Malaysia through the eyes of a Middle Eastern expat
There is no doubt that getting out of our comfort zone by taking a trip and travel to unknown places could stretch our limitations and help us grow. However, re-locating and living in a new place for a longer time can teach us many more things that a tourist wouldn’t be able to experience in a short period of time. I have lived and studied in Malaysia for several years. During that time, I have discovered many new possibilities and learned many aspects about this country I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed in beautiful and diverse part of the world. In part one of this article I will detail some of the insights I gained while I was there.
Mixed populations and culture
The most prominent aspect of Malaysia’s population and culture is that it’s comprised of several different ethnicities, namely ethnic-Malay (60%), Chinese (25%), Indian (10%), with other groups representing the remaining 5%. Malaysia also has one of the largest such mixed parentage individuals in the world. I personally think that they could be one of the best models representing tolerance, acceptance, humanity and modern in the region, despite the many cultural differences. Thereon, Malaysia has strong historical and people-to-people connections with China, India and Indonesia, which are three out of the four most populated countries in the world. This is a crucial point to recognise, as Malaysia, alongside Singapore, is one of the central business hubs of South East Asia.
The indigenous people of Malaysia are called “Orang Asli” which can be translated as the “original people”. The Orang Asli, together with the tribes in East Malaysia have a special status of Bumiputera in the constitution, with the term meaning “the prince of the soil or earth”. The status gives them certain rights as opposed to the non-Bumiputera. This is an important aspect of Malaysian societal and hierarchal systems you will need to become familiar with if you plan on doing business here.
It is also interesting to note that Malaysia has a substantial number of foreign workers in various sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture, and construction from the ASEAN region and the Indian subcontinent. There are also foreign students and expatriates from many different countries around the world compared to other South East Asian countries. Malaysia also has a strong relationship with Middle Eastern countries, through a shared religion, connected air links and bi-lateral entry visa processes that make two way-travel much easier.
Malaysia is neighboured by Thailand in the north, Indonesia in the south, and the Philippines to the east. It is on the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Far East to Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The country has 13 states, with 11 of these located in Western Malaysia (Peninsular Malaysia) and two states in East Malaysia. The countries’ two major islands are separated by 640 kilometres of the South China Sea. Comparing the two, East Malaysia is less developed and populated, but is abundant in natural resources, such as timber, oil and gas. The majority of indigenous tribes, other than the Orang Asli live there, and it is where most hydrocarbon projects in the country are based. Compared to its neighbours in Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia enjoys a lower risk of natural disasters, which is an upside supply chain security and large infrastructure and mining operations.
Lower language barriers
The country’s official language is Malay, the mother tongue of the majority of the population of the country.
However, Malaysia is a truly multi-lingual society, with English being prevalent in Kuala Lumpur, especially amongst business people and within the education and professional service sectors. Compulsory English courses are taught in primary and secondary schools, and amongst the youth it is becoming more and more common. Chinese-Mandarin is another language practiced widely, although some Chinese-Malay also speak Cantonese, the language of Hong Kong. Tamil is the main language of Indian Malaysians.
Despite the rising proliferation of English, there is still a wide berth for miscommunication, especially when doing business there. It is necessary to speak more slowly, with short sentences and without Western jargon, in order to ensure your discussion is clear for both parties. Also, you can’t stereotype language speakers in Malaysia by their looks. I remember an organizer of a team-building event who was Indian Malay, but was fluent with my Chinese-Malaysian teammates. He learnt Chinese in his hometown because there was only a Chinese school to attend, so he had built a familiarity with Chinese culture from his formative years.
Australia and Malaysia have a long historical relationship of political and economic cooperation, with 2015 marking the 60th anniversary of Australia’s diplomatic presence in the country, which began just two years after the independence of Federation of Malaya.
The landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement signed in October 2015 will open many opportunities for Australian businesses in terms of improving Malaysian market access for ICT, healthcare, manufacturing, education, agricultural exports, professional services (legal, engineering, construction) and for the first time Australian companies will be able to tender for government procurement contracts.
I’m looking to utilise my time in Malaysia as a platform to develop my understanding of how the Middle East and Australia’s historical ties to Malaysia and other South East Asian nations can be improved and consolidated into the future.