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									                              ETHNIC RELATIONS IN MALAYSIA:
                                 PROBLEMS AND PROSPECTS1

                                                Sri Rahayu Ismail2,
                                                   Zaid Ahmad3,
                                                Haslinda Abdullah4
                                                 Nobaya Ahmad5


This paper deals with the psychological dimension of ethnic relations in Malaysia. It argues that in
the contest of Malaysia, the psychological elements in most cases translated into negative
perceptions towards others. It manifest in the forms of prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination
that are seen as the most difficult stumbling block. It is crucial to understand those elements in
order to understand the issue better. This paper will also highlight some of the good as well as
sour experiences that the Malaysians have gone through in dealing with the issues of ethnic

1. Introduction

Malaysia is a multi-racial country consisting of the Malays as the major ethnic group, the
Chinese, Indians as well as other minority ethic groups. All these groups live in harmony in
support of unity in diversity. A study on inter-ethnic relations serves to deepen inter-racial
understanding and enrich positive ethnic relations in Malaysia. The need for debate on inter-
racial relations in Malaysia has become increasingly necessary at the current climate due to

  Paper presented in Institutional Panel World Civic Forum Seoul 5-8 May 2009 Korea Convention Centre
  Sri Rahayu Ismail is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Civilization Studies, Faculty of Human Ecology,
University Putra Malaysia e-mail
  Zaid Ahmad is associate professor and Head of The Department of Government and Civilization Studies, Faculty of
Human Ecology, University Putra Malaysia. He was a visiting scholar at The Religious Studies Department, Victoria
University of Wellington, New Zealand in 2003. He is also contributor and co-editor of Inter-Ethnic Relations in
Malaysia: Selected Readings, Serdang: Penerbit Universiti Putra Malaysia, 2006
  Haslinda Abdullah is trained as a psychologist and currently a senior lecturer in the department of Social Science and
  Nobaya Ahmad is Deputy Dean of Academic Affairsin Faculty of Human Ecology, University Putra Malaysia as well
as a lecturer in the department of Social Science and Development.

several factors, foremost being recent incidences that indicate the existence of underlying racial
tension. Even though the scenario is not new to the country as there had been previous
incidences of similar nature historically, there is a general concern that the issue represents a
potential time bomb for the nation.

The availability of various ethnicities and cultures in Malaysia has given rise to a situation
resembling a tug-of-war, where each ethnic group feels a defiant inclination to retain their
individual identities on one hand, yet recognize the need to accept the fact that inter-dependency
is imminent. The issue remains, is multi-ethnicity the sole factor contributing to racial tension?

Most of the previous studies on Malaysian racial relations in the past have focused mainly on
economic and social factors. Some sectors claim that the racial conflict stems from political
leanings; others feel that the main bone of contention among the different ethnicities is due to the
uneven distribution of economic gains (Sanusi Ahmad, 1989). Nevertheless, one important yet
largely neglected aspect of analyzing inter-racial relations is from the psychologicical perspective.
This paper will attempt to delve into the psychological dimension to show that it can oft-times be
a larger source of conflict compared to economic, political or social factors.

In order to establish the conceptual scaffolding in analysing the psychological dimension of inter-
ethnic relations, it is crucial to first elaborate on the fundamental elements and concepts behind
each ethnic make-up. It is important to have a clear grasp of the issue at hand based on cultural,
historical and anecdotal contexts.

2. Malaysian Ethnic Backgrounds
The process of national integration in Malaysia can be anaylsed based on the contact levels
between different ethnic groups. Inter-racial relations in Malaysia remain, at its best, at an
accommodative level, where each ethnic group is aware of each other‟s social norms and values,
yet make a strong stand to defend the erosion of their own culture and livestyles.

The Malaysian multi-racial experience had been one of conflict, competition and cooperation.
Inter-racial conflict was displayed historically in the unfortunate May 13 1969 and 4 May 2001
Kampung Medan incidents; whereas inter-racial competition is apparent in the competitive
struggle for places in national institutes of higher learning due to the quota system. Lastly, inter-
racial cooperation is rule of day especially on political grounds where three different parties, each
representing a major ethnic group, work hand-in-hand for the good of the people (rakyat).

The seed of national integration was planted way back in history, beginning with the Malay
Malacca Sultanate Kingdom. Around the realms of the sixteenth century (1500s), inter-racial
relations were at a harmonious stage, with Indians, Chinese and Arabs living separately yet
keeping constant contact with one another for main purpose of economic returns. Yet, this
contact level which seemed apparently minimal has resulted in the highest level of assimilation
and amalgamation between the ethnic groups, as evidenced by the eventual birth of the Baba
and Nyonya community in Malacca.

Around the seventeenth century (1600s) when the country came under the rule of Western
forces, each ethnic group kept to their own circles, with little influence from the Portugese and
Dutch colonists. However, drastic changes started taking place with the advent of British rule in
the country. Inter-racial tension began to take place following the British implementation of
economic developmental policies based on ethnicities. The Chinese, who traditionally stayed in
the cities carried out businesses and mining, the Malays were told to stay in the villages to
perform farming activities as they had been doing for generations, whereas the Indians were kept
grounded to the rubber and palm oil estates. The „divide and rule‟ policies initiated by the British
resulted in a multi-racial society that is characterized by a wide social divide between races.

During the Emergency insurgency, inter-racial relations improved somewhat, out of an
understanding for the need of cooperation between races. Merdeka or Independence, brought
about strong integration where all major races worked together in a political alliance (Perikatan)
consisting of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) represented by the Malay ethnic
group, the Malaysia Chinese Association (MCA) representing the Chinese and the Malaysia
Indian Congress (MIC) representing the Indians. This cohesive cooperation was born out of the
unifying desire for the same vision, which is to achieve independence. The same cooperative
spirit of nation-building was apparent in the early years of independence, particularly in the years
before and after the formation of Malaysia. During this same period, the Indonesians, under the
leadership of president Soekarno, had launched a confrontation against Malaysia with the war cry
“Ganyang Malaysia”. The possible threat from this outside force created a unifying effect on all
ethnic groups in Malaysia, giving the people a stronger reason for inter-racial cooperation.

This Cooperation and Political Understanding that was established between the races were
severely tested in the 13 May 1969 incident, which now marks a black spot in the history of racial
relations in Malaysia. Today, the incident is recognized as the climax to inter-racial conflict in this

country, which has since resulted in governmental efforts towards national unity and integration
between the countrymen. Some of the policies that were formed for this purpose were the New
Economic Policy (NEP), National Education Policy and National Cultural Policy.

However, many years after the implementation of the New Economic Policy, various quarters had
voiced concern over the apparent failure of the policy particularly in arresting the problem of
poverty and the unequal distribution of economic wealth between the races. This phenomenon
grew into strong prejudices and discomfort between the ethnic groups. By virtue of its nature,
prejudice has the potent power to form dissatisfaction, which could potentially lead to drastic
results. According to the sociological theory known as the Frustration Agression Theory, a
particular ethnic group or individual who is constantly faced with frustration will eventually react
with aggression. This theory cannot be overlooked because the possibility of serious
repercussions resulting from racial tension has the potential of repeating itself.

3. The Psychological Aspect Of Racial Relations In Malaysia
Malaysia is famed for its multi-cultural and multi-racial communities with high levels of tolerance
and respect for one another. However, certain recent incidents threaten to shake the boat of
racial harmony and launch a possible racial riot. The current situation is akin to a smoking
volcano that threatens to spew lava at an unknown time in the near future. The three main ethnic
groups have started to question each other‟s rights, authority and credibility. This would not have
happened if each ethnic group has high levels of understanding, respect and tolerance towards
one another. Psychological aspects such as elements of prejudice and discrimination that are
considered catalysts for racial discord ought to be understood by all levels of society before they
reach astromical levels.

Prejudice or biasness is one major aspect that has contributed to the general sentiments of
discontent among certain ethnic groups in the country. The situation is made worse with further
conflicts that arise out of negative perceptions due to misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge
of another race not our own. Due to simplistic and very likely, inaccurate, information of a
particular ethnic group without considering the realities associated with an individual‟s
background and character, there is a higher possibility of prejudices escalating into aggressive
behaviors and reactions.

When one ethnic group has formed a high level of prejudice towards another ethnic group, it
becomes very difficult to change the negative perceptions although strong facts are presented to

prove their misconception. One becomes more inclined to believe what they are already
ingrained with, and will usually be more susceptible towards new information that reinforces their
negative opinions. The Kampung Medan incident serves as a good example of deep-rooted
prejudice between two main ethnic groups in the country. What resulted was racial riots that
ended in tragedy – several deaths and millions of ringgit for recovery purposes.

Prejudices are usually founded on active support from the surrounding social environment. They
are normally handed down from generation to generation. An individual who is brought up in an
environment that nurtures prejudice will develop strong negative sentiments and prejudices that
are nearly impossible to eradicate. The negative attitudes that have been silently brewing will
manifest themselves when they are faced with a competitor for a desired position or post who
happens to be someone from the prejudiced race. Main ethnic groups in Malaysia such as the
Malays, Chinese and Indians ought to understand the cultural and traditional practices behind
each Malaysian so as to minimize the impact of racial tension that arises out of the ensuing

Prejudice is strongest in an environment where one aspect of human nature, the defensive ego,
is apparent. This happens when one ethnic group or individual feels that their pride or dignity is
being threatened. This feeling of being under threat puts them on the defensive, making them
reject or decline whatever that is being offered from the prejudiced party. In Malaysia, the quota
system for institutes of higher learning is seen to be a suppression of the rights of the other
races. However, a closer and more critical inspection of the system will reveal that this opinion is
largely based on the prejudice of other races towards the Malays. The defensive ego of the other
races makes them see the situation as unfair and inconducive towards the development of
education in the country.

Psychologists have also tried to link personality with prejudice. Adorno et al. (1950) concludes
that prejudice is closely related to another more complicated group of traits termed authoritarian
personality. An individual with a high authoritarian personality tends to regard others in the same
group as the best, whereas individuals in other groups are treated with rejection, opposition or
disdain. Such a mentality will not happen if every individual in Malaysia realises that the strength
and harmony of each ethnic group ought to take precedence over individualistics values.

Discrimination is the end result of a prejudice towards a particular ethnic group. It is defined as a
refusal to provide similar or fair treatment to another group or race who demands equal rights.

This behaviour can manifest itself in various ways, beginning with mild discrimination when an
individual avoids meeting someone for whom he or she is prejudiced against. This can escalate
into the maximum level of discrimination, which involves firing from a job, social seclusion, even
physical abuse that can prove to be fatal.

The multi-racial aspect of Malaysia ought to be taken in the positive light, as prejudices and
discrimination may have serious repercussions for everyone. For most Malaysians,
discriminations towards another race or ethnic group are usually veiled. Open discriminations are
rare unless in situations where individuals feel safe to display their true sentiments. The situation
is apparent in recent incidences, where special attention to a particular ethnic group is seen as
an injustice. This may or may not be true as it is only a perception without taking into account the
entire situation or landscape behind a certain decision.

Both the psychological dimensions that have been discussed in detail earlier, prejudice and
discrimination, are closely related to the concept of stereotypes. A stereotype is a pre-conceived
perception. For instance, there are negative stereotypes associated with a particular ethnic group
that were formed due to negative experiences or socialization. The stereotyped perceptions
attach negative connotations onto that particular ethnic group, giving the general impression that
every one belonging to the group has the same characteristics and values. In short, all these
three are inter-connected: stereotyping (the element of trust), prejudice (the element of defense
and depravation) and discrimination (the element of behaviour).

There are other factors that are believed to stand in the way of Malaysia‟s national integration.
These factors are closely related to communal values and attitudes, such as racism and
ethnocentrism. These two factors are the psychological elements that are mostly influenced by
historical experience, education (whether formal or informal), economic conditions and politics.

Racism is defined as being overly protective of one‟s own ethnic group to the extent of having
negative attitudes or behaviors towards other ethnic groups that could potentially lead to conflict.
In the Malaysian context, this phenomenon is most apparent in business circles, politics and
social settings where each ethnic group only defends the rights of the people in their own ethnic
group. This racist attitude has created a social chasm in the Malaysian society and consequently
caused racial tension.

Ethnocentrism, on the other hand, refers to the belief that one‟s culture is superior to other
cultures. This sense of superiority makes every other culture that is different from one‟s own to
appear wrong, bad and possibly dangerous. Every member of society ought to have a thorough
and positive understanding of the cultures of other ethnic groups in Malaysia because negative
mental thoughts and interpretation are the main causes of an ethno-centric way of thinking.
These phenomenons, although not widespread among the various Malaysian communities,
exists as underlying currents in every individual citizen, eventually posing as roadblocks towards
national integration.

4. Strategies Towards Racial Integration In Malaysia
In Malaysia, there are various unwritten principles that form the backbone behind the attempts for
national integration. Firstly, there is the general consensus that national integration is possible
only when each ethnic group is bound together in the spirit of national unity. Secondly, racial
integration can happen when the economic divide between the races is reduced or totally
eliminated. Thirdly, the establishment and implementation of every national policy whether in the
social, economic, cultural and other aspects must not get in the way of each ethnic group from
their respective endeavours and industries. Fourthly, the principle of give and take among the
leaders of every ethnic group must be the core principle behind the establishment and
implementation of national policies.

5. Cultural Tolerance
Nowhere else in the world is cultural tolerance more important than in a multi-racial, multi-cultural
and multi-religious country like Malaysia. The culture of give and take can be viewed from various
positive perspectives. For instance, while Bahasa Melayu is the national language for all official
purposes, other languages are still being widely used. Similarly, although the Malay culture is
practised widely by the general public in daily living and forms the pillar behind national culture,
the other ethnic groups are free to practise their individual traditions. Besides that, the sharing of
values and joint celebrations during major festivals help bring different races together in a
harmonious relationship.

6. Religious tolerance
Religious tolerance or mutual understanding between religions also forms an important factor in
creating racial integration. Although many believe it is easier said than done and the reality poses
more challenges than seen on the surface, we must nevertheless continue to be optimistic.

The Malay-Muslim community in Malaysia has been on the forefront of religious tolerance as
required of Islam, which is evidenced by the adoption of Midanah city, a multi-cultural society, as
a main reference point. According to the Madinah Constitution that was formed by the Prophet
Muhammad S.A.W, the Jews in the city were permitted to continue their daily lives according to
their own culture and religious creed. The Muslims are continuously being reminded to stay civil
and tolerant towards the non-Muslims as per instructed by Allah S.W.T. The following verse
forms the guideline for the behaviour of Malay-Muslims in their daily interactions with those of
other religions

        And dispute not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere
                                                                        (Surah al-Ankabut (29):46)

As for the Chinese community, they are historically inclined to possess religious tolerance, with
the differing Chinese communities in Mainland China displaying religious tolerance in their socio-
cultural environments consisting of the three main philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and
Buddhism. All three philosophies are harmoniously inter-twined into their daily lives (Geoffrey
Parinder, 1975). In his book Comparative Religion, Drs Sukarji also states the following:
                “In the event that a Confucious believer passes away; his final rites will be
        conducted according to a combination of the three main religions. The family of the
        Confucious believer will prepare the paraphernalia necessary for the funeral. A Buddhist
        monk will recite prayers and religious chantings for the deceased, whereas a Taoist priest
        will determine the location of the burial ground of the deceased.”
                                                                     (Edition II, chap I, pgs 30-31)
The basic understanding here is that religious tolerance has always been an integral part of the
Chinese civilization. As such, the Chinese in Malaysia can practise the same levels of tolerance
in the context of our multi-racial society.

7.      Dialogue
Dialogues between multi-ethnic societies in Malaysia form the perfect platform to promote a
community where harmony and mutual understanding exists. Osman Bakar decribes the role of
dialogue as such:

                  “…to bring different communities together to work for the common good of society
                  inasmuch as they forced by circumstances to live together side by side while
                  subscribing to different spiritual faiths, religious ways of life and political
                                                                              (Osman Bakar, 1997)

Ideally, this approach should be initiated in schools and continuously cultivated through institutes
of higher learning right up to employment stage. However, the use of dialogue to promote inter-
ethnic understanding must be carefully planned so as to avoid racial tension. Participation must
be on an equal basis involving every Malaysian community concerned. What remains top priority
in a dialogue is that participants are open to the differing and sometimes opposing opinions and
concerns of others.

8.     Conclusion
In general, a lot still remains to be done to improve inter-ethnic relations in Malaysia. What has
been discussed in this paper is just a premilary observation of the psychological dimension in
inter-ethnic relations in the country. Psychological factors such as misconceptions, prejudice,
discrimination and others ought to be tackled early and appropriately. The innate desire for the
formation of 1Malaysia with a distinctly individual identity amidst a strong multi-racial foundation
has to begin with society‟s understanding of the need for multi-racial and multi-ethnic tolerance.
Efforts to close the racial chasm ought to be carried out on a consistent and continual, not
seasonal, basis. Dividing factors that stand in the way of these efforts must be prompty identified
and wisely overcome. An open attitude must form the basis in creating closer inter-racial ties
between the various ethnic groups in Malaysia. Existing tension and prejudices should be kept in
check with regular dialogues or other methods to promote national integration.

The success and effects from the policies that were put in place since Merdeka has yet to seen,
however the Malaysian communities of today are already undergoing massive changes. There is
a need to refresh the approaches that had been used traditionally to suit the present climate.
Today, the influx of foreign workers with various backgrounds from Indonesia, Cambodia,
Vietnam and others have now presented us with a new dimension of a multi-ethnic society.
These workers who are here in various employment sectors are also undergoing complicated
socialization processes with the local communities at the same time.

These rapid changes ought to be handled carefully, as incidents involving racial tension between
the locals and the foreigners (although isolated) can lead to serious and undesirable
repercussions.   As these groups are predominantly Asian, there is an urgent need for the
authorities to have a deeper understanding of the psychology of Asian communities.
Understanding their pysche will empower the authorities and provide them the ammunition to
handle potential problems arising from issues and problems as a result of their communications

and interaction with the locals. This will assist the relevant powers-that-be to introduce and
implement new policies and programmes towards racial harmony in Malaysia.

Adorno,, 1950. The Authoritarian Personality, New York: Harper
Bakar, Osman, 1997. Islam and Civilizational Dialogue, Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Malaya
Kalat, W.J., 1999. Introduction to Psychology, New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company
Redzuan, Ma‟rof, 2001. Psikologi Sosial, Serdang: Penerbit Universiti Putra Malaysia
__________ and Haslinda Abdullah, 2002. Psikologi, Kuala Lumpur: McGraw Hill
Sukarji, Jilid II, t.t. Perbandingan Agama, Jakarta: Azam
Parinder, Geoffrey, 1975. Introduction to Asian Religion, New York: Oxford University Press


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