July 15, 2013

Eastern promise

Fifth Ring has recently opened an office in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and we asked senior account director Abi Firth, who is based in our new KL office, to tell us a bit about setting up in this vibrant South East Asian capital. 

Expanding into South East Asia was a key strategic objective for Fifth Ring BBN and is reflective of our desire to be aligned with our client base. We are continuing to see a trend amongst clients for pursuing the growing number of business opportunities in the South and East and we are keen to ensure that Fifth Ring BBN is ideally located to support this.

When you’ve lived in Dubai for the best part of five years, towering skyscrapers and innovative architecture naturally become part of daily life. Seeing the Petronas Towers for the first time, however, particularly when you drive in at night, is amazing. KL sits deep in the heart of Klang Valley, so regardless of where you approach the city from, you get an amazing view of the sprawling city skyline in front of you.

Once you’ve spent a couple of days sitting in endless traffic jams, you slowly start to get the sinking feeling that KL may be just another capital city, with its skyscrapers and endless construction. However, when you start to get under the skin of KL, you realise that it has managed to retain much of its local character, and is obviously making an effort to ensure this remains the case with seemingly constant restoration work taking place at historic sites. 

There are countless colonial buildings in the heart of town that are as picturesque and beautiful as the giant Petronas Towers, and the vibrancy of Chinatown with its hawker stalls, night markets and street entertainment brings so much character to the place.

When you’re opening an office in a new location, you very quickly need to familiarise yourself with the place and establish how you are going to set about doing business. During the first few months it’s become clear that despite the effects of the global financial crisis, KL is hard at work in positioning itself as a global city, the catalyst being the Economic Transformation Program. This aggressive and visionary initiative by the Malaysian government intends to turn Malaysia into a high-income economy by the year of 2020.

Malaysia has a diverse history with different ethnic groups, religions and cultures coexisting peacefully. Malay culture is generally non-confrontational and tolerant, and as a Muslim country some simple rules of etiquette go a long way towards making your business relationships more successful. The right hand, for example, is considered clean and is used for shaking hands, handling money and for eating – in traditional restaurants guests use their hands to eat. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of using my hand to eat my curry yet, one of my clients is threatening to take me to a really authentic restaurant, so that’s something to look forward to. 

As with any Muslim country, open displays of affection are generally frowned upon, and interestingly, if you want to point at something, it’s more appropriate to point with you thumb as the finger is considered too direct and rude. 

Malaysia has a system of titles granted by the country’s various royal families. As a sign of respect you should refer to people in positions of seniority by their given titles such as Dato’, Dato’ Sri and Tan Sri. When shaking the hands with any of the above it should be accompanied with a subtle bow, although that doesn’t seem to be observed that much. I also learnt very quickly that the common practice in the West of greeting friends and family with a kiss on the cheek is generally not done, on the contrary; it’s seen as odd. 

Whilst Malay is the official spoken language, it is not uncommon to hear people speak in Mandarin, Tamil or Hindi. Having said that business is generally conducted in English, and even at home families speak in English, to the extent that the very young generation have very limited knowledge of Malay words.

Some tips for doing business in Asia:

  • Greet business associates with eye contact and a handshake (with your right hand)
  • Carry lots of business cards and always give and receive the cards with both hands
  • If your business associates are Muslim and don’t drink alcohol, it is acceptable (at a business lunch, for instance) for non-Muslims to drink moderately in their company
  • Avoid making appointments on Friday. It is an important Muslim prayer day, and many businesses reduce their hours
  • Dress modestly for both business and social occasions
  • Refer to people in positions of seniority by their given titles such as Dato’, Dato’ Sri and Tan Sri

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