Thursday, March 12, 2009

Who is Important: Part 1

Working within a Malay Environment

As an expat it is often hard to fit into a Malay work environment. Although I already had four years of experience in Malaysia, it wasn't until I moved to the east coast, and joined a college that was ~98% Malay, that I began to learn the extent to which Malay culture differs from western culture (and other cultures) in the working environment.

Who is Important versus What is Important

One of the over-riding differences between a western work environment and a Malay environment is in the overall focus of the organisation. In essence, you can decide which of the following two questions best fits the environment:

1. What is important?
2. Who is important?

In a typical western work environment, the task is usually the most important item and, thus, work is focused upon the task. Relationship comes second if it is considered at all. So, we would tend to ask the first question: What is important? What needs to get done? What should I focus upon?

A Malay work environment, on the other hand, is an extension of their relational culture, which is extremely hierarchical, and rather focuses upon the second question: Who is important? In fact, it seems sometimes that the only thing that Malays care about is Being Important and having others Know and Acknowledge that you are important.

The obsession with Importance is so intense that the task of the organisation is forgotten as the various administrators and managers jockey and manuever to get themselves known by the important people in the parent body above the college. You see, what makes a person important is NOT:
1. Their skill;
2. Their knowledge;
3. Their work ethic; or
4. Their accomplishments.

What makes a person important is the important people that they know and to whom they are known (VIPs and VVIPs). Office politics, therefore, are extremely important, and merit a separate discussion.

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