Dr. Ryan Yumin Chua (Programme Director of the non-discrimination programme in Pusat KOMAS)
Malaysia is a multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious country, where people with distinct cultural, racial and religious identities live together. However, Malaysia is divided across racial and religious lines. Since independence, the key narrative of national identity has been “Malaysia is for the Malays”. Meanwhile, other ethnic groups such as the Chinese, Indians and indigenous ethnic groups in Borneo are not accorded similar rights and status (Welsh, 2020). Over time, the country’s prevailing racial hierarchy has exposed ethnic fault lines which perpetuate inequality. Today, these issues begin to manifest themselves in the form of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia , raising serious concerns on the status of ethnic relations in the nation.
Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia in Malaysia
Persistent expressions of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia have pervaded every aspect of Malaysian society. These expressions could be found in various sectors such as politics, education, media and internet, business, health and sports (Pusat KOMAS, 2022). In fact, in Pusat KOMAS’ Malaysia Racial Discrimination Report 2021, 53 incidents were identified as either racism, racial discrimination or xenophobia in the year 2021 (refer to Figure 1). The largest percentage of incidents identified were racial and religious politics (28%), while the second largest percentage were racial and religious provocation (23%), followed by xenophobia (13%), racial discrimination in the education sector (11%), racism in other sectors (11%), racism in the media and Internet (8%), and racial discrimination in the business sector (6%).
Through the explanatory observation of mainstream online media sources, Pusat KOMAS Report Racism mobile application and secondary sources such as accounts and views from individuals in social media (Pusat KOMAS, 2022), the contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia identified in this Malaysia Racial Discrimination Report are complex, disturbing and significant enough to be of concern. It also highlights the consequences of the failure to address the inherent systems of inequality, which has been in existence since independence.
Racism in the Different Structures of the Malaysian Society
In all levels of the Malaysian society, ethnicity has become a factor that separates and divides people: (1) the micro level of everyday social interactions (e.g., difference in each group’s cultural and religious practices such as food and traditions); (2) the meso level of geographical distribution of ethnic groups across urban and rural areas as well as the marketplace (e.g., some groups are found more in rural areas than other groups); (3) the macro level of nationwide policies and political institutions (e.g., specific laws and policies that provide different treatment to different ethnic groups) (Mariappan, 2002). Under highly ethnicised settings, it can be understandable that the consciousness of one’s ethnic identity and the importance of one’s ethnicity continue to be reinforced in the country.
Response to the Growing Threat of Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia
To respond to the growth of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia in Malaysia, Pusat KOMAS actively promotes equality and the elimination of racial discrimination in Malaysia. Set up in August 1993, Pusat KOMAS started as a human rights popular communications centre to empower marginalised communities, especially the urban poor, workers, indigenous peoples, and civil society organisations. Pusat KOMAS has also conducted voter education workshops and produced voter and citizenship educational tools such as short videos, cartoon booklets, posters and other creative media tools for community and public education.
Acknowledging the prevalence of ethnicity at different levels of social structure, Pusat KOMAS attempts to address the issue at the three levels of society: micro-, meso-, and macro-ethnicity.
Micro-level Approach. Our grassroot work address the ethnic division at the micro-level of society, where we raise awareness of the insidious pervasion of racial stereotypes and segregation that divides ethnic groups in Malaysia. Our grassroot workshops also help create understanding about cultures and traditions of other ethnic groups, dispelling feelings of distrust and insecurity among ethnic groups. We also encourage our workshop participants to actively combat racism and racial discrimination while championing a united Malaysia.
Meso- and Macro-level Approach. Pusat KOMAS also advocates for laws and policies at the state and federal level. We advocate for the elimination of racial discrimination at the state level by introducing equality-based guidelines which can be applied into multiple sectors (e.g., business, administration and governance). These guidelines, when implemented, will help address issues caused by unequal geographical distribution of the population. Additionally, Pusat KOMAS’ advocacy at the macro level of society includes the push for the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). This is done to ensure that the Malaysian government has a clear domestic and international stance against racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia.
Pusat KOMAS also conducts research and monitoring on racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia in Malaysia. This research covers the three levels of society, creating ongoing conversation about the status of race in the country and how the country can unite despite numerous differences and divisions. It is important to note that the issue of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia needs to be addressed in a holistic manner. We are ever hopeful that our efforts could lead to the decrease of the issue of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia in the country, that everyone in the country will be treated fairly and equally.
1. A construct that assigns a certain race and/or ethnic group to a position of power over others on the basis of physical and cultural attributes, as well as economic wealth, involving hierarchical relations where the ‘superior’ race exercises domination and control over other (ILO et al., 2005)
2. Any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life (ICERD, 1965)
3. Individuals are denied equal rights on account of real or perceived geographic origins of the said individuals or groups, or the values, beliefs and/or practices associated with such individuals or groups that make them appear as foreigners or outsiders (Ruteere, 2016)
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, New York, 21 December 1965.
International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Organization for Migration (IOM), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), & Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2005). Racism and Migration. In K. Boyle (Ed.), Dimensions of Racism (pp. 111–134). OHCHR.
Lee, H. A. (2017). Fault Lines – and Common Ground – in Malaysia’s Ethnic Relations and Policies. ISEAS Perspective, 63(1) , 1-9.
Mariappan, K. (2002). Ethnicity, Malay nationalism, and the question of Bangsa Malaysia. In S. Fenton & S. May (Eds.), Ethnonational identities (pp. 198–226). Palgrave Macmillan.
Pusat KOMAS. (2022). Malaysia Racial Discrimination Report 2021.
Ruteere, M. (2016). Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (Report No. A/HRC/32/50). New York, NY: United Nations.