Culture, Customs & Etiquette

Mabul sunset
Sabah is a multi-cultural society. The main ethnic groups are the native Malays as well as large populations of Chinese and Philipino.

Group Orientation

The family is considered the centre of the social structure.

The Concept of Face

Malays, Chinese and Philipino all strive to maintain face and avoid shame both in public and private. Face is a personal concept that embraces qualities such as a good name, good character, and being held in esteem.

Meeting and Greeting

Most Malays in Sabah are aware of Western ways so the handshake is acceptable. However, some women may prefer not to shake hands with mens.

Gift giving to Malays

  • If invited to someone's home for dinner, bring the hostess pastries or good quality chocolates.
  • Never give alcohol.
  • Don't give toy dogs or pigs to kids.
  • Avoid white wrapping paper (symbolizes death).
  • Avoid yellow wrapping paper (color of royalty).
  • If you give food, it must be “halal”.
  • Offer gifts with the right hand only or both hands if the gift is large.
  • Gifts are generally not opened at the time of reception.


Malaysians rely on non-verbal communication. Such a communication style tends to be subtle, indirect and Malays may hint at a point rather than making a direct statement.

Rather than say "no", they might say, "I’ll see what I can do" or "I will try". This allows the person making the request and the person turning it down to save face and maintain harmony in their relationship.

Avoid pointing your index finger at each others, as this is considered rude.


Due to religious reasons, nude or topless sunbathing is not allowed in Sabah and is very frowned upon.

Other Usefull Information

Dialling Code - the international dialling code is +60.

Time - Malaysia is + 8 hours GMT.

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