable speaking Bahasa Malaysia than the English language. Somehow the language we speak tends to shape the way we see the world, relate with foreigners and adjust to non Malaysian workplaces in the country.


Remarks by Dr. Asma Abdullah

It's interesting this practice of leaving the shoes out, I've always thought it was both Malay and Hindu.

The main objective for observing this habit of no shoes in most Malay based organizations is that Muslims Malays believe that the shoes they wear carry dirt. As some offices organise congregational prayers in the office they want to keep the place clean. So no shoes in the office. Of course they can wear house slippers.

PS from Marie: the above applies to most Asian cultures, Chinese included.

I can relate to u ..Budak2 KL

Most Malays who live in KL are more exposed to western based ideas and symbols, prefer to speak in English and are very urban. Their country cousins are not like them as the latter tend to be more religious, less western oriented and prefer to speak Malay. The Malays in the ‘Bangsar bubble’ tend to have similar worldviews with their friends from other ethnic groups.

How does being brought up in English or in Bahasa Malay play a role in the culture?

There is an unspoken acknowledgement that those who speak English are more Westernised and less Malay and Muslim. This can be true or not true. However, those who speak in both languages are more likely to be at ease when they are with foreigners.

I totally agree with Asma about not curious about the others, tolerating but not learning about other cultures.

It has a lot to do with our school syllabus and curriculum. It can be difficult to learn about diversity when most schools are now dominated by only one ethnic group. There are the Malay based national schools, the Chinese sponsored private schools and the international schools.

you are so right, Asma, we are tolerant but not curious about other cultures.

This value is not often cultivated at an early age. More often the Chinese are expected to know about the Malays but the reverse may not be stressed so strongly

Good point there, we take learning about others for granted given our multicultural background. However "being in it" does not equal "knowing"

Exactly. We observe the differences but may not have the knowledge and understanding to know the reasons for both differences and similarities.

I think most of the expats/foreigners are having the same feeling. I think we have so much to learn about each other.

It is important for newly arrived expats to attend an orientation session by their HR dept. Perhaps assigning a buddy or a cultural interpreter can help the expat better understand the local culture.

Locals and expats both sometimes take for granted the different cultural backgrounds. There is a natural segregation amongst people based on their cultural background and they tend to stick together with the people of the same culture

This is often the case as people will gravitate towards people of their own kind as they do not want to be ostracised by their friends for not being part of the group. Pressure from their own group can determine how they behave in the public space.

Understanding Malay culture as a foreign Manager is indeed important, but I feel the biggest challenge is to make Malaysians themselves be open minded to each other and work together despite their different cultures. As a foreigner, it can be daunting when the cultural gap is larger between a Malaysian chinese/Malaysian Malay, than between a Malaysian Malay and another foreign culture for example

Very true. Malaysia is a heterogenous society with three main homogenous groups living side by side. They tend to remain in their own ethnic group except at the workplace or at the marketplace. Right from kindergarten to schools, universities and workplace a Malay/Chinese/Indian can remain in their own ethnic group without having to mix with the other.

In school we were taught to RESPECT the other but I do not remember that we exposed the WHY we need to respect.

So so true. Again this has to do with the way our school syllabus and curriculum has been designed. There is a need to make it more inclusive and learn to appreciate the diversity in the country.

I like the phrase the 'minefield of sensitivities' of the Malays - 'cepat merajuk' and 'kecil hati' come to mind

This minefield has to be examined so that Malaysians grow up to understand their own culture as well as the sensitivities of the others

I find interesting and paradoxical the comment about security and the fear of Malays being treated unfairly, because Malaysians would tell you that Malays are the most protected and privileged. It's all a question of perspective I guess.

Yes under the New Economic Policy is a form of affirmative action for Malays to improve their socio economic status. While this is a privilege it has created a dependency syndrome and as a result Malays are less resilient and agile than the average Chinese and Indian neighbours.

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