How Many Rubbers Do You Need?

By Pete Brunoehler

By Pete Brunoehler

Compared to many expat assignments and locations, the level of English in Malaysia is quite good. Oddly enough, that in itself can be a trap. Despite these high levels of proficiency, good understanding does not necessarily follow.

Hong Kong was my first overseas posting. A rather humorous communication experience there made me aware of the importance of using local terminology, which in many cases both there and in Malaysia originate with British English. In one of my first interactions with my secretary as a newly arrived expat, we were reviewing the list of available office supplies when she enquired as to how many rubbers I needed. Now, I don’t know about you, but from my American perspective at the time a rubber was a condom, and never in my career had I seen those on an office supply list! After a couple of awkward questions, she sheepishly brought me what I would have called an eraser, and all was clear.

When I subsequently moved to KL, I was unaware and unprepared for the level of English proficiency that I encountered. On my first day here, I recall overhearing a conversation between two Malaysian employees being conducted entirely in English. For expats who have been here awhile, this is not surprising, but at the time it was an entirely new experience for me, and a complete contrast to Hong Kong, where employees spoke English only when they had to, i.e., with non- Cantonese speakers. In all other cases, it was all Cantonese all the time. So as I settled in to my new assignment in Malaysia, I thought to myself how easy it would be to communicate in such an environment, since the spoken English was among the best I’d heard anywhere in Asia. That, however, can prove to be the trap. While adapting to local usage of English is certainly easier than working in an unfamiliar language, it can sometimes lull expat managers into using phrases and references that are clear back home, but won’t be here.

Key takeaways from this experience:

  1. Good spoken English does not necessarily equate to a good understanding of what you are saying and/or asking. It is wise to repeat and reiterate key messages and instructions, especially when you are new, as even though members of your team may not understand, they may still not ask for clarification.

  2. It should go without saying that slang needs to be avoided. Expats often unwittingly use catchphrases, colloquialisms, and pop culture references that few outside of their native country would fully understand, yet don’t always appreciate the need for – and make the effort to use – locally understood terms.

  3. Speak and enunciate clearly! Your accent – which all expats tend to have to varying degrees – may be understood at home, but may not be clear here.

  4. Listen and use the terms that are used locally. For instance, you may say “truck” back home, but if lorry is the locally understood term, best to use it. Are you moving or are you shifting house? Make the effort to listen for, then use, the terms that are used locally. You may assume they are interchangeable with the terms that you use; often they are not.

  5. Finally, it is especially critical to re-confirm understanding on those occasions where you are dealing with more junior staff who may not routinely converse in English. (This is a challenge with many fresh Malaysian graduates today, as you may have seen in the local news.) You may find this will also apply to staff who actively speak English only at work. At the risk of stereotyping, there are often distinct racial differences in English skill levels between those who actively speak English outside of the office (typically Chinese and Indian staff) and those who speak English only in the office (typically Malay staff). Of course, this is not always the case, but in many instances, you will find that it tends to line up this way.

In conclusion, in Malaysia you will normally have the tremendous benefit of relatively good English being spoken among your team. However, this does not guarantee their understanding of you — so you must be conscious, make appropriate changes, and test understanding at times. Further, since you are dealing with generally polite or shy Malaysians, you cannot expect them to interrupt and question you when they are unclear, as many are not likely to do this. Recognise and understand that, as the foreigner, YOU may be the biggest communication obstacle, and adapt your methods accordingly – remembering to always have the necessary supply of rubbers! Pete Brunoehler is Managing Partner of AMark Consulting Southeast Asia, the first Asian office of US-based AMark Management Consulting. AMark partners with clients in a variety of industries to overcome internal and external growth barriers, and to maximize performance and profitability. For more information, please visit, or contact him with no obligation at