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Cultural Awareness: Malaysian Borneo

Borneo is largely a conservative and traditional society. However, this does vary from location to location and generally Malaysian Borneo is more relaxed in most aspects than Peninsular Malaysia. Many of the following guidelines would come under a general banner of polite subtlety and respect.

A Multi-Cultural Society.

Ethnic Groups - these are approximate figures to highlight the multi-cultural nature of Malaysia: Malay 50.4%, Chinese 23.7%, Indigenous groups 11%, Indian 7.1%, other 7.8%.

Malaysia's cultural mosaic is marked by many differences, but several in particular have had especially lasting influence on the country. Chief among these is the ancient Malay culture, and the cultures of Malaysia's two most prominent trading partners throughout history--the Chinese, and the Indians. These three groups are joined by a dizzying array of indigenous tribes, many of which live in the forests and coastal areas of Borneo. The oldest inhabitants of Malaysia are its tribal people. They account for about 11% of the total population, and represent a majority in Sarawak and Sabah. Though Malaysia's tribal people prefer to be categorized by their individual tribes, peninsular Malaysia blankets them under the term Orang Asli, or "Original People." In Sarawak, the dominant tribal groups are the Dayak, who typically live in longhouses and are either Iban (Sea Dayak) or Bidayuh (Land Dayak). In Sabah, most tribes fall under the term Kadazan. All of Malaysia's tribal people generally share a strong spiritual tie to the rainforest. When visiting the country it is clear that the ethnicities retain their religions, customs and way of life. The most important festivals of each group are public holidays of which there are many.

Although when growing up children are educated in the same schools and will eventually work in the same offices, few marry outside their own ethnicity. Families tend to socialise within their own ethnic group – all part of retaining their individual traditions and lifestyles.

Despite the ethnic differences there are commonalities culturally speaking.


Islam 60.4%; Buddhist 19.2%; Christian 9.1%; Hindu 6.3%. Many of the indigenous groups, such as the Penan, are Christian.
Borneo is a great example of a place where tolerance of religious and political views can create a peaceful and respectful society. You will be briefed on any relevant information you need to know if you are visiting local villages or centres of religion.

Group Orientation

The family is considered the centre of the social structure. As a result there is a great emphasis on unity, loyalty and respect for the elderly. The family is the place where the individual can be guaranteed both emotional and financial support. When one member of the family suffers a financial setback, the rest of the family will contribute what they can to help out. Families tend to be extended, although in the larger cities this will naturally differ.

The Concept of Face

Malays, Chinese and Indians all strive to maintain face and avoid shame both in public and private. Face is a personal concept that embraces qualities such as a good name, good character, and being held in esteem by one's peers. Face is considered a commodity that can be given, lost, taken away, or earned. On top of this face also extends to the family, school, company, and even the nation itself. The desire to maintain face makes Malaysians strive for harmonious relationships.

Face can be lost by openly criticizing, insulting, or putting someone on the spot; doing something that brings shame to the group; challenging someone in authority, especially if this is done in public; showing anger at another person; refusing a request; not keeping a promise; or disagreeing with someone publicly. Conversely, face can be saved by remaining calm and courteous; discussing errors or transgressions in private; speaking about problems without blaming anyone; using non-verbal communication to say "no"; and allowing the other person to get out of the situation with their pride intact.


Greetings in a social context will depend upon the ethnicity of the person you are meeting. In general, most Malays are aware of Western ways so the handshake is normal. There may be slight differences though and a few things to bear in mind include:
Malay women may not shake hands with men.Women can of course shake hands with women. Men may also not shake hands with women and may bow instead while placing their hand on their heart.

The Chinese handshake is light and may be rather prolonged. Men and women may shake hands, although the woman must extend her hand first. Many older Chinese lower their eyes during the greeting as a sign of respect.

Indians shake hands with members of the same sex. When being introduced to someone of the opposite sex, nodding the head and smiling is usually sufficient.

Among all cultures, there is a general tendency to introduce: the most important person to the lower ranking person. The older person to the younger person. Women to men.

Etiquette - to avoid "cultural offenses," here are some tips:
•    Remove shoes when entering homes and places of worship.
•    Dress neatly in suitable attire which covers arms and legs when visiting places of worship.
•    Handle food with your right hand.
•    Do not point your foot at someone.
•    When giving or receiving money gifts to/from a Malaysian, do so with your right hand.

When greeting a Muslim, offer your right hand then bring it towards you, fingertips lightly touching your heart. This is the traditional Salam or 'greeting of acceptance'. Hindus greet with a Namaste (in Hindi) or Vanakam (Tamil). Both palms are brought together as in prayer at mid-chest level. With a Chinese, you may shake hands. And remember, a smile always goes a long way!


All persons should dress 'modestly', this is especially true of female visitors. For general guidance you should keep your upper arms to the elbow and upper legs to the knee covered. In addition, tops should not finish above the waistline of your trousers and expose your midriff and your neckline should not extend down more than a few inches. If you are visiting a temple or holy place it would be appropriate to dress even more modestly than that above.

Of course if on the beach or trekking in the forest it can be more relaxed but be mindful of when bathing in rivers, women should wash in their sarongs and not just underwear.

Try to conduct yourselves in a generally calm and reasonably quiet manner. As a guide simply observe the local Borneo people around you and try not to be significantly louder or more boisterous than them.


Public displays of affection between a male and a female such as kissing will embarrass most locals, especially in more rural locations, and should be avoided. You may notice Borneo men walking or standing holding hands, this is normal between friends and does not indicate anything beyond platonic friendship, do not be concerned if a local whom you have come to know well sits with his arm around you.


The Muslim communities consider the left hand to be unclean. You should always therefore shake hands, offer and receive with the right hand. This is generally a good idea quite apart from the cultural aspect as the left is the one they will have used for nasty jobs like those immediately before exiting the long drop! An additional mark of respect or gratitude is shown by touching the heart with the right hand. Other tribal groups may not differentiate between right and left for eating.


Feet and shoes are often considered ritually unclean, avoid sitting with them up in the air or stepping over someone sitting on the ground. Also ensure that where you are sat you will not force others to step over you.


In situations in home stays you may find there are no eating implements in which case you will use your hands and observe the previously discussed points. In non Muslim cultures eating wild pig is considered just about the best meal there is, whilst of course this is not the case with the Muslim faith so be aware of where you are. The concept of vegetarianism is little understood or known so be very careful when ordering food as often shrimp paste and small fish (ikan bilis) will be in the food to add flavour. Rice is considered a valuable commodity so start with small amounts and go back for more rather than waste any.


If you are a guest in a home the host is likely to bring you a gift of food or drink. This may range anywhere from tea or coffee and biscuits to a whole meal of rice and vegetables. You should always eat or drink some of it as a mark of respect and gratitude. Be aware that the cup or plate may instantly be re-filled so if you are not enjoying it you may want to sip at it more slowly.

Churches and Mosques

When entering a place of worship make sure you are aware beforehand of correct etiquette expected. Usually you will be forbidden from taking photographs inside such a building.


Unlike most countries in the region there is no real culture of haggling in Malaysian Borneo. If you are making a large purchase you could ask for a discount. If there is a price marked on an object then it is almost certainly inappropriate to negotiate on the price unless perhaps you are buying many items at once. However on occasion in markets, if the price is not marked then you may begin the fine art of haggling. The vendor will quote you a price to begin with, depending on whether you are in the tourist district of a large town or in a village market the starting price may be somewhere from five to one and a half times the going rate. At this point you will need to make a judgment call. On the one hand, paying over the odds can drive up expectations and prices generally for everyone including locals. On the other hand, driving the price of a souvenir down by the equivalent of 25 pence will make virtually no difference to you but may change the weekly income of a rural family by a few percent.

Gift Giving Etiquette

Here are some general gift giving etiquette guidelines:

Gift giving to Malays:
If invited to someone's home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good quality chocolates.
 Never give alcohol.
 Do not give toy dogs or pigs to children.
 Do not give anything made of pigskin.
 Avoid white wrapping paper as it symbolizes death and mourning.
 Avoid yellow wrapping paper, as it is the colour of royalty.
 If you give food, it must be “halal” (meaning permissible for Muslims).
 Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the item is large.
 Gifts are generally not opened when received.

Gift giving to Chinese:
If invited to someone's home, bring a small gift of fruit, sweets, or cakes, saying that it is for the children.
 A gift is traditionally refused before it is accepted to demonstrate that the recipient is not greedy.
 Do not give scissors, knives or other cutting utensils as they indicate a desire to sever the relationship.
 Flowers do not make good gifts as they are given to the sick and are used at funerals.
 Do not wrap gifts in mourning colours - white, blue, or black.
 Wrap the gifts in happy colours - red, pink, or yellow.
 Elaborate gift - wrapping is imperative.
 Never wrap a gift for a baby or decorate the gift in any way with a stork, as birds are the harbinger of death.
 It is best to give gifts in even numbers since odd numbers are unlucky.
 Gifts are generally not opened when received.

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