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Race – Can we beat its effects to achieve the gold of national unity?

Mat Sabu's buka puasa gathering - Photograph: Lee Hann Min

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Cheah Wui Jia highlights research that shows the importance of friendship and appreciation of diversity in bridging the divide. 

My husband is a fan of Mat Sabu. A really big fan. So he leapt in joy when he heard the new defence minister was organising a majlis berbuka puasa in Tasik Gelugor in mainland Penang.

My heart sank. Not those intercultural events again, I thought. Yes, I profess to be Malaysian and espouse values of harmony and tolerance, but to have a meal in the presence of a crowd of people with different beliefs, practices and habits was unexciting.

I was ‘the bak kut teh-eating Other’, someone who has no qualms dressing in tight jeans and brazenly exposing her mane of hair to the public eye, a heathen who sips on wine at social events to curb her neurotic social helplessness.

What would my spiritual, fasting friends think of me with my deviant inclinations that would form a compendium of sin in the eyes of a holy God? Faulty assumptions of Malay-Muslims as judgemental Pharisees lit up like the rotating light of an ambulance siren.

It began to pour as we drove all the way from our home in Tanjung Bungah to Bukit Mertajam. As we passed by rice fields, with clumps of village trees and houses, I felt the familiarity of city life ebb away.

When we arrived at the humble home of Mat Sabu in Kampung Guar Petai, strong whiffs of mud and cow dung mixed with wafts of nasi minyak and fried chicken violently disturbed my middle-class aspirations of squeaky clean hygiene. I tried not to look like I was in pain as I traipsed in the mud and fumbled to stop my umbrella from poking innocent victims clad in their traditional wear, complete with tudung and songkok.

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As I clumsily joined my husband in the patient queue for rice, curry, and dates, my neck burned. I imagined my entire being of Chinese-ness standing out visibly, like the popping veins on my forehead.

But a lady in lovely, purple baju kurung, elegantly embroidered with lavender flowers, radiated friendship as she offered me a kurma date. “Mari, adik, makan buah kurma. Nabi Muhammad makan buah ni.”

I am not alone in my erroneous ways of misunderstanding a different ethnic group. In 2017, Lee Hwok Aun, a senior fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies, collated results from five significant surveys which explored Malaysia’s ethnic relations and ethnicity-based policies, either as the primary subject of research or as a component of a broader inquiry.

These surveys found that Malaysians maintain amiable interactions across ethnic lines, but mostly forge close friendships within their own ethnic groups. In addition, despite respondents reporting a negligible amount of negative experiences with those of other religions, unfavourable views of ‘others’ nevertheless prevail.

While Muslims rated their religion as 90 or 100, ranking other religions 40 and below, Buddhists and Hindhus rated their own faiths at 70, relegating a score of 50 for other religions. An examination of respondents’ knowledge of the basic tenets accompanying different faiths also exposed “unwholesome”, incomplete and prejudiced views of other religions.

Researchers involved in one of the five mentioned surveys, Al Ramiah, Hewstone and Wolfer (RHW), commissioned by the CIMB Foundation, have argued that while Malaysia has not been torn by extreme violent conflict experienced in other countries like Sri Lanka or Indonesia with a complex history of inter-ethnic relations, a lack of such overt inter-ethnic conflict does not equate to harmony.

People may find alternative ways of ‘engaging’ in a multicultural context like Malaysia, by ‘disengaging’, which includes withdrawing from making contact with another ethnic group, or emigrating.

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Importance of friendship

But data from RHW’s survey (2016) also suggested that people with friends from a religious outgroup would remedy the ill effects of high levels of religious identification. RHW argued that, following in the footsteps of global trends, Malaysia is becoming increasingly polarised along religious lines, and interfaith knowledge and appreciation of outgroups could combat exclusive identities and intolerance.

The historic defeat of Barisan Nasional showed an anger with the status quo that reeked of corruption. Barisan Nasional reflected a post-independent Malaysia of various ethnic identities, whose lack of integration required separate parties representing their respective ethnic interests.

Power has transferred from a multi-racial alliance to a multi-racial coalition, where two predominantly Malay parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), are flanked by the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Derwin Pereira of the Edge argues that “Malaysia gets a new government, but race still rules”. The races, technically, “did not vote for each other”.

According to Pereira, it could be argued that a vote for PKR, or Bersatu, did not completely rule out the possibility that Malay supremacy was alive in the minds of conservative nationalists. A vote for DAP could have meant a salutary gesture for Chinese dominance on behalf of the Chinese.

Pereira also suggested that the electoral victory of the Islamic party Pas in the northern strongholds of Kelantan and Terengganu revealed the hold ethnic politics has on a substantial population of voters, where Malay masses are heavily influenced by Islamist strains of ideology.

Moving towards a Malaysia for Malaysians would require effort and an appreciation that Malaysian society is complicated and messy. The RHW survey noted that 62% of Malays, and about 80% of the non-Malay sample, wholly support racially mixed political parties.

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Attitudes towards such “ethnicity-based politics”, however, do not neatly translate into “ethnicity-based policies”: 60% of Malays, 70% of Chinese and 78% of Indians supported racially mixed neighbourhoods, yet gave broad support for sustaining separate schooling streams, which are strongly defined by language or religion, and an overwhelming ethnic homogeneity (Iseas paper, p5).

In terms of level of comfort associated with Malays receiving privileges, on a scale of 1 to 5, Malays averaged 4 out of 5, Chinese slightly below 2 and Indians slightly above 2. Less than half of Malay respondents (47%) and more Chinese (85%) and Indians (88%) agreed with the statement “fair competition for everyone so no group gets privileges”.

While the affirmative action plan programme under the New Economic Policy has been criticised for benefiting a minority Malay elite group, a majority of Malay and bumiputera communities signalled their support for preferential assistance in the Malaysian Political Values Survey by the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research (2010).

According to Lee of Iseas, pro-bumiputera policies may be delivering assistance and wide-ranging benefits that are unseen to commentators who harp on corruption and abuse by the wealthy and who do not acknowledge the alleviation of burden for multitudes of families, in the form of secondary schooling, technical programmes, microfinance and business support.

We can take comfort in light of the findings collated by Lee that signal the importance of friendship, knowledge and appreciation of ethnicities, cultures and religions.

The new government, on the other hand, needs to understand the complexity of ethnicity in policy and politics, and as Lee has emphasised, a fine-grained analysis of such diversity is paramount to achieve national unity.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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10 Jun 2018 9.24am

Enjoyed reading, thanks. For a finer-grained analysis of our multiple identities including ethnicity and religion, see Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence. The book also contains suggestions and clear implications for managing our multiple identities so that Malaysians and indeed all human beings can be united in some ways and different in others.

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