Cultural Intelligence in Malaysia – The Future?


I’ve been a matsaleh (a white foreigner) in Malaysia for all of two months now. Way too early to pretend to be an expert on the matter, but I can’t help but be staggered at what I have observed so far in terms of cultural awareness here.

Malaysia is a mix of Malays (50%), Chinese (30%), Tamil Indians (14%), and almost all else. It is a living, breathing lesson in cultural diversity. There’s a place and time (and holiday) for everything and everyone. True, the debate over the education system and, for example, the favouring of bumiputeras (ethnic Malays) in the civil service is political and strident, but in the day to day there is a remarkable level of cultural intelligence. As in Singapore at the tip of the peninsula, perhaps it’s not so surprising that so much of the global research into CQ is happening in this region.

As addressed elsewhere in previous blogs, in cultural intelligence (CQ), we usually focus on four areas:

The Malays are predominantly Muslim, but in everyday mixed conversation you do not hear the inshallahs and alhamdulillahs of other strongly Muslim societies. If the invocations do occur, it is typically in family and single culture circumstances. Alcohol and pork departments trade briskly alongside halal areas in supermarkets, Chinese girls in the barest of shorts walk alongside Malay friends in hijabs and long dresses. Temple bells ring alongside church bells ring alongside the call to prayer. In the office, appointments are scheduled taking into account Friday prayers, cultural norms of behaviour are respected in meetings, face and other values are considered in giving feedback, etc, etc.

It’s not a perfect society – the different ethnicities will gladly send up each other’s characteristics and stereotypes if given half the chance – but the lessons to be learned here as we move into an ever more globally and culturally diverse work arena are numerous. The simplest, and perhaps most obvious one to the new foreigner in town is that my awe at the general abilities in CQ knowledge, strategy, and action is not shared by the local population. It is simply a way of life, an unconscious competence if you like. As for CQ drive, it’s too early for me to call that one. In any form or fashion, motivation lies too deep for snap judgments.

The fruits of the research academics and practitioners are putting into determining the qualities of this unconscious competence will be realised around the world. Personally, next challenge is the language – Bahasa…

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.