Despite the obvious openness to influences from around the globe, and the urbanity of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Kuching, society in Malaysia remains fairly conservative and conformist. Behaviour that departs from established cultural and behavioural norms – basically, anything that draws attention to the individuals concerned – is avoided.
Though allowances are made for foreigners, until you acquire some familiarity with where the limits lie, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Get the balance right and you’ll find locals helpful and welcoming, while respectful of your need for some privacy.
For both men and women, exposing lots of bare flesh is generally a no-no, and the degree to which you should cover up can seem surprisingly prim. Islamic tradition suffuses the dress code for locals, Muslim or otherwise, and dictates that both men and women should keep torsos covered; shirt sleeves, if short, should come down to the elbow (for women, long-sleeved tops are preferable), while shorts or skirts should extend down to the knee (long trousers are ideal). Figure-hugging clothes are often frowned upon, particularly for women.
Dress codes are more liberal in most cities (Kota Kinabalu in particular), on the beach, and when pursuing sporting activities, but it’s surprising how often the minimum standards mentioned above are complied with. Also, remember that in Muslim tradition, the soles of shoes are considered unclean, having been in contact with the dirt of the street. Thus before entering any home (Muslim or otherwise), it’s almost universal practice to remove footwear at the threshold or before stepping onto any carpeted or matted area.
Two things to avoid in this moderately conservative, Muslim region are public shows of affection (holding hands is OK, kissing is not) and drinking alcohol outside designated bars or clubs – even in resort areas frequented by foreigners. In a situation where you need to make a complaint, the most effective approach is not to raise your voice but to go out of your way to be reasonable while stating your case.
As for body language, note that touching someone’s head, be they Muslim or otherwise, must be avoided, as the head is considered sacred in Eastern culture. Handshakes are fairly commonplace when meeting someone; Muslims often follow this by touching the palm of the right hand to their own chest. Some Muslims may be reluctant to shake hands with the opposite sex; however, in this case a smile, nod and that same right-hand-palm gesture will suffice. Muslims and Indians also avoid using their left hand for human contact or eating, while polite Chinese wait staff or shop owners might hand over your change with both hands.
It’s common to see various temples and mosques happily existing side by side, each providing a social as well as a religious focal point for the corresponding community. Architectural traditions mean that the Chinese and Indian temples, built out of brick, have long outlasted the timber Malay mosque, and some are among the oldest structures you’re likely to see in the region. Many such buildings are worth a look around, though only at the largest temples might you get a little tour, courtesy of the caretaker.
When visiting mosques, men should wear long trousers and a shirt or top with sleeves coming down to the elbows (long sleeves are even better); women will also have to don a long cloak and headdress, which is provided by most mosques. You’ll be required to remove your shoes before entering. No non-Muslim is allowed to enter a mosque during prayer time or go into the prayer hall at any time, although it’s possible to stand just outside and look in.
Most Chinese and Hindu temples are open from early morning to early evening; devotees go in when they like, to make offerings or to pray. Hindu temples also expect visitors to remove shoes.
Women who respect local customs and exercise common sense should have few problems travelling alone or with other women.
Some Western women have been known to find the atmosphere in largely Muslim areas, such as Kelantan or Terengganu, off-putting. Arriving there from Thailand or from a more cosmopolitan part of Malaysia, some women still find themselves being stared at or subjected to wolf-whistles or lewd gestures, despite observing local dress codes. This is all the more annoying if you spot local Chinese women wandering around in skimpy tops with no one batting an eyelid. Though it’s no consolation, it’s worth noting that the ground rules are different for locals; the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities, having lived together for generations, have an unspoken understanding as to how the respective communities can behave in public.
Malay women are among the most emancipated in the Islamic world. They often attain prominent roles in business, academia and other areas of public life, and lack neither confidence nor social skills, as a visit to any Malay-run shop, hotel or market stall will attest. Malay women are also very much the lynchpin of the family, and husbands often give way to their wives in domestic matters.
Although the more conservative tide running through the Islamic world has had relatively little impact on this situation, many Malay women now wear a tudung (headscarf). Sometimes this merely indicates an acceptance of the trappings of the religion or the desire to please parents – it’s not unusual to see Malay women at a club partying away in the unlikely combination of headscarf, skimpy T-shirt and tight jeans.