ONE of stand-up comedian Harith Iskandar's most popular acts is set at the scene of a road accident. In it, he mimics a passer-by who asks: "Is the victim a Malay or Chinese?"
This is when Harith, realising that something is wrong, rephrases the question to: "Why can't the victim be a Malay, Chinese, Indian or lain-lain (other races)?"
The skit is a hit.
Fellow comedian Jit Murad, in a joint interview with Harith recently, offers an explanation of why many Malaysians are tickled pink by that scene: It is a reflection of how we see ourselves.
After almost half a century of independence, Malaysians are still putting their racial origins before nationality. Although not often admitted, racial considerations still weigh heavily in almost every facet of our lives.
Jit says race is "the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about".
Historian Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim, in an interview with the New Sunday Times recently (read here), lamented that race relations between Malaysians were at their most fragile in nearly 40 years.
Not everyone agrees with Khoo, one of the architects of the Rukun Negara. Racial unity, after all, is not an exact science and there is no quantifiable stress test to measure the bonds that hold the races together.
"But all in all, there have been improvements in some areas and deterioration in others," says Kerk Kim Hock, a member of the National Unity Advisory Panel.
On the plus side, for example, a study in 2004 showed that young Malaysian professionals and college students were "less racial" in their choice of friends.
Dr Heng Pek Koon, an assistant professor with the American University in Washington DC who led the survey, says almost half the Chinese respondents and more than half of the Malay and Indian respondents had friends outside their ethnic groups.
But several incidents over the years have blemished the muhibah spirit that Malaysians hold dear. Kerk, the ex-Kota Melaka Member of Parliament, cites the more recent controversies surrounding former army commando M. Moorthy's religious status and the reaction to the proposed Interfaith Commission in 2005.
Even the fallout from the nude squat incident and the 11 men who had their heads shaved by the police for playing mahjong were in coffee shop discussions, peppered with racial undertones, and from then on took on a life of their own.
More than 30 years after the New Economic Policy was introduced, why can't Malaysians look beyond their racially-tinted lenses?
Kerk puts the blame squarely on what he calls the 4Ps: policy, politics, politicians and prejudices.
"Unfair policy and communal politics divide the people. Politicians who are ethnic champions win votes at the expense of unity while prejudices prevent interaction between those from different communities."
Another cause for concern is the growing restlessness among the younger generation of non-Malays with regard to the Government's affirmative action policies, says Heng.
Unlike their forefathers, these people had not gone through Independence or the May 13 racial riots.
The great-grandchildren of Chinese and Indian immigrants have a lower threshold for programmes such as the NEP, she says.
This has resulted in unease among a whole generation who only learn of the 1969 racial troubles and the Independence struggle from history books.
Harith offers a layman's view on a pet topic that often generates laughter among his audience: "The reason why we think of ourselves as Malays, Chinese and Indians first is because the political system is such. We have Umno for the Malays, MCA for Chinese and MIC for Indians. People will think that if there is already segregation at the top, why should I not do the same? It has become a fact of life."
It is for this reason that Heng thinks the breaking down of racial barriers must come from the top. In this case, Umno, as the dominant party in Barisan Nasional, holds the key.
"When Umno leaders start thinking of all Malaysians first, other political parties will follow suit," she says in a telephone interview from the US.
Kerk has his own formula to peel away the layers of suspicion and ignorance built up among the races over time. He calls them the 3Cs, namely consensus, compromise and commitment.
However, he notes that "compromise" has become a dirty word, especially among certain ethnic champions, although making concessions is part of a healthy democracy.
For example, he says, if replacing all schools with English-medium ones is not politically desirable, policy-makers must find other ways to foster racial unity.
But schools are certainly a good place to start. Jit says the Government could introduce Mandarin and Tamil in national schools to attract more non-Malays.
"Now, national schools are more like Malay schools," says Jit, whose father Tan Sri Murad Mohamad Noor, a former Education Ministry director-general, is among the staunchest proponents of returning national schools to their former glory.
"Let's make them truly national. Then the young will start to learn to interact with other races at a tender age."
The lack of interaction among the races over the years, whether due to segregation in schools, at their workplace or in residential areas, has only served to make Ahmad, Chong and Subra more detached from each other.
Ong Kian Ming, a Fulbright scholar at Duke University in the United States, suggests that people from different races group together for social causes.
"For example, it doesn't matter if you are a Malay, Chinese or Indian when you are a member of the Liverpool or Manchester United fan club," says Ong, formerly attached with a local think tank.
"You're bound by a common cause - supporting your team. When private citizens get together for a common cause, you get to mix around with people from other races. Then, you'll learn that the 'others' are not so different from you.
"You'll learn that 'others' have their own idiosyncrasies that you learn to celebrate or embrace. You'll also find out that the 'homogeneity' of the others is a myth and the 'homogeneity' of your own is not all it is made out to be."
Social organisations such as the Heritage Trust and WWF-Malaysia as well as professional groupings such as the Bar Council, which have a multi-racial membership, are good platforms for interaction, he says.
Despite all the underlying problems, tolerance and understanding have glued Malaysians of different races together for over 40 years, with only the occasional conflicting interests.
This, Heng says, is a miracle in itself.
Racial polarisation, which has plagued public universities for a long time, is not about to go away anytime soon, writes Chow Kum Hor.
UNIVERSITI Utara Malaysia (UUM) Associate Professor Dr Mansor Mohd Noor sometimes likes to pick a student at random, bring him to the front of the lecture hall and ask him to state the most obvious thing about the assembly of 200 or so students in front of them.
"Without fail, they will tell me that students are all sitting with others of the same race," says Mansor.
"Then I tell them they've overlooked another, perhaps more apparent, pattern.
"The students also sit according to gender. Generally, the males sit with males and females with females."
Mansor suggests this is because race counts even more than gender, even at the apex of the country's education system.
Racial polarisation is not new in our universities, manifesting itself in almost every facet of campus life.
Study groups are invariably mono-ethnic; students are averse to sharing hostel rooms with those of other races, and inter-racial social interaction is rare.
In a survey on ethnic relations among UUM students last year, all ethnic groups showed a distinct inclination to interact among their own race.
They are also more likely to pick those of their own race as room-mates and help them in whatever way they can.
Although the survey, led by Mansor and involving 832 students, was done only in UUM, he believes the outcome represents the state of affairs in all 17 public institutes of higher learning nationwide.
Mansor, who has been conducting surveys on this topic for the past 15 years, adds that last year's survey results correlates with 2003 findings, involving more than 6,000 university students nationwide, that students of different races were not mixing with each other.
"It is a problem of great concern," says Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Ong Tee Keat, himself a Universiti Malaya engineering graduate in the early 1980s.
"We need to enhance inter-ethnic interaction and cohesion."
Associate Prof Dr N. S. Rajendran of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris says university students' reluctance to come out of their racial cocoons is because Malaysians have over the years taken national integration for granted.
The lecturer with the Faculty of Cognitive Sciences and Human Development adds that Malaysians have got used to skirting issues deemed taboo.
Questions like poverty and education opportunities have become topics discussed in whispers within the same racial circle, rather than openly talked about, he observes.
The uneasiness over how such issues are tackled has forced many, including university students, to retreat into their own racial shells.
It did not help that polarisation takes root long before many first set foot into universities; the country's diverse system of national, national-type and religious schools sets students apart at an early age.
With such varied backgrounds, Mansor says it is only natural for "freshies" to group according to their racial origins.
For many, it is their first time away from home.
This causes anxiety and apprehension, which draws them to people they are comfortable with; people who speak their language and understand their aspirations.
"If these (students) are one day going to be the country's leaders but they have minimal interaction with those from other races now, something is wrong somewhere," says Rajendran.
University administrators are also to be blamed, says Mansor.
His surveys consistently see students complaining about difficulties obtaining the green light and support for non-Muslim or non- Bumiputera activities.
True or perceived, this has bred suspicion among non-Malays, he adds.
UKM third-year Law undergraduate Danny Loo Kheng Soon, 23, who also sits on the students' representative council, admits there is a need to bring inter-racial interaction on campus to a higher plane.
He says when it comes to hanging out at the mamak stall after class or holidaying together during semester breaks, students invariably go back to their own race.
Rajendran is fed up with his students' proclivity to stick to their own kind.
He has told them that his tutorial groups must comprise students from different races.
The Higher Education Ministry is also drafting a plan to intensify the Baktisiswa programme, Ong says, involving undergraduates staying with foster families, especially in rural areas, during their holidays.
At present, it is held on an ad hoc basis by student organisations.
"The ministry is looking into having students stay with foster families of different races.
"We want them to be exposed to the ways of the kampung, new villages and estates," says Ong.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia also has programmes to promote racial integration.
Its Centre for Public and International Relations director, Prof Dr Yang Farina Abdul Aziz, says the university's Racial Integration Secretariat and students' representative council regularly hold multi-cultural programmes to foster unity.
They include the hugely popular Lantern Festival and Ponggal Festival.
"We do not believe in using force. We do not compel students of different races to share hostel rooms, but we encourage them to.
"Over the years, racial harmonisation in UKM has taken positive steps in the right direction although progress has been slow.
"We are continuously thinking out new programmes and innovative ideas," says the professor of inorganic chemistry.
Ong, when asked if the ministry might compel students of different races to share hostel rooms, says there are other ways to expose students to the cultures of others.
Mansor says one way would be to incorporate values and practices of the country's major races into university's orientation programme.
"This way, students will not face culture shocks when they start to mingle with other races, or better yet, stay together."
But Rajendran is not convinced that such programmes alone are sufficient to address campus polarisation.
With only three years in universities, much of which is spent on their studies, he says there is only so much that can be done to bridge the racial divide.
"Don't expect them to spend a few days in a camp about racial unity and hope they don't go back to their old ways. This kind of thing takes time.
"You must inculcate these values when they are young, preferably in primary school or even kindergarten.
"Teachers, principals, professors and leaders must all practise what they preach."
He adds that there is no shortcut to arresting racial polarisation in universities.
The authorities can only mitigate the problem, which begins long before young people enter the hallowed halls of these institutions.