Racism on Malaysia’s Housing Market: How Landlords Get Away with Barring African and South Asian Tenants

Kate Ng, South China Morning Post, January 9, 2018

Anyone who’s had to find a new place to live understands how daunting it can be. Searching for a convenient location, setting up viewings, sifting through paperwork and considering your budget take time and effort.

It gets even more complicated when landlords don’t want tenants of your ethnicity – and you can’t even get a viewing.

In Malaysia, people of African and Indian descent suffer most when it comes to racism in the property market. In June 2016, residents at a condominium complex in Cheras, a municipality outside Kuala Lumpur, made headlines when they put up a banner encouraging landlords to “say no to African people”. The bright red banner also bore the image of a dark-skinned man with a large yellow X across his face.

It read: “ATTENTION! All homeowners and property agents: In accordance with our Internal Housing Law [House Rule Para 20.2(b)], no Africans shall be permitted to rent premises in Pangsapuri Waja with immediate effect.”

The “Housing Law” referred to on the banner is not an actual law, but rather a set of guidelines created by the administration (tenants) in the residential complex. There is no way to regulate these guidelines, because Malaysia does not have anti-discrimination or anti-racism laws in place. The government has no plans to propose such laws any time soon, Prime Minister Najib Razak said late last year.

It’s uncertain how many Africans live in Malaysia, but statistics suggest the number runs into the tens of thousands. The Cheras case wasn’t the first incident of discrimination against African people in the capital. In 2013, residents of a condominium complex in the Subang Jaya district voted during an annual meeting to stop renting units to foreigners from Africa. A memo circulated, stating that the reason for the ban was that people from Africa cause “a lot of nuisance and problems in the community”.

The document said that any homeowner in the complex with an African tenant must evict them within three months of the memo’s date, but it failed to say how the “rule” would be enforced.

Property owners often choose who they want to rent their homes. Thousands of listings on one local property rental site specify that owners are seeking “Chinese only” tenants — or say outright “No Indians”.

Although the principle of equality is included in the Malaysian constitution, the absence of laws against racial discrimination makes it easy for landlords, property owners, and residents to get away with such behaviour.

Malaysian Indians — who comprise about 7 per cent of the country’s population— have frequently found house hunting difficult. Rathika Sheila, 25, recalls her experience when looking for a house with her single mother and two sisters.

“It took about six months to find this place,” she tells the Post. “We’d see a listing online, be really interested to contact the agent or landlord, but then see a disclaimer in the listing that says ‘No Indians’. So we just had to accept it and move on to the next one.”

Sheila, a writer, believes landlords feel they have the right to pick and choose who they lease to due to unpleasant experiences they’ve endured with tenants in the past.

“Bad experiences are obviously just that, but then [landlords] stereotype an entire group of people based on this handful of experiences, and it’s not fair,” she says. “Instead, I think landlords could treat potential tenants the same way an employer would treat a candidate for a job. Perhaps they could have a probationary period. They could put it in a contract that tenants who violate the contract within X number of months will have necessary action taken against them, or something.

“I know that’s not ideal, but it seems better to me than just cancelling out an entire race as potential tenants.”

“More than a couple of agents asked us what races we were. My housemate called one, who proceeded to ask, after being told that I am half-Chinese and half-Indian, whether I looked more Chinese. The agent then went on to ask if I was fair-skinned like a Chinese person, or darker,” she recalls. “Needless to say, we didn’t go any further with that viewing.”

One property agent, who requested anonymity, says they have no choice in the matter if the landlord discriminates along racial lines when leasing out a home.

“It’s not a nice feeling. Sometimes we lie and say the unit is already taken just to get out of it,” he says. “But landlords can ultimately do whatever they want when it comes to choosing tenants, so there isn’t anything we can do.”

Despite Malaysia’s pride in being a multicultural country, human rights NGO Komas compiled 20 pages of incidents in its Malaysia Racial Discrimination Report 2016. Komas – which included the infamous case of discrimination against Africans in Cheras, and that of a Nigerian woman speaking out on Facebook about being discriminated against in her workplace.

Another case was a distasteful parody in which an actress playing internationally known Malaysian singer Yuna bows to another actor in blackface, intended to represent R&B singer Usher (the two artists recorded a song together in 2016).

“This alarming situation should convey a strong message to the government and the Malaysian people that a lot remains to be done in terms of strengthening national unity and social cohesion,” the Komas report concluded.

Last September the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a member of Malaysia’s opposition coalition, called for an anti-discrimination law to be enacted.

Teo Nie Ching, the DAP’s assistant national publicity secretary, said: “A proper equality law or anti-discrimination act will provide a wider range of remedies for discrimination and lead to greater national consistency in anti-discrimination protections.

“We need such a law to provide an important federal symbolic statement about the unacceptable nature of any type of discrimination. This would contribute to ensuring that all persons are treated with dignity and respect regardless of their religion, race, descent, place of birth, or gender.”

But with the prime minister insisting the country has no need for such a law – saying instead that education will be the answer to the nation’s unity problems – it looks as though racism will persist not just in the property market, but also in other aspects of Malaysian life.

Landlords may not have the luxury of rejecting entire racial groups as tenants for long, however, as Malaysia’s housing market is facing an oversupply of high-end properties.

In October, Deputy Finance Minister Johari Abdul Ghani said at a housing and property summit that only 58 per cent of households in Malaysia can afford units in luxury developments. He added that due to a major oversupply, 108,000 of 130,000 new high-end properties remain unsold. This is the largest number of unsold properties in Malaysia in a decade, according to the National Bank.

Ghani added that the trend is particularly noticeable in major residential areas such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Johor, and the problem could lead to a bubble in the domestic housing market. In an attempt to resolve the issue, the government imposed a freeze on development of luxury property developments from November 1, 2017, inclusive of commercial complexes and condominiums valued at more than 1 million ringgit (US$250,000).

This won’t solve the problem, says Simon Chen, vice-president and senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service. Chen wrote in a recent analysis that over the next five years, projects that are already under development will be completed, increasing the oversupply. That means landlords may be forced to become more inclusive out of necessity.

Putting in place and enforcing anti-discrimination laws could also go a long way towards creating a more ethnically inclusive Malaysia. Komas recommends that the Malaysian government ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The UN convention commits members to eliminate racial discrimination. Malaysia is one of 15 countries, including North Korea, which has yet to ratify the convention.

Hon says Malaysians must realise that fanning the flames of racism will get the country nowhere.

“We must hold ourselves responsible. We can’t merely sit around and wait for the government to enforce this law and that,” she says. “Everyday racism is such a big part of our lives, but it doesn’t have to be if we all play our part in eradicating it.”

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