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  • Writer's pictureDr. Asma Abdullah


Source: Asma Abdullah MANAGEMENT, July – Aug. 1997

Every culture has its own way of interpreting the behaviours, actions and events of its members to others. Our culture determines how we live in a society and provides a basis for understanding and interpreting the learned expectations behind those behaviours. A good knowledge of our past can also offer constructs to help others understand why we behave the way we do.

To be able to describe a particular group of people and their behaviours, it is important that they be interpreted in its proper social and cultural contexts, the description of our culture by our foreign friends can lead to inaccuracies, leaving a dent, wound or scars in cross-cultural relationships.

The Australian ways

Our Malaysian ways and contemporary are not so easy for others to comprehend if they are not aware of our country’s past history and cultural make-up. There have been occasions when people from other cultures have stirred Malaysian emotions and sensitivities because of remarks made known through the print and electronic media. This is the case with recent cross cultural relations between Malaysia and Australia where both parties have failed to make themselves understood by each other. In dealing with cultures we all have a tendency to evaluate others using our familiar set of assumptions, and as a result we misinterpret the intent and purpose of what is being communicated.

So what are some of the potential areas that can cause cross-cultural misunderstanding between Malaysians and Australians?

Most Australians value openness and independent thinking – some call it bluntness and frankness. They may come across as direct and open to those who believe they are more soft-spoken and indirect. They also value individual action and are not afraid to express their thoughts and ideas most freely. The Australian sense of humour is irrelevant and so is their tendency to use a certain plainness of language. Their use of phrases such as “bloody bastards” or “shot through the afternoon” can sometimes be rather puzzling to Malaysians.

When interacting with Australians, some Malaysian might also be confused about their use of slang, profanity and colloquialisms like “you little ripper”, “bloody oath”, “No bull”, etc. And their strong accent “G day, mate” becomes G’d Die, ...” The Australian habit of calling a spade a “bloody shovel” can be easily misunderstood by Malaysians who are used to greater formalities, protocol and structure in official dealings. These cultural differences can often lead to grave misunderstandings and hurt feelings on both sides.

Malaysians in contrast, are generally more guarded and cautious of others as we have been programmed to live in “a minefield of multinational sensitivities”. Being too frank and open can lead to behaviours which Malaysians tend to regard as crude, crass, improper, confrontational and unbecomingly vulgar. Because of our concern for face and harmony, we are expected to tell a “white lie” when necessary and exercise a high frequency antenna when we refer to certain Government efforts and policies. Being too outspoken about some of our attempts at social engineering are frowned upon as Malaysia cannot afford to have racial bigots who can dampen the spirit of inter-racial harmony that we now see – symbolic so it may seem. Remarks like those made by Ms Hanson of the Liberal Party in Australia are simply out of the line in our Malaysian Cultural programming.

Malaysians who believe in the supremacy of the community as demonstrated in our high degree for consensus guided by a sense of reasonableness, a focus on community spirit, networking and belonging to a group. Because of our collectivist orientation, Malaysians are more likely to agree with the group’s decision and take the feeling of others into consideration. They also value friendliness, harmonious relationships and respect for authority and elders in their personal and public exchanges with other people.

Cultural Differences

While certain antics of bluntness in expressions are fine and enduring for Australians, they can be rather offensive when in the company of Malaysians – especially when such tactics are applied to our leaders. An attack on the Prime Minister is likely to incur the wrath of the group as well. While insults are common place in official circles in Australia, good form is observed rigidly, especially with heads of governments in the ASEAN region.

Related to this is one cardinal rule of Asian diplomacy – which is not to be overtly critical of the occupant of the head of state of a regional neighbour because of the respect accorded to such officers. To be a part of Asia, one has to be able to learn to recognize and even smell the hidden subtleties, manners and sensibilities that are not easily seen but can be felt!

Malaysia’s interpretation of human rights and democratic principles differ from Australia’s. The latter regards personal freedom ad self-interests as the best impetus to advancement. The definition of democracy means that on occasions the government, business enterprises, community relations and dealings with other countries can be influenced by a few powerful individuals. Malaysia on the other hand, places a high premium on preserving its harmonious relations among the diverse ethnic groups and believing in the good of the community. After all, it is an extension as well as an obligation of members to care for their fellow human beings in a collectivist society. The so-called Western obsession with democracy and unbridled freedom is also viewed quite differently and so are our ways of eradicating collective hunger, tackling social ills, reducing illiteracy and improving our quality of life for the good of the community as a whole.

While these different viewpoints are fine on the domestic scene of each country, they can lead to a breakdown in cross-cultural communication when interpreted across borders. For example, Australians tend to believe that it is all right for an individual to take hard drugs to another country where they are banned. Remarks like “barbaric behaviour” over the hanging of Chambers and Barlow and “recalcitrant” are some examples that can be upsetting to the Malaysians and extremely insulting – much more than the English word would indicate. To call someone “recalcitrant” means that he is ill bred. (kurang ajar) or stubborn (degil, keras kepala), In a collectivist culture, these terms are a reflection of our parents’ inability to bring us up properly.

In summary, as shared by participants in numerous cross-cultural workshops facilitated by the writer, while Australians are perceived by others as those who are blunt, outspoken, individualistic, independent, egalitarian, more influenced by eternal guilt and concerned with self-esteem, Malaysians are seen by others as guarded, group centered, interdependent, hierarchical-based, respectful of their elders, more driven by shame and concerned with face saving.

Preventive steps:

So, what should we do to prevent future wounds? Here come some wishes for the future interface on both sides – Malaysians and Australians.

We need to understand and appreciate one another’s culture that goes beyond symbols and etiquette. A pre-departure orientation programme on either side should focus not only on an awareness of differences but also on the hidden dimensions of culture – its values and underlying assumptions A good working knowledge of each other’s culture, traditions, principles of social justice, history, concepts of racism, development, etc, is part of the tool kit that we need to bring along with us.

We support cross-cultural programmes to increase awareness of different Asian and Australian cultures, social attitude and issues in contemporary life through media exchanges, youth programmes and student projects. This is especially critical for those in the media because writers do play a role as intercultural spanners who can help interpret cultures across borders through their writings. These activities must be funded so that there is on-going research to understand and learn how each country interprets and manages to diversity and multiculturalism.

We should focus on some specific survival skills for relating with the new culture. Just as Aussies have to learn to detect the indirect and often oblique Asian ways, Malaysians too have to get used to the more direct and ”fair dinkum” ways of

Down Under. A variety of interpersonal communication strategies and techniques that are not always clearly observed and articulated will have to be acquired to enhance cross-cultural communication.

We have to establish contacts and learn to build trust by talking and being comfortable with one another at a personal level. Some initiatives to promote theses have to be arranged through more cross-cultural forums, business clubs, post graduates internships through twining programmes, writing and scholarships; the idea of working holidays is an excellent initiative.

Such are realities we face as we go across borders. As we get into the 21st century and become more exposed to international business, education and relationships, cultural literacy will become a valued human currency and is the key to international understanding. For Malaysians, we have to start to understand our own culture that we have taken for granted and make an effort to describe some of our unstated, implicit and indirect ways to others. It means we have to become effective “cultural ambassadors” for those who are not familiar with our cultural context. But, in the interest of avoiding future cross-cultural communication breakdown, both Australians and Malaysians have to improve their cultural fluency and multicultural outlooks by avoiding the use of their own familiar assumptions to evaluate to the other person. In promoting a sincere and genuine understanding, we have to learn to be contextually appropriate by showing respect towards others not only in words but also in actions. It simply means we have to enlarge our repertoire of communication skills to interact with people who are not like us.

Honestly speaking, when these skills are acquired, our Australian friends will say,


Australians are

  • Blunt and outspoken

  • Individualistic

  • Independent

  • Egalitarian

  • Guilt driven

  • Concern with self esteem

Malaysians are

  • Guarded, indirect, polite

  • Group centered

  • Interdependent

  • Hierarchical, respecting elders

  • Shame driven

  • Concern with face-saving

The writer is a specialist on culture and management. She was recently in Sydney and writes this article for Management readers. She graduated from Monash University in Melbourne in the early 1970’s where she did Anthropology and Education. She is author of Going Glocal – Cultural Dimensions in Malaysian Management (published by MIM).

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