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Does Your Race Determine Where You Can Rent, And Where You Can’t? 

Since her university days, Laura has had a hard time finding accommodation. It wasn’t because there were limited rooms or houses to rent or she was unable to afford the deposit, but it was because of her racial composition[1].

Being half-Indian, Laura faced discrimination by prospective landlords in a nation that claims to be a melting pot of cultures and races. Laura’s story is one of many race-based tenant problems in the rental landscape of the nation. 

In 2019, YouGov Omnibus found that 62% of respondents aged 18 and above have encountered advertisements with specific racial requirements when looking for a place to rent[2]

The urbanisation rate in Malaysia steadily increases, with a projection of 88% by 2050[3]. In 2014, the highly urbanised state of Selangor (91.4% urban) and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur (100% urban) had a 27.6% and 33.4% share of households renting, higher than the national share of households renting at 19%[4].

Source: Malay Mail

However, the pandemic has only caused more individuals and households to opt to rent and mostly low-income households. In 2014, 41.8% of urban poor households were renters[4]

Renting itself is a costly endeavour, and having to be denied a place to live based on the landlord’s or property owner’s racial, ethnicity and nationality preference complicates the process. 

Why The Specificity?

When browsing advertisements posted on Facebook groups or community boards, it is common to find landlords specifying their racial preference of potential tenants. There are advertisements that have even gone as far as to state, “no Malay/Chinese/Indian,” on their house or bedroom listings. 

Some rental property websites have also encouraged this practice by providing the “preferred race” category. The race that often bears the brunt of this commercial practice is the minority group such as the Indian community. 

Source: Today Online

Pingalayen or Twitter handle@pingster2008 had faced instances of discrimination when he moved from Kedah to KL due to his ethnicity. Resolute to prove that his experience isn’t an isolated occurrence, he extracted data from property websites to quantify his experience[5]

Based on his analysis, 45% of almost 10,000 rental listings in Klang Valley explicitly rejected Malaysian Indian tenants[5]

Laura, who is half-Indian, had to share her photo with property agents and landlords to assess her suitability[1]

One agent said that the real estate management company has a WhatsApp group where they would ‘decide’ who to rent out the rooms to based on how they looked. She showed me the chat, and it was full of pictures of other Indians and foreigners. They allowed me to stay because I didn’t look like a ‘typical Indian’, whatever that meant. – Laura, a Malaysian who experienced racism when seeking out a place to rent[1]

But some other renters were more unlucky in their accommodation hunt – being ignored or “ghosted” immediately when contacting the landlords after stating their race and ethnicity. Sometimes, even though racial preference has not been specified in the advertisement, landlords or agents would declare their preference after the initial contact. 

After they saw my race under the details, the agents didn’t contact me back. It’s been a struggle to find any place to rent in KL as a male and mixed Malaysian, as soon as they know I have some Malaysian-Indian blood. – Lim, a Malaysian who experienced racism when finding a place to rent[1]

What’s worse, after securing a place to stay and the deposit paid, the tenants and landlords had a change of mind. This happened to Jayaaprianka Palanesamy when one of the tenants informed her that she was no longer welcome to stay with them[6]

I had packed all my things and even booked a Grab ride to the apartment in Wangsa Maju. It was so frustrating and heartbreaking. Imagine being far away from home, in the midst of moving from one rented unit to the next, only to be told at the eleventh hour that you can’t move in because of your race. How is this fair? – Jayaaprianka Palanesamy, a Malaysian who experienced racism when finding a place to rent[6]

Source: Varnam

Pingalayen found that locations closer to the city centre had fewer listings open to Indians. 

However, one prospective tenant, Banu Jane Jothimalarr shared that things are a lot worse in Seremban[6]

Out of 24 listings that I contacted, only five were willing to rent to Indians.

Just because I’m Indian, I’m not eligible for homes. I’m so mad and heartbroken that people have to go through this in this day and age. It’s absolutely disgusting.  – Banu Jane Jothimalarr, a Malaysian who experienced racism when finding a place to rent[6]

The Reason Behind Discrimination

But why does the Indian community bear the brunt of discrimination?

Mira and her husband’s encounter with property agents may help to explain the stereotype held towards the community[1].  

We found out from another agent that the agent who brought us to view the first unit spoke openly and told them that we look like Indians and that we will not have the money to rent. – Mira, a Malaysian who experienced racism when seeking out a place to rent[1]

Some landlords supposedly don’t want the house to “smell Indian.” 

One agent even told me the owner doesn’t want to rent out to Indians because the house ‘will smell Indian’. – Banu Jane Jothimalarr, a Malaysian who experienced racism when finding a place to rent[6]

The limitations are not just for permission to rent, but also rules and regulations upon renting the unit. Some landlords disallow the cooking of other cuisines for the fear of lingering smell. 

We don’t allow cooking but since you’re Chinese, it’s okay. We don’t want foreigners and Indians to make the place smelly with their cooking. – Adam, a Malaysian who experienced racism when finding a place to rent[6]

Landlords, however, feel justified in discriminating against Indian tenants in particular due to the perception that they would create a mess, won’t take good care of the property or be unable to pay rent on time.

But, ironically, Indian tenants were found to pay more rent as compared to other races.  Pingalayen said depending on the room type, Indians have to pay between 6% and 22% more rent than other races[5]

On average, Indians have to pay 19% (RM107) more in monthly rent than non-Indians when renting a room.  [5]

Rent disparity also varies based on location, Pingalayen noted that Indians have to pay 21% more in locations such as Wangsa Maju, SS2 and Setapak. 

Are Foreigners Discriminated Too?

In June 2016, a condominium complex in Cheras put up a banner encouraging landlords to “say no to African people.” The banner also had an image of a dark-skinned man with a large yellow X across his face. This was a supposed guideline by Pangsapuri Waja, the condominium complex [7]:

“ATTENTION! All homeowners and property agents: In accordance with our Internal Housing Law [House Rule Para 20.2(b)], no Africans shall be permitted to rent premises in Pangsapuri Waja with immediate effect. – The Internal Housing Law at Pangsapuri Waja[7]

The justification behind this and many other landlords’ reluctance to allow foreigners of African descent is down to the assumption that the community creates nuisance and problems in society. 

The discrimination may not appear overt in other areas of Klang Valley but it is just as apparent. 

A Bangsar property specialist Song Sia had also found that condominium owners would tell property agents to not look for Middle Eastern or tenants of African descent[8]

Property owners in Bangsar will be more keen on renting to expats, but their preference is not Middle Eastern [sic]. They will much more prefer (tenants from) Australia, the US. Even some will highlight not to rent to Middle Eastern people. – Song Sia, Bangsar property specialist[8]

The Landlord’s Justification

In the landlord’s opinion, their commercial preference is not a form of discrimination or racism. To many, there is practical reasoning to it. 

It is not unusual. We will stick to the choice of the landlords because it is their property. There is nothing racist about the advertisements – Muhammad Iqbal Anwar, 33, property agent [9]

In the case of a Muslim landlord, it may have to do with religious sensitivities, for example,  reducing the likelihood of pork and alcohol being cooked and eaten in the house. Thus outwardly stating that Muslims are preferred. 

Sometimes Indian landlords are also deterred from having Indian tenants hinting at different reasoning for this supposed preference. 

Interestingly, Indian landlords also don’t want Indian tenants. This goes to highlight it’s beyond racial discrimination, there’s also a practical dimension to it. – Rajiv Rishyakaran, Bukit Gasing state assemblyman[10] 

Landlords in more affluent areas at the same time have a higher preference for tenants with well-paying jobs as an indicator that the tenants will be able to pay the rent. When receiving two different offers from expatriates and locals, the owner will be inclined to choose the former. 

In general, it’s only a competition between expats and locals. If two people have offers, the owner will accept the expat first rather than the local. – Joe Vivek, property agent in Bangsar[8]

Sometimes, even with locals, the owners would prefer Chinese tenants as compared to Malay or Indian tenants due to worries about their ability to pay rent. The caveat to be accepted by landlords would be to have professional, well-paying jobs to rent a property in affluent neighbourhoods. 

However, what we have also observed from the stories shared by renters that faced difficulties in finding accommodation is that racism is glossed over with the veneer of personal preferences and practical reasons. 

It is important to consider what perpetuates discrimination and prejudices are stereotypes that are only reinforced by the bad apples in society. To some, it is seen as a preference, but generalising a community based on one encounter is a flawed train of thought. 

Are Victims Of Rental Racism Protected?

Under Article 8(2), the prohibition of racial discrimination is only applicable to situations involving the government and individuals. In an unfortunate turn of events, the Federal Constitution does not view discrimination in the rental market as unlawful because it is an exchange between two private citizens. 

Under the Federal Constitution, there isn’t really any provision that deals with discrimination between individuals in the private sector. That’s why we always see instances when people say there’s discrimination in employment or rental because at this point in time, under the Federal Constitution it is not unlawful, it is not prohibited and we also don’t have a specific law to deal with discrimination as between individuals. – Syahredzan Johan, lawyer[10]

In 2019, the previous Housing and Local Government Minister, Zuraida Kamaruddin said the ministry is in the process of drafting the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) to protect both landlords and tenants from ethnic discrimination[11]

However, in 2021, the ministry is under the helm of Datuk Reezal Merican Naina Merican and the suggested provision would require further study in local circumstances to ensure that the act would safeguard the interests of landlords and tenants. Despite acknowledging that he has heard of the cases cropping up now and then[12]

In Malaysia, if we speak of discrimination, it is related to personal preferences. Reezal Merican Naina Merican, Housing and Local Government Minister[12]

At the same time, there has been pushback by the National House Buyers Association, stating that the RTA should focus on reviving the economy rather than solving racism in the rental sphere.

If I am to let out my property for rent, I don’t care about your skin colour. If you can pay, I will let you. Let’s say a Chinese person comes to me and offers RM2,000 in rent but the next person, who is Malay, offers me RM2,300. Obviously, I will accept the higher rent. – National House Buyers Association[13]

Back To Square One

Even if there is legislation in place to discipline or ensure property owners provide equal opportunity for prospective tenants, the matter lies in the management’s executions. 

We can deal with bad behaviours by setting up good laws/rules that can discipline tenants (from whatever race or corner of the world). It is up to individual property management. Faizal Musa, a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia[8]

Alternatively, some of the experts’ opinions point to the involvement of the Housing Ministry in establishing better rules to ensure certain standards of equality.  

Or the Housing Ministry can help quarters, apartments, condos to form better rules that are more accessible and maintain certain standards of equality. This will help the expats, and the local landlords, neighbours etc. – Faizal Musa, a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia[8]

But, perhaps, the solution to fix the fiasco requires a long-term education to undo strongly held stereotypes carried by many in the society. 

We have only one remedy. To educate people that bad behaviours should not be associated with a certain race. We should deal with behaviours, not race, this is a standard human rights parameter. – Faizal Musa, a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia[8]

Rather than relying on authorities and lawmakers to step in and provide a remedy, there have been organisations filling in the shoes to promote inclusivity in the rental market and other aspects of Malaysian life. SPEEDHOME promotes a discrimination-free rental platform for potential tenants. On the other hand, Architects Of Diversity is tackling the issue at its root by conducting workshops for school going children embedding values of unity at the grassroots level. 

It would be ignorant to say that racism and discrimination only exist in the rental sphere, it is present in our daily lives and as a fellow Malaysian, the path to combat racism is by firstly challenging your own sets of stereotypes. Seek out information on different racial compositions in Malaysia, befriend them and do not let hearsay and single experience with members of the community turn into us denying their rights. 

Explore our sources:

  1. T.Jayne. (2022). Malaysians Share Horrible Stories Of How They Struggled To Rent A Place Due To Racism. SAYS. Link
  2. K.Ho. (2019). A fifth of Malaysians have faced ethnic discrimination when renting property. YouGov. Link
  3. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2020).EVOLUTION OF MIGRATION FOR URBAN AND RURAL. Link
  4. Department of Statistics. (2015). Household Income and Basic Amenities Survey 2014. Putrajaya: Department of Statistics.
  5. A. Dorall. (2020). Malaysian Proves That Racism In Housing Rentals Is Very Much Alive. The Rakyat Post. Link
  6. S.Jay. (2021). Renting in Malaysia in the face of prejudice. Free Malaysia Today. Link
  7. K.Ng. (2018). Racism in Malaysia’s housing market: how landlords get away with barring African and South Asian tenants. South China Morning Post. Link
  8. I.Lim. (2019). In ‘liberal’ Bangsar, race still matters to landlords. Malay Mail. Link 
  9. Nation Thailand. (2019). Tenants seeking a place to rent claim widespread discrimination. Link
  10. I.Lim. (2020). In spotlight on Indians’ home-renting difficulties, lawyer says no law in Malaysia against individuals’ racial discrimination. Malay Mail. Link
  11. T.Jayne. (2019). Racist Landlords Will Soon Be Subjected To A New Anti-Discrimination Law. SAYS. Link 
  12. M.Kaur. (2021). Racial woes in home rentals being looked at in new act. Free Malaysia Today. Link
  13. D.Ragu. (2022). Racism, landlords and tenants: two views on new law. Free Malaysia Today. Link
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