Moving Beyond the Stereotypes: The new ethnic relations in Malaysia

Moving Beyond the Stereotypes: The new ethnic relations in Malaysia

Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, Principal Research Fellow, Institute of Ethnic Studies, UKM.

Date and Time: 15 August 2013, 3p.m. to 5 p.m


May 13 has been always seen as a dark day in Malaysian history due to the racial riots in 1969. Often political leaders have made reference to this day as a way of instilling fear in the hearts and minds of the people. However as time has passed we should view this day as a day of reconciliation, harmony and nation building.

Over the past 44 years, Malaysia has changed and the outcome of GE 13 is an indication of this new social and political reality. Some have equated it as a ‘Chinese tsunami’ but others have called it an ‘urban tsunami’. The reality is that Malaysia has changed and we can no longer view this from an inter-ethnic dynamism only but also along intra-ethnic lenses.

The new social reality is largely due to the socio-economic development, there has emerged an affluent urban middle and upper middle community. This class dimension transcend ethnic divide with a sizable Malaya middle class and also Indians alongside the Chinese. The expectations are very different among people within the same community when compared across geographical locations such as urban, sub urban and rural areas.

The political aspirations and economic independence calls for greater public accountability and open rational discourse in the articulation of public policies and resources. We have seen a tremendous urban swell of discontentment. Many of these are linked to the changing levels of personal empowerment and financial security.

Development must be holistic

The development paradigm of social, economic and cultural development in isolation of civil and political is unacceptable today. The earlier Asian values framework marginalised human rights at the low end of development. However contemporary economist and policy makers are now recognising that there has to be a balance between these individual rights and collective responsibilities in modern societies.

AmartyaSen in his book Development as Freedom (1999) has clearly articulated for economic development from the perspective of human freedoms. He provides a moral framework with a critic of ‘the ruthlessness of the free market’ on the one hand and ‘the terror of authoritarian states’ on the other.

In this context Sen calls us to take “note of extensive interconnections between political freedoms and the understanding and fulfilment of economic needs. In addition he articulates that the “conceptualization of economic needs depends crucially on open public debates and discussions, the guaranteeing of which requires insistence on basic political liberty and civil rights”

Therefore these are a need for greater public discourse on urban concerns especially with those pertaining to local government. In the major urban centres of the Klang valley, Kinta valley, George town-Perai areas there must be changes in urban governance which is more consultative.

The strengthening of parliament through by-partisan and select committees is imperative. In addition the human rights institution of Suhakammust also be strengthened so that there is some compelling dimension for agencies to take a serious note on the human rights violations unearthed by Suhakam.

The right step forward is ensuring there is greater independence of MACC and the Election Commission. These meditating structures must be seen and must operate in an independent way from the Executive. Public perception and public engagement is most essential. It is our democratic duty to protect these institutions from political interference.

Therefore the ratification of human rights conventions such as the Convention for civil and political rights as well as the Convention for social, economic and cultural rights is most basis to the new climate of politics in Malaysia. Failure to recognise these will entrench the current administration in the old world of politics which has been rejected by the majority of voters.


Development must be inclusive

There is a need to recognise that the issues and grievances are not just inter-ethic but also intra- ethnic. In this context the rising inequalities is an area of major concern. The widening gap within ethnic communities between the top 20% and the bottom 40% is a major concern in the urban areas.

This is especially so in the Klang valley where a majority of the urban low income Malays and Indians live in high rise low cost flats with very little public services and support. There is much urban neglect and they have viewed this isolation as marginalisation. They have voted in large numbers against the BN and in support of the PR.

At the heart of this shift in the voter base since 2008 and now consolidated in 2013 is low priority given by agencies to their day to day concerns related to housing, public space and facilities, transport, safety and security, job opportunities, fair wages and workers protection. These quality of life issues must become the centre of public policy discussions for greater inclusive development and national reconciliation.

Rural voters experience a stronger enabling hand of the public sector in meeting quality of life concerns as opposed to urban poor and low income who fall under local governments which require personal funding to ensure access to quality of life experiences.

Urban governance and access to decision making process especially in the 12 city, 39 municipal and 98 district councils are very limited. The appointed and unaccountable system of counsellors to local authority is not effective in both BN and PR state government appointees.

Many of the urban grievances are related to local government. Unfortunately Malaysia discontinued local government elections but in the post GE 13 context there is an urgent need to review this. Many of the local governance unmet issues are translated into dissatisfaction with Federal services.

However many of the local issues are not for state assembly representatives or parliamentarians to repond. There is a need for a return to accountable and inclusive local governments which are more closely connected with the people. Improvements in this area will translate into better urban governance and happy communities at the neighbourhood levels.

These are not just inter-ethnic and religious issues but increasing concerns affecting wider demographic changes such as class, age, urban-rural divide and gender. Public policies have been too focused on a one dimensional approach and therefore the ground swell of unhappiness is also related to this disconnect in governance.


Development must be consultative

Dato Seri NajibTunRazakon election night rightly highlighted the need for a National Reconciliation Council. While he focused on inter-ethnic divide however we need to add other dimensions of our new social realties such as intra-ethnic, class, gender, age, urban-rural divide in the reconciliation agenda so as to be more inclusive and comprehensive in our outreach.

These demographic factors are the new axes of polarization as articulated by Prof ShamsulAmriBaharuddin of the Institute of Ethnic Studies, UKM. They provide a more comprehensive analysis of the social realties on the ground and is multi-dimensional in analysis and approach. 

Therefore we need a new conceptual framework which is Social Cohesion oriented, new structures and mechanism created so as to address there challenging social-political realities in a responsible and responsive way.

The establishment of a National Reconciliation Council must be top of the agenda with people who can win public confidence and build the necessary bridges in a divided society

In this context too the Department of National Unity and Integration must be elevated back to a Ministry for National Social Cohesion and Reconciliation. This will highlight the priority given by the new Najib administration to this urgent agenda of national unity and integration.

In addition Malaysia must ratify the major United Nation Conventions such as the Convention on civil and political rights; the Convention on economic, social and cultural rights and the Convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. 

This will enable the formation of public policies and programs which will give a fair and just balance to economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. One is not more important than the other but complements one another.

Such a move will display the political will of the Najib administration and set a new agenda for inclusive development which will ensure that all community groups will experience the common good of Malaysian health, wealth and happiness.



Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria is the Principal Research Fellow, Institute of Ethnic Studies, UKM. Published in the Star on May 13, 2013 on page 34





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