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.
In 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 minority population.
Originally designed 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 other races.
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 trusted”.
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 interaction.
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.
But 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.
The findings have prompted civil-society groups to demand a new ban on all race-based political parties.
“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 political system.
“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 Chinese respondents.
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.
Former 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.
“We 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.
The 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.
A popular 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.
“The survey’s 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.