International Gift Giving Etiquette - Malaysia

GIFT GIVING IN MALAYSIA* - Gift Giving Etiquette


General Guidelines

  • Gifts are usually reserved for friends. Before giving a gift of any kind, you must first establish a personal relationship with the recipient. Otherwise, the gift may very well be perceived as a bribe.

  • The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency has exceptionally strict laws against bribery. Moreover, giving a gift that seems too generous may be interpreted as a bribe and could get you in trouble with the authorities.

  • It's a good idea to select a modest, inexpensive gift so that the recipient won't feel obligated to you. Also, when receiving a gift, take care not to reciprocate with one of greater value compared to the present you received.

  • Gifts are not opened in front of the giver. Opening presents alone allows both the giver and recipient to “save face.” There is a cultural belief that the giver and recipient may be embarrassed if the gift turns out to be a poor choice.

  • A gift should be received in both hands, palms facing upwards.

  • You will be relieved that you arrived with gifts in hand when you are given a present unexpectedly.

  • Recommended business gifts include quality pens, desk accessories, and items representative of your country or city.

  • Recommended social gifts include something representative of your country or a food that may be considered a delicacy.

  • If you are a man and feel that it is necessary to give a gift to a female colleague, be aware that in this culture, personal gifts from a man to a woman can be misinterpreted as having a romantic intent. Malaysian business protocol requires that a man should explain that his wife sent the perfume, scarf, or similar gift item.

  • Do not wrap your gift with white paper because this colour is associated with death and mourning. Blue, black, and yellow gift-wrap should also be avoided.

General Guidelines Guidelines for Giving Gifts to Ethnic Malays

  • If invited to an ethnic Malay home, try to bring small, practical gifts for the family. Present the gifts shortly before departing, not when arriving.

  • Good choices include alcohol-free perfumes or colognes for a hostess, toys for children, and collared, fine cotton shirts for men.

  • Foods can make good gifts, although meat products of any kind must be “halal”, which is the Muslim equivalent of kosher. The prohibition against pork and alcohol also cancels out pigskin products and perfumes containing alcohol.

  • Present gifts with the right hand only.

  • Don't wrap gifts for ethnic Malays in white paper; white is associated with funerals.

  • Green or red wrapping paper is the safest choice.

Gifts to Avoid Giving to Observant Muslims

  • alcohol, pork, personal items such as underwear, toy dogs or gifts that picture dogs, gifts with images of nude or partially clad women [even in paintings or sculptures with artistic merit]

General Guidelines for Giving Gifts to the Chinese in Malaysia

  • It is Chinese custom to decline a gift three times before accepting; this ritual prevents the recipient from appearing too acquisitive. In the face of these protestations, continue to insist. Once your gift is finally accepted say that you are pleased that the recipient has done so. When you receive a gift, you will be expected to go through the same routine.
  • Give an even number of flowers to a Chinese person. An odd number of flowers will only be perceived as an omen of bad luck.
  • Gifts of food are acceptable, but not at dinner parties or other occasions where appetizers and meals will be served. Candy and fruit baskets, however, are appreciated as thank-you gifts sent after these events.
  • At Chinese New Year, it is customary to give a gift of money in a red envelope to children and to the service personnel you deal with on a regular basis. This gift is called “hong bao.” Give only new bills in even numbers and even amounts. Many employers give each employee a “hong bao” equivalent to one month's salary. This is a government-mandated type of gift-giving that may be applicable to you if you are considered an employer in the country.
  • Red or pink wrapping paper is the safest choice.

Gifts to Avoid

  • gifts or wrappings where the predominant colour is white, black or blue
  • knives, scissors or cutting tools--they suggest the severing of a friendship or similar close bond.
  • Items Associated with Funerals [Avoid!] - clocks, towels, handkerchiefs, straw sandals

Guidelines for Giving Gifts to Indians in Malaysia

  • Be sensitive that observant Hindus do not eat beef or use cattle products. Consequently, leather products of any kind should not be considered as gifts for this segment of society.
  • When presenting gifts of money, odd numbers are preferred since they are believed to be luckier.
  • Those of Indian descent will appreciate receiving gifts in odd numbers, such as one, 11, 21, and so on, because these amounts are considered lucky. But avoid giving gifts in multiples of three, because this number is considered bad luck.
  • The frangipani [a flower popularly used by Hawaiians to make leis] is used by Indians only for funeral wreaths.

*Malaysia Business Etiquette - Gift Giving.  Executive Planet.  09 Aug. 2004                           <>.

Above:  The flag of Malaysia