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Race: the on-going Malaysian dilemma

  • Acknowledging that racial division is a serious problem and making a committed effort together to manage the issue will be the only viable solution.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

In these few weeks, we are constantly hit by controversial news surrounded on race and religion ranging from the debate on the introduction of Khat in schools to the calling of Dong Zong as “racist” by our Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

The latest issue is where the Muslim preacher Dr. Zakir Naik is quoted in his talk in Kelantan where he said, “…Malaysia became fully Muslim. Then you have the Chinese coming, the Indians coming, the British coming. They are our new guests.“ He went on and said, “You know someone called me a guest. So I said, before me, the Chinese were the guests. If you want the new guest to go first, ask the old guest to go back... The Chinese aren’t born here, most of them. Maybe the new generations, yes… If you want the guest to go back, and those guests which are bringing peace in the community, they are benefit for the family.”

Race and religion are sensitive issues in Malaysia, where Muslims make up about 60% of the country's 32 million population. Malaysia's ethnic Chinese are estimated at 23% while mostly Hindu ethnic Indians comprise about 7%.

When the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition took over the administration after the 14th General Election (GE14) in May 2018, hopes were high and expectations were equally high among some Malaysians especially the young generation that the government could do away with the racial divides among Malaysians.

A Merdeka Center poll in August last year showed that concerns over race issues and religious rights had grown since the GE14, with about 21% citing those issues as a concern compared with 12% in April 2018. Now, after a year and a half, this task of uniting all Malaysians seem to be a difficult ones with every single issue having the potential of turning into a racial ones.

Take the instance of the recent road rage incident involving the late Syed Muhammad Danial Syed Syakir; it is upsetting when such an incident has quickly turned out to be a racial issue. For something that was unrelated to the race but was automatically and speedily translated into a racial issue by many is a worrying trend.

If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that we as a nation are in a perpetual state of crisis when it comes to the racial situation that continue to plague our nation.

By speaking to friends and families through social media, I can attest to the fact that, there is a high level of resentment in regard to the current volatile racial situation.

For many of us, our viewpoints on race largely have been formed by our personal experiences in daily basis, from schools to working places. Such emotions are sometimes well founded, unfortunately. Even young Malaysians, who tend to be more progressive, are sometimes split on certain issues related to race and religion. Why is this happening?

Malaysia is set to celebrate the 62 years of Merdeka, yet we have failed to see beyond racial lines in many instances. Race is still the most divisive social issue of our time. The suspicious among the different races remain and there is a failure among Malaysians to appreciate and understand the history of how we achieved Merdeka. Without the understanding of how our history is like, together with an education system that continues to be questionable, the challenge is huge.

In a society where racial tensions are intensifying, denying such hard truths will not bring us any closer to any sort of racial reconciliation. Observers who take a longer view of history are less optimistic about the current situation. But as an educator, I maintain to think that while this is an on-going dilemma, we should not give up.

Rather, in my view, by acknowledging that racial division is a serious problem and making a committed effort together to manage the issue will be the only viable solution.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer.)


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