Sunday December 7, 2003

Living with quirks in Malaysian culture


WHEN people turn up late for an event, sometimes even holding it up because they are the VIP guests, chances are the Malaysians in the crowd would simply take it in their stride and dismiss it as “Malaysian time”.
But a foreigner, having no idea what “Malaysian time” is, would probably be baffled and even annoyed with the general acceptance of tardiness in this country considering that the rule of thumb in many other parts of the world is that time is money.
Dr Asma Abdullah, in Understanding Multicultural Malaysia: Delights, Puzzles and Irritations, a book she co-authored with Paul B. Pedersen, has attempted to provide information on the social behaviour of Malaysians that foreigners often find peculiar. Among them are their interpretation of time, stress on “face-saving”, reluctance to provide feedback and adherence to protocol.
Understanding social behaviour is part of Asma’s job. For the past 23 years, she has been conducting management-based courses that focus on such topics as negotiating, training and development, managing change and teambuilding for local and foreign corporations and public institutions such as Siemens, Anderson Consulting Asia Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, the Malaysian Education Ministry and Swedish furniture giant, IKEA.
“I specialise in human resource development,” says Asma, who holds a PhD in Anthropology from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, a Masters in Educational Technology from the University of Southern California, and another Masters in Counselling Education from Universiti Malaya.
Published by Pearson Malaysia, the 266-page book attempts to offer insight into behavioural patterns of Malaysians in both work and non-work settings. It is actually meant for foreigners to help them understand the Malaysian mentality, but Asma thinks it will serve Malaysians just as well.
“In my research, I find that it is very important for Malaysians to understand their own differences from other cultures. We have a lot of tolerance but not the intent to understand,” she explains.
Understanding is different from just tolerance, she says. “Tolerance to me is just superficial perception of people and human behaviour. In a world that is becoming increasingly connected and inextricably linked, I think people need to have a deeper understanding of one another’s social behaviour.”
To this end, Asma and Pedersen have strived to shed some light on the Malaysian way of life. Among the chapters featured in the book are “The Malaysian Cultural Context” and “Interacting with Malaysians”, and included are detailed sub-topics such as “Using lah”, “Asking probing questions” and “Dressing for Malaysians”.
Other chapters are “Factors Contributing to Multicultural Malaysia”, “Working with Malaysians” and, of course, “List of Puzzles and Irritations”. There are also separate chapters that describe values and cultures of the three major ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians.
Asma stresses that every ethnic group possesses their own cultural programming – what she termed as ‘software programming.’ “Actually, now with increasing cross-cultural circumstances, a borderless world and so on, I think there is a need to understand culture,” she says.
Through the book, Asma hopes to highlight the importance of understanding not only the culture of another person, but one’s own culture as well.
“I’m trying to create an awareness that there are differences when you work across cultures. One of the messages (of the book) is that we cannot evaluate other people based on our own values.”
Asma says she and Pedersen decided, back in 1997, to write this book together mainly because of their shared interest in multiculturalism. Over the years, through her courses and workshops, she had collected frequently asked questions by foreigners in Malaysia and felt that it would be a good idea to share the responses and solutions.
Pedersen, a professor, who currently lectures at the University of Hawaii, is also no stranger to multiculturalism and has written numerous books on the subject. He was a professor at the Faculty of Education at Universiti Malaya in the 60s and drafted a manuscript on
Introduced to Pederson by a friend, Asma had worked with him prior to writing the book.
“I invited him to teach with me at UPM on the subject of Multicultural Counselling,” says Asma, who still lectures part time at the Graduate School of Management of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM).
The book encompasses 'delights, puzzles and irritations', she says, but there are more irritations and puzzles and fewer delights to explore from the viewpoint of the foreigner.
“Foreigners like Malaysian hospitality, friendliness and tolerance, but there were more puzzles and irritations. Actually, there weren't that many delights,” she says, laughing.
Naturally, one of the chief puzzles is how Malaysians interpret time.
According to Asma, time can be viewed from many perspectives. There are cultures that are 'time-driven' and monochronic, which means doing-one-thing-at-a-time. “Cultures with a monochronic time orientation will look at time as more of a displacement of one thing after another and time is calculated right down to the second. In Malaysian culture, time is viewed as polychronic. Those with a polychronic time orientation will look at time as flexible, part of life.”
In fact, she says, the phrase 'rubber time' is sometimes used to describe this phenomenon in Malaysia, where importance is placed more on relationships and concern for others than on being punctual.
“People have a tendency to think, for example, 'How can I rush out for a meeting when my relatives are in town?', because doing this would be considered rude. These two opposing viewpoints on time obviously cause difficulty especially in the workplace where meetings and deadlines are a daily affair.
“The section on time orientation in the book is dedicated to understanding the reasons behind the ‘Malaysian time' phenomenon and its implications.
Another major irritant experienced by foreigners in Malaysia is the emphasis placed on hierarchy and protocol, she says.
“We place too much importance on protocol – it is important but don’t overdo it. The global workplace only values speed. You can’t let hierarchy get in the way.”
It is also very common for Malaysians to check everything with those in high positions, says Asma.
“Everything is nak cek dengan Datuk (must check with Datuk). We want to respect our elders but we also want young people to be empowered to do things on their own.”
Asma believes it is time the older generation understands this and hopes that the book will help resolve some of these issues.
Where book publishing is concerned, Asma is no greenhorn, as she has edited Understanding the Malaysian Workforce: Guidelines for Managers and authored Going Glocal, which was published by the Malaysian Institute of Management.
Going Glocal is described as an exploratory book on underlying assumptions and values of culture in the country.
“Glocal means global as well as local. Global design and local delivery,” she explains.
She has also tried her hand at writing for theatre productions. In fact, before Understanding Multicultural Malaysia was published, her list of delights, puzzles and irritations had been presented as a series of comic sketches written for the stage.
Two years ago, with the help of her friend Brian Cracknell, Asma came up with The Expat Files. In 1999, she wrote a theatre script called Expat Comes to Town, a humorous look at foreigners grappling with the Malaysian way of life.
After years of working in the field, Asma has earned the honour of being an authority on intercultural training and education in this country. But, despite her ongoing exposure to other cultures, including marriage “to a Mat Salleh,” as she puts it, Asma prides herself on being true to her own culture.
“I have never aspired to be anything other than truly Malaysian in spite of the questions and complaints sometimes posed by foreigners on local culture. I don’t want to give up my culture,” she states.