Racism alive and well in
Malaysia By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's first serious
survey of race relations in more than 50 years
indicates that behind the government-promoted
facade of unity and peace, racism runs deep in one
of Asia's most multi-ethnic melting pots.
The telephone survey of about 1,200
Malaysians also found that the majority of the
various races find comfort and security in their
respective ethnicity and not,
as the official travel and tourism brochures
suggest, in a common "Malaysian" identity.
The survey, conducted by the independent
Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, also found
that negative racial stereotyping was deeply
entrenched. For example, minority Chinese and
Indians see the majority Malays, who make up 60%
of Malaysia's 25 million population, as lazy.
Chinese and Indians, who began migrating
to Malaysia in the early 19th century, make up 26%
and 8% of the population, respectively.
The survey's results cast a harsh light on
the government's New Economic Policy (NEP), which
was originally designed to promote social harmony
and economic equality. Since 1970, the government
has maintained a policy of positive discrimination
that favors ethnic Malays over other races -
including preferential treatment in employment,
education, scholarships, business, access to
cheaper housing and assisted savings.
particular, these measures were aimed at reducing
the yawning gap with the ethnic-Chinese community,
which still dominates business in Malaysia, as it
does throughout most of Southeast Asia.
Malaysia's ethnic-Chinese community was on
the receiving end of the murderous 1969 race riots
that prompted former prime minister Mahathir
Mohamad to pass the NEP. In a bid to maintain
social order, Mahathir often blacked out foreign
news coverage when racial tensions erupted in
nearby Indonesia, where the Chinese are also a
to last for 20 years, the NEP has continued
without check, sparking envy and resentment
between Malays and non-Malays. Private companies
must hand over 30% of equity to ethnic Malays and
a portion of housing and commercial property must
be sold to them.
"The findings are not at
all surprising," social scientist Chandra Muzaffar
said of the survey. "This is partly because ethnic
boundaries are real in our society and almost
every sphere of public life is linked to ethnicity
in one way or another."
In a nation that
claims to be a "melting pot", only 11% of the
respondents said they had eaten often with friends
from other races in the previous three months, and
34% said they had never had a meal with people of
About 42% of the population
do not consider themselves Malaysian first, and
46% said ethnicity was important in voting, 55%
blamed politicians for racial problems and 70%
would help their own ethnic group first. According
to the survey, 58% of Malays, 63% of Chinese and
43% of Indians polled agreed with the survey item
that "in general, most Malays are lazy".
Meanwhile, 71% of Malays, 60% of Chinese
and 47% of Indians agreed with the generalization
that "in general, most Chinese are greedy". About
64% of Malays, 58% of Chinese and 20% of Indians
agreed that "in general, most Indians cannot be
The survey, commissioned by the
semi-official New Straits Times newspaper and
supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, is
the first honest look at Malaysian society in half
a century, and the findings have left many
Malaysians gasping in disbelief at how firmly
racism and racial stereotyping have become
entrenched and accepted as a way of life.
The Merdeka Center said the survey "gives
an honest picture of the country's situation and
interracial perception" and warns that extremists
can take advantage of interracial fears and
suspicions in the absence of a meaningful
The ruling National Front
government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi works
hard to portray the country as an example of
multiculturalism where Muslims, Hindus and
Christians live together in peace.
experts have been voicing concern that,
increasingly, the communities are drifting apart
and that polarization of the races and a lack of
social unity were on the rise. They squarely blame
the politicians and the country's race-based
politics for the sharp rise in racism.
findings have prompted civil-society groups to
demand a new ban on all race-based political
"Let us outlaw all Malaysian
political parties that restrict membership on
grounds of race, religion or sex," said lawyer A
Sivanesan, who is senior leader of the opposition
Democratic Action Party, one of the four
registered multi-racial parties in the country.
"It should be written in the constitution that
only multi-racial bodies be permitted."
Others say the few multi-racial political
parties are weak and unable to grow because of the
strong domination of race-based parties over the
"What the survey clearly
shows is that the various races live peacefully
but separately," Sivanesan said. "Half a century
after independence we are further away from
knowing each other than when we started - separate
schools, separate friends, separate lives."
Curiously, the survey showed that many
Malaysians had vague ideas not only of one
another's cultures and traditions but also of
their own. Hari Raya Puasa was wrongly perceived
as the Malay New Year by 32% of Malays, 84% of
Chinese and 45% of Indians - the festival actually
marks the culmination of Ramadan, the holy month
of fasting. Similarly, the Chinese New Year was
thought to be a religious festival by 57% of
Malays, 53% of Indians and a whopping 62% of
Despite the lack of
unity, the country has enjoyed long periods of
peace since the 1969 race riots. And unlike in
some neighboring countries, notably Singapore,
where uniformity is enforced, Malaysia's
minorities are not restricted and are free to
practice their own cultures and religions and
enjoy a vernacular education.
deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was
sacked and jailed in 1998, has caused a stir by
proposing to reform the political landscape, which
he says is straining national harmony.
need to appeal to the Malays, Chinese and the
Indians and the rest that we need to go beyond
race-based politics. If you continue to harp and
support this racial equation, you will never be
able to overcome racial divisions," he told
supporters at a recent rally.
government is aware of the deep divide and has
taken measures to close the gap. One experiment in
racial integration is the "Vision Schools"
initiative in which students share sports fields,
assembly halls and canteens, but attend classes
conducted in their own languages. But the
initiative is embroiled in controversy, mainly
because of the fear among Chinese and Indians that
the vernacular education system would suffer and
erode their ethnic identities.
initiative, the national-service program, started
in 2004, puts youths of all races under a single
roof. Students are chosen at random and taken to
camps for about three months in the hope that they
will learn teamwork and absorb one another's
cultures. But the experts say racism is too deeply
entrenched in official policies and the
socio-political system for such "halfhearted"
measures to make impact.
findings might be a bitter pill to swallow, but it
tells us who we really are behind the facade we
show the world," said Sivanesan.