Former Malaysia Airlines (MAS) CEO Christoph Mueller stirred controversy when he said that 6,000 MAS employees were retrenched because many had “nothing to do”. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Mueller stated:

“Many of the 20,000 employees who worked for the airline had nothing to do. In fact, when I walked through the hangars, people were sleeping. That’s why I had to radically cut 6,000 jobs.”

In response, the National Union of Flight Attendants Malaysia (NUFAM) said that Mueller “might not understand our work culture in this country” and that “sleep is not a reason why an airline like MAS should sack its employees”.  This statement has naturally offended many Malaysian employees who take pride in their work ethic.

Is sleeping on the job an acceptable part of Malaysian work culture?

The Malaysian Industrial Court may have a thing or two to say about that.

There have been numerous cases dealing with employees who have been caught sleeping on the job. The following factors have to be taken into account to determine whether sleeping on the job is severe enough to warrant termination:

  • The Industrial Court has generally accepted that sleeping in the office during working hours is indiscipline, because it is an “elementary rule” that in office, a person has to do his duty.
  • It is not necessary for there to be more than one act of sleeping before an employee can be terminated. In some cases, a single time is sufficient to warrant dismissal. For example, sleeping while on duty is regarded as a serious misconduct when the employee is responsible for the safety and security of others, or where his principle duty is that of vigilance.
  • Sleeping can be distinguished from “dozing off”, the latter being a less serious offence.
  • Employers must not practice double standards. A dismissal for sleeping on the job may be deemed “unfair” if other sleeping employees were let off with lighter punishments (eg: a warning).
  • Prior to dismissal, employers must also investigate the reasons behind the employee’s conduct. For example, the employee may have been drowsy due to illness, or as a side-effect of medicine.

Mueller’s comments could also be read in the context that sleeping employees may be indicative of a surplus of labour. If a company has employees with nothing to do but sleep, their current workforce is in excess to their commercial needs.

At the end of the day, perhaps no one says it more eloquently than Alfred Alvin in his book “Employment Misconduct”:

“Unless an employee has a job as a mattress-tester, sleeping on duty is neglect of duty and is misconduct”.

Employees may want to think about those words, before they start pleading “Malaysian work culture” as a justification for sleeping on the job.


This article was written by Donovan Cheah. Donovan has been named as a recommended lawyer for labour and employment by the Legal 500 Asia Pacific 2017 and 2018, and he has also been recognised by Chambers Asia Pacific and Asialaw Profiles for his employment law and industrial relations work. 

Donovan & Ho is a law firm in Malaysia. Our practice areas include employment law, dispute resolution, tax advisory and corporate advisory. Have a question? Please contact us.


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