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Our Moving to Malaysia Guide is available from upon request.

The Moving to Malaysia Guide is available online and has been created to help expatriate families moving to Malaysia.

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Official Name: Malaysia

Capital City: Kuala Lumpur

Type of Government: Constitutional monarchy

Official Languages: Bahasa Malaysia

Area: 329,752 sq. km/127,316 sq. mi

Population: 25.7 million

Religion: Official religion is Islam -60%; other religions include Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity

Currency: Ringgit Malaysia (RM)

Number of Time Zones: 1

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) plus 8 hrs; Eastern Standard Time (EST) plus 13 hrs

Weights and Measures: Metric system

Country Domain: .my

Country Tel Code: 60



Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy based on the British model. While the king has little constitutional power, he is the leader of the Muslim Faith and protector of Malaysia’s sovereignty. As Islam is the official state religion, he exerts significant influence on the people. The executive power rests with a prime minister appointed by the king on the recommendation of parliament.

Legislative responsibility rests with a parliament comprised of a House of Representatives – or Dewan Rakyat – and a Senate or Dewan Negara. The 219 members of the House of Representatives are all popularly elected. The Senate is comprised of 69 members, 43 members of which are appointed by the paramount ruler, and 26 appointed by the state legislatures.

The Barisan Nasional (National Front) party, a multi-ethnic electoral organization, controls nearly 65 percent of the House of Representatives.


Since independence from Britain in 1957, Malaysia has transformed its economy from being a low-income producer of raw materials to being a middle-income exporter of manufactured goods, including high-tech products. Malaysia has developed its industrial and manufacturing capabilities and its infrastructure; its telecommunications and extensive transport systems are modern and efficient. Housing, sanitation, and health conditions continue to improve, making the country a convenient and comfortable place in which to reside and travel.

These developments, combined with abundant natural resources, have allowed the Malaysian economy to join the group of so-called “Asian Tigers.”

However, as a result of the government’s efforts to redesign the economy and create a high-technology business community, the deficit rose sharply and the country was effected by the 2001 IT sector decline. Malaysia’s tourism industry has been growing, and its diverse economy – relative to some other countries in the region – has bouyed itself back up to seven percent growth in 2004. In that same year, inflation was 1.5 percent, and unemployment 3.5 percent.

The country’s political stability contributes to its enjoying one of the highest standards of living in the region.


Despite the fact that there are three distinct cultures in Malaysia – the Malay, the Chinese, and the Indian – and although customs differ somewhat in each of these groups, there are certain attitudes and values that are common to the majority of Malaysians.

Pivotal to the proper functioning of Malaysian society is the concept of berbudi – honoring one’s parents and respecting elders, and promoting harmony in the family, the neighborhood, and society as a whole by behaving courteously and considerately to others at all times.

Ethnic makeup

Throughout history, Malaysia has been divided by class and culture – as much as it has been by the South China Sea – into three main ethnic groups: Malay, which make up approximately one half of the population; Chinese, over one third; and Indian, about one tenth. The Dayaks of Sarawak and Kadazan of Sabah are the main indigenous groups.

Each of the three main ethnic groups has its own characteristics and even its own place in society. The Chinese, for example, are most likely to be found in commerce and industry. They are often clannish, very industrious, and quite driven to succeed. The Malays, on the other hand, are more relaxed in their approach to life. They dominate the politics and government of the country and have a tremendous sense of loyalty to their community and family. The Indians, who are the minority group, are generally in the professions of medicine and law, and tend to keep to themselves.

Antagonism between the Chinese and the Malays

There have been discrepancies between official and actual population distribution figures because of the Malays’ strong negative feelings toward the Chinese, and attempts to minimize the impact that the Chinese have had on the country. Malaysia’s withdrawal from confederation with Singapore resulted from the Malay fear that the Chinese majority in Singapore would upset the racial composition of Malaysia.

Originally, Singapore was to join the Federation of Malaya on an independent basis in order to avoid a Communist takeover in Singapore, but Sarawak and North Borneo were to be included to maintain the numerical superiority of the Malays. By 1963, all three territories had joined the Federation, but Singapore was expelled in 1966 as a result of political tensions between the two countries.

Ethnic discord still exists in Malaysia, particularly between the Chinese and the Malays and toward immigrant workers.

Cultural traditions

Malaysians have a rich cultural heritage that derives from its many ethnic groups – the Malay, Chinese, Indian, Peranakan (Straits Chinese), Eurasian, Kadazan, Iban, Bidayu, Dayak, and indigenous Orang Asli.


Dating from 1535, the Sejarah Melayu, “Malay Annals,” is the most important literary work in the Malay language; the work chronicles life in the medieval city-state of Malacca.

Decorative arts and handicrafts

The Chinese in Malaysia produce exquisite porcelain, costumes, and furniture. Chinese pottery produced on Borneo is unique and particularly decorative.

Extraordinary handicrafts are produced throughout Malaysia. Kites, for example, which are used for decoration and for competition, have intricate patterns that can take weeks to construct.

Shadow puppets are made from buffalo hide, mounted on bamboo sticks, and placed behind a sheet so that the audience sees only the shadow cast by the puppet. Despite the fact that the audience cannot see the actual puppets, they are finely cut and painted, often gilded, and are beautiful art works. Shadow puppet shows are recognized as one of Malaysia’s most traditional forms of theater.

Leather puppets in the form of large horses are used in the kuda kepang, which is a dance from the southern state of Johor.

Batik fabric painting is another handicraft that draws on traditional motifs. It is used not only for clothing, but also for modern paintings and souvenir pieces.


Games are important in Malaysian life. Traditional games are not only for amusement, but are believed also to enhance one’s mental and physical development. Patience, maintaining rapport, and accepting defeat and disappointment are all learned from playing games by the rules.

There are many traditional games and competitions, among them bird-singing, top spinning with tops that are the size of dinner plates, drum-playing, and kite flying.


With its multi-ethnic population, festivals and celebrations are an important aspect of Malaysian culture and are held throughout the year.


The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of worship. Islam is the official state religion and Muslim practices pervade much of Malay life and culture; stricter observance of Muslim customs, such as head covering for women, is increasing, especially on the East Coast. Almost all ethnic Malays are Muslims; other ethnic groups are Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucianist, and Christian.

Various religions in Malaysia follow definite dietary and social restrictions and customs; visitors to Malaysia should become familiar with and respect these customs.


Buddhism, practiced in the traditional “Chan” form, is the primary religion of Malaysia’s Chinese population. With its emphasis on meditation and withdrawal from earthly life, it is the spiritual focus for the Chinese.


The Chinese simultaneously follow both Buddhism and Confucianism. Confucianism is not considered a religion as much as a system of philosophy that forms the basis for the moral code of Chinese society. The ethical responsibilities of each individual, toward his extended family as well as within the structures of society, form the emphasis of Confucianism.


Malaysia’s Indian population is largely Hindu. Hinduism is a complex philosophy which emphasizes the oneness of all life. Both gods and mankind are at the mercy of their karma, which is similar to the Greek concept of fate. There are literally millions of Hindu gods, or devas, representing a variety of human needs. A devout Hindu may worship any or all of them, wherever he or she likes, whether it be a temple or an open field. Hindus live their lives in the hope that they will be reincarnated into a higher caste, or class of life, and that each reincarnation will bring them closer to the highest level which will allow them to leave life for a better existence.


Islam is the official state religion of Malaysia. Muslims pray to one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet on earth. Every Muslim has five main duties to perform during his lifetime, which are known as the five pillars of Islam:

• Shahada is a simple profession of faith, signifying complete submission to God.

• Salah is prayer, requiring all Muslims to face toward the holy city of Mecca five times a day and pray.

• Zakat requires almsgiving to the poor and needy.

• Sawm is the fast of Ramadan, the holy month. During the period of Ramadan, Muslims must fast every day between sunrise and sunset, but they feast enthusiastically at the close of the day. Ramadan is the celebration of the month in which the Koran, or Quran, was revealed, and is concluded with the feast of Id-al-Fitr. The date of this month is established by the cycle of the moon, moving forward ten days each year.

• Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim is expected to take once in his lifetime, provided he can afford it and is healthy enough to make the journey. This occurs from the seventh to the tenth day of the month of Dhu-l-Hijjah and involves a number of ceremonial duties.

Other religions

Other religions represented in Malaysia include Christianity and Taoism. The Malaysian government allows the celebration of all religious holidays.


The official language of Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysia, but English is widely spoken in government and business circles and is taught as a second language. The Chinese speak Mandarin as well as several other dialects, and most Indians speak Tamil. Mandarin and Tamil are taught concurrently with Bahasa Malaysia and English in school.

The Malay script is Jawi, a derivative of Arabic, but is not commonly used.


The concept of “face” is of utmost importance to the Malaysians. The basic meaning of “face” is the smooth functioning of society based on the maintenance of individual self-esteem and standing in the community. This concept is the driving force in every aspect of Malaysian society. Saving face the need to avoid embarrassment and to preserve the dignity of all present or involved in an interaction is absolutely necessary for anyone to be successful professionally and personally in Malaysia.

As a result, Malaysians demonstrate an acute politeness and complete control over emotions. They will be deliberately vague conversationally to avoid saying “no.”

In Malaysia, personal relationships and oral commitments are more highly valued than written agreements. The correct use of titles and names is important, and it will be to your advantage to dress conservatively and to maintain a calm demeanor during negotiations. Since Malaysians base their business relationships on sincerity and trust, it may take longer than is usual in Western cultures to bring a business deal to fruition.

Malaysians are subjective people, basing their decisions on feelings more often than on facts. This characteristic is reflected in their desire to know their business partners before doing business with them. Malaysians dislike the typically Western obsession with specifying and legalizing every detail of an agreement. Instead, they look for sincerity and flexibility in people, relying more on trust than on contracts and lawyers. Malaysians are usually faithful to their bargains and intensely loyal to their partners, although there are exceptions.


Toward family

Family is important to Malaysians. They derive their primary sense of status and position from their families, and loyalty to the family and a sense of family unity is critical to an individual’s perception of himself or herself. The concept of “face” is relevant with regard to the family a Malaysian will never speak poorly of a member of his family as it would cause shame and embarrassment. For the same reasons, foreigners also should never be critical of their families or of members of other people’s families.

When greeting and conversing with a Muslim man, remember not to inquire directly about his wife or daughters, as such an inquiry will be considered rude and offensive.

Toward foreigners

Malaysians are generally friendly and cordial toward foreign visitors and are increasingly familiar with western business practices.

The Malaysian government discourages foreign investment by imposing restrictions requiring proceeds from foreign investments in Malaysian enterprises to remain in the country for a year. The controls were designed to curb investor speculation, but have served only to discourage much-needed investment in Malaysian industry. Plans are now underway to ease some of these restrictions and replace them with a substantial exit tax.

Toward women

Although Malaysia is a Muslim country that adheres to the Islamic concept of masculine hierarchy, women in Malaysia do hold positions of influence in both business and government.

Women generally dress conservatively, to maintain the decorum typical of a Muslim country.

Toward hierarchy

The structure also promotes patronage and nepotism and, among the Malays, results in an “old boy” network of preference for old schoolmates and other Bumiputera. Foreigners may find that the Malaysian bureaucracy and numerous committees and agencies diffuse and confuse decision-making.

Toward work

Most Malaysians regard work as an avenue to success and status. Foreign workers are generally relied upon to fill jobs involving manual labor.

Toward religion

Many different religious groups are represented in Malaysia, and all Malaysians are permitted, even encouraged, to practice their religion openly and joyously. The numerous public holidays in Malaysia demonstrate the country’s recognition of the many different ethnic and religious groups which live within its borders.

Although Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, and ethnic Malays are nearly all Muslim, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and a number of other religions are also widely represented. Religion tends to be an important part of life for members of every religious and ethnic group in Malaysia.



The commercial and communications hub of the northern peninsula is Georgetown, on the island of Penang some 285 km/180 mi north of Kuala Lumpur. Georgetown, in the heart of Malaysia’s tin country, also is the capital of Pulau Pinang as well as a noted university town and intellectual center.

Georgetown was the first British trading post established in the Far East, in 1786. It was named for King George III of England and grew to be a major center for a lucrative trade in tea and spices.

The city’s architecture is a mix of modern buildings and traditional shops, but the essence of the town is Chinese. The city is charming, with narrow streets leading from the clock tower in the middle of town.

Penang has been called the “Pearl of the Orient”. Its beaches are a favorite vacation destination in Southeast Asia.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur is located about 80 km/50 mi inland from the peninsula’s southwestern Malacca coast at the confluence of the Kelang and Gombak rivers, which flow through the city center; “Kuala Lumpur” means a “muddy estuary.”

A thousand years ago, the area that is now Kuala Lumpur was a virgin jungle. The city was founded relatively recently, in 1857, by tin prospectors, and the city retains something of a “boomtown” character. Kuala Lumpur, commonly called KL, remains in the center of one of Malaysia’s thriving tin-mining regions.

After developing rapidly as a trading post and flourishing under British control, Kuala Lumpur today is the administrative capital of Malaysia and its major economic center. It is a bustling city of 1.3 million people, with modern office towers next to traditional two-story shop houses and colonial public buildings. It is also the cultural center of Malaysia, and offers extensive shopping facilities and residential areas.


Kuantan, located 274 km/170 mi northeast of Kuala Lumpur, lies on the east coast of Malaysia, on the South China Sea. It is the capital of the state of Pahang, the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia.

The city has grown in recent years thanks to development of large operations by international oil companies which service and support off-shore oil projects in the South China Sea. Nearly 350,000 live in Kuantan. It has a sizeable expatriate population, as well as a large Muslim population.

Expatriates are encouraged to dress conservatively so as not to offend the local people.

Kuantan has a number of nice beaches, and many resorts stretch up the coast from Kuantan.


About 147 km/91 mi south along the coast from Kuala Lumpur is the city of Malacca, or Melaka as it is known in Malaysia. Founded in 1403, Malacca was once the capital of the Malay Kingdom and an important center of the lucrative spice trade. Traces of its Malay, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and British history remain in its narrow, winding streets, open-air markets, and commercial districts.

Malacca’s architecture is a mix of European buildings – Portuguese palaces and churches and Flemish-style structures – and ancient temples and mosques. A cruise up the Malacca River reveals old Chinese clan buildings and Malaccan-style wooden houses with tiled stone steps and long verandas.

Malacca was once the most important port in Southeast Asia, but little of that importance remains today. Instead, this historic town attracts tourists interested in its colonial-era buildings and ruins.


Although only one degree north of the equator, Malaysia is blessed with a moderate climate. The days are sunny, hot, and humid all year, but the nights are fairly cool.

Although humidity is between 85 and 95 percent, temperatures rarely climb above 32C/90F by day and 23C/73F at night. The highland areas have cooler temperatures.

There are two seasons: wet and dry. The rainy seasons are April to May and October to November on the west coast and November to February on the east coast. Annual rainfall averages between 200 and 260 cm/80 and 104 in; the greatest amount of rainfalls in the northeast monsoon region of the peninsula. East Malaysia receives even more rain an average of 401 cm/158 in annually at Kuching.

Rain showers generally occur in short bursts in the mid-afternoon and scarcely disrupt life in the cities, although they often can hamper travel in the countryside.

Tsunami – a destructive natural force

The tsunamis that caused massive loss of life and property damage across south Asia on December 26, 2004 were set off by an undersea earthquake just off Indonesia’s coast. Several countries were affected by the disaster. Malaysia was among them; Penang and Kedah were hardest hit. However, government officials state that Malaysia was least effected of all the countries involved.

Governmental and international aid agencies assisted in local disaster relief efforts. Consulates and embassies internationally warned citizens to restrict non-emergency travel to affected regions in the immediate wake of the disaster.

Information provided in association with Living Abroad