KUALA LUMPUR, Mar 22 (IPS) - Malaysia's first serious survey of race relations, in 50 years, shows that behind the façade of outward unity and peace, racism runs deep in this multi-ethnic 'melting pot'.
The telephone survey of about 1,200 Malaysians also found that the majority of the various races find comfort and security in their respective ethnicity and not in a common 'Malaysian' identity, as the travel and tourism brochures suggest.
"The findings are not at all surprising," said social scientist Chandra Muzaffar. "This is partly because ethnic boundaries are real in our society and almost every sphere of public life is linked to ethnicity in one way or another."
The survey, by the independent Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, also found that negative racial stereotyping was deeply entrenched. For example, minority Chinese and Indians see the majority Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population of 25 million people, as lazy.
Chinese and Indians, who began migrating here in the early 19th century, make up 26 percent and 8.0 percent of the population, respectively.
It found that more than half the population does not trust each other. For a nation that claims to be a 'melting pot', only eleven percent of the respondents said they had eaten often with friends from other races in the past three months. Thirty four percent said they have never had a meal with people of other races.
The survey found that 42 percent do not consider themselves Malaysian first, 46 percent say ethnicity is important in voting, 55 percent blame politicians for racial problems and 70 percent would help their own ethnic group first.
According to the survey, 58 percent of Malays, 63 percent of Chinese and 43 percent of Indians polled agreed that "in general, most Malays are lazy."
Meanwhile, 71 percent of Malays, 60 percent of Chinese and 47 percent of Indians agree that "in general, most Chinese are greedy." Sixty-four percent of Malays, 58 percent of Chinese and 20 percent of Indians agreed that "in general, most Indians cannot be trusted."
The survey, commissioned by the semi-official New Straits Times newspaper and supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, is the first honest look at Malaysian society and the findings have left Malaysians gasping in disbelief at how firmly racism and racial stereotyping has become entrenched and accepted as a way of life.
The Merdeka Centre said the survey "gives an honest picture of the country's situation and inter-racial perception" and warns that extremists can take advantage of inter-racial fears and suspicions in the absence of a meaningful interaction.
The ruling National Front government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi works hard to portray the country as an example of multiculturalism where Muslims, Hindus and Christians live together in peace.
But experts have been voicing concern that, increasingly, the communities were drifting apart and polarization of the races and a lack of social unity were on the rise.
They squarely blame the politicians and the country's race-based politics for the sharp rise in racism. The shocking findings have also prompted civil society to demand a ban on all race-based political parties.
"Let us outlaw all Malaysian political parties that restricts membership on grounds of race, religion or sex," said lawyer politician A. Sivanesan who is senior leader in the opposition Democratic Action Party, one of the four registered multi-racial parties in the country. "It should be written in the constitution that only multi-racial bodies be permitted."
Others say the few multi-racial political parties are weak and unable to grow because of the strong domination of race-based parties over the political system.
"Social problems affect all communities," Sivanesan said. "Poverty, drug and crime are not specific to any one race. All races face the blight."
"What the survey clearly shows is that the various races live peacefully but separately," Sivanesan told IPS. "Half a century after independence we are further away from knowing each other than when we started - separate schools, separate friends, separate lives."
Curiously, the survey showed that many Malaysians had vague ideas, not only of each other's cultures and traditions but also of their own.
Hari Raya Puasa was wrongly perceived as the Malay New Year by 32 per cent of Malays, 84 per cent of Chinese and 45 per cent of Indians - when the festival actually marks the culmination of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting.
Similarly, the Chinese New Year was thought to be a religious festival by 57 percent of Malays, 53 percent of Indians and a whopping 62 percent of Chinese respondents.
Despite the lack of unity, the country has enjoyed long periods of peace except for one race riot in 1969.
And unlike in some neighbouring countries where uniformity is enforced, Malaysia's minorities are not restricted and are free to practise their own cultures and religions and enjoy a vernacular education.
But, the government officially practises a policy of positive discrimination that favours Malays over other races in many areas -- from employment, education, scholarships and business to cheaper housing and assisted savings.
Private companies must hand over 30 percent of equity to ethnic Malays and a portion of housing and commercial property must be sold to them
These measures, collectively called the New Economic Policy or NEP, were started in 1970 to reduce the yawning economic gap with the Chinese community, which dominates business in this country, as in most of South-east Asia.
Originally designed to last for 20 years it has continued without check, sparking envy and resentment between Malays and non-Malays.
Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was sacked and jailed in 1998, has caused a stir by proposing to reform the political landscape which he says is straining national harmony.
"We need to appeal to the Malays, Chinese and the Indians and the rest that we need to go beyond race-based politics. If you continue to harp and support this racial equation, you will never be able to overcome racial divisions," he told supporters at a recent rally.
The government is aware of the deep divide and has taken measures to close the gap. One experiment in racial integration is the 'Vision Schools' initative where students share sports fields, assembly halls and canteens, but attend classes conducted in their own languages.
But the initiative is embroiled in controversy mainly because of the fear among Chinese and Indians that the vernacular education system would suffer and erode their identities.
A popular initiative, the national service programme, started in 2004, puts youths of all the races under a single roof. Students are chosen at random and taken to camps for about three months in the hope that they will learn team work and absorb each other's culture.
But, the experts say racism is too deeply entrenched in official policies and the socio-political system for such 'half-hearted' measures to make impact.
"The survey's findings might be a bitter pill to swallow but it tells us who we really are behind the façade we show the world," said Sivanesan.
ONE of the statistics you provided in your survey of public perceptions of ethnic relations on several issues (NST, March 20) showed that "58 per cent of Malays, 63 per cent of Chinese and 43 per cent of Indians polled agreed that, in general, most Malays are lazy".
The figures only confirm that pernicious ideas left behind by colonialists still hold currency in our society.
That some Malays subscribe to this idea is a sadder commentary on the whole issue.
It bespeaks the memorable description of Malcolm X (El-Malik Shabazz) on the "house Negro" who, having lost his identity through centuries of slavery, saw himself only as an extension of his "master" and did not know his self-worth.
The erudite Prof Datuk Dr Syed Hussein Al Attas’ famous book, The Myth of the Lazy Native, which the late Professor Edward Said called "startlingly original", covers the issue from all angles and places the contrived perception in context, as a deceptive political creation rather than an observed truth.
Syed Hussein explains this myth with bold and decisive strokes of his pen with reason and fact.
The portrayal is not shocking: The Western world, as colonisers, has caricatured people under its dominance in more lugubrious terms.
Hitler talks about the credibility of telling a big lie and said that "if you lie long enough and loud enough and often enough, people will believe it" and his propaganda minister Dr Paul Joseph Goebbels said that "people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it".
Some of my friends also say Malays can be lazy.
But then I tell them about Malays who are hardworking. Since I was a child, I have seen Malays setting up stalls in the wee hours of the morning, selling kuih, nasi lemak, mee goreng and other dishes.
This is evidence that, contrary to the stereotypical belief by some, the Malays can be quite diligent but have obviously been given a raw deal in their own society.
Most Malays I know who are involved in the trade are particular about making an honest living.
They cook the food fresh daily. So they wake up at 3am daily to prepare their food. Can you call them lazy? And these people have been doing this for decades.
This erroneous perception of Malays is the result of a misunderstanding of the psyche of the Malays.
Most Malay farmers, fishermen and hawkers are hardworking individuals whose only fault is that they are contented.
They do not feel that they have to make a killing when it comes to profits. They do not feel that they should kill themselves in the process of trying to make it big.
It is a philosophy and attitude that is simple, but not simplistic. It is wise, pragmatic, balanced and requires a certain presence of mind.
It gives more equanimity to one’s outlook on life. No philosophy that measures success only in monetary terms can be superior.