May 13: Navigating our ethnic co-existence

Written by Dr Lim Teck Ghee   (CPI Asia)

Today, on May 13 which is the anniversary of the blackest day in our country’s history, I will be one of six presenters at a dialogue organized by OHMSI at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies in Kuala Lumpur.

Titled ‘The challenge of forging unity in Malaysia’, the objective of the dialogue is to create a civil society initiative to work towards a common ground of unity in thought and deeds.

The power point presentation I am providing to the meeting is reproduced here. Although the presentation is summarized in point form, readers should be able to grasp the enormous challenges that we face in becoming a united people – challenges within ourselves as well as from without.

There is no magic bullet or quick fix to resolve the contentious issues of race and religion. There is only a steadfast rejection of the dogmas and policies of racial and religious insecurity, envy and hatred, and the putting into practice in our own lives the norms of equality, fair play, understanding and respect in our relations with fellow Malaysians.

CPI note: We welcome reader feedback should you require clarification or elaboration on the notes which are in point form below. Just leave a comment in the box.

The challenge of forging unity in Malaysia

Two key challenges

* Fighting the rising consciousness of racism within each of us (and amongst families, friends and ‘foes’)
* Fighting the system of education and larger sociopolitical system that allows racism to thrive

Fallacies in ideology of racism

* Differences between races are innate and not subject to change
* On basis of genetic inheritance, some ‘racial’ groups are innately superior or inferior to others
* Public policy should reflect this understanding of human bio-cultural variation

Facts on race/ethnicity and religion

* Diversity of ethnic groups: Orang Asli, Sabah and Sarawak natives, Malaysian Thai, Eurasians, Europeans, Arabs, Indonesians, Filipinos, from Indian sub-continent.
* Large range of religious affiliation
* Great linguistic diversity
* Race/ethnicity has no biological basis – it is a socio/cultural and political construct

Need for reliable social information

* What is officially depicted and what is reality: e.g. in religion
* Is Malaysia a Malay/Muslim majority country?


Folk religion
Christian     8%
Buddhist     7%
Other      6%

Faces of Malaysia

* Malaysia as an instant, ‘truly Asia’ showcase – multiracial, cultural harmony (this view is for tourist consumption)
* Malaysia as cauldron of racial tension and conflict – needs to be carefully managed and subject to Malay/Umno’s final approval or there will be chaos (this view is for local consumption)

What’s the true story on ethnic relations?

* Is it improving; getting worse; stagnating?
* What sectors of ethnic relations are problematic? Education, economy, social, religious?
* What can be done to overcome ethnic tension? At individual /group/state level?
* Role of key actors in managing ethnic relations?

My view of ethnic relations in Malaysia

* Deterioration in past 30 years
* Tension primarily between Malays and non-Malays; Muslims and non-Muslims
* Less tension between the East Malaysian natives and immigrant communities
* Class differences and conflicts are manipulated to reemerge as ethnic conflict
* At same time, growth of ethnic group consciousness that has a strong emotive content, dividing individuals and communities into ‘us’ versus ‘them’

What are stumbling blocks to harmonious ethnic relations?

* Narrow nation-building perspective: national language, national culture, national costume, etc
* State policies based on differentiation between ‘pendatang’ (immigrants) and Malays/Bumiputeras
* Focus on ‘Bangsa, agama dan negara’
* Growth of ethnic group markers and ethnic consciousness arising from Barisan Nasional policies and politics

Ethnic Relations: the good side

* Some integration and convergence in culture and lesser importance attached to ethnic identity and consciousness –esp. visible from East Malaysia
* Some moderate or reformist Muslims (Sisters in Islam) speaking out against state dominance and religious orthodoxy
* Cultural activists seeking to advance pluralist forms and messages
* A growing, better educated and informed middle class and stake in nation’s survival
* Most Malaysians are generally tolerant, accept the plurality of cultures, way of life, etc. and are not stressed out from our ethnic co-existence

Ethnic relations: the bad and ugly

* Failure to establish inter-faith dialogue is a major discouraging development – misunderstanding breeds on lack of contact and ignorance; understanding grows in proportion to the frequency of contact
* Role of extremist mass media in instigating racial and religious envy, insecurity and hatred
* Extremist and mainstream politicians: manipulation of ethnic and religious politics

Ethnic relations: What lies ahead

* Malaysia will never be a melting pot with a homogenous, well-integrated rainbow community
* We will continue to be a very diverse country with many multicultural differences and sensitivities
* Economic imperatives will drive us to work together and minimize our differences but other factors will seek to divide us
* Decoupling of ethnicity from institutionalized politics is necessary for any breakthrough
* Civil service needs to be made more multi-racial in composition, especially at highest levels and to implement race-blind policies
* Stand by a legal system that judges all Malaysians uniformly and not by any particular ethno/religious standards (importance of Subashini / Moorthy cases), we should not do to others what we do not want others to do unto us

Education leading to tolerance

* Stop negative views of other ethnic groups and religions
* Speak respectfully of other ethnic groups and religions, this applies esp. teachers and religious teachers
* Encourage children to have contact with those from other ethnic/religious groups
* Organise common social and cultural activities
* The young should be taught that modern societies are pluralistic and to cope positively with this pluralism
* Religious instruction to include sensitivity towards those from other religions, esp. those who are exploited or cannot defend themselves, and towards universal shared values

Do SRJKs (vernacular schools) stand in way of unity?

* Reality check – no empirical data showing that they are breeding grounds of racial consciousness more than other institutions of the national system
* We cannot abolish them – see statistics*
* We must work towards integrating them and treating them fairly through non-discriminatory policies – see UN Special Report, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Muñoz Villalobos Mission To Malaysia’
* Our education system must be completely overhauled to remove all elements of racial/cultural/political bias – especially in management and curriculum

Who are responsible for where we are


* Ruling government
* The policymakers and implementers in the civil service


* Business elites
* Professional elites
* Intelligentsia (media, academia, etc)

Denial syndrome

Deeply ingrained in Malaysia’s political culture is a remarkable propensity to shy away from the truth, to cover up, to run for cover, to resist the impulse for accountability (It’s Alice in Wonderland again: “The more things change, the more they remain the same – and get worse.”) C’est la vie!

Factors accounting for denial/feel-good culture

* Prevalence of sycophancy/‘bodekism’
* Rise of professional apologists for the system
* Culture of fear and apathy deeply embedded
* Enormous reach of power structure to ensure compliance and passivity
* Cronyism; handouts; subsidies
* Subservient and manipulated media

Final thoughts

* We are all in the same boat
* If Malays prosper, so will non-Malays and vice versa
* Need to have room/encourage different views, dissent and opposition
* Resources are depleting

Time is not on our side, world moves on!


* Growth in school, Number and students in various schooling streams, 1970-2004, Sources: MOE reports 1970, 2004; Dong Zong school survey 2004; The Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia, Transforming the Nation: A 20-year Plan of Action, Kuala Lumpur 2010


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: