WHEN the protest of Malaysians for fair elections and against corruption is reframed as an attack by non-Malays against the dignity of Malays, we should be alarmed. Race seems to be the default narrative to explain everything one is unhappy about, from frustrations at school to dissatisfaction at work to altercations in the neighbourhood.
The fact that multi-cultural Malaysia has enjoyed decades of prosperity with little violent conflict does not necessarily equate to harmony. In recent years, with religion being politicised to reinforce communal barriers and more children being schooled separately, we intuitively know that Malaysia’s Malays, Chinese and Indians are growing further apart.
But what are the real facts? How do we measure growing apart? Do we really know what helps communal integration and what does not, and what simply fuels the divide?
We recently conducted a representative survey of communal relations in Peninsular Malaysia, funded by CIMB Foundation. It is one of the most detailed of its kind and unique in that it samples rigorously from the main racial groups. A report on the results and recommendations, now publicly available at www.cimbfoundation.com, provides a snapshot into what works in Malaysia and where the risks lie.
The findings strengthen the case for strategies and initiatives to foster greater interaction between communities.
We found that Malaysians seem to live alongside each other, but apart – having little meaningful interaction with people from other races for most of their lives, preferring instead to spend time with people from their own racial groups; about 90% of Malay respondents, 80% of Chinese respondents and 70% of Indian respondents reported that almost all of their friends were from their own respective racial groups (see Table 1).
Yet, research stretching from Northern Ireland to South Africa to Bosnia demonstrates that successful cross-group interactions are vitally important in making multi-cultural societies work.
Further, we know that having friends and social support is one of the most important predictors of mental health and longevity, so we asked: what should a friendship network look like for a person living in a multi-cultural society? We found that people who live in racially-mixed neighbourhoods are happier and mentally healthier than people who live in neighbourhoods that are dominated by one racial group, even if the dominant racial group is their own. People also report better mental health when they interact positively with neighbours from other races and feel socially supported by them.
This finding should give us pause for thought – it reflects the extraordinary degree to which our multi-cultural environment, and the way we interact in it, shapes our health and happiness. Malaysians who live in a successful multi-racial environment derive satisfaction from that – but respondents who reported more tensions in their neighbourhoods between different racial groups experienced poorer mental health. Hearteningly, overall, respondents reported far more positive, than negative, experiences when they continuously interact with people from other races.
We also found that people had more positive and meaningful inter-racial relationships at work than in their neighbourhood. This is hardly surprising – in the workplace, people may have the chance to work cooperatively and as equals, especially when the workplace culture encourages inter-racial mixing, conditions that may not naturally exist in neighbourhoods.
This positive portrait of workplace mixing bolsters the argument for diversity at the workplace. Typically, Malaysians treat workplace diversity as a means to address historic economic inequality and ensure that each race is proportionally represented. However, such diversity also allows people to interact with racially-diverse others in a safe, cooperative environment with a level playing-field and to develop racially-mixed friendship networks. The benefit of such friendships is that they enable people to develop the kind of positive and respectful attitudes that are necessary for cultivating successful multi-cultural living.
Evidence from around the world suggests that the absence of such attitudes and positive interactions can be destructive and costly. Northern Ireland is a case in point: mutual understanding has been impeded by a form of “benign self-imposed apartheid” in which Protestants and Catholics typically lived in separate neighbourhoods and attended schools that were segregated.
Closer to home, rising communalism in India provides a cautionary tale. Malaysians and the Government need to act now in order to prevent a social landscape in which the ground is laid for more violent forms of conflict.
Based on our findings and research on successful efforts in other countries, we suggest three directions to take.
First: the Government and other funding bodies should invest in research on inter-racial, inter-faith dynamics and employ a data-driven approach when designing policies and programmes to strengthen national unity. The stakes are too high to fall back on our intuitive ideas about what works.
Second: Cultivating positive inter-racial interactions at various levels – neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools – should be a central plank of Malaysia’s policy for improving relations. National and local policymakers should work together to understand how schools, housing and regeneration policies can improve or inhibit inter-racial mixing locally.
However, it is crucial to remember that while racially-mixed neighbourhoods (and workplaces and schools) are helpful in the process of integration, they must be implemented in a way that respects deeply-held values and beliefs of all the groups in question. For example, simply abolishing vernacular schools or communal political parties in the name of creating a more cohesive society, and without putting into place measures that take into account the fears and aspirations of the various groups, may be counter-productive.
Third: In the interim, we need to create conditions that promote community cohesion. For example, we should promote and fund cross-cultural clubs and associations in the neighbourhood and workplace, or between vernacular and national schools, in order to give people a chance to develop meaningful bonds and work together for a common purpose.
Interventions are necessary to counterbalance the natural and divisive forces that distort and amplify our differences, and keep us apart, rather than emphasise our shared citizenship.
Interventions, however, should be based on empirical evidence and carefully designed to achieve the objectives of integrating Malaysian communities.
This article is the first of a four-part series on multi-culturalism in Malaysia. It is based on the findings from a recently-conducted research project funded by CIMB Foundation, which aimed to understand the challenges and promise of multi-cultural Malaysia. The research study and interviews, conducted by Merdeka Centre, was designed and analysed by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. We surveyed 1,504 adult citizens aged 18 years and older in Peninsular Malaysia with a view to extending the survey to Sabah and Sarawak in the next phase.