Business Etiquette: Malaysia, Singapore and Japan

Business Etiquette

Malaysia Flag

Business Etiquette in Malaysia

When it comes to visiting Malaysia for business trips, you’ll not only come across Malaysians but also Chinese and Indians. Malaysia is home to many different ethnicities and beliefs. With this in mind, it is imperative to know what to expect when visiting Malaysia. As with most international business meetings, knowing about the cultural practices benefits both the person conducting the meeting and the attendees. When visiting Malaysia, more emphasis is placed on the body language and expressions of the people who are conducting the meeting rather than what is said. It’s important to keep in check what expressions are used during meetings as it might be interpreted as offensive. Specifically with Malaysia, as it is a Muslim majority country when scheduling a meeting to either set a date for a day that isn’t a Friday. This is due to the fact that Friday prayers are important to those who practice it or to schedule meetings between the times of prayers so that there aren’t any interruptions when it comes to conducting a meeting. Also when visiting Malaysia, yellow attire should be avoided as it’s a color that is usually reserved for royalty. It’s also recommended to dress professionally and conservatively as a sign of respect.


Dress Code

When it comes to the proper dress code in Malaysia, it is recommended for men to wear pants and white shirts and for executives to wear ties. It should also be noted that conservative attire is recommended when it comes to meeting with a government official. Women should wear long-sleeved blouses or shirts with skirts or pants. Colors that are worn should be neutral shades compared to brighter shades when it comes to any sort of meeting.

Greeting and Body Language

As Malaysia is a country that has many cultures and religions, one needs to always consider the background of who one is meeting. Men should shake hands with other men at business meetings or social events. However, unlike with men, a simple nod or bow will suffice for greeting a woman or an elderly person unless they extend their hand out to shake first. Depending on who the meeting is conducted with, for both Chinese and Malay people, handshakes with men should be light in grip and quick. When it comes to interacting with women, unless they reach their hands out then a nod will suffice. If the meeting is conducted with a person of Indian descent, a simple nod and smile should be enough but shaking hands is also allowed. When it comes to Western women introducing themselves to Malay men, a nod and smile can be accepted as a proper greeting. When it comes to introducing people in the business setting, it’s recommended to introduce those of higher standing first and then to introduce everyone else descending in position.

Names and Titles

If a business wants to exchange their information it is advised to do so after a proper introduction. This is the ideal time to exchange business cards and get the proper information out. When speaking to Malaysians, they use the term bin and binti to represent who they are the son or daughter of as they use their father’s name to their surname. If the surname is missing, using Mr. or Mrs can be used in conjunction with their first name. The same rule applies to Indian business partners. With Chinese business partners are addressed with their title or surname or just as Mr. and Mrs.

Meeting culture

Westerners are expected to be punctual with their meetings in order to leave a good impression on the other parties. However, it should be duly noted that if a Malay is late or your business meeting doesn’t begin on time, offense shouldn’t be taken as the Malay culture is relatively laid back in regards to time. Topics during the business meetings might also stray off of professional topics as Malay business counterparts will want to get to know you personally to start the meeting with a polite conversation before more serious topics. Malays prefer soft-selling their points compared to being blunt when it comes to business or everyday conversations.

Dining and Entertainment

When it comes to entertainment, it is regarded as an important part of doing business with most business entertainment being conducted in restaurants. Most meetings usually follow with lunch or dinner, during these informal dining experiences, allow the host to order the dishes in a restaurant. It’s also recommended to reciprocate the dinner with a dinner of equal value to show respect to the hosting party.


When it comes to giving gifts to any business partner, it is highly advised to not do so at a first meeting or in general. However, have a gift ready just in case one is given to you. A dinner invitation could also substitute for a gift. When it comes to giving or giving gifts, however, both hands should be used. Never use your left hand when receiving a gift or giving one. You should also never open a gift in front of the gifting party either.

Singapore Flag

Business Etiquette in Singapore

Singapore is an island country much like Malaysia and shares the same ethnic makeup as Malaysia. However, there are many differences between the atmosphere of the two countries. Singapore is a Buddhist majority country but less than half of the people living there are of other religions and races as well. However, the majority of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent compared to any other race. Singapore does have stricter laws in regards to keeping the country clean and safe. Littering, jaywalking, smoking in public and chewing gun are not allowed in the island nation.
Another thing to keep in mind when visiting Singapore is that using public displays of affection even in leisure times is shown as a sign of disrespect. Unlike Malaysia, where talking about personal topics is touched upon, the topic of religions and politics should never be touched upon. As per most business meetings, it’s essential to remain calm and refrain from making jokes as these can make things more complicated when addressing any business situations.
While these are some basic etiquettes to have when visiting Singapore, there are a few things to take into consideration when visiting.



With the variety of different ethnic groups and with a modern society, Singaporeans do not mind what attire is worn during their meetings. However, the default dress code is to wear Western business apparel as it’s regarded as universal.

Greetings and Body Language

Unlike in Malaysia, in Singapore, you can shake hands with either gender when introducing yourself to others. Your handshake should be firm when shaking hands as that presents an assertive personality. When shaking hands, a slight bow is presented as a sign of respect to the business partners or for the elderly. However, it is considered rude to point at someone during a meeting or to gain attention. If you want to make a point during a business meeting, just raise your hand and you can speak after that. It’s also considered a sign of disrespect if you use your feet in any instance, as it’s considered the dirtiest part of the body to Singaporeans.

Names and Titles

When it comes to exchanging business cards with Singaporeans, you should do so, at the start of a meeting. Rather than quickly putting the cards away, you should examine the card to show that you’re taking the time out to respectfully view their information.

Meeting Culture

When attending a meeting, it’s considered disrespectful if a Westerner or anyone is late to a meeting. That’s why it’s absolutely crucial to be punctual to all business meetings or social occasions. However, when meeting with people, engage in small talk to get to know people before discussing business as having personal contacts is important. It’s also important to get straight to business when engaging in business meetings as Singaporeans tend to make decisions quickly due to their fast-paced nature. Unlike in Malaysia, being straightforward is applauded by any business practice in Singapore, especially when it comes to issues dealing with money.

Dining and Entertainment

Entertainment in the business sense in Singapore usually means a business offers dinner to the company. However, these dinners are times not only to eat but to also socialize and build relationships. It is better to steer away from business conversations during these times as these times are reserved for improving relations between company individuals. Just like Malaysia, the host will order all the food that is served. Depending on the nationality of the business company, Chinese Singaporeans may offer a banquet. It is usually a rule to allow the host to invite you to start your meal before eating. If you’re done with your meal, put your cutlery on the side of your plate or on the chopstick rest to indicate that you’re done. Regardless of what style of dinner is hosted, it’s a kind gesture to return the favor by hosting a similar dinner for the offering party. When it comes to home served meals, be punctual as Malays serve dinner immediately as soon as the time arrives without appetizers. Indians and Malays will always wash their hands before a meal. However, Malays will provide a small bowl of water and a towel for you to wash your hands with. Just like in Malaysia, when dining with Indians or Malays, use your right hand to eat. When it comes to offers for food or drinks, it’s impolite to refuse initial offers. However, if you don’t want any seconds, place your hand on the plate and say no thank you. Another thing to do is to place your spoon and fork on your plate. When it comes to dining with Indians, always leave extra time to converse after the meal.


In business settings, gifts are usually not exchanged but it’s considered gratuitous to bring a gift when invited to anyone’s house. However, when meeting with government officials, stray away from giving a gift as it can be considered as bribery.

Japan Flag

Business Etiquette in Japan

Japan has a culture of its own that’s very different from both Malaysia and Singapore. Japan offers both a mixture of Western world practices and their own traditional practices. Unlike Singapore and Malaysia with a mix of many ethnic minorities, Japan is a country with a Japanese majority. Japan places a high value on hierarchy and communal efforts. They value business practices that benefit all parties and value honesty above all else. It’s to be noted to be polite in all circumstances, be punctual and to be prepared when engaging in business practices as the Japanese place high value on hard work. When conversing it’s essential to always remain tactful as well. Details are important to the Japanese, so being aware of your body language is of the utmost importance when practicing business in Japan or with a Japanese business. Much like the other countries, it’s also considered distasteful when engaging in any loud behavior or showing any public display of affection.



The dress code for business and casual meetings in Japan is the same regardless of the setting. Wearing a suit and tie with neutral dark colors provides a clean and crisp appearance goes well with any occasions as the Japanese like to dress like this in casual settings. When it comes to the apparel of women, wearing heels and dresses or suits is the proper attire to wear. When it comes to business settings, it’s advised to wear subtle colors. Regardless of the outfit choice, always remain tasteful and dress conservatively when engaging in any business practice with the Japanese people. Do not however, wear all black as that is considered funeral attire for the Japanese.

Greetings And Body Language

When it comes to shaking hands with the Japanese, keep your handshake limp and have little to no eye contact as that’s how Japanese handshakes are. However, to show the utmost respect, it’s recommended to bow during the initial meeting. Avoid touching anyone and maintain space when conversing as touching or being too close to someone will make them uncomfortable. When engaging in conversation, you should nod your head to show that you’re listening to the party that is talking. Addressing someone when pointing a finger in a meeting is considered rude. In order to gain attention, one must extend their right arm in front and bend the wrist down to gain attention. It’s also offensive to point four fingers with the thumb folded inwards at anyone. Unlike Singaporean or Malaysian culture, avoid making small talk and steer away from personal conversations with the Japanese during business settings.

Names and Title

Japan has a very specific set of rules to follow when handling business cards to any Japanese business. On your business card, your ranking should be included regardless of what position anyone holds. The card should also be double-sided. The company name of the card itself should be the primary focus of the card followed by your job title and name. At the bottom of the card, the contact information should be included. When handing a business card, it should be handed at the beginning of the meeting, ideally before even shaking hands. When it comes to presenting the card to the Japanese, the card should be held by the top corner as the recipient will take the card at the bottom. Once they receive the card they will examine it and thank you. The same rules should be applied when receiving a card from anyone. It should also be noted to never cover any information when handing a business card to the Japanese people as it will be considered as being insincere. Keep your business cards in a carrying case with the most recently received cards as bending, writing on, folding or even putting a card in your pocket is considered disrespectful. Also,keep the highest ranking individuals business card in your wallet with extras to present to the clients you’re meeting. When it comes to addressing Japanese people, they should be addressed by their titles and family names usually in conjunction with an honorific which is usually a “san”. Avoid using first names as it’s considered rude and informal with the older generations. Sometimes there are exceptions if they’re Americanized.

Meeting Culture

Showing up on time to a business meeting is considered one of the most important things in Japanese business meetings. This will show that you respect the time of the Japanese business. Japanese people conducting businesses will expect complete punctuality, it’s also recommended to bring an interpreter as that may help relay ideas more effectively. When it comes to making decisions in any environment, the team will collectively decide upon what decision must be made. Allow for silences to take place so that topics can be thought about without feeling the need to fill the silences. When it comes to meeting people of different titles, it’s usually best to allow people of the same titles to meet first before meeting any other people of different business titles.

Dining and Entertainment

When it comes to having any business meeting, restaurant entertainment is crucial. Nearly all business meetings do not end at the venue but at the restaurant. During these times, the behavior will be assessed during and after the meeting. This is also why it’s important to remain punctual and polite even in the dinner setting. Drinking is considered a group activity and it’s impolite to say no when offered a drink. When it comes to drinking, keep in mind what limitations you have. Another tip to keep in mind is that when finished with drinking, keep the glass half full as that will mean that you’re done. Having an empty glass means that you want more drinks. The same applies to a dinner plate, having an empty plate means that you want more food. It’s also important to wait to toast as well as waiting for the most important person before beginning any meal. When offered food, it’s polite to hesitate before accepting and while you don’t have to eat much, it’s common practice to sample each dish.


Presenting gifts to the Japanese holds value in that the ritual of gift giving is more important than the gift itself. Always allow the Japanese person to initiate the gift giving and when presenting the gift present it in a way that you’re being humble or modest. A suggestion to say is “this is just a small token of appreciation” when presenting a gift. It’s also to be noted that when giving a gift to have gifts for everyone. When receiving or giving a gift accept the present with both hands and a slight bow to show appreciation. Also be prepared to give and receive gifts during the end of the first meeting. Not giving a proper gift in return can ruin relations with one another. It’s also important to properly wrap your present as the appearance of the box matters more than the contents.

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