JAN 17 — Just ask a random stranger strolling down Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman his opinion on what is Malaysia’s greatest strength and he, just like many other Malaysians would probably answer; “Ethnic diversity.” One or two might quip in “food” or “the abundance of public holidays.” But then again, both these answers are related to Malaysia’s multiracial configuration.

Malaysia has benefitted a lot from multiracialism. Be it consumer choices in terms of food, the ability to experience different cultures in one’s own backyard or even economically, when investors from different permutations find it comfortable conversing with Malaysians in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, or Tamil.

Yet, the notion that Malaysia’s greatest strength is in its ethnic diversity is a rather unsettling one to embrace.

Changing faces

Freedom of movement is a gateway to economic and social empowerment. Many choose to seize employment opportunities in other nations—with heavy numbers entombed in watery graves just to cross the dangerous deep blue sea for a better life.

While the objective of immigration is primarily an economic one, mass mobilisation inadvertently changes the ethnic composition of the receiving state.  

Just walk along Oxford Street in London and one encounters more nationalities in two hours than say, a 15th century Malaccan in his entire lifetime. Britain receives high numbers of immigrants, eager to settle down in a country with liberal values, a generous welfare system and (probably) a dynamic football scene.

The partnerships between African countries and China has seen a surge of migration of Chinese nationals to Africa. The Al Jazeera documentary titled “The Colony”, (which is a little bit of a misnomer) underlines the life of a sizeable number of Chinese nationals who are finding rewarding opportunities in Senegal.

The European Union’s policy of freedom of movement for its citizens is further making immigration easier. This year, the doors are fully open for Romanians and Bulgarians to travel anywhere in the EU. This has caused political tensions, with bipolar Britain exuding xenophobic sentiments in wanting to impede the movements of people from these nationalities.

Heterogeneous societies are becoming vogue. And Malaysia looks like it can no longer cling on to multiracialism as its focal point. 

It would appear that Malaysia’s unique selling proposition is not so unique after all.

We are humans first and then whatever later

It cannot be denied that in some cases of immigration, social tensions will flow. People are wary and suspicious of difference. Conflict is produced through uncertainty and the fear of the unknown, of the other. The lack of contact has the high propensity of exacerbating ethnocentrism.

Negative traits would be amplified. If you see a member of a racial group committing a socially unpleasant action say, spitting in public, one would automatically lump that action with the group that the person belongs to. 

It is misguided, but it is a social reality.

Robert Putnam in E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century confirms that some form of conflict would accrue as a result of an influx of outsiders. Putnam found that the more heterogenous a society, the lower the “social capital” (trust, altruism, associations etc) and the higher the social fractiousness (crime, unrest, dissatisfaction etc). 

This is something that almost all ethnically diverse communities would come to realise.

However, in time, most heterogenous societies would transcend these tensions and go beyond them. This means that these tensions, such as the erosion of social capital, are only short term effects. In other words, they are only teething problems in the baby steps towards maturity. 

Distrust is not something permanent but is able to be substituted with tolerance, and then acceptance and finally, the celebration of diversity.

In mixed societies, creativity is enhanced, the engines of the economy are accelerated (with China probably an exception), new forms of associations and social solidarity are constructed. More Nobel Prize winners are generated, to give an example of creativity.

This is something that we can see in Western nations like America, France and Britain. These countries are not only multiracial like Malaysia. But they are multiracial with liberal and enlightenment values

I do not deny that there are social tensions in these countries. The rise of far right and Tea Parties are a testament that these issues are not fully resolved. What I’m saying is that they have the correct instruments to deal with the social tensions, mainly through enlightenment values.

Enlightenment values such as freedom of speech and assembly act as a conduit to mediate the competing interests of different ethnic groups. This acts as as catalyst that leads to better understanding and the enhancement of empathy among each other because contact is increased between the different groups.

Contact is essential because only through contact can people see the humanity that is coyly hidden behind racial identities. This has the effect of diluting and diminishing ethnocentric sentiments.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen in Malaysia. This nation was born as a multiracial one. No amount of distortion of history or brain drain can change that. Sadly, the actions of the leaders and certain members of this society betrays the existence of this country which is premised on racial pluralism.

Static interracial relations

In 51 years of this nation’s existence, interracial relations seems to be going nowhere. It appears static. The peak of interethnic tensions manifested itself in the May 13 riots. But ever since then, we seem to be unable to move away from racial misunderstandings. 

From Ops Lalang to numerous testosterone filled ethnocentric rhetoric by Perkasa and now the Allah issue, Malaysia seems to be in a permanent state religio-ethnic tensions. We seem to be unable to treat our fellow citizens as humans first and then whatever race or religion later.


The first reason is structural. Ethnocentrism is deeply institutionalised in this country. The political parties in the ruling coalition reserve membership for those of its own race. Affirmative action policies, which has yet to see its sunset, identifies recipients based on their race. 

Vernacular schools exist which are based on religious or linguistic inclinations. The civil service   is bloated, and dominated with members of one race. A scene where one sits in a meeting with people who converse in a language that one cannot comprehend is not an unfamiliar one. And many more scenarios.

The foundations of this country is, unfortunately, based on one’s race. It is a structure that rewards a person by virtue of him being a member of a certain group. Thus, this structure reproduces itself ad inifinitum as each racial group has much incentive to ensure racial categorisations exist to maintain these benefits.

The absence of enlightenment values in Malaysia further aggravates the situation. How can different groups negotiate and substantiate their position if they have to bear the sword of sedition hanging above their heads? 

Remember the Article 11 forum on freedom of religion spearheaded by courageous members of the Malaysian Bar and how it was repulsively disrupted by a crowd? 

Malaysia will continue to be paralysed if people are not allowed the avenue to empathise with each other.

The second reason is individual. There is a lack of resistance to these structures by the beneficiaries of these rewards. People acquiesce to the compartmentalisation of race and religion by actively or passively following the institutions that seek to perpetuate it.

Who is able to resist the high returns of Amanah Saham Berhad for the sake of principles?  Who is conscientious enough to send their children to a national school instead of a vernacular school for the sake of better national integration?

The forces of illiberalism are preeminent in this nation with leaders displaying an intolerant streak or tacitly endorsing it by keeping stum.

Malaysians should undergo, in the words of Nietzsche, a “transvaluation of the values” that it holds and for God’s sake, for a better Malaysia, opt for the road of enlightenment.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.