Malaysian Timing

We would like to thank Suyin Chia for submitting the following post. Find out who she is and enjoy her post:

I am the current ICL Responsible and Training Coordinator for AFS Malaysia who is happily tucked away in her mini cubicle dreaming up methods for social change and increased cultural awareness within the AFS network. I have been involved with AFS for 9 years now since my student exchange year to Japan. I am also an Intercultural Link Learning Program International Qualified Trainer candidate. Nothing delights me more than the sight of tail wagging puppies, a good read, the sound of ocean waves and interesting conversations. I believe that we need to learn to cut the cake differently.


Malaysia is a fluid time culture, and as in the case of many fluid time cultures, most Malaysians believe Time is a flexible commodity. In Malaysian terms, this means that no matter what time it is, it is still early anyway.

While other countries and cultures have their own standard for tardiness, Malaysians are well known for being off time all the time. It is often joked that the Malaysian sense of time is the cultural acceptance of the Murphy’s Law, saying that once you step out the door the universe will work its might against you to prevent you from being punctual. It’s the rush hour traffic that starts right outside your front door, the dog, the sister, the weather, traffic again (both sides of the highway) and looking for parking (which in the city is legitimately a nightmare).

It is a generally understood and commonly accepted notion that a Malaysian will be perpetually late. Whether it is five minutes or one hour later, you can expect a Malaysian to be “on the way”. In fact, the aversion with punctuality permeates in the Malaysian culture to the point that you are never late, you are just “on the way”. Meanwhile this term “on the way” itself is ambiguous, as you may be 5 minutes away from the destination and say “I’m on the way”, or actually have just left your house and still consider yourself “on the way”.

Malaysian Timing is so ingrained in the culture that being tardy is naturally accounted for when planning for events. Fifteen minutes to half an hour is the generally accepted “stretch time” in calculating Malaysian time. It doesn’t matter what the occasion is: sports practice, weddings, meetings or even a social gathering. This is especially evident at Chinese wedding dinners, were you can add another hour to the planned start time. Indeed, it’s generally thought that the time stated on the wedding invitation is actually the time guests should leave their respective homes for wherever the dinner is being held.

To a foreigner, having no idea what Malaysian sense of time is, it is probably a baffling and even unprofessionally disrespectful habit to be predictably late considering that the rule of thumb in many other parts of the world is that time is money. Can it be that the average Malaysians just do not value the time of others or even themselves?

According to Edward T. Hall, 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, time is linear and can be calculated right down to the second. They focus on the value of time, and therefore tend to have a very rigid interpretation of how to organize their schedules.

In other cultures such as Malaysia, however, time is viewed as polychronic, which is the view on time as a flexible part of part of life. Polychronic time orientation cultures tend to be more relationship oriented rather than emphasizing punctuality. People in Malaysia will not want to upset others in order to force adherence to a deadline. For example, a Malaysian may have a tendency to think “Should I rush out for a work event when my relatives are in town?”, because doing so would be considered rude. Similarly, polychronic people regularly have numerous interactions and/or activities occurring at the same time, focusing more on what they are doing than the timeframe in which it is happening.

In Malaysia, people by and large do not stick to time, though the situation has improved a lot. With the recent high influx of international corporations and professional organizations, the ongoing standardization of public transportation timing and a host of little change of events over the past decade or two, more and more Malaysians are embracing the value of “punctuality equals respect”, especially in the professional work force. That said, a quick tip in interacting with Malaysians (or rather, anyone of polychronic time orientation culture) is that it is important to consider your perception of time and consider the time perception of others.  This will help you be better mentally prepared less frustrated when meeting another person or group. While it is always good practice to show up on time, be prepared to wait if you are planning to meet a Malaysian. Remember that you are not being disrespected or put off! It may actually be difficult to find parking near your agreed meeting place.


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