Culture and Etiquette

SCIENTISTSCulture and Etiquette

SEARRP, which operates at the invitation of our partners in Malaysia, is extremely mindful of its reputation in Sabah, which rests on the contribution made to science, as well as the conduct of its staff and members of the programme.

All members of SEARRP (including scientists, students, volunteers and other non-employees working as part of SEARRP) are required to abide by Malaysian laws, and respect the cultures, customs and norms of the people of Malaysia.

Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and Sabahan society, like the rest of Malaysia, remains culturally and socially conservative. Most of the people you will interact with while you are in Sabah come from culturally conservative backgrounds. There may be situations when what you consider as being perfectly normal behaviour will diverge from their norms and could become a source of misunderstanding and discomfort for both you and them.

These guidance notes are intended to help you to understand the expectations and norms that generally apply in Sabah. They are not intended to curb your basic rights, including those of self-expression; rather to highlight cultural differences and provide constructive advice on how you can have a safe, happy and successful experience in Sabah.

Dress Code

For meetings and conferences, you must be appropriately dressed.
Men: collared shirt, long trousers and smart shoes. A jacket and tie are not usually required, unless specified.
Women: loose tops (with sleeves), long trousers, knee or full-length skirt and smart shoes.

It is not appropriate to attend a meeting wearing sandals or flip-flops, sleeveless, sheer or low-cut tops, shorter than knee-length skirts, shorts of any kind, or anything which could be construed as “beach wear.” Jeans are not considered formal wear in Malaysia, though smart jeans are acceptable for conferences if you are not delivering a presentation.

Malaysian government institutions reserve the right to refuse entry on the basis of inappropriate attire.

In the field, including at the Danum and Maliau Centres, it is perfectly acceptable for men and women to wear shorts/skirts, sleeveless or short sleeved shirts, sandals and flip-flops – although we strongly advise against either very short skirts or high-cut shorts, strapless, low-cut, sheer or bikini tops. Women are to wear a top over a sports bra. It is not acceptable for men to be shirtless while indoors.

While swimming and bathing in rivers or sunbathing, you must wear swimwear. Nudity in public situations is completely unacceptable.

Everyone concerned recognises the practicalities of conducting fieldwork in tropical environments and the importance of being cool and comfortable. However, we expect members of SEARRP to exercise good judgement with respect to attire and be mindful of the expectations and norms that apply in Sabah. Our staff are here to help and advise, but we do expect their advice to be followed, once offered.

During down-time in Sabah’s towns and villages it is a good idea to exercise sensitivity. T-shirts and shorts are perfectly fine, but even in urban centres such as Kota Kinabalu, and especially when visiting the smaller towns like Tawau, Lahad Datu and Sandakan, it is not appropriate to wear very skimpy or revealing clothes, or for men to be shirtless.

Intimate Relationships

Cultural Differences
There are huge cultural (and gender) differences between Malaysia, and many Western countries in the way that intimate relationships are approached; intentions and expectations are often very different and prone to misinterpretation. Public displays of affection, for example, are almost always considered inappropriate in Malaysia. Please be aware that your behaviour may impact the local people involved and their relationships. Most of our staff are members of Sabah’s indigenous communities, which in many instances continue to observe taboos and customary rules of which you may be completely unaware. Please exercise discretion; how you conduct yourself, particularly in any intimate relationships you have or form, will affect how local men and women perceive you and may have impacts that remain even after you have left Sabah.

Syariah Law
Please also be aware that, aside from the constitutional legal system, Malaysia operates a separate legal system, which applies only to Muslims – known as Syariah Law – which provides for very serious penalties if transgressed. These laws basically criminalise even mildly intimate contact between unmarried Muslims of the opposite sex – and, strictly speaking, any physical contact at all between Muslims and non-Muslims of the opposite sex. Please exercise discretion and remember that it would bring great shame upon a local family if one of their members is charged with a violation of Syariah Law. Please speak to a SEARRP staff member should you be unclear or uncertain as to how this may affect you or the relationships you form.

Same Sex Relationships
At present, same-sex relationships are effectively unlawful in Malaysia. It goes without saying that SEARRP operates on the basis of complete equality, both in terms of gender and sexuality, but local laws – however much these may vary from those of your home country – must be taken into account. Given this, and while Sabah is generally a tolerant society, please exercise discretion – particularly with respect to initiating casual same-sex relationships or in your behaviour, in public, with a partner of the same gender.

Working with Research Assistants
Our team of Research Assistants (RAs) are used to working with international scientists. It is important to understand, however, that many of our RAs come from culturally different, often conservative backgrounds and may have had very little experience with cultures outside of Sabah. Behaviour that might be considered socially acceptable in your home country (being overtly friendly or flirtatious, displaying physical affection in the company of others, engaging in casual sex, etc.) may be interpreted completely differently in Sabah and have serious, including legal, consequences for those involved.

We expect, both from our RAs and the members of SEARRP with whom they work, that professional relationships are maintained; we strongly discourage casual relationships between our RAs and scientists.

Sexual Harrassment
SEARRP operates a zero tolerance policy with respect to sexual harassment. Should you have any concerns, or would like to report inappropriate behaviour, please contact the SEARRP Project Manager at the site where you are working, or send an email to or telephone the SEARRP Director, Glen Reynolds: ( or +60178167177) or Assistant Directors: Agnes Agama ( or +60195831539) or Katie King ( or you can write an anonymous email to

Alcohol and Food

Although there is a drinking culture in some parts of Sabah, the excessive consumption of alcohol at SEARRP sites, where we have a clear duty of care, is strongly discouraged. While we recognise that social events are a normal part of camp life, we expect you to exercise good judgment, drink responsibly, and take reasonable precautions to ensure that everyone’s safety and welfare is ensured.

SEARRP Project Managers have the authority to set additional rules for acceptable conduct at sites, which can include regulating the availability and consumption of alcohol. You are expected to comply with these regulations.

SEARRP staff are not permitted to drink on working days, so please be aware of this and help by setting a good example.

Consuming food is a social experience and an important part of Malaysian culture – so when eating in Sabah, please learn about and respect Malaysian dining etiquette. For example, using your left hand to put food into your mouth, or offering food or drinks to others with your left hand, is considered impolite. You can easily learn more by talking to our staff.

Syariah Law
Be mindful that Syariah Law also applies to the consumption of food and drink. Muslims are not permitted to consume certain food types and animal products, primarily pork or anything derived from pigs, also alcohol in any form. Please exercise particular sensitivity when cooking or eating pork – and do not do so if you know Muslims to be present. Do not be offended if our Muslim staff use separate plates and utensils, as this is a requirement many Muslims observe. Similarly, do not offer alcoholic drinks to Muslims unless they inform you otherwise. During the fasting month, please exercise particular sensitivity and try not to eat or drink in the presence of those who are fasting or encourage Muslim colleagues to eat outside of fasting hours, especially when in town.

General Conduct

It is considered rude and unacceptable to display anger in public. “Loss of face” is taken very seriously in Malaysia; losing your temper, shouting or berating someone in public is not acceptable. If you need to make a complaint, we suggest that you speak with the person concerned quietly, calmly and out of earshot of others – and if necessary, raise the issue with the Project Manager of the site where you are working.

Please bear in mind that most Malaysians maintain the highest standards of personal hygiene, take regular showers, and change their clothes at least daily (including field attire). It is good practice, in terms of staying healthy to follow this example (skin complaints are common in the tropics if you don’t shower and change your clothes regularly). Poor hygiene is socially unacceptable in Malaysia – so if you are working closely with SEARRP’s field staff please try to have at least one shower each day and regularly change your field clothes.

We ask that noise levels are kept to a minimum after midnight at all SEARRP sites. In summary, SEARRP expects you to conduct yourself responsibly and with respect to local laws, cultures, customs and norms. Should you be uncertain, please speak to a member of our staff.

Misconduct and Disciplinary Procedures

Please be aware that should you willfully disregard these guidance notes and engage in misconduct that compromises SEARRP’s duty of care to its members and staff, we will initiate disciplinary procedures which may result in the termination of your membership of SEARRP, removal of privileges, including withdrawing access to SEARRP sites and facilities and support from our staff.

Depending on the nature of any misconduct, further action may be taken which could result in your Sabah Biodiversity Centre (SaBC) research approval and Malaysian visa being revoked.
Examples of misconduct:
– Persistent abuse of alcohol
– Disruption of the academic, working or living environment at SEARRP sites
– Willful disrespect or disregard of local cultural sensibilities and norms
– Failure to acknowledge and rectify misconduct

If misconduct is reported, SEARRP will convene a disciplinary panel within 7 working days to consider the case and determine if further action is necessary. This panel will be chaired by the SEARRP Director and comprise your supervisor or university line manager, SEARRP’s Assistant Directors and senior staff and your local collaborator. You will be invited to attend this panel. Disciplinary action will ultimately be at the discretion of the SEARRP Director – who will report the outcome of proceedings to your university Head of Department and the SEARRP Board of Trustees.

If your supervisor, line manager or head of department consider that you have been unfairly treated, they may lodge an appeal within 7 working days of the panel decision with the Chair of the SEARRP Board of Trustees, who will arrange for the Board to reconsider the disciplinary panel’s findings and Director’s actions.


If anything is unclear, or you would like further advice, please contact the SEARRP Director, Glen Reynolds, or Assistant Director/Safeguarding Officer Katie King. When in the field, please speak to any of SEARRP’s Project Managers or senior staff.