Why have Malaysian minorities internalised systemic racism for 63 years?

A consciousness of racial oppression is starting to seep into the minds of individuals globally. The tragic death of George Floyd catalysed a string of protests tied to the Black Lives Movement in the United States. As a result, the world has witnessed a domino effect of protests, dismantlement of statues tied to colonialism and racism, and the push for open dialogues on the treatment of black and brown individuals. Western democracies, such as Australia, the UK, France and Germany were amongst the first whose respective communities grouped to voice their issues linked to the Black Lives Movement. The efforts to immobilise the unjust treatment of the black and brown communities in any country is of immeasurable importance. Specifically, the ongoing silent manifestation of systemic racism of racial minorities in the politics, economy, education and the overall society of Malaysia, certainly deserves similar attention.

Malaysia epitomises a potpourri of diverse races but superficially represents a harmonious multi-faceted country. Although Malaysia’s tagline “Truly Asia,” attempts to paint a narrative that it is all-embracing of its rich cultures, this travel slogan hides the sad reality of the unjust treatment of minority groups since 1957. Before Malaysia gained its independence from the British 63 years ago, individuals originating from India and China were brought in to work on infrastructure, rubber estates, trade and to contribute to the overall wellbeing of the Malaysian economy. As a result, during the British colonial rule, the majority of the population were racially Malay, followed by Chinese, Indians and the Indigenous population. However, when the Malaysian Constitution was formulated in 1953, Article 153 sought to differentiate the Malay and Indigenous population from the rest of the population, and were identified as “bumiputera” or “sons of the land.”

This differentiation provided special privileges to Malays that eventually resulted in the May 13, 1969 tragedy. The string of protests were sparked by racial tensions between Malays and Malaysian-Chinese and led to the estimated death of 196 people and 6000 homeless. The government attempted to solve the issue by passing the New Economic Policy 1971, which was meant to reduce rates of poverty amongst all ethnicities and be more inclusive of the wider population.

Contrary to the government’s promises, the NEP created more opportunities only for the Malays, as in 2015 more than 95 per cent of civil and armed services were Malay dominant. This privilege stretched to education and business, where Malays were given exclusive quotas to enter public education institutions and government-funded scholarships. The NEP was meant to be a temporary initiative by the government but has led to more unrest and disadvantage for the remaining 35 per cent of the population who do not identify as being racially Malay.

Racial slurs are commonly used daily, as the severity of them has slowly lessened over the years. Words such as “keling,” which means “shackled,” are directed at the Indians who worked in the rubber estates. Former Prime Minister Mahathir used the word “keling” in a press conference and did not comprehend the undeniable racism he projected, as pointed out by the Treasurer of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), S. Vell Paari.

More recently, on 13 July 2020, the Dewan Rakyat or Lower House of Parliament had a seating where the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) MP Datuk Seri Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim directed a racist comment towards the Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) Batu Kawan MP Kasthuriraani Patto. He assumed that it was appropriate to describe the skin colour of Patto, who is of Indian ethnicity. As part of his apology, he claimed that he was also dark and putting on some powder should not be a problem. Evidently, it appears that even those in positions of power in Malaysia are in denial of the racism that exists but have the audacity to add to the longevity of racism in the country.

The obsession to have fair-skin in Asian countries is linked to the assumption that it translates into beauty, but also results from the marketing strategy of skin-care companies that seek to monopolise on the notion that being white is better than being tanned. Malaysia is not alone in perpetuating this perception. According to a study from 2014 compiled by Hindawi and executed by the University Putra Malaysia, 60 per cent of skin-care products sold in Asia are lightening products. The university conducted a study of females between the age of 20 and 30 and found that 63 per cent of them have used or are currently using lightening products.

Higher education institutions in Malaysia are similarly no stranger to reinforcing racism. A staff member from the Lim Kok Wing University tweeted screenshots in June 2020 of WhatsApp group messages linked to a discussion for a marketing campaign on behalf of the university. Her boss mentioned that she wanted “more Caucasian” people for a marketing campaign and for darker-skinned individuals to be cropped out or replaced. As a person of African descent, the staff member expressed her distress and stated that the university tends to put those of lighter skin on the forefront of marketing campaigns and educational fares.

The issue of racism can be boiled down to the very existence of vernacular primary and secondary schools in Malaysia. Vernacular schools in Malaysia refer to the separation of schools on the basis of language. The mode of teaching varies from English, Malay, Tamil to Mandarin, and corresponds to languages spoken by majority and minority populations. According to a survey by Vase.ai and Malaysiakini in 2019, 51 per cent of the population believe that there should not be a vernacular education system, whereas 49 per cent claim that it would be beneficial for subverting ethnic tensions. The existence of vernacular schools does not foster peace, as it certainly does not represent the 137 languages spoken across the country. Not only does this create a further divide but also a lack of understanding and empathy for minority cultures that do exist in Malaysia.

A study conducted by the Centre for Governance and Political Science revealed that Malaysian-Chinese with Mandarin-speaking capabilities were the most employable, whereas those of Indian descent were the least. The study concluded that most jobs in Malaysia, primarily in the private sector include Mandarin competency to provide preference for hiring Malaysian-Chinese. In terms of employment, those of Chinese descent are seen to be the most skilled and hence most employable. During British colonial rule, the British generally saw the Malays as being lazy and created the stigma to exploit Malaysia. Although the stigma still persists till today, the Malay population continues to be given the most privileges in the country and can be perceived to further reinforce the stigma of “lazy natives” against themselves as a result.

Malaysian minorities have internalised systemic racism, as it is clearly evident in different sectors. The reason why it is internalised is because not all minorities are at a disadvantage. Malaysian-Chinese are amongst the richest business-owners in Malaysia, despite being labelled as “second-class citizens.” Malaysian-Indians on the other hand are the most disadvantaged minority population, as they are discriminated against on the basis of their skin-colour and their societal status. With the Malays in total control of the government and the Chinese in control of the economy, there is no equal representation of Indians in Malaysia. From education to work opportunities, those who identify as being of Indian ethnicity or do not possess the Bumiputera status continue to be disadvantaged because of the exclusive affirmative action policies.

The need for systemic change could not be more apparent, but Malaysians need to collectively work towards a more equal and representative community. Affirmative action policies need to be repealed, vernacular schools clearly foster separation amongst racial groups, opportunities should be given on a merit basis and not based on skin-colour, and finally Malaysians should not be in denial that racism is apparent in their society. In light of global movements linked to systemic racism, Malaysia should take its own steps towards open dialogues and educate themselves on the struggles of other racial groups.

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