KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Passing under the red and gold arch leading to Chinatown, a symbol of this country's prominent Chinese minority, I thought about the illusions and realities of ethnic relations here.
On the surface, harmony seems evident. Food is a blend of Malay, Chinese and other traditions. But the facade quickly fades.
The friction shows up in various ways, from historically significant events, such as the 1969 Malay and Chinese riots that left hundreds dead, to the day-to-day animosity that marks the Malay-Chinese relationship.
Some of the tension has religious roots. Malays are Muslim, while the Chinese embrace a blend of Buddhism, Confucionism and Taoism.
Another reason for Malay suspicions about the Chinese perhaps ties in with the communist insurgency that disrupted Malaysia from the end of World War II until the late 1980s; most of the guerrillas were Chinese.
But the main problem stems from a reality as overpowering as the smell of grilled pork that fills the air in these bustling streets: the Chinese success story. It's a familiar one that has unfolded in many parts of Asia and around the world. Equipped with entrepreneurial drive, business savvy, resources and expansive networks, the Chinese have developed an imposing position as Malaysia's economically dominant ethnic minority.
Though they represent only a fourth of the country's population, the Chinese account for 70 percent of its market capital and loom large in every profitable industry, from communications to rubber.
Whether Chinese economic power has helped Malaysia or not -- and it certainly has -- matters little to many Malays. They resent the "foreigners" for their controlling influence.
"Those bastard Chinese," a Malay cab driver spat one afternoon. "They own everything."
Some Chinese come across as equally antagonistic.
Christina Ong, a Malay-Chinese (with emphasis on the latter) ticked off differences between the two groups with gusto. "Malays are different in their religion and culture. Malays are lazy and less intelligent. They only want a handout from the government or the Chinese. We eat and shop together, but we live in separate places and speak different languages at home, and we don't do business together unless we have to."
Ong, a realtor, is especially frustrated by government rules that require her to give Malays two years to consider buying her homes before she can offer them to other groups. This "bad business," said Ong, is tolerated by the "hard-working Chinese," who are "patient." They accept the sociopolitical situation as it is, she added, accommodating government policies to minimize tensions.
With such feelings prevalent, it's not surprising that the Chinese work, live and socialize almost entirely separate from the Malay majority.
Rates of intermarriage between the Chinese and Malays are close to zero, though in larger cities, like this one, the younger generation -- which may hold the key to easing ethnic differences -- gradually is expanding the practice.
The Malaysian government has tried to narrow economic disparities by implementing policies that allow Malays privileged access to jobs and business opportunities. As a result, a small Malay middle-income group has emerged, and the percentage of Malays filling professional jobs has risen from 6 percent to 32 percent.
Yet the Chinese unrelentingly dominate, which sets the stage for future tensions and potential violence.
Continuing to address this dilemma is tedious but fundamentally necessary. Situations in which a minority community controls a disproportionate share of wealth and the majority group resides largely in poverty cause dangerous instability.
As I passed the red and gold arch to exit Chinatown, I wondered if ethnic cohesion would ever become the norm in this country. With greater educational efforts to change negative attitudes, perhaps more young people would be inspired to take the lead in closing Malaysia's ethnic divide.
Victoria Brown, a resident of Apopka and 2004 graduate of Georgetown University, is on a six-month travel and research tour in Asia. She wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"