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10 Things Not to Do in Malaysia | Ummi Goes Where?

10 Things You Must NOT Do in Malaysia

Malaysia (that country between Singapore and Thailand) is unique in the sense that it’s a fusion of many different cultures, languages, and religions. The country’s population is made up of 55% Malays, 23% Chinese, and 7% Indians. And that’s not including the many different tribes of indigenous people. 

With such diversity, it’s quite understandable for a traveler to get utterly confused. What is Malaysian culture really like? Which customs do we follow? Is it a very conservative country?

The following is a list of things that you should NOT do in Malaysia, with regard to culture and other practical aspects, that may save you from potentially awkward or dangerous situations. Trust me — I’m Malaysian.

Nasi lemak
Credit: Wong Chai Yen / Wikimedia Commons

Malaysians are very passionate about food, especially our own. We take so much pride in our food that even when we travel abroad, we’d still be looking for nasi lemak (which is tough, because unlike Thai food, Malaysian food isn’t very popular abroad). It’s also the common cause of spats between Malaysians, Singaporeans, and Indonesians, because we like to argue about the true origin of the food.

To us, Malaysian food is simply the best cuisine in the world. So, the easiest way to gain yourself new enemies is by insulting Malaysian food in front of the locals, or worse, by saying that Singaporean food is better (see #2 below).

On a similar note, you should also refrain from saying unflattering things about our national fruit — the durian — no matter how stinky or disgusting you think it is. Personally, I agree with you — the smell is horrendous. But I wouldn’t let my countrymen know this. It would be the ultimate betrayal.

Are you interested to know more about Malaysian food? Check out these posts:

#2 Compare Malaysia with Singapore

Singapore is not Malaysia. Credit: Merlion444 / Wikimedia Commons

To understand this better, it’s vital to know the history between the two countries. Before 1965, Singapore was a part of Malaysia. But due to deep political and economic differences, Singapore seceded to become an independent and sovereign state. Since then, it has transformed itself from a small town with very few resources into one of the world’s smallest but most developed countries.

The sibling rivalry between Singapore and Malaysia continues to this day. If I may draw an analogy, Singapore is like the unwanted child who left home in pursuit of something better and succeeded in making his mark in the world. However, he now suffers from a superiority complex and has a constant need to tell everyone who’s willing to listen that he is indeed the best. Malaysia, on the other hand, is the envious big brother who is desperately trying to catch up and wouldn’t care to admit that his younger sibling is faring better.

So, first of all, never make the mistake of saying that Malaysia and Singapore are the same country. This will insult both Singaporeans and Malaysians. Secondly, when you’re in Malaysia, please don’t say that Singapore is better, cleaner, more organized, etc. We know; we just don’t like to hear it from you.

#3 Point with Your Forefinger

Although pointing with the forefinger is considered the norm everywhere else in the world, here, it is seen as rude, especially in the Malay culture. It is often associated with hostility because you tend to use your forefinger when scolding someone, or when you’re trying to boss him/her around. 

Instead, if you need to point at someone or something, use your thumb, as shown in the picture below. When pointing a direction, using an open palm works as well.

Things you must not do in Malaysia | Ummi Goes Where?
Source: Reddit

#4 Trust the Traffic Lights

traffic light
Credit: Kevin Payravi / Wikimedia Commons

Drivers in Asia are not known for their adherence to traffic rules or good driving etiquette (well, except in Singapore, perhaps). Malaysia is no exception. Malaysian drivers are notorious for being inconsiderate on the road. Here, the bigger the vehicles, the bigger the assholery. Smaller vehicles must give way to the bigger ones. And unfortunately, that means pedestrians are the lowest on the totem pole. In 2018, more than 20 pedestrians lost their lives when trying to cross roads in Kuala Lumpur.

For your safety, do not assume that cars will stop for you even if you cross at a designated pedestrian crossing. Do not trust the traffic lights (because most of the drivers don’t either). The traffic light may show that it is your turn to cross, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to check for cars before crossing. Similarly, even if you’re crossing a one-way street, always look in both directions anyway.

Related Post: Is Malaysia Safe to Visit?

#5 Use Taxis

Malaysian taxis
Credit: Ilya Plekhanov / Wikimedia Commons

Taxis in Malaysia have gained a bad rap, and for good reason. Most of the taxis here have meters, but the cabbies will try to give you a fixed (read: highly inflated) rate. If you insist on using the meter, your driver might agree, but only to take you on the longest, most congested route, or round and round in circles. Either way, you lose.

Tourists with big luggage are their favorite targets. They’ve been known to charge tourists more than five times the usual fare. But tourists are not their only victims. Even as a local, I often got scammed myself.

When e-hailing service was first introduced in Malaysia, people rejoiced. However, instead of cleaning up their act, these taxi drivers decided to behave like gangsters. I’m sure there are some honest taxi drivers out there, and I do feel sorry for them, but I’ve really had enough. These days, I stick to those e-hailing apps, such as Grab.

#6 Bring Up Race or Religion

Malaysian ethnicities
Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia is made up of many different races, the main ones being Malay, Chinese, and Indian. On the surface, we seem to be living in perfect harmony. Well, we do, to a certain extent. It’s not like we’re at war with each other or anything.

But what may not be immediately apparent to foreign visitors, and what the locals wouldn’t admit openly is that racial tension is prevalent in the country, especially in recent years. Right now, we’re tiptoeing around each other’s sensitivities, although admittedly some people aren’t trying as hard as the others. Minorities are still not getting a fair treatment.

Therefore, race and religion are quite a sore subject. As a visitor, it would do you good not to discuss these issues in public.

#7 Give Money to Beggars

Begging in Malaysia
Credit: David / Wikimedia Commons

When you walk around the city, you might come across beggars on the street, usually children, and women with babies. Or they might approach you under the pretext of raising funds for a school, orphanage, etc. Although you may feel tempted to help, you really shouldn’t. These beggars are often part of a begging syndicate. They could be victims of human trafficking. Giving them money is only going to make the traffickers richer (some have even raked in millions).

Currently, the authorities are doing all they can to eradicate the problem. If you really wish to help, it’s better to buy them food instead.

#8 Shake Hands with Members of the Opposite Sex

shake hands
Credit: Amtec Photos / Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country. In Muslim culture, interaction between men and women (that are not family members) comes with certain restrictions. Physical contact is generally discouraged.

So, don’t feel offended if someone of the opposite sex refuses to shake your extended hand. Although not all Muslims in Malaysia are that conservative, it’s better to be on the safe side and try not to offer your hand first. They will probably feel as awkward as you for having to decline your handshake.

How to Shake Hands the Malaysian Way

To shake hands with people of the same gender as you, the Western handshake would suffice. However, to earn extra brownie points, do it like the locals do — with both hands. Afterwards, bring your hands to your chest. If the other person is much older than you, lower your head and lightly kiss his/her hand. But only do this if they are clearly old enough to be your parents. Otherwise, you risk offending them by implying that they look that old!

#9 Go Topless or Strip Naked

Again, due to religious reasons, skimpy attire is not very common among the majority of the locals. When they go to the beach or public pools, most Malay women would simply swim fully clothed. In fact, in some conservative states in the east coast, bikinis are banned outright.

woman in burqini
Woman in burqini. Credit: Myousry6666 / Wikimedia Commons

These rules don’t apply to tourists, fortunately, but if you wish to go topless or nude, you’d better think twice. In 2015, a group of European and Canadian hikers was arrested, jailed, and fined MYR5,000 (USD1,215) for ‘public indecency’ on Mount Kinabalu. They had stripped naked on the mountain peak, urinated, and verbally attacked the local guide who was trying to stop them from doing so.

Their actions had caused public outrage because the mountain was considered sacred. The locals believe that the souls of their dead ancestors go to the mountain to rest there for eternity. In the same month, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck Mount Kinabalu, killing 18, including children. It was the first earthquake to have ever struck the area. This further convinced the locals that the mountain spirits were angered by the indecent act.

I have nothing against nudism/naturism. In fact, on a few occasions during my travels, I had met and even stayed with members of the nudist community. But if it gets to the point where it disrespects local culture, especially in a place that’s considered sacred among the locals, I think it’s inconsiderate.

#10 Go Overboard with the PDA

kissing silhoutte
Credit: Clearviewofthesky / Wikimedia Commons

I think you should be able to guess by now that public display of affection is generally unacceptable in this country. As foreigners, you would probably get some leeway, but in general, anything more than hand-holding could land you in hot water. This is clearly stated on signboards that you can find in public places. Kissing or engaging in ‘indecent behavior’ could get you fined.

Unfortunately, Malaysia is also pretty conservative when it comes to issues concerning the LGBTQIA+ community. The majority of the people do not take too kindly to same-sex couples or trans people. Recent incidents are proof of this.

So, there you have it — the 10 things you shouldn’t do in Malaysia. Every country comes with its good and bad sides. And part of the joy of traveling is discovering both. If you feel that I focused too much on the negative, it’s because I don’t think I should gloss over it.

I hope it didn’t put you off from visiting us though! We are very nice and friendly people (most of the time). Well, unless you tell us that durians are disgusting. Then, we’re going to shove that stinky fruit down your throat!



Have you visited Malaysia? What did you think of it? Share your experience in the comments section below.

If you’re planning to visit Malaysia soon, click here to read more about this underrated country!

Malaysia Travel Guide - Ummi Goes Where?

Posted in Malaysia

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  4. Medha Verma

    I really like reading “what not to do” posts about countries, especially if I am travelling to one anytime soon. I’ve been to Malaysia and although I didn’t quite know about most of these things, I live in a predominantly Islamic country too and many of these things are a no-no here as well, such as excess PDA, or shaking hands with people of the opposite sex, especially locals. Interesting to read about the other things too, such as comparison with Singapore.

    • ummi

      Agreed. I also like to read about the dos and don’ts of a particular country before visiting. This helps me understand the country better and helps me avoid getting scammed or making any faux pas. I hope you enjoyed Malaysia 🙂

  5. Chloe Beaver

    Malaysia was one of my favorite countries I have ever visited, and reading your blog makes me miss it! I agree, the smell of Durian is less than pleasant but I’m glad I was able to try it (it tastes much better than it smells!). The food was also delicious, although I did have a bit of trouble being allergic to peanuts.

    • ummi

      Glad you enjoyed my country, Chloe! And what an adventurous traveler you must be for having the courage to try the durian 😄. Yes, we do use lots of peanuts in our cooking, although maybe not as much as the Thais and Vietnamese do. I hope you’ll come back someday, and if you have any question, feel free to ask.

  6. Agnes

    What a detailed guide to Malaysia’s culture and customs. Great tips on what not to do, not to commit a faux pas, and not hurt someone’s feelings or customs. Now I am better prepared for the visit to this wonderful country.

  7. Linda (LD Holland)

    Great to get some tips for visiting Malaysia and not creating awkward or dangerous situations. Hand gestures are always a big risk in many countries we have visited. Have learned to keep my hands quite still when talking. Good to see a warning about taxis. We too have found too many taxi drivers are out for a money grab. We always use ride hailing when available. Similarly we don’t give money to beggars. We found it makes you a mark for any huckster in the vicinity as well as the issues you raised. The one we would have trouble with is PDAs. I would hate to be arrested for giving hubby a hug and kiss. But good to know! Some great tips to share.

    • ummi

      I agree with what you said about beggars. It does make you a mark. I remember buying something from one of the kids in Cambodia, and the rest of the gang came rushing over to demand for money.

      Anyway, it’s unlikely that you’d get arrested in Malaysia for a hug or a quick kiss, especially if you’re a tourist. But the locals might stare.

  8. Chrissi

    This article is so informative and well written. I really love the analogy you used for Malaysia and Singapore. A great way to understand the tension between the two. Also just in general I think all these tips are so important in understanding the culture, which is always important to do before you visit a country. Thank you!

    • ummi

      You’re welcome, Chrissi. I’m glad you found this helpful. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to describe the relationship between Singapore and Malaysia without offending either party. 😄

  9. Umiko

    I didn’t know that you also use thumb to point at something. I thought it’s only in Indonesia. I have a Chinese Malaysian friend, so yeah, she told me about #6 in the country. And I remember what the tourists did on Mt Kinabalu back in 2015. I really think it was a disrespectful act of them to go topless.

    • ummi

      Indonesia and Malaysia do share a lot of customs and traditions, this being one of them 🙂.
      And these days, it seems to be the trend for women to go topless on mountaintops. Although I have nothing against that (and might even do so if prompted), we sometimes have to be a little more sensitive toward the locals’ beliefs.

  10. Cecilia

    I always find these cultural guides so helpful. As tourists, it is so important that we remember we are guests. We should always be respectful of local norms. I am glad you mention the piece about donating to beggars and possible linkages to trafficking. I work with a national organization dedicated to reducing child sexual exploitation. It is a terrible crime that happens all over the world right in front of our eyes. Its important to be cognizant of what you can do to reduce this crime and help keeps kids safe in the future.

    • ummi

      Yes, Cecilia. It’s a terrible crime that unfortunately doesn’t get talked about very much in my country. Anyway, I hope the article is useful for you if you plan to visit Malaysia in the future. 🙂

  11. Jas

    Seems like pointing in Asia is a taboo in a lot of countries! (I know it’s also rude to do that in Japan.) I heard about the taxi too and just took Grab everywhere when I visited Malaysia. These are great tips for fist-time visitors!

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  14. Josy A

    Surely no one could complain about the food in Malaysia!? It is soooo good! I think if I heard someone bitching about Malaysian food, I’d assume that person has no taste!!

    I think we did use taxis in Malaysia, but this is good to know for next time! We probably ove paid when we went previously.

    • ummi

      I’m sure there are some honest taxi drivers out there (and you might have met some of them), but after so many bad experiences with them, I would rather just advise people against taxis.

      As for the food, I think you’ve just earned a lot of brownie points from my Malaysian readers, Josy! But Malaysian food isn’t the healthiest, so some people who are watching their diet might complain about the amount of calories and cholesterol in each dish 😆

  15. Jenni / Out in the Nature

    I’m 100% with you on respecting local culture even thought going topless wouldn’t otherwise be any problem. It’s harder when there is something that goes against your own beliefs, but surely you can keep a shirt on for a while out of respect of the country you are in.

    • ummi

      Spot on, Jenni! I personally don’t have any problem with nudism or people going topless, but not in sacred places. The locals near Mount Kinabalu believe the spirits of their loved ones go to rest on the mountain in their afterlife.

  16. Nora

    These are some very useful tips. When travelling to a foreign country it is very important to respect and adhere to its customs. Many people don’t and it’s an annoying fact.

    • ummi

      I agree, Nora! As a guest in anyone’s home, you’d want to respect their rules. We should do the same when visiting other countries, even if we may not agree with them.

  17. jetlaggedroamer

    Malaysia has been on my list for so long. Such an informative post. It was really interesting to read on the handshake and taxis. Pinning so I can refresh myself for when I visit. Thanks for sharing these tips.

  18. Ildiko

    These are great tips, most of which I would have never considered. I haven’t yet traveled to Asia, but hope to soon. Will keep these in mind. The taxi rip-offs are particularly disconcerting. Thanks for the tips!

  19. Krista

    This is such a great article! I went to Malaysia a few years ago and I am happy to say I didn’t do any of these things, but I wish I had this article then just in case. These types of posts are so important for people to read before traveling. Many might not consider the repercussions of certain acts. Thanks!

    • ummi

      You’re welcome, Krista! I hope this will be useful for your next visit. I’m sure that most travelers have only the best intentions. It’s just that sometimes they may be unaware of the local customs and end up inadvertently offending the locals.

  20. Amy Harneiss

    I really enjoy articles like this, they are so useful. One of my biggest worries is that when I travel, I might not know a certain custom and offend someone. Thanknyou for this. Once the world returns back to normal, I really would like to visit Malaysia, and now feel reassured it’ll be fine
    Thank you Ummi

    • ummi

      You’re welcome, Amy! I hope you will get to visit us soon. I’m sure locals anywhere would appreciate it when visitors make an effort to understand and respect their cultures ☺️

  21. Magnolia Grace

    This is the best ” Things You Must Not Do in Malaysia ” thing that I have ever read, I enjoyed it. Thank you for making this.

    • ummi

      Haha, usually it’s the neighboring countries, because we are all constantly squabbling over whose food is better. It’s mostly just harmless fun though. 😉

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  23. Terry

    It is so interesting that I have been to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and Korea and I am always reading about the do’s and don’t’s and I have never heard about the use of pointing with the index finger. It must be because I generally don’t do it for the subject to not come up before. Thank you kindly for the tip.

    • ummi

      You’re welcome, Terry. Pointing to another person is considered rude in Malaysia, but I suppose when it’s done by a non-local, we do give a little leeway 🙂

  24. Tammy

    What an incredibly useful post! I am considering living in Malaysia for a few months next year, both to explore Malaysia itself (which I’ve wanted to visit for quite some time) and as a base for visiting other SEA countries. Now off to read your thoughts on why Malaysia should be the next great hub for digital nomads…since that’s my plan next year 🙂

  25. ana

    Thank you for this post. I will visit KL in 2 months! I’m from Portugal. It’s possible to wear camo clothes or animal print clothes? Is it okay to visit markets with our head not covered?
    Thank you

    • ummi

      Hi, Ana. Yes, camo and animal-print clothes are absolutely fine. And you can practically go anywhere in Malaysia without head covering; the only exception is the mosques. If you wish to visit a mosque, be sure to wear long, loose-fitting clothes and a headscarf. But big mosques that are popular for tourists like the National Mosque or Jamek Mosque usually provide free robes at the entrance. Hope this helps, and welcome to Malaysia! 😀

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