Malaysia continues to grapple with waning race relations

by | Mar 15, 2024 | NATIONAL, NEWS, Opinions | 0 comments


Mei Ling and Swee Lan (not their real names) huddle together in the cafeteria of their national type Malaysian government secondary school in an urban setting in Kuala Lumpur gobbling down the last morsels of their food during morning recess.

These Malaysian Chinese schoolgirls are surrounded by fellow Chinese students and about ten metres away are seated Malaysian Indian students rambling among themselves in their Tamil lingo while in another section of the cafeteria are Malay students grouped together.

When the bell rings to indicate that recess is over Mei Ling and Swee Lan together with other Chinese students trudge into their classroom and the Indians and Malays also group together in pockets of seats distinctly separated by race.

When queried why they are racially separated, a Malay student pointedly stated “I don’t go to Chinatown” in reference to the group of Chinese students seated together in the class and he further remarked that the Indian students belonged in a world of their own.

The advent of racism in Malaysia

On August 31, 1957, Malaysia (back then called Malaya) received ‘Merdeka’ (the Malay word for independence) from the departing British colonialists from whom the three major races of the nation, the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians fought together for independence.

The Prince, or Tunku Abdul Rahman became the first prime minister of Malaysia and he was affectionately referred to as ‘Bapa Kemerdekaan’ (Malay for the Father of Independence) and the Malays, Chinese and Indians endeared themselves to him.

Back then camaraderie among the Malays, Chinese and Indians was good and race relations was at a healthy level but things began to turn sour when the Chinese started to dominate the economy much to the chagrin of Malays who were not competitive enough.

This led to the May 13, 1969 race riots and ouster of Abdul Rahman and the deception and cunning of Tun Abdul Razak witnessed him grabbing power and declaring himself as the second prime minister of Malaysia.

Razak was a Malay chauvinist and racist and he made sweeping changes to draw the Malays on par with the Chinese and Indians by hastily implementing the thirty-year New Economic Policy (NEP) from 1970 to 2000 which was an affirmative action policy to uplift the status of ‘Bumiputras’.

Bumiputras or indigenous people largely consisted of Malays but to give it an authentic sheen, the tribal people of Sabah and Sarawak, those of Portugese descent and aborigines were classified in this group.

The NEP stoked racial tensions

During the duration of the NEP, there was much abuses and wrongs suffered by the minority races of Chinese and Indians who had to sacrifice and give way to Bumiputras in all spheres of lives thus suffering much oppression in the process.

Democracy was severely compromised as Abdul Razak shuttered down on its vital tenets and obligations such as fair play, justice and meritocracy which witnessed the migration of hordes of Chinese and Indians over the years.

Those who did not flee had to put up with much suppression, and as Bumiputras were accorded special rights and privileges, which prevails to this day, it embroiled the Chinese and Indians in anger and resentment towards the Malays.

Once the NEP expired, it was replaced with a similar affirmative action policy called the Bumiputra Economic Model and when this finished its course a Bumiputra Empowerment Agenda Council was put in place which is still in effect.

Malaysia watchers and the international community commented that these policies should really be the Never-Ending Policies or the actual NEP and remarked that it resembled the apartheid policies practised in South Africa in the past.

In the final analysis, these affirmative action policies did nothing much to uplift the status of the majority of Bumiputras who continue to languish behind the Chinese and Indians and it only served to create pockets of Malays who became super rich and today form the elite in Malaysia.

These affirmative action policies were a massive failure as it spawned corruption, cronyism, collusion and nepotism to establish elitism where a fraction of the population hold sway over nearly 70 percent of the population who have difficulty buttering their bread.

Racial Polarization

Up to the end of last year, Malaysia had a population of nearly 34 million people and for every two Malays there is one Chinese while the Indian population dropped to a dismal 7 percent compared to the turn of the century when they made up 15 percent of the people of Malaysia.

Many Malaysians continue to emigrate in a steady, slow stream, and now not just the Chinese and Indians but Bumiputras as well who are beginning to realise that they have been made use of to keep the elite in this country sitting pretty.

Racial disharmony is best witnessed in this country in schools, colleges and universities which was highlighted in the alternative media and even decent, right thinking and fair minded Bumiputras are calling for an end to racial politics.

Both sides of the political divide have politicians playing the race card when they want to divide and rule the people and a better educated and better-informed Malaysian populace are against the use of race and religion by politicians.

As an example, the bid by Malay rights groups, Islamic extremists and lunatic fringe groups to force the government to close down vernacular or Chinese and Tamil schools have many Malaysians riled up. But they were disallowed to appeal decisions made by the lower courts by the Federal Court.

While the move by these parties have been twice thrown out by competent lower courts in the country, they are hell bent on wanting to see Chinese and Tamil schools close as they jealously feel that these schools actually offer a superior education to government and Islamic schools.

 A conundrum of toxic politics

Independent analysts and commentators feel that the blame for race relations being on the wane in Malaysia should be attributed to the role politicians of all stripes play in using not just race but religion to fulfil their personal agenda.

These experts contend that there is a growing number of self-seeking and self-serving politicians that are actually rogues who have destroyed the legacy of the British in establishing an excellent education system in the country.

If the education system is in disarray and students receive a poor course of study it is because the system of education is heavily politicised by members of the deep state operating in government to address their own concerns.

These include Islamisation exercises being carried out in schools raising the fears and concerns of non-Muslim students and parents, the use of irrelevant syllabi and subjects and the overall poor standard of teaching.

Malaysia’s blend of toxic politics is not only confined to the education sector but it has permeated every sphere of everyone’s lives in this country that there is a feeling of helplessness that the politics of the day has become an unworthy cause.

While Malaysians throw up their arms in despair and surrender to the workings of politicians elected by a brainwashed voter population those who have not fallen for their ploys are quietly contemplating moves on how to counter this malaise.

But it does seem now like a lost cause and while the emergence of Mr Anwar Ibrahim as the prime minister does offer a ray of hope many Malaysians consider that he has an unenviable task in setting things right once more in Malaysia.

**Christopher Fernandez is an ardent social critic and commentator who has been teaching and writing throughout Asia since 1984


(The views expressed on this opinion is of the writer and not the publisher)