When you think about Malaysia, racism is less associated with the country that highlights multiracial and multiculturalism.
In Malaysia, racism isn’t manifested in violence and bloodshed as in many foreign countries. However, racism takes its form in insensitive remarks, microaggression in spaces and shut doors to opportunities owing to government policies.
From the 13 May incident in 1969 to the Langkah Sheraton, the backlash involving race is hideous and endless.
Human rights group Pusat Komas recorded 51 incidents of racial discrimination in 2021, compared to 21 cases in 2020. In 2022, over 1000 TikTok videos with racially provocative messages followed the GE15.
It is apparent that casual or everyday racism has seeped into the fabric of our society subtly and silently.
Are You With Us?
In the face of adversity, the in-group and out-group mechanisms in the society, or casting outsiders and insiders in the country are often magnified.
Nate*, a 23-year-old engineer of Middle Eastern, English and Malaysian Chinese descent who was in the United Kingdom, shares how the pandemic was unforgiving to the Asian community abroad.
My fiance noticed a lot of people were moving away from me, especially if I coughed in public. Some shoot me “dirty looks.” – Nate, 23, engineer
Racism isn’t just an isolated instance for the Asian community living abroad. There was a spike of racially charged messages on social media platforms during the period of the pandemic and political instability in Malaysia.
Anti-Malay Muslims sentiments after the Langkah Sheraton peaked at 706 negative mentions, 506 Anti-Chinese messages followed by 156 social media comments and posts against the Indian minority groups .
Numbers don’t tell the full story when it comes to experiences such as racism in Malaysia.
Recently, we spoke to a few Malaysians and got their take on racism in Malaysia. They shared with us their experiences, and we hope their stories will remind us that racism is not tolerated in a society that seeks unity among its people. We also hope that their experiences will inspire you to fight against racism for a better Malaysia.
Painful Stereotypes That Live On
Hana, 29, grew up hearing famous stereotypes that most Malaysians have heard for aeons.
The stereotypes pertaining to Malays are lazy, Chinese are greedy, and Indians are often aggressive, wife-beaters or drunkards.
Until today, those stereotypes are passed down by the elders.
As a Malay, I was often warned to be cautious of Chinese as “they are out to get us/overthrow Malays.” While I was never warned about Indians, I do recall people poking fun at their skin tone, and their bindi/pottu. – Hana, 29, operations manager
Hana has also experienced the stereotypes being cast against her in a workplace setting. Her former boss looked down on her whenever she took the time to practise her religious obligations.
He even went as far as accusing me of being inefficient, and wasting time because I had to perform my prayers – the surau was located in the basement, and it was quite a walk. – Hana, 29, operations manager
For Beatrice* of Tamil and Malayali ethnicity who had faced racism abroad, the most painful experiences are those subjected to in Malaysia.
The stereotypes that Indians are drunks and wife beaters or gangsters made me feel angry as the root causes of the issues such as generational trauma, minority issues of racism and being left out of social services are not addressed. – Beatrice, 35, working with international organisation
Ezra, a 28-year-old marketing specialist belonging to the Iban tribe, has heard stereotypes of aboriginal tribes in Malaysia, most of them coming from a place of ignorance.
Some of the stereotypes associated with the Iban people are, we are uneducated; living on trees and without any clothes. Iban people “makan babi hari-hari” – don’t go near them! Iban people speak “ooh ga ooh ga”. Iban people still headhunt.
– Ezra, 28, marketing specialist
Racism and prejudices are rooted in stereotypes or an oversimplified, generalised image of a person. Ironically, the persisting stereotypes we hold in society are unnecessary reminders of British colonialism.
The notion of race, which is an attempt to differentiate people biologically, was brought into Malaysia by the British colonial administration. – Rie Nakamura, School of International Studies Universiti Utara Malaysia
It is subscribing to the often negative stereotypes that drive many to take action. The Indian minorities in Malaysia often faced the brunt, a reality both Christina and Beatrice* have dealt with.
It was pretty common when I was dancing professionally . There were quite a few jobs where clients were looking for Chinese-only dancers. Even jobs that had nothing to do with Chinese celebrations. – Christina, 23, marketing executive
In 2005, every store we (Beatrice and her friend) went to, before we could even enter, there was either a sign saying Chinese only or the person at the entrance would say no, when we asked if we could apply for a job. – Beatrice*, 35, working with international organisation
Beatrice* who is from Klang has also had her fair share of rejections when it comes to renting a place, a lesson she has learnt the hard way.
I have always had issues with finding a place to rent in KL as the majority of Chinese owners make excuses once they find out I am of Indian descent. Fed up, I made the decision a couple of years ago to only rent from non-Chinese owners as I was tired of being questioned/treated badly. – Beatrice*, 35 working with international organisation
In addition to the everyday racism, there is an elephant in the room yet to be addressed. The minority ethnic groups in Malaysia; Chinese and Indian, are subjected to systemic racism stemming from the New Economic Policy (NEP) that sets a racial quota in the education sector for example.
During university placement, Violacea, a 27-year-old, had her first taste of racial discrimination.
I felt like all my hard work was to waste as I had to compete with other minorities for slim pickings of public university seats. It felt quite helpless as a 17 year old, and realising the systematic disadvantages that minorities face when it comes to accessing public education. – Violacea, 27, professional
The Breeding Of Racial Stereotypes And Discrimination
Beatrice*, who attended national schools finds it puzzling that despite many attending national schools with different races, racism still persists.
Growing up in Malaysia we learn different cultures and all that especially if you went to a Kebangsaan school. We are aware of different cultures and festivals and all that. Yet, most of us grow up to be racist. That’s just the Malaysian education system and also the everyday interactions among races in Malaysia. – Beatrice*, 35, working with international organisation
It was in primary school that Hana first learnt about racial stereotypes.
“Melayu pemalas, Cina pencuri/jahat, India busuk/pengotor.” Although I’m unable to recall who said it, and where I heard it, I do remember that it was when I was in primary school. – Hana, 29, operations manager
Hana was also teased for having slanted eyes, another stereotype of the Chinese ethnic groups.
I was often teased for my ‘sepet’ eyes – calling me Chinese, and some people were relentless with their teases that I would cry. I believe I cried because of the stereotypes that Chinese are associated with: Chinese ‘jahat/pencuri’. I also remember feeling fearful that other people would think I’m malicious. – Hana, 29, operations manager
Schooling days were also one of the darkest times for Ezra.
I was thrown with several racial slurs and stereotypes. I was also a target of fights and bullying in school due to my ethnicity. – Ezra, 28, marketing specialist
Architects of Diversity (AOD) report in 2021 found that 50% of 2,441 surveyed Malaysians had experienced discrimination in schools, where 36% of Malaysians reported experiencing verbal discrimination, and 21% reported experiencing harassment or bullying based on its research.
Breaking The Mould
In Malaysia, we have Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (SJK) or vernacular schools catered to Tamil and Mandarin-speaking ethnic groups in addition to the national schools.
In national schools as observed by AOD, students would only mingle in their ethnic groups, perhaps, due to seeds of racial stereotypes planted early on at home and in society.
It was only by getting out of the system that youth or individuals could interact more freely with different ethnicities.
For example, Nate* who attended an international school in Penang was exposed to different ethnicities and nationalities early on.
You cannot begin to understand the world, people’s situations, and life outside your specific bubble, until you meet people from as many walks of life as possible. – Nate*, 23, engineer
Violacea and Hana who both attended private universities were able to interact with other racial or ethnic groups.
My friends consist of a lot of Chinese people and some Indians as well. I met most of them through my studies at a private university in Subang, so it reflects more of the student population in private universities. – Violacea, 27, professional
I graduated from a private university, where most of my peers were non-Malays. I felt comfortable. I didn’t feel out of place. – Hana, 29, operations manager
Ezra who grew up in a Sarawakian family was raised to embrace different ethnicities and beliefs. The groundwork that sets diversity in the core of the community sees Ezra blind to ethnicities.
Born to a Sarawakian family, I’ve been raised among relatives of different ethnicities and beliefs. it was natural for me to mingle with those of other ethnicities. – Ezra, 28, marketing specialist
Even so, many of us still prefer to only socialise with those of the same race and ethnicity, as observed by Nate*.
Moving back home as an adult here, hanging out with new people I meet at work and sports teams, I noticed a lot of locals do have racial homogenous groups.
– Nate*, 23, engineer
Unlearning And Relearning
In the turn of being subjected to racism and discrimination, Beatrice* developed her stereotypes towards the racial group she was often discriminated against. But over time, she has learnt to challenge them. The breakthrough was after she stepped out of the country.
Studying and working overseas made me change my perspective and realise that not everyone is the same. It is human to have stereotypes, but the key is to not let those stereotypes and prejudice hold you back from interacting with a person of a different nationality, ethnicity or background. – Beatrice*, 35, working with international organisation
Similarly, Violacea had the opportunity through different volunteering activities and programs that saw her shift her mindset.
A lot of intercultural learning and experiences at a young age through a cultural exchange to the USA. Now, I am less comfortable with stereotyping others based on their race, as one’s actions can also be judged from the lens of their personality and the context/situation. – Violacea, 27, professional
To Hana, growing older has made her recognise the privileges she has as one of the majority groups in Malaysia. It was helpful that her parents have also forged bonds with others outside of her ethnic group, an example she followed that helped her understand the plight of minority groups in Malaysia.
Being privileged doesn’t make you better than everyone else. Being privileged means you should recognise it, and use it to help others. My non-Malays friends have also helped me become more aware of my privileges as a Malay – probably the most important lesson. – Hana, 29, operations manager
With the advent of technology, Christina utilised social media such as Instagram and Tik Tok to educate her.
Education, education and more education, I cannot stress this enough. Learning about others and learning about how to think critically and form your own opinions instead of mindlessly following propaganda and listening to stereotypes. – Christina, 29, marketing executive
For Ezra, misinformation and stereotypes about the Iban led him to correct them.
I believe that it takes proper exposure and education to defy offensive stereotypes. To which, whoever comes to me with such, I would be more than happy to provide a crash course on Iban anthropology. – Ezra, 28, marketing specialist
Glimmers Of Hope
While Malaysians continue to wrestle with racism, there seem to be common things that bring us all together – our love for Malaysian food and sports. It’s rather heartwarming when you’re at a mamak, and you witness a sea of Indians, Chinese and Malays seated together to support our national sportsmen and women while devouring their roti canai and teh tarik.
There is something unique about learning to mingle and networking over food. Perhaps, it creates a space for vulnerability. Hence, allowing people from all walks of life to open up a little more. Malaysians particularly love our food and this is a great way to unite Malaysians – call up for dinner parties! – Ezra, 28, marketing specialist
Aside from this, the spirit of #kitajagakita – when Malaysians helped each other during the crisis of the pandemic and recent floods, proves that it’s not too late for a united Malaysia to emerge.
We come together when we don’t like the governing body and we have a culture of helping one another as seen during the response to the floods. We are united in the sad fact that we have to rely on ourselves and not the government in hard times. – *Beatrice, 35, working in an international organisation
Building A Better Tomorrow Starts With Us
Beatrice* identified that there is quick finger-pointing to failed government policies that have created a chasm in the racial makeup, such as the NEP and its irreparable damages.
In recent months, more fuel was added to ignite racial discords during election campaigns spearheaded by racial-based political parties.
But the reality is we aren’t scot-free when it comes to carrying the torch for racist sentiments.
Let’s be honest, it’s not just the government, but the everyday Malaysians who are racist too. They cannot expect the government to change if they themselves do not. – Beatrice*, 35, working in an international organisation
Hana, who recognised she had been dealt a better card in Malaysia, felt guilty of often standing on the sidelines in the face of racism.
I know that racism, discrimination, and stereotypes exist in our society. But I have never done anything about it. Even when I hear people throwing derogatory remarks, or racial slurs, I would just ignore them or remove myself from the situation. – Hana, 29, operations manager
This pushed her to create change by marking the ballot in the recent election.
The idea that I was dealt a better card, and had all these privileges, and benefits because I was born Malay, didn’t sit right with me – especially when I had friends who deserved it more, and can benefit from it more. All of these contributed to why I voted in GE15: to usher in a better life for all Malaysians. – Hana, 29, operations manager
The progress may be slow for the damages to be fixed, but Beatrice* hopes that at least conversations on racism would be louder in the future.
I hope for a unified Malaysia – it is where so many beautiful cultures are, to be learnt. However, unless we’re willing to have hard discussions about racism in the country, the unity we have will continue to be superficial. – Beatrice*, 35, working in an international organisation
As a mother, Hana is hopeful that things would change for the better in the larger society. But she understood that change came from within her household and she is committed to raising her children to accept others with open arms despite their races, colour, status or nationalities.
If I can’t shape the society that my kids will grow up in, I can at least raise them, and show them how to be good people who accept, help, and befriend all walks of life; who use their privilege to help others; to lend their voice to the voiceless. – Hana, 29, operations manager
As Ezra had said, “there is beauty in diversity. “ Perhaps, it is time for us to embrace our similarities and learn from our differences for a better Malaysia.
*Names of the respondents have been changed to maintain anonymity.
Explore our sources:
- K.Ayamany. (2022). Civil group notes rise in racism, xenophobia in 2021 as Malaysians ease up from Covid-19 lockdowns. Malay Mail. Link
- E.Easwaran. (2022).Over 1,000 videos banned on TikTok after GE15. Free Malaysia Today. Link
- J.V.Tham & N.Omar. (2020). Like a Virus: How Racial Hate Speech Looks Like in Malaysia During the Covid-19 Pandemic. The Centre. Link
- R.Saw. (2016). Did the British Make Malaysians Racist? Cili Sos. Link
- S.Aliff. (2022).Address discrimination in education system. The Malaysian Reserve. Link