Stereotyping and Prejudice

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					The ‘typical’ Malaysian Indian
Viknesh Jayapalen 22 January 2007

Part I

Stereotyping and Prejudice
I recall many years ago during my attachment with the state athletics team, I collected numerous sports memorabilia from Perak, who had shamelessly splashed all their sporting apparel with bright yellow. I would proudly wear a bright yellow tee bearing the words ‘Perak’ written in bold across the back, but I began to realise that I was turning heads in my direction for the wrong reasons. I was a little bemused until an Indian friend commented in disgust that I looked like a ‘typical’ Indian. A little apprehensively I asked her in return to describe what a ‘typical’ Indian would look like. Her answer was: “Greasy hair smelling of coconut oil, shabbily dressed in bright coloured clothing that could probably blind you if you stared long enough, foul mouthed, looking scruffy and dirty.” I laughed and shrugged of her words, but I never wore my bright yellow tee outdoors afterwards. Skip a few years; during a visit to my former college during its alumni weekend, I was most unfortunate to be caught by a former teacher 1 whilst playing sports, not looking my usual best: dressed in a dirty cap, a worn out tee and shorts. His first words to me at our reunion were, “You look like you came straight out of the estate,” which I presumed was referred to the ‘typical’ Malaysian Indians who in masses used to live in estates under the British rule. It took me a while to appreciate that there was not a hint of malice in his words, but only misplaced humour by drawing comparison to a ‘typical’ Indian. The word ‘typical’ itself is defined as, ‘of the nature of, or serving as a type, or representative specimen; distinctive or characteristic’. Taking the term ‘typical Indian’ and translating this into statistics 2 would be the equivalent of a scatter of characteristics, around a defined
1 2

who was also a good friend accepting that ‘typical’ meant a representative specimen


set of racial stereotypes towards Indian which serves as a mean (or median) sample of the given Malaysian Indian population. Simply put, the term ‘typical Indian’ when used to describe a certain pattern of behaviour 3 or character refers to the fact that it is consistent with their stereotypes and views of the general Malaysian Indian population; a pattern which they recognize and pertain to the average Malaysian Indian. I acknowledge that racial stereotypes are inevitable in any given multiethnic society, even more so in Malaysia where ethnic ties are constantly at friction with each other. Whilst these stereotypes may not necessarily be true, it provides us with a crude idea on how a particular race is viewed or perceived by the others, regardless if it is justified or not. There are many explanations and theories behind why stereotypes exist. I choose to highlight two which I believe are relevant in most cases in Malaysia: 1. to predict the social world by which one accumulates several distinctive characteristics of a number of individuals belonging to a particular group, and then projects these views into a broader generalized picture of what one perceives or expects this group to be. 2. is the ‘in-group favourability bias’ which by belonging to a particular group, one believes that he/she is part of group that one views positively, and the others (out-groups) negatively; a phenomenon (closely related to ethnocentricity) that is observed predominantly in groups that lack social mobility e.g. the divided multi-ethnic Malaysia in its early years. The need of the ability to predict the social world is easy to understand. It dictates our approach in social situations at the most basic level; the way one talks, dresses, behaves in front of a particular type of audience. This can be achieved by numerous ways, such as experience of encounter or more significantly imposed beliefs by an influential person such as parents, family or close friends. Erving Goffman (1959) wrote: “when an individual enters the presence of others they commonly seek to acquire information about him or bring into play information already possessed information about the individual helps to define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and they may expect of him” The ‘in-group favourability bias’ is somewhat more subjective. In Malaysia (and Malaya alike) whilst ethnic mixing is common, it does not necessarily reflect on the harmony of these ties. Inter-ethnic tensions are well known and intra-ethnic groups tend to gel together much more willingly. However, when comparing an individual (regardless of ethnicity) who mixes freely with other races against another who does not, do they both hold the same stereotypes against other races?

usually undesirable


According to A. Rabushka, who researched stereotypes in Malaya they both should do. In his paper titled ‘Racial Stereotypes in Malaya’ in 1971, he concluded that stereotypes are invariant and independent of social interaction. Rabushka argues that ethnic mixing does not alter one’s perception of an ‘out-group’ and display distinct beliefs of members of other ethnic groups, whilst acknowledging that this may not necessarily affect social or political behaviour. Here Rabushka defines the fine line between prejudice and actual discrimination which may be a difficult concept to grasp. Anthony Giddens a leading social theorist defines prejudice as: “opinions or attitudes held by members of one group towards anotherpreconceived views are often based on hearsay rather than on direct evidence, and are resistant to change even in the face of new information” Whereas discrimination is defined as: “the actual behaviour towards another group or individual by making a distinction in favour for or against based solely on the group in which one belongs to...” But there is much reason to doubt Rabushka’s conclusions in view of more recent psychosociological research on stereotyping between ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. It is simply common sense that an individual who spends more time together with an ‘out-group’ will be able to experience by encounter and gauge accordingly if any of his/her preconceived stereotypes hold and discard any stereotype should they prove false. But what if they are true? Are these stereotypes then retained? To explore this, I scourged the internet, literature and even took the liberty to conduct a quick survey amongst friends on their views of the ‘typical’ Indian. I must admit that I was nowhere near elated with the pattern that began to emerge from my ‘research’. The internet and existing literature generated a long list of negative stereotypes. My quick survey drew an immediate almost apologetic opening from most respondents, as though to warn me of unpleasantness and to prep me for their opinions before generating the already familiar long list of negatives. I list down some the negative stereotypes regarding the ‘typical’ Indian that I encountered to provide readers with what I believe is a true snapshot picture of what people think of the Malaysian Indian population in general, in no particular order: “passive, non-competitive, smelly, hairy, snaky, uneducated, gangsters, drunks, class/caste based, just the type of guys who you would expect to disturbs/harass the girls, pitiful, lazy, involved in petty crimes, way behind the Chinese/Malays in economic terms” 3

I also choose to quote a selected excerpt from Peter J. Wilson from, ‘A Malay village and Malaysia’, 1967: “In general, villagers seem to regard Indians as people to laugh about: the blackness of skin, hairiness, and skinny men and fat women seemed to amuse them most Village men and women alike object to, and find most peculiar, the smells associated with Indians. Most Indian stores have an incense stick burning, and there is often blended in with this the smell of scent. The smell of Indian cooking seems characteristic to Malay villagers, to whom the body smell of Indians is also oppressive. A major reason given by villagers for not travelling on a bus at night is that the smell of Indians is so strong But whereas the Chinese are ritually or mystically dirty, Indians are considered squalid” John Crawfurd 4 , a former colonial administrator in Malaya also wrote: “with respect to their intellectual faculties, the Indian islanders may be pronounced slow of comprehension, but of sound, though narrow judgement it must be confessed that an Indian islander of the best capacity is unequal, in most respects to an individual not above mediocrity in a civilized community”

Part II

An Explanation
T reading along the lines of racism, can we consider it possible that these ‘negatives’ can be accounted for by the genetic composition of Malaysians of Indian ethnicity? Surely not; a phenotype of any given individual is utterly impossible to predict even if given a fixed genome. I believe that the genome of the Indian population is in no way defective or even inferior to of any other race population in this world, and there are many outstanding Indian individuals who can testify to that claim. This underlines the importance of nurture over nature within the varying environments one is subjected to. Therefore if these stereotypes on Malaysian Indians are true, they indefinitely must be of a direct consequence of a complex environmental-nurture component revolving around the majority of Malaysian Indians. The role of religion and culture are hugely traditional and are of grave importance to many Malaysian Indians. These have been embedded deep into the nurture of most members of the Malaysian Indian community in Malaysia. Unfortunately, a by-product of this traditionalism is the concomitant conservatism that exists amongst the Malaysian Indian community. Globalisation has increased the boundaries of social interaction and allowed the influx of different cultural and religious elements. In order to survive within the era of globalisation
John Crawfurd has often described the Malay Archipelago as the Indian Archipelago, and therefore the term ‘Indian Islanders’ in his writings may potentially be a misnomer and could possibly be a reference to the Malay race. Or perhaps he was actually referring to the Indian race? I make the assumption in my text, that the term ‘Indian Islanders’ was in reference to the Indian race (perhaps at my own folly).


with a mind to protect ones own traditionalistic values, one can only do so by adopting a conservative mindset. I hypothesize that many conservative Malaysian Indian families are unwilling to actively engage in social mobilization as this largely remains the only way they know to impose and instil their cultural and religious beliefs into their children and simultaneously warding of cultural ‘pollution’. Whilst this often guarantees the traditional continuum that by large the conservative Malaysian Indian hopes for, it comes at a cost of falling behind their contemporaries. The end-result is a closed-community who is nave to the evolution of modern society and ultimately the reality that surrounds them. The conservatism of Malaysian Indians can account for (to a certain degree) their marginalization in Malaysia. They have failed to evolve sufficiently to allow the community to thrive. Taking this into context of stereotyping, many Malaysian Indians now have failed to keep up with their counterparts of other ethnicities, and now struggle to even ‘fit-in’ leading to alienation when thrown into the fray of a mixed group. Therefore, their only option of maintaining viability within the mixed group is via forming a ‘clique’ and hence the ‘out-group’. However the Malaysian Indian conservatism in not the sole contributory factor to basis of these negative stereotypes. Years of living under difficult discriminatory conditions have lead to the inability of the general Malaysian Indian community to engage in modernization effectively. The Economist in an issue on February 2003 published that 60% of urban squatters and 41% of beggars in Malaysia are Indian. Economically, the national equity holdings of Malaysian Indians are significantly low relative to the proportion of the Malaysian Indian population in Malaysia, and there is much reason to believe that there is a huge intra-group variation in individual earnings as demonstrated by Perumal (1979) and Snodgrass (1980) which showed that the median earning of Malaysian Indian household decreased from RM228 (1957/58) to RM192 (1970) and was lower that the mean income of the Malaysian Indian population; a phenomena not observed with the other races in Malaysia. Critics may rightly observe that the household earnings of Malaysian Indians were at the time higher than of the Malays. But this was prior to the implementation of the NEP, and assuming these trends continued combined with the policies of the NEP, there is every reason to believe that the Malaysian Indian population is relatively ‘poorer’ now. The level of education amongst Malaysian Indians is also on a decline. The employment of Malaysian Indians in most occupational fields, namely professional and technical workers declined between the periods 1970 to 1995. University intake percentages of Malaysian Indian students have also experienced a drop from 10% in 1970 to 5.2% in 2003. Malaysian Indians students also have the highest dropout rates in the country when compared to the other races 5 .

although literacy rates are still highest amongst Indians at 89% according to a UN report in 2002


There are numerous other statistics to quote to prove the marginalization of Malaysian Indians as a direct consequence of discriminatory national policies and inappropriate distribution of opportunities and wealth. But I believe that I have underlined that with simply the two examples I have provided above: education and economics. Without any active intervention, via means of extrapolation there is no doubt that these figures will continue to deteriorate and by no means of choice, the average Malaysian Indian will find himself excluded from the general population as an ‘out-group’, which ties in nicely with the theories I proposed regarding the origin of stereotypes of the ‘typical’ Malaysian Indian. The more difficult task lies in scrutinizing these stereotypes and understanding the foundations on which they lie on. Here I hope to offer a few explanations for some of the stereotypes that are most prevalent and commonly encountered: 1 Indians dress in bright colours and often look mismatched. Indians have always associated bright colours with good fortune; an esoteric significance of light in Hinduism as opposed to darkness/dim colours which is associated with barriers, ignorance, misfortune or evil. The aesthetic appreciation of bright coloured clothing is almost unique to the Malaysian Indians and does not necessarily appeal to what mainstream fashion dictates: that bright colours and a dark complexion do not always match well. However, combined with the Malaysian Indian conservatism, indulging in mainstream fashion to appeal to the general population is less important compared to cultural symbolism that these colours represent. 2 Indians look and smell funny. The cosmetics industry is undoubtedly experiencing huge growths in market in terms of demand despite the ballooning inflation. The increasing cost of cosmetics is far beyond what the average Malaysian Indian can afford. Therefore many Malaysian Indians eventually end up relying on cheaper tried and tested traditional cosmetic remedies such as Shikakai, Turmeric, Coconut oil, Attars and Henna that have passed on through numerous generations. These products however are hugely unpopular amongst other groups of people who remain unfamiliar with its uses, application and even scent. I believe this unfamiliarity is the basis of the stereotype that Indians look and smell funny. But do consider: would anyone use Attar perfume if they could afford a Dolce and Gabbana? 3 Indians are gangsters. There are statistics to show that Malaysian Indians make up a huge proportion of arrests made by the police demonstrating a high crime rate associated with Malaysian Indians. But I believe this correlates quite nicely with the fact that these proportion of Malaysian Indians are also amongst those who live in areas of deprivation. The combination of poverty, poor education and lack of accessibility to opportunities are well established reasons for high crime rates in any given population irrespective of ethnicity. It is no mere coincidence that Malaysian Indians have been stereotyped as delinquents; not by choice, but instead as a consequence of marginalization. The 6

high crime rate amongst Malaysian Indians, I believe is merely a crude measure of the poor living conditions and quality of life that many Malaysian Indians suffer. Furthermore, let me remind readers that the crimes that are these Malaysian Indians are arrested for are usually petty crimes involving the under-educated population of Malaysian Indians. What if we measure crime rates amongst the well-educated population? What if we measure crimes rates for those involved in white-collar offences, organized crime, corruption, money laundering, piracy, loan sharks, assault, and sexual abuse/assault? I admit that Malaysian Indians heavily contribute to the numbers of petty crime rates, but we must understand there are examples of more serious offences to which there is less association with the Malaysian Indians and perhaps more closely linked to other ethnic races. 4 Indians are drunks. Alcohol problems in often described as solely an ‘Indian issue’. However examining most of the researches that has come to this conclusion will reveal the methodology used to sample participants was based on the hospital seeking behaviour of individuals in urban hospital settings. This therefore leads to an over-sampling of lower income urban groups; mainly the Malaysian Indians. Projecting the findings of these restricted researches onto the general Malaysian population is not plausible and fundamentally flawed. As a matter of fact, the Chinese are the largest consumers of beers 6 and distilled spirit; the high-end products of the alcohol market. Whereas, most Indians can only afford ‘samsu’ or toddy, most of it which are illegally brewed and potentially dangerous. Whilst I admit that the numerous researches has demonstrated that Malaysian Indians of mainly lower income groups contribute to a huge chunk of alcoholic problems in urban Malaysian hospitals, it has proved little otherwise. Without obtaining a larger and more representative sample of the general population and stratifying the results for ethnicity and income groups, the generalization that Malaysian Indian are mostly drunks and that it is solely an ‘Indian issue’ is unjust. At the risk of being accused of denying reality, I stand firm that I am not offering excuses for the condition that the Malaysian Indians exists in, but instead providing reasons and arguments for readers to understand the nature of some of the negative stereotypes, why they exists, the origin of these stereotypes and whether or not they are true. More so, is the importance to appreciate that some of these stereotypes are unfair or misunderstood, and ultimately have created barriers towards the integration of Malaysian Indians with the other races. The lists of stereotypes, explanations and theories behind all these are limitless and I acknowledge the numerous limitations and constraints that lie in my text. What I hope to achieve is to educate readers into understanding that the ‘typical’ Malaysian Indian is a

Carlsberg estimates that 80% of its customers are Chinese


product of subjugation by his own conservatism and socio-economic marginalization. Therefore the next time you encounter the derogatory term ‘typical Indian’, please question, be it with yourself or others, the appropriateness of the context in which it was used in, with a view of the arguments that I have presented above. Things may not always seem to be as straightforward as they appear to be.


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