Malaysia’s ethnic relations – room for improvement?

Updated On: Feb 24, 2006

Ethnic relations management has never been easy.

In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Nations have broken apart in the post-Cold War period due to ethnic tensions previously controlled by strong-handed regime. Witness the former Yugoslavia, the 1997 anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia and East Timorese ethnic issues. Against this backdrop, Malaysia after independence has for most of its recent history held together and managed its ethnic relations well, sometimes held as a model for other countries.

Recent rumblings on the ground may, however, suggest that not all is well.  The debate  about racial unity has been sparked off by Professor Khoo Kay Kim, Professor Emeritus at Universiti Malaya's History Department, who has recently sounded his concerns after decades of fighting for racial and ethnic harmony and a vision for a united Malaysian Malaysia. He expressed his concerns about the delicate nature of communal ties in Malaysia, especially in its educational system and political participation initiatives. According to Prof Khoo political parties have tended to clump around their parochial interests defined by ethnicity and race.

'They feel that if they strengthen the position of the Malays, the Malays will think as one, and then they will always get votes from the Malays,' he said. 'Each political representative always feels he must fight for his own party,' he said. 'Since we have mostly ethnic parties, they are fighting for their own ethnic groups. It is very difficult to achieve any kind of consensus. 'For ethnic champions to survive, society must always be in a state of flux. 'If you don't do anything positive, things will get worse and worse. You have to address the problem.'

Malaysian media The New Straits Times published various differing reactions to Prof Khoo’s comments.  Several opinion leaders concurred with Prof Khoo, adding that politicians were partly to blame for segregating the people by playing racial politics.

The Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, however, disagreed with Professor Khoo's statements.  He noted that the tolerance level and maturity among Malaysians have increased, although sensitivity about certain issues remains high.

Chairman of the ASLI Centre for Public Policy Studies, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, agreed that “polarisation has increased” and he opined that the school system has contributed to this.  He added “Tamil and Chinese languages should be taught as compulsory subjects to Tamil and Chinese students in national schools. Then there will be a significant shift of these students to national schools instead of most Chinese sending their children to Chinese schools and half of the Indian pupils going to Tamil schools”. He also wondered why the government has been so slow in addressing this issue.  He further attributed the problem of national unity to the fact that “the spirit of the New Economic Policy has not been fully realised and implemented” and that “meritocracy has also largely been abandoned”.

What was also noteworthy was that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was quoted in another NST report that while he disagreed with views that racial unity was lacking in Malaysia, he was glad that “people are taking up national unity as an issue and talking about it”.  He felt this is an issue that requires constant attention as “unity-building is not an easy task and it will take a long time and required concerted efforts from all parties”.


* Malaysian racial unity: How fragile? (Straits Times, 21 Feb 2006)

* Diverse views on multiracial Malaysia (New Straits Times, 21 February 2006)

* Racial unity debate important, says Abdullah (Straits Times, 22 February 2006)