Racism in Malaysia

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Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim, multi-ethnic country. Accusations of racism stem from racial preferences embodied within the social and economic policy of the Malaysian government, as well as broader tensions between various ethnic groups. Discrimination is widespread, publicly displayed and accepted. Ranging from implied ethnic superiority to religious intolerance. Charging non Malays more for services is very common.


Malays make up the majority—close to 53% of the 30 million population. About 21% of the population are Chinese Malaysians (Malaysians of Chinese descent) and Indian Malaysians (Malaysians of Indian descent) comprise about 7% of the population.[1] There are also a very small minority of aborigines whose ancestors or Orang Asli arrived in what is today Malaysia well over 7,000 years before the Malays arrived from what is today Indonesia roughly 3,000 years ago. The book "Contesting Malayness - Malay Identity Across Boundaries" edited by Timothy P. Barnard Contesting Malayness. ISBN 9971692791.  reflects the views of anthropologists that there is no such race as the "Malays" to begin with, even if one has since developed in Malaysia. If one follow the original migration of a certain group of southern Chinese of 6,000 years ago, some moved to Taiwan (today's Taiwanese aborigines are their descendents), then to the Philippines and later to Borneo (roughly 4,500 years ago) (today's Dayak and other groups). These ancient people also split with some heading to Sulawesi and others progressing into Java, and Sumatra. The final migration was to the Malayan Peninsula roughly 3,000 years ago. A sub-group from Borneo moved to Champa in Vietnam roughly 4,500 years ago. Interestingly, the Champa group eventually moved to present day Kelantan in Malaysia. There are also traces of the Dong Song and HoaBinh migration from Vietnam and Cambodia. There was also the Southern Thai migration, from what we know as Patani (Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, South Songkhla) today. All these groups share DNA and linguistic origins traceable to Taiwan, if not to southern China. Yet the Malay and Chinese (and also Indian) communities in Malaysia today appear at times at odds with each other given the polarisation caused by various policies under the Bumiputera policy. It is an attempt to explain but using Barnard's work is akin to disputing that Americans or Australians exists since the lands were first populated by the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines respectively.

Even though the Malaysian Malay and Chinese might share a common anthropological rootstock, they are culturally and physically different and easily distinguishable even to a foreigner nowadays. Some attempts to tie the racism in Malaysia to history of the country, have assumed that the friction between Chinese and Malay started since Japanese Occupation of Malaya(1941 - 1945) whereby misunderstanding of that Malays cooperated with the Japanese army. According to this theory, the Chinese population was marginalized behind by Japanese, whereby the Malays were allowed to partially take part in the governing of the country under the Japanese colonialisation then. And with this the seeds of dissatisfaction among Chinese people was started.[2] In addition, one must not forget that the British, who had colonised what is now the Malaysian peninsular starting in 1876, had recognized the Malay states, as recorded by numerous literature by Frank Swettenham, Hugh Clifford and many more of their scholars. It was the British then who brought Chinese initially to work in the tin mines of Malaya, as the country was then known. It is proposed that the British "divide and rule" practice, as evident in their other colonies such as India, is the contributor of the present racism. Under the British, the Chinese were more or less isolated in their tin mining areas. In addition, some Chinese were settled around the major towns while the Malays, had established their own villages. However, upon closer inspection, Mahathir's legacy of "Malay Supremacy" when he is only half-Malay, his father being from Kerala, India, has evidently corrupted racial tolerance and created a chasm cutting through the fabric of Malaysian society. Such exploitation of race and religion for power has shattered the concept of a "Malaysian Malaysia", with talent being lost to foreign countries due to exclusive job opportunities for the Malays.

Presently, Malay is the national language of Malaysia. While it is unique that more than four languages are spoken widely in Malaysia today (English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil), the ethnic languages are mainly used by the ethnic groups respectively. The divide is quite prominent since the Malays mostly attend the Malaysian national schools but the Chinese and also the Indians, have created their own schools, placing importance on their respective languages. Scrutiny, however, reveals that placing the language of one race as the official language of Malaysia merely solidifies the conception that not all languages, and thus cultures, are of equal importance to what constitutes Malaysia.


New Economic Policy[edit]

Government policies of positive discrimination often favour the Malay majority and the Bumiputera status, particularly in areas such as housing, finance and education. Economic policies designed to favour Bumiputera, including affirmative action in public education, were implemented in the 1970s in order to defuse inter-ethnic tensions following the May 13 Incident in 1969.[3] However, these policies have not been fully effective in eradicating poverty among rural Bumiputeras and have further caused a backlash especially from Chinese and Indian minorities. The policies are enshrined in the Malaysian constitution and questioning them is technically illegal.May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. ISBN 9834136765. 

Both major ethnic groups, Malays and Chinese, have their own spheres of control and power. UMNO, a party and the ruling political party since Malaysia's independence from Britain, depends on the majority Malay population for votes by using laws that give Malays priority over other races in areas such as employment, education, finance, and housing. Such policies has been cited in Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia UMNO also promotes ketuanan Melayu, which is the idea that the ethnic Malays or Bumiputeras should get special privileges in Malaysia. Pro-bumiputera Malays claim that The Federation of Malaya Agreement signed on 21 January 1948 at King House by the Malay rulers, and by Sir Edward Gent as the representative of the British government, to let Malays be the leaders among three races. However, this claim is inaccurate. The truth is that upon independence from the British, equality was supposed to be given to the three races who made up the population of Malaysia. Those were the original terms of The Federation of Malaya Agreement, which Dato' Onn Jaafar - then heading UMNO - had looked to abide by. However, since 1951 UMNO has meandered a different course, enshrining the rights of Malays over all other races in law. Today, the Malays dominate in politics at both national and state levels, the civil service, military and security forces. The Chinese have traditionally dominated in the economy and live in large numbers in urban areas of Malaysia.

The Malay-controlled government ensures that all Bumiputras of Malay origin are given preferential treatment when it comes to the number of student places in Government universities, they are also given 7% discounts for new houses, burial plots in most urban areas for the deceased Bumiputeras while the rest have to be cremated at such locations, that all key government positions to be held by Malays including most sporting associations, a minimum of a 30% Malay Bumiputera equity to be held in Listed Companies, full funding for mosques and Islamic places of worship, special high earning interest trust funds for Bumiputera Malays, special share allocation for new share applications for Bumiputera Malays, making the Malay language a compulsory examination paper to pass with such high emphasis given to it.[4]

While the Malaysian government has given special provisions and rights to the Malays through documented legal texts, it has also allowed certain practises by the Chinese community to be practiced according to their religious believes. This is evident to the visitor where Chinese shrines can be seen in parking lots of even shopping malls and every Chinese New Year, despite the country's ban on fireworks, the ethnic Chinese are allowed to burn them.

The lack of meritocracy in the Malaysian education system is a concern, the problem is it creates more disparity between various groups in Malaysia. Even school text books have been criticised as racist especially from Chinese and Indian type school who adopted learning methods from their main land country. "Interlok" is a 1971 Malay language novel written by Malaysian national laureate Abdullah Hussain, with Chinese groups today condemning its depiction of Chinese characters as greedy, opium-smoking lechers keen to exploit Malays for profit. Indian community earlier complained over the novel’s use of the word "pariah". Chinese associations said the book was not only offensive to Indians but Chinese as well, as it depicted the character Kim Lock as a "miserly opium addict and callous adulterer" and his son, Cing Huat, as "cunning, greedy, unscrupulous and someone who would sell his daughters". "‘Interlok’ written based on the ideology of ketuanan Melayu." The groups also condemned the "major thread" in the book, which depicts the Chinese "cheating and oppressing" Malays or as "nasty and immoral" communist guerrillas. The statement was signed by the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH), LLG Cultural Development Centre, Malaysian-China Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Chinese Associations Johor, the Penang Chinese Town Hall and others, including the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) and some Indian organisations.

The battle to uphold the Malay Language as the national language raged on in 1968, Prof al-Attas, as a member of the GERAKAN, engaged in a debate with Lim Kit Siang and the Opposition from the Democratic Action Party (DAP)6 on the subject matter of Indonesian literature being made as part of the corpus of Malay Language literature, and on the idea of a Malaysian Malaysia. Responding towards Lim Kit Siang’s claim that making the Malay Language the national language is racist and chauvinistic, Prof. al-Attas argued that Malays cannot be accused as racist because a Chinese who becomes a Muslim and speaks the Malay Language can be considered a Malay. A Malay, however, can never be a Chinese.[5] By this definition, however, a Malay that renounces Islam is no longer a Malay. Logically, however, this is merely a political ploy to exert dominance over the nation by creating a majority that will consolidate the idea of "Malay Supremacy".

In 2010, a Malaysian court sentenced a Malay to just a week in jail and only fined 11 others for a brandishing a cow’s head during a protest against the construction of a Hindu temple. Critics said the light sentences would further strain race relations between the majority Malay Muslims, who make up the majority, and minority Hindu Indians, Chinese as well as Christians of various races who complain of discrimination. The 12 were from a group who had marched in August 2009 with the bloodied head of a cow, to protest a plan to build a Hindu temple in their mainly Muslim neighbourhood. Hindus, who consider the cow to be a sacred animal, were offended and angered. Such bad practices by the courts also further fuelled the racial polarisation.

For Ramadan 2011, television station 8TV had some advertisements featuring a Chinese woman at a Ramadan bazaar. The condescending advertisements were pulled for being racist and the station was expected to apologise. Instead they claimed Ramadan advertisements were an "intentionally mistake" and went on to claim that the viewers misunderstood the clips. The Ramadan advertisements – released as public service announcements (PSA) – appeared to be stereotyping Chinese people, depicting a socially-inept Chinese woman embarrassing others at a Ramadan bazaar. The clips were withdrawn following an online uproar. Some part of community claims to be "Islamiophobic" especially among Chinese in Malaysia. Quoting Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, the station said in its Facebook note: "It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood. The act clearly shows disrespectful behavioural to Malaysian Muslims community and the religious itself." The PSAs highlighted the clueless behaviour of a Chinese woman played by an actor in scenes to demonstrate what might embarrass Muslim Malay hawkers and bazaar patrons alike. In one instance, the Chinese woman dressed in a sleeveless singlet, proudly showed her armpits, censored by pixels, to passersby while touching a bunch of bananas. Each PSA was soon followed by a moral lesson, advising viewers on good public behaviour. Some of these messages included: "Do not be greedy and eat in public". 8TV said that the PSAs were only meant to serve as messages of "respect" for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and if the publisher really have filtered and gain feedback from Department of Islamic Development Malaysia(JAKIM), there would be no such issue happened.

See also[edit]



James Chin, The Malaysian Chinese Dilemma: The Never Ending Policy (NEP), Chinese Southern Studies (2008)

Additional source[edit]