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Malaysia: the eastern version of a rainbow nation?

Published 29th August 2010 - 3 comments - 4465 views -

Those of you who have watched TV in the past months may already be familiar with the tune, lyrics and images of a very  colourful advert by the Tourist Development Corporation of Malaysia, or Malaysia Tourism, as it is mostly known.

In case you are planning to visit the country, you will probably be shown this on the screen in front of you, as movies get turned off and the plane you are flying on starts descending towards Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Once you get to the city center, you’ll start getting an idea of what this advert is about. Malaysia is indeed a concentration of cultures and people of different ethnic backgrounds, a “truly Asian” rainbow.

A Korean journalist who attended the “Online journalism: chances and challenges” conference along with the TH!NK3 bloggers poetically described Malaysia’s capital city as a garden of beautiful skyscrapers. If it wasn’t for the absence of slums in its outskirts, Kuala Lumpur would have reminded me of other modern buildings and malay-style coloured houses in the cities of a more famous Rainbow Nation, in the southern hemisphere, right at the bottom of the African continent.

When I first went to South Africa  as a PhD student I was expecting to see some very visible signs of a divided past and was very surprised to find a country where people of different ethnic groups lived together in an apparent harmony.

When I expressed this view to people I met there, especially young people, they kindly invited me to look beyond the surface. I did, and found out that although South Africa managed in what the entire world thought the country could never achieve without a bloodshed, divisions and tensions are still there. It’s only natural, I told myself. It will take time before the memory of racial segregation and the social structures which were created by such a system will become just  part of the country’s history.

This is why, when some years ago the South African government started implementing its Black Economic Empowerment and Affirmative Action policies, not everybody was satisfied with them and some population groups who were also discriminated under the apartheid regime, just as the black majority, felt betrayed by the African National Congress government. This was the case of the Coloured group, which ironically happens to be of Muslim Malay descent and makes up the majority of the Cape region’s population.

Something similar happened in Malaysia after the country reached independence.

Earlier this year, a BBC report quoted Khoo Kay Kim, a history professor at the University of Malaya, as saying that ethnic separation in Malaysia started to become pronounced after independence, when the Muslim majority rebelled against a condition of economic disadvantage they had inherited from the country’s former British colonial regime.

Khoo told BBC that, in order to repair this injustice, Malaysia’s independent government, starting from the Sixties, granted privileges in sectors such as housing, education, jobs and the civil service to Malay citizens.

I was not aware of this when I started a conversation with a young Catholic lawyer from Kuala Lumpur. “Things were good here before the country got independence from the British in 1957,” he told me. “My parents went to good Catholic schools. Now it’s not the case anymore.”

In his words,  “the Malay Muslim majority do not like Christians because the British ruled Malaysia previously and built many Christian schools, hospitals and churches.” As a result, he said, nowadays Christians struggle to get land even for cemeteries.

Believer prays in Jamek Masjit mosque, Kuala Lumpur. Photo by: Tiziana Cauli


Tensions between Muslims and other religious groups, including the Hindu minority, erupt every now and then in the country, which has so far managed to keep them under control. But it’s easy to understand that religious groups are constantly trying to expand and increase their influence at the expenses of weaker minorities.

Lara Smallman’s video interview to Reita Rahim, an activist for the rights of indigenous people in the Mah Meri community, explains how Muslims and Christians can use aid and economic support to force new conversions and gain a higher number of followers.

Children of the Mah Meri community. Photo by: Tiziana Cauli

In countries where coexistence between different population groups is not always easy and peaceful,  social and economic claims tend to reflect ethnic and religious divisions.

Malaysia is no exception, as I realized while talking to a Hindu taxi driver on my way to a sea-side town about an hour from Kuala Lumpur. The area was packed with sea-food restaurants. “Are all these places Chinese?”, I asked. “Of course, business and money is always Chinese in this country,” he said.  

Prayer in Lord Murugan Hindu Temple, Batu Caves, North of Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Tiziana Cauli

That same night, I asked for some info on UTAR, the university which was going to host the conference on online journalism was going to be held. I learnt it was founded and supported by Malaysia’s Chinese Party, which forms part of the government coalition.

I asked if students at UTAR were mainly Chinese and I was told that although there were no particular restraints to the admission of students from other ethnic groups, the university was private and students from the Muslim majority could simply not afford it.

China Town in Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Tiziana Cauli

Thinking back to people I met and conversations I had while researching at the University of Cape Town, this all sounded very familiar to me. Freedom from a system that officially supports racial discrimination does not necessarily mean freedom from social and economic barriers, leading to some very dangerous tensions. How do the authorities respond to them?

In South Africa, during the apartheid decades, government imposed a heavy censorship on newspapers and a full control over TV. Reporting on riots in the black townships or on controversial racial issues was dangerous business for journalists and editors, who often turned to self censorship rather than facing the risk of being heavily fined, having their publication shut down or even going to jail.

In Malaysia, journalists candidly admit that all major newspapers are government-controlled and reporters apply self censorship more often than not. The Star newspaper is the biggest English language daily by circulation in the country. In their visit to the group’s online TV studios, the TH!NK3 bloggers were told that the newspaper was controlled by the government who owned the majority of its shares. “Not government,” a former Star editor who accompanied us was quick to point out. “Just the Chinese Party.”

Once again the “truly Asia” commercial came to my mind. Its bright colours appeared less vivid, just like those of a vanishing rainbow.


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 30th August 2010:

    Tiziana, this is a great account of the secret tensions, hidden discrimination and overt likes & dislikes that touch probably every place in the world, but even more so societies such as Malaysia and/or with a past such as South Africa.

    When in MY, I tried to make sense of who’s what and all that, but different people were giving conflicting explanations and it was hard to make up a version as close to the truth as possible. I got this feeling that different ethnic and religious groups somehow co-live quite peacefully on the surface, and maybe a bit down the surface too, and don’t question their relations until it gets impossible to avoid them (as in, say, going to university case) or in sudden outbursts of secret tensions (when asked a sensitive question, e.g.).

    And you are so right in pointing out that freedom from an evil system doesn’t mean freedom from economical and social barriers which stay until coming generations root them out, as much as that is possible.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 30th August 2010:

    Thanks Giedre. Yes, it is difficult to realize how much of that tension and divisions is still there, well hidden and kept under control by the institutions. I had the feeling that in South Africa the word “racist” is almost a taboo now. Still, so many people feel discriminated. I think getting rid of the damages left by racist and colonial regimes takes a lot of time and South Africa has done a good job so far, generally speaking. Malaysia left me a bit confused. I had the impression that the harmony we were shown is imposed on people while their claims remain unheard. This makes things even worse in my opinion. Even if some claims are based on wrong assumptions, they still deserve attention, else people get frustrated, angry, and start hating each other. And that’s when things get out of control.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 30th August 2010:

    Yeah maybe you are right…I had the impression, like I mentioned before, that all was nice on the surface, but there was something silent hiding under those claims. The indigenous people are probably worst-off in MY, both economically and politically, as the main tensions remain between the two major groups, ethnic Malay and people of Chinese descent - at least that’s what it looked like for me as an outsider during a very short visit.

    I’m reading a book about identities now, and one of the author’s main lines is that identities are not constant, they change with time and space. It’s just interesting how long it takes for our species to work out “differences” and draw a line of what is allowed for some but not for others and why some are “better” than others. His conclusion is: “We are more alike than we are unalike.” It’s only up to us what we make of it.

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