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Solidarity begins with the heart in multicultural Malaysia

  • The attitude of tolerance and accommodation should constitute the cornerstone of solidarity in this pluralistic country of ours. And all this begins with a genuine and sincere heart.

By Associate Professor Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi

Malaysia is blessed with a diverse population of different ethnic and religious groups. Such diversity has stemmed from historical factors such as migration, colonization, economic expansion and social dynamism.

Based on the 2018 census, the total population of Malaysia stood at 32.4 million, of which 69.1% were bumiputras comprising the Malays, Orang Asli, as well as the indigenous peoples of the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. The Chinese made up about 23% of the total while the Indians 6.9%.

The Malays can be further divided into different subgroups such as Banjar, Javanese, Bugis, Peranakan Arab, Peranakan Jawi, as well as geographical divisions such as Melayu Kelantan, Melayu Sarawak, Melayu Johor, etc.

The same goes for the Chinese, which is itself divided into different dialect groups such as Hokkien, Amoy and Cantonese. In addition, we also have Baba Nyonya who embrace their traditional religion but largely practice the Malay culture and customs.

As for the Indians, we have Tamil, Malayali, Telugu, Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Gujarati, etc.

Where management of ethnic diversity is concerned, sure enough this poses a mounting challenge for the country's leaders to preserve the society's diversity yet enabling the people to continue living in total peace and harmony.

Each of these ethnic groups and subgroups has its own history and unique cultures and traditions. Building a united nation of such a diverse population will require a great deal of effort as well as mutual understanding.

Sure enough this is a highly complicated situation that warrants a tenacious resolution. As such, efforts to unite our diverse population are often met with challenges that necessitate a clear and unambiguous direction.

The many different ethnic groups in this country, in particular those on the Peninsula before the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, boasted a history of tolerance and political consultative spirit during the negotiations culminating in the establishment of the Federal Constitution. This was important to ensure the stability of the new nation. As a consequence, the social contract between the Malays and non-Malays was assured when non-Malays were granted citizenships while the privileged status of the Malays as well as their language and religion, was enshrined in the Constitution.

This ethnic diversity became the cornerstone of the new nation from Persekutuan Tanah Melayu in 1957 to the inclusion of Sabah and Sarawak to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, when the indigenous peoples of East Malaysia were also incorporated into Article 153 of the Federal Constitution. Solidarity is a very important aspect that needs to be understood, learned and practiced by all.


In sociology, solidarity represents a complete integration process that produces the feeling of oneness, togetherness and social bond which are pivotal in promoting mutual understanding among the individuals making up a community. In the contest of sociology, this is known as organic solidarity, a term coined by renowned sociologist Émile Durkheim.

Organic solidarity means the solidarity comes into existence because of interdependence in a dynamic society as a consequence of modernization and industrialization.

A community comprises a wide variety of functions, job duties, values and relationships, whereby the constituents depend on one another to ensure that their needs and interests will continue to be satisfied. Social unity needs to be preserved to ensure equilibrium in the community. In the event any of the components functions less efficiently, such equilibrium and social unity will be compromised.

Organic society

In an organic society, social order is in place, because the constituents realize that there will not be stability in the absence of laws and solidarity. The conformity to the integrity of the laws will ensure that the concept of equality is always embraced by the entire community.

The reality of solidarity

The ethnic diversity of Malaysia is a historical reality that needs to be cherished by all Malaysians because no one can change the history alone. Without coordination from all quarters, economic activities will be halted, given the fact that many of the local businesses are controlled by the Chinese, while most of their workers are Malays, Indians and other bumiputras.

In Indonesia, some 87% of the country's population are pribumis, while the Chinese make up almost 13% of the total population.

In both Indonesia and Malaysia, the indigenous peoples constitute the dominant communities, but they lack the economic resources even though they enjoy some privileges and rights as assured by their respective constitutions.

As such, unity will only be boosted if fundamental issues such as wealth gap and social differences are resolved. That said, another big issue that needs to be addressed is lack of social interactions which has become a major stumbling block to national unity.

Social interactions

Solidarity can be reinforced if the society is able to get rid of the elements of prejudices and negative generalizations by one ethnic community towards the others.

DAP Veteran Leader Lim Kit Siang said recently that Chinese, Malays and Indians were afraid of one another and they were living in fear. Such a situation occurs because of lack of interactions among the people, especially in the working class or lower segments of the society. Among the Chinese and Malay elites, their relationships are relatively close because they have all benefited from their business or commercial endeavors such that intermarriages are not uncommon among the children of Chinese and Malay tycoons.

On the other hand, the children of the working class or low and medium segments of the society lack such interactions because of the schools they have attended, their religions, and prejudices held by their parents and families towards other races.

This phenomenon is evident at our schools and universities whereby students hardly take the initiative to mingle around or eat with their schoolmates from other ethnic groups, even though schools and tertiary institutions are supposed to be the perfect places for people to interact, share ideas and know one another. They only come together when an assignment is passed down that requires interaction with people from a different ethnic community.

If such phenomenon is allowed to persist, its impact on national unity will be manifested because this group of people will build the future of this nation as politicians, social activists or leaders of opinion groups.

Stereotype and racism

Stereotype is an inordinate attitude of drawing generalized conclusions towards different actions and characteristics of a community. For instance, there has been a stereotyped impression that the Malays are lazy. Such a stereotyped notion was first constructed by the colonialists because the Malays, Javanese and Filipinos were reluctant to work in the Europeans' estates, for the indigenous population had their own lands to work on which were not bound by the colonial policies and were closer to their existing settlements. The same stereotype later spread to other ethnic groups resulting in prejudices that actually facilitated the colonialists' administration under the principle of “divide and rule”.

As for racism, it is a form of belief and attitude that justifies the denial of fair treatment to other ethnic communities. For example, we have seen recruitment advertisements that favor Chinese or Malay applicants even though there are also Indians and other indigenous groups such as Kadazan-Dusun, Iban, Bidayuh, Bajau, Kelabit, etc. This shows that lack of intercommunity interactions has spawned a prejudicial disposition.

In addition, racism can also be manifested in the form of flawed impression that a particular ethnic community is more competent in athletics while another is intellectually more superior, or more suitable for specific job positions, among others.

Also, racism may entail certain elements such as the negative stereotyped impressions established on social media that certain ethnic groups are more prone to drug addiction, alcoholism, bribery, etc., even though the same can happen in every community.

The same goes for the attitude of putting the blame on other races for own community's lack of success in economic, academic and professional fields.

If we allow all these to go on, social harmony and national unity will invariably be at stake. We cannot solve the solidarity issue unless we are willing to lower ourselves, compromise, and act more responsibly.

The attitude of tolerance and accommodation should constitute the cornerstone of solidarity in this pluralistic country of ours. And all this begins with a genuine and sincere heart.

A harmonious relationship will be destroyed if we cannot contain our emotions or reason things out sensibly. The country's Independence will become more meaningful if each one of us will respect one another and consolidate our mutual understanding and friendship irrespective of race and religion. All these values need to be upheld always.

(Associate Professor Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi is Senior Lecturer at Department of Socioculture, Academy of Malay Studies, Universiti Malaya.)


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