Racial Discrimination In Contemporary Malaysian Culture

As a Malaysia citizen, I would like to dedicate this essay to discuss an element of contemporary Malaysian culture which I have been extremely interested in, namely racism.

Malaysia, well-known for its multiracial society comprising of Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups, has long traded on its reputation as a uniquely culturally diverse, yet harmonious nation. However, the reality does not actually match the rhetoric. In fact, Malaysia has long dealt with racial tensions between its Malay majority and sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian communities. The ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has for decades provided economic advantages to Muslim Malays to the exclusion of minorities. Malaysian government policies of positive discrimination often favor the Malay majority and the Bumiputera status, in various areas such as education, finance and housing.

Racism and racial discrimination have been implemented with impunity since the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1971. Malaysia’s affirmative action has always been taking the form of reservations for Bumiputeras in various areas, such as quotas for public sector employment and public education institutions. For instance, in the education sector, all Bumiputeras of Malay origin are preferentially offered with student places in government universities, resulting in a certain number of Chinese and Indians having to study in private universities. Furthermore, the Article 153 in the Malaysian Federal Constitution also allows a certain proportion of scholarships, training privileges and business permits to be reserved for Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak. The Article 153 has since then been wrongly misinterpreted as the justification of special provision to only protect the rights of the Malay ethnic group, especially in policies and practices of business.

From my perspective, I believe that the culture of racism in Malaysia has remained stable over the past decades. Racism appears to be entrenched among Malaysians. The way I see it, racism remains stable in its nature, as can be easily identified from various aspects in which racism manifests. However, rather disappointingly, it shows an increasing trend in the Malaysian society in recent years. I based my conjecture mainly on the contents of the annual “Malaysian Racial Discrimination Report”, as compiled and prepared by Pusat KOMAS Malaysia, which have been summoned more than 10 times since the 1990s. The Malaysia Racial Discrimination Report highlights the alarming trends of racism in Malaysia.

Racism continues, alarmingly in an upward trend, which is mainly attributed to the prevailing culture of racial politics which have been practiced and exploited by different parties of the political spectrum in Malaysia since its Independence in 1957. Every party is either mono-racial or dominated by one race or another. Politics in Malaysia have long been race-based with political parties on both sides of the divide especially by the ‘Barisan Nasional’ (National Front) Government using race and racial issues and sentiments to maintain their power and controlling their constituencies and the voters. Such divisive practices have pitted against Malaysians from different races. The practice of racial politics persists, as reflective in the 14th General Elections in 2018. Even with “New Malaysia”, leaders of political parties of the 14th General Elections have continued to resort to using race as a political tool to win support from the members of their constituency. Racism has remained and become more pronounced, as it is increasingly being utilized as a tool to “divide and rule” the country.

Malaysian Racial Discrimination Reports from 2015 to 2018 also show that groups, agencies, and individuals seem to be free to make provocative racial statements in the name of protecting the rights of their own races, especially those made by pro-Malay rights groups such as PERKASA and ISMA. The lack of enforcement and actions by Malaysian authorities against groups and agencies that practiced racial discrimination shows that the government continues to condone racism, allowing racism and racial discrimination to remain in the society.

Importantly, a recent incident that occurred at the end of 2018 has illustrated another spike of racism in Malaysia, with the government back-pedaling on its decision to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The Leaders of Islamist party, PAS, and the former Malay ruling party UMNO and conservative groups, had claimed that ICERD ratification would threaten the rights of Malays, as it would require amendment of Article 153 of the Federal Constitution on the special position of Malays. The warping of Article 153 resulted in a backlash from certain segments of the Malay community against ICERD ratification, fearing that it could strip away privileges for majority ethnic Malays, and threaten Islam's position as the official religion. While lawyer after lawyer has clarified that the convention needs not affect the Malaysian constitution at all, and is in no way endangers Islam or the Malays, politicians from the newly-elected Coalition of Hope government, cautious not to alarm the substantial portion of the Malaysian electorate, eventually abandoned their plan to ratify the ICERD, without giving reasons. The decision not to ratify the ICERD yet provided another indication that the government of Malaysia condones racism and racial discrimination, which is already in an alarming trend.

These reports are similar in showing an increasing trend of racism, which is particularly prevalent in areas such as education, employment, and welfare. The reports showed that incidents of racism and racial discrimination in these areas have increasingly surfaced over the years, which cannot be described in details within the scope of this essay. In short, racism and racial discrimination in Malaysia have manifested in various aspects, especially pertaining to the policy and practices. Therefore, due to the racial preferences embodied within the social and economic policies of the Malaysian government since its Independence, racism has emerged, and since then remained stable as a cultural element in Malaysia, and even worse, increased with years.

In my opinion, there are two mechanisms of cultural dynamics that are mainly at play, namely social transmission and selection process. Approaching cultural dynamics using neo-diffusionist, I believe that the culture of racism in Malaysia involves social transmission or diffusion of cultural information within a population. Cultural information are socially transmitted, particularly via the Internet and social media nowadays. The social media platforms have provided easier avenues for widespread expression of provocative racial sentiments and hate speech, demonstrate the entrenched racism among Malaysians. People often make racially discriminatory statements that criticize a particular race based on their own racial prejudgments and stereotypes, resulting in improper and incorrect impression of another race. Furthermore, since languages potentially perpetuate racism and racial discrimination, and word embedding reflect the temporal dynamics in a society’s ethnic stereotypes, social media could appear as a corpus for word embedding of racism and racial discrimination, where people make provocative racial statements in the guise of anonymity. Cultural information socially situate within broader social networks, and communicability is positively associated with information diffusion. When everyone of the same race agrees about certain beliefs about another race, social transmission of these beliefs and information becomes a mechanism for cultural maintenance and change. Therefore, social transmission through the Internet and social media platforms allows racial prejudgments and stereotypical information about other races to be communicated and transmitted, propagating the negative sentiments between different races, and increases racism.

Next, it seems to me that the selection process could also be at play. Culture acts as an adaptation device. Therefore, I would suggest that the culture of racism in Malaysia involves adaptation to social and psychological environments. Racism, particularly among Malays, may arise because it allows adaptation to social environment in which economic competition or intergroup threats exist. Malays are primarily concerned and worried about losing power or their status being affected if Chinese or other races take over the control. Therefore, the fear and insecurity felt by the Malay community over any disparity in status and power create existential issues and anxiety which configure challenges in their psychological environment. Hence, racism may emerge, maintain, or continues to increase, as a cultural adaptation to these challenges in social and psychological environments. In brief, from my personal perspective, both social transmission and selection process play a reasonably significant role in the cultural dynamics of racism in Malaysia.

To conclude, it is imperative to note that this essay is certainly not exhaustive and does not cover the whole spectrum of racism in Malaysia and its cultural dynamics. It is also imperative to note that every race could experience racism in different aspects, which could not be entirely covered in this paper. It may seem rather intriguing for me, a Malaysian to talk about racism when we have just celebrated the country’s 62nd independence on 31 of August. Nevertheless, what I wish to express is that while I do take pride as being a Malaysian, I certainly think that all Malaysians deserve better.

09 March 2021
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