Meeting People in Malaysia: Socializing and Networking Options for Expats

Though Malaysia is internationally ranked as one of the best nations in which to do business (noted elsewhere on this site), few individuals are such committed work-a-holics as to completely cut socializing out of their lives. Even those who are successful enough in their work to afford the best of the country’s amenities may still desire camaraderie and the opportunity to view life from others’ perspectives, and so socialization is a topic that can’t be easily ignored.

Can the English Language be Relied Upon?

As language is more often than not a prerequisite for socializing, it’s worth discussing the level of English-language saturation in the country. While finding fellow English language speakers in Kuala Lampur or Penang is not at all impossible, the percentage of such speakers in Malaysia are not even close to that of nearby Singapore, where some 80% of the population is conversant or fluent in English.In recent years Malaysia has done away with the teaching of English in its public schools in order to concentrate on hard sciences, which means the future generations of Malaysian professionals will more likely be speaking Bahasa Malay, Mandarin, or Tamil as their primary language. Curiously, though, English has just been acknowledged by Prime Minister Muhiyiddin as a “compulsory pass subject” for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia [Malaysian Certificate of Education], the nationwide exam taken by 5th year secondary school students.

Clubs and Social Organizations

Activity-oriented social clubs should provide one means of meeting and solidifying bonds with professional peers, or with professionally unaffiliated locals who share a similar level of enthusiasm for your chosen activities. British-founded social clubs like the Royal Selangor Club and the Royal Lake Club have a variety of membership options differing in prestige, and, more importantly, have a variety of facilities. For those who become fatigued by networking or who meet their personal goals for the same, these clubs offer a number of sporting and athletic amenities, and have affiliated numerous clubs throughout the country (e.g. yacht clubs and golf resorts) that will honor the membership of the parent institution.

If one is confident that they can meet new people without the help of a local go-between, English-language papers like the New Straits Times (www.nst.my) will provide a more than adequate amount of information on cultural events happening throughout the country, with their lifestyle pages keeping expats up-to-date on concerts, art exhibitions, culinary events and more.

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While some may be perfectly content to socialize over food and drink at a Kuala Lampur eatery, or on the fairway of their favorite golf course, there are other options for those who wish to provide some sort of philanthropic service while meeting new friends and associates. The community service organization Rotaract, has its District 3300 in Malaysia and undertakes a number of projects such as concerts, raffles, and conferences on pressing social issues. Many major Malaysian universities and colleges host their own Rotaract clubs, and contacts with them can be made easily through the group’s official website.

Networking Online

Digital social networking in Malaysia is, as it is with younger people throughout the globe, a popular means of “getting out while staying in.” Overall, about two thirds of Malaysian residents participate in this activity, and a 2010 survey conducted by the TNS firm determined that Malaysians have more connections in their online social networks than residents of any other country. As such, it will probably be a wise idea for expats to have a social network account even if it is limited to public access by friends and ‘friends of friends.’ Local language variants of omnipresent sites like Facebook, and the professional network LinkedIn, are one option, while numerous Meetup.com groups exist that are specifically targeted to expatriates in Malaysia and Kuala Lampur in particular.

Interestingly, Malaysia has a special place within the brief history of online social networking, given that the precursor to Facebook (the ‘Friendster’ service launched in 2002) is now a Malaysian-owned “social gaming” platform that aims to complement Facebook rather than positioning itself as a competitor to it.

Thoughts on Etiquette

Though this may seem elementary, it is wise in Malaysia for expats to, upon being accepted by a social circle, maintain universal standards of politeness in speech and conduct until their new hosts give them an unequivocal “green light” to dispense with etiquette. Until then, though, a brief crash course in local manners is a must, that is not limited to essentials like the traditional salam handshake or removing shoes when being invited into a Malaysian home.

In particular, the concept of “face” or public honor is crucial to Malaysian social life – putting someone “on the spot,” even jokingly, could cause them to be shamed or “lose face” in a way that would carry more weight in the local culture than it would in the West. Do bear in mind also that guarantors of free speech, such as the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Bill of Rights, do not apply here and do not even represent the hoped-for state of conduct for a good number of Malaysians.

Deliberately provocative forms of cultural communication have been dramatically curtailed when seen to be too “anti-social” – just ask any fan of hardcore punk rock or “black metal” music, the latter of which was subjected to a nationwide ban in 2001.


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