The word Muhibbah is defined variously as friendship, living in harmony, or caring for one another and it takes on great significance in Malaysian working life. Most companies in Malaysia have a mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay employees (and often other races, too). As a result of this mix, commentary about other races is common, and never too far below the surface.
Depending on where you’ve worked before, quips such as “the Chinese are just like that” or “the Malays always do that” may seem shocking when used in such an open fashion. The good news is that I have generally found these comments more stereotyping, rather than malicious attacks.
However, there are negative aspects, as you might suspect. When I was a newly arrived expat in Malaysia, I learned that my company made early salary payments, held all-employee company dinners, and closed for an extended period at Chinese New Year. When questioned, my managers justified this due to “most” of our customers and staff being Chinese.
Although this was not done with bad intentions, when I spoke to managers belonging to other races, I learned that while they had long since accepted this practice, they felt a bit let down by the company nonetheless.
Later, in what was my first Hari Raya in Malaysia, I was still commuting from Hong Kong to KL and thus staying in a local hotel. I was thoroughly taken aback when, on the first day of the fasting month, those previously abundant spaces in the lobby and ballroom foyers were jam-packed with tables, and, at the point of buka puasa, were an absolute madhouse with everyone breaking fast together.
Since I was new to this and found it culturally interesting, I had my assistant set up a company dinner where we could all join our Malay colleagues in breaking fast.We did so, and we all learned a lot about the meanings and practices involved, and altogether found it very rewarding. However, to my surprise, almost none of my Chinese and Indian managers – all Malaysians, mind you – had ever done this before.
Key takeaways from these experiences:
1. Hire carefully
Depending on the type of business you’re in or the customers that your company has, you may find one race disproportionately contributing to the number of your staff. While that contribution may be for logical and sound business reasons, it is nevertheless an area of which you should be sensitive.
In particular, be mindful when hiring. Red flags should be raised if you hear hiring personnel mention that positions must (or must not) be filled by a certain race. While such practices are illegal in many Western countries, for good reason, they definitely go on in Malaysia and are often paid little heed – and may thrive if you are not proactively voicing your opposition.
2. Attend and understand
Take every opportunity to personally attend and understand events during the various festive seasons for all races, or even to help organise them, especially if your company is not routinely doing so. This is not only something which will be positively noticed by your staff, these are enriching cultural events that you will cherish having attended after you have moved on from Malaysia.
3. Dine wisely
Eating together with your staff is always rewarding (and often informative). It can also be challenging, as various religious beliefs can dictate that some things, such as pork or beef, are off-limits. While it is certainly possible to organise a multi-racial dinner in a non-halal restaurant, it is always much better to go to a restaurant which can be patronised equally, ensuring comfort for all, and no possibility of issues being raised.
4. Ethnicity vs. nationality
Finally, recognise that in Malaysia, ethnic and national loyalties sometimes conflict. I have had a few experiences where Malaysian Chinese do not want to work with “China Chinese” or Malaysian Indians don’t want to work with “India Indians.” In fact, these scenarios may pose some of your most challenging racial issues – even though the races are the same! To keep potential conflicts in check, simply apply the same principles of equal treatment to this situation.
The racial harmony that has historically been achieved in Malaysia is admirable, though it’s not been without various challenges. Some of these may play out in your office – some obvious, some less so.
5. Be proactive
One suggestion, especially if you are a relatively new expat in Malaysia, is to sit down with your HR Head and get their thoughts on the topics addressed here. Two benefits should result: first, you’ll raise a potentially sensitive issue early in your time in Malaysia and learn more from the discussions; second, you’ll signal to your HR Head that you want to be proactive on this topic.
You and your company will benefit if you take a stance with your entire team from day one that you are all equal, and assuming that your actions follow your words, you’ll “walk the talk” properly as the leader. Learn as much as you can about the festivals, food, and holidays each race enjoys. This diversity in Malaysia is truly enriching and rewarding.