‘Malaysian timing’ has become a cultural quirk here in Malaysia. Pete Brunoehler, an expat with extensive experience on living in Southeast Asia, shares some insights on timeliness and tardiness in Malaysia.
1. The wedding dinner
October, 1998, I was attending my first wedding dinner in Malaysia, and, as the company head of the groom’s employer, I wanted to make a good first impression. My wife and I arrived per the invitation card at the hotel ballroom, at a few minutes before the clearly instructed and unequivocal 7pm sharp starting time.
The beautifully decorated, huge, 5-star hotel ballroom was empty. I mean, nobody there. Nobody.
I panicked — what had I gotten wrong? The date? The location? The time? Checking quickly — Correct. Correct. And correct.
I searched out and found a member of the hotel staff in a hallway nearby, and had a conversation I’ll never forget:
Panicked me: I am here for the TAN Wedding Dinner, here’s the invitation, am I in the right place?
Calmly, he took the card and began to read.
Waiter: Yes, you are.
I looked at my watch — 7:05
Me: Yes? Then where is everyone?
Waiter: They’re not here yet.
Me: Yes, I see that, why not?
Waiter: Because it says here 7pm.
Me: Yes, I know, it says 7pm sharp and it’s already 7:05.
Waiter: Right, but you are early.
Incredulous me: I am not early, it starts at 7pm.
Waiter: Sir, you are very early. It says 7pm sharp.
Confused me: OK, so for a 7pm sharp dinner, shouldn’t everyone be here by now?
Waiter: Sir, is this your first wedding dinner in Malaysia?
Me: Yes it is.
Waiter: A tip going forward, sir — by the way, are you a big boss?
Me: Uh, sort of—but what does that have to do with anything?
Waiter: When you attend a wedding dinner in Malaysia, add one hour to the sharp time indicated. And if you are an important family member or boss colleague, add some more. It shows how busy you are.
Me: BUT THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME — I am a guest! And I show up on time even if I’m busy!
Waiter: Up to you.
Frustrated me: AIYAH (I had already learned this useful Malaysian phrase.)
Waiter: I can bring you a glass of water while you wait. Or there’s a bar downstairs?
We dashed to the hotel bar. Exactly one hour later when we re-entered the room, numerous attendees sincerely asked “you’re here already”?
Slightly tipsy me: AIYAH!
2. The business meeting
When I first came to Malaysia back in 1998, I worked for a Swiss Company. As such, we had numerous Swiss visitors join us regularly for update meetings, usually beginning at 9 am. Here’s what I learned to expect when I started these meetings:
Swiss attendee — 8:59:30. I just sat down in my chair, espresso is in front of me, notebook open. Thus, I am on time.
Malaysian attendee — 8:59:30. I am on my way to the toilet, then the pantry (hmm, coffee or teh terik today?), then will grab my notebook and head to the meeting room. Thus, I am on time.
3. The meet up
One of first phrases you’ll learn in Malaysia is “I’m on the way”. This common phrase is often used professionally (i.e., the meeting above is starting at 9 am, some team members are not yet present) or personally (meeting friends for an evening at the mamak stall).
What does “I’m on the way” usually mean in Malaysia? My personal experience is that while “I’m on the way” would ideally mean they are very near, possibly parking the car, it can also mean that (for the 9 am meeting) they just sat up in bed when they heard their phone beep from colleagues enquiring as to where they were, or (for an evening at the mamak stall) they just stepped in to the shower when the phone beeped.
So while I commend them for not (technically) telling an untruth, and in fairness, “I’m on the way” is actually accurate — they are awake, moving, and have indeed started the lengthy process of eventually reaching the meeting or the stall — it’s definitely no guarantee of arrival anytime soon.
If you’re still trying to wrap your head around Malaysian culture, it’s helpful to remember that this trait is something that many Malaysians proudly embody – they are always ‘on the way’ and aren’t afraid to admit it. To them, it’s not tardiness, it’s timeliness.
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