AND THE CHINESE-MALAY DILEMMA
By Hugh M. Lewis
Copyright © 1996, by Hugh M. Lewis
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Ethnocultures and Ethno-classes
Malaysia has an unfinished history of "racial"
strife. The predicament of the Chinese in Malaysia cannot be adequately
grasped outside the framework of this history.
Concepts of race, ethnicity and culture are often
conflated and used almost interchangeably, especially in catchwords like
"multiracial," "multiethnic" and
"multicultural," and issues which are probably mostly cultural in
reality are frequently mislabeled and misunderstood in both ethnic or racial
This problem is exacerbated in a complex society like
Malaysia that is most noteworthy for its "radical pluralism" and the
great diversities of its peoples living under a common umbrella of a national
It is therefore critically important to disconnect the
notions of culture and race. Culture is a deeply ingrained phenomena, and
though, like language, our innate capacity for the acquisition and elaboration
of culture may at least be in part biologically preprogrammed, culture is
preeminently an environmental construction of human beings in interrelation
with one another. It is a matter of history, values, and social relations.
Racial politics have taken on a definite guise and
flavor in Malaysia, and it is important to understand how these patterns have
come about and what they entail. The racial underpinnings of social policies
in Malaysia are undeniable, especially as they affect relations between Malays
and Chinese and other minorities.
The key text that promulgates and serves to legitimate
these policies is Prime Minister's Mahathir Bin Mohammed's, The Malay
Dilemma (1970). This book can be considered to represent in a very
explicit manner the official and unofficial racial policies of a Malaysian
Government controlled by a single dominant party that is itself controlled by
a single dominant leader, the author of the text.1
The main racial argument of the book is used to explain
the social inequalities between the Chinese and the Malays, and to justify
"so called discriminatory laws" which are designed to eventually
bring about (by unstated means) a measure of social (if not political)
equality between the races.2
The racial problems in Malaysia today, the
conceptualization of race, the subsequent policies, and even the definition of
the problem in terms of a pluralistic perspective, are all clearly part of the
British colonial legacy. A racist world view is clearly evident in the
writings and policies of the early colonial administrators. The
rationalization of the British in their bringing Chinese and Indians into
Malaysia in the first place was that, in the words of J. D. Vaughn (1879),
"One Chinese is worth 2 Klings and 10 Malays."3
Thus, not only did the British, noted for their
accommodational (indirect rule, compared to more direct "assimilationist"
colonial policies of the French in Indochina) "divide and conquer"
colonial polices, lay the foundations for pluralism in Malaysia, they also
constructed the administrative machinery and organizational ethos which
perpetuated this pluralism, and provided as well the post-facto intellectual
theories of "radical pluralism" (and structural-functionalism) which
defined, and ultimately legitimated, pluralism as a necessary
The Chinese were involved in the colonization of the
Malay peninsula by the British from the late 18th century, and without a doubt
the British found the Chinese to be excellent pioneers and intermediaries in
the process of extending their economic interests upon the peninsula--not just
as coolie laborers, but as petty administrators, farmers, shopkeepers, etc.
Prominent Chinese families from Malacca were the original settlers in both
Georgetown and Singapore, and this early settlement pattern by the Chinese
progenitorial families occurred under the umbrella of British protection and
had two main consequences, to provide a platform for the subsequent rise of
Chinese communities in Malaysia, and to open the doors and pave the road for
the increasing immigration of new sing kehs from China (newcomers, mostly
Cantonese who subsequently filled the bottom rungs of the overseas Chinese
social system, i.e. amahs, coolies, rickshaws, etc.). The influx of Chinese
increased over the years, until the Chinese population of Malaysia swelled to
virtually equal in size by the mid-1930's to the indigenous Malay population.
Under British administration, there was nothing the Malays could do to prevent
this massive influx of Chinese.
The arrival of the Japanese and WW II brought a sudden
and drastic end to the colonial era of Malaysia. Many wealthy Chinese who
owned land or properties lost their wealth and their lives at the hands of the
Japanese. Even more, the Japanese recruited and trained an exclusively Malay
military force. For the most part it was organized Chinese resistance,
organized on the communist model, that took to the interior to wage guerrilla
warfare against the Japanese, and it continued to wage war on the Malays and
the English after the Japanese were defeated.
At the end of the war the Chinese did not forget their
suffering at the hands of the Japanese, and, before the return of the British
to administer the "post-colony," many were quick to seek retribution
against Malays who were regarded to have been in complicity with the Japanese
against the Chinese. Thus there ensued over a period of several weeks
widespread attacks and counterattacks between Chinese and Malays that resulted
in the long run in lasting hostility and distrust between the two communities
The British reestablished their own control over
post-World War II Malaysia. The Chinese communists in the interior remained,
and made a bid for control over Malaysia which led to the period of the
Emergency, during which largely Chinese government forces, led by British
officers, fought Chinese communist guerrillas in a series of ambushes and
The net result of this turbulent period of Malaysian
history has been a long-lasting mistrust, misunderstanding and enmity between
the Chinese and the Malays, and a general feeling among members of each group
that the other group ultimately sought to establish control over and cultural
predominance in Malaysia.
At Independence, Malays were left in political control
of their country, while the Chinese held a tight and almost exclusive grip
over the economy. The Chinese continued to prosper while the Malays remained
poor. The Malays largely regarded Chinese prosperity to be at their own
expense, and this general attitude of out-group reference lay behind the riots
which erupted after the elections in 1969.
The dominant pan-Malay political party (UMNO) then made
an organized bid to establish its hegemonic control over the government
through the institution of martial law, and the immediate suspension of
constitutional rights and privileges resulting in a program of "radical
affirmative action" (Rogers 1993) to benefit the poor Malays economically
mainly at the expense of the Chinese.
Promotion of Bumi interests by means of an uneven quota
system over non-Bumi interests can be found in all sectors of the economy--in
education, in housing, in finance, in the military and policy, in government
hiring and administration, in rural development policies, and these policies
of structural discrimination continue virtually unaltered until today. In
Malaysia, since 1969, it can be said that the Malays form the dominant group,
and compose a simple majority of the total population of Malaysia.
Malays have adopted social practices and policies which
have served to effectively separate Malays and Chinese and which have rigidly
drawn the boundary of Malayness around themselves--the model of what it is to
be genuine, correct Malaysian as "Muslim" to the exclusion of any
other alternate possibilities.
With the radical polarization of Malaysian society
between the dominant Malays and the minority Chinese, we can see the
foundation and principle motivations for the elaboration of racial politics
and policies, and the rise of what is effectively a two-tiered social system
in which there are essentially two separate levels of social status and
identity which are separate but parallel to one another in almost every way.
This structural tiering of the Malaysian system has
effectively stratified Malaysian society across the board into two separate
and unequal levels, and it has simultaneously led to the embodiment in social
practices and attitudes of the very politics of race on which such a system
was built in the first place. The net consequence of this tiering has actually
been to perpetuate indefinitely, and without any hope of reconciliation or
interethnic integration, the polarization between Malays and Chinese on which
it was based in the first place.
This two-tiered system is structurally embedded with the
governmental system and its policies, and it becomes socially reinforced by
implicit consensus, conformity and social practices by the majority Malays who
effectively strive through communal practice to maintain their privileged and
This tiering of the system has been effected through a
systematic process of "bureaucratic encapsulation" (Strauch 1981:12)
which has become the main structural instrument of racial politics and the
primary form of manifestation of communal Muslim Malay interests.
Encapsulation works to incorporate any and all out
groups within a unified system of authority and restriction, in order to exert
control over and delimit the population, constraining people to work
cooperatively in favor and in terms of the system's interests. Because the
normal processes of such administrative control are routine-operational and
formulaic, the question of rights or power in certain situations need rarely
arise, nor even become evident to those being thus encapsulated.6
Encapsulation serves another important function, and
that is to atomize and effectively prevent the consolidation of opposition
groups or alternate orientations which may somehow threaten or be conflictual
with the normal, "rational" ethos of the system. At the same time,
the central authority of the state becomes articulated and exercised down to
the most local level.
Bureaucratic encapsulation has effectively extended
itself and brought both Bumi and non-Bumi tiers under a single bureaucratic
umbrella of restriction and control, thus killing two birds with one stone,
and assuring that all relevant positions of authority within the organs of
government administration are occupied by members and supporters of the
dominant political party or one or another of its subsidiary parties.
Through such a system, racial politics in Malaysia has
become largely embedded in the background of everyday life as a given, and
largely taken for granted "business as usual" fact of life. For the
dominant majority who are in a position of blanket advantage within such a
system, there is every reason to support it and everything is great. For the
minority groups who are in a position of blanket disadvantage within such a
system, there is little about the arrangement that is attractive or favorable,
and there is a great deal of silent resentment. At the same time there is
little that can be done by them, short of exiting the system or trying to work
outside of it or around it.7
Malaysia has been not merely a radically plural society,
but it has also become a radically polarized society--dichotomously split down
the middle by the basic cleavages and conflicts of interest and values of the
dominant Malays and the Chinese who represent a large and economically strong
It can be said that for the most part, Chinese and
Malays live in separate worlds within the same society, worlds between which
there is relatively little passage. Malays and Chinese eat at separate hawkers
complexes, and go to different meetings and assemblies. To live within one of
these worlds is, almost automatically, to preclude living within the other.9
Communalistic expressions of ethnic solidarity are
clearly strongest and most pronounced among the dominant Malays who occupy, at
almost every level, every key position of administrative and executive
authority, and who are almost exclusively in the military and police force.
Such common place and omnipresent expressions can be
considered to be part of a system of overt, symbolic marking which highlights
the significant racial differences between the main groups. Thus, donning the
veil and traditional Muslim garb, adorned with floral patterns and metallic
frills, becomes as much a social and political statement of one's ethnic
identity, advantage and political superiority as a good Bumi Malay as it is an
ethnic fashion statement or a pronouncement to the world that one is also, by
the way, a virtuous Muslim.
Communalism can be interpreted as a built-in set of
reciprocal or non-reciprocal but mutual expectations regarding different sets
of circumstances or typical behavioral settings. One can expect more special,
personal treatment from a fellow Muslim behind the window if one is a brother
(or sister) of the cloth. One can also come to expect front of the line
privileges over the non-Bumi.
Such expectations constrain and influence the politics
of race in critical ways, frequently compromising authority with the
application of sets of double standards to different types of situations,
along with accompanying rationalizations and reparations, and allowing the
arbitrary relaxation of rules or restrictions in favor of promoting the
communal interests and solidarity of one's own ethnic group.
The Chinese have come to express their ethnic solidarity
by the exclusiveness and single-mindedness of their economic orientation, an
orientation which frequently precludes political or other social involvement.
Few Chinese enter government service; and most Chinese, at some point, enter
the private sector of Chinese business to find their fortune or fate.10
With polarization and a two-tiered system, communalistic
differences and loyalties and ethnic solidarity are being emphasized by both
the Chinese and the Malays to the point of ethnic schismogenesis (Bateson
1979:116-7, 212)--the mutual reinforcement of a separate and distinctive
orientation vis-a-vis the other by means of the maintenance of a social
The Malays, who have always been the dominant majority,
and who have always asserted their own Islamic cultural hegemony over
Malaysia, have also conferred upon themselves the special legitimacy of being
an "underprivileged" group vis-a-vis the Chinese. This policy and
status-identity of the Malays has two consequences--again killing two birds
with one stone--first, it legitimates racial policies of discrimination which
give special advantages to the Malays, secondly, it justifies the same
policies which systematically disadvantage the Chinese. The ultimate
consequence is the perpetuation of the impassable boundaries between the two
Shared, mutual expectations of communalistic solidarity,
defined within a top-down, repressive authority structure, affects the
identity, judgment and motivations of the members involved within such a
system in significant ways. We may then speak of appropriate contexts and
situations for the presentation of self, and for the alternation of self
between fore-ground and background, based upon the ethnic and racial identity
of the significant other with whom one is dealing.
The psychology of race and racism emerges full-blown as
indirect expressions of psycho-social identity and communalistic ethnic
solidarity and serves to further reinforce the boundaries which separate
groups. This psychology of race is reinforced by the politics of race, such
that the structure of the system tends to reify and validate in everyday
experience, attitudes and stereotypical beliefs about counter-reference others
associated with racist beliefs and ideologies.
Given the radical polarization and ethnic politics of
Malaysian society, the Chinese represent for the Malays a primary
counter-reference "Other," and at the same time, the Malays
represent for the Chinese a similar kind of phenomena. In understanding the
alternate ethnocultural constructions of the "Other," it is
important to also see that the frame of reference in which these
representations become reified, along which the ethnic boundaries between the
groups are petrified, is relative to the social position and point of view of
To the Chinese, the Malay is devoted to Islam, to the
point that religion comes to preclude successful interest in business. The
Malay leads a simple life, eating simply and dressing in nice clothes. The
Chinese view the Malay as basically easy-going and lazy people; as a person
who can be easily induced by immediate gratification and short-term gains. The
Malays, who are not as stingy as are the Chinese, are frequently seen giving
alms to beggars and charity to other poor Malays.
To the Malays, the Chinese are unscrupulously
business-minded and basically sacrilegious (paganistic idol-worshippers and
"non-Muslim"). Dressing simply, they spare no expense in eating.
Defiled by a love of pork, Chinese are dirty and stingy and uncharitable.
Their exclusive preoccupation in making money precludes a holy way of life.
The Chinese are smart and crafty and will do almost anything in order to make
A small but important study (Rabushka 1973) demonstrated
in a clear manner that inter-group attitudes of consociation and
positive/negative ascription are positively correlated with the amount of
interethnic interaction experienced in daily life, with different cultural
predispositions toward interaction, and with residence along the rural-urban
continuum--those located in more cosmopolitan centers were more likely to
evince attitudes of positive affect toward counter-reference out groups.11
Most Chinese believe that Malay racial policies are
unfair. Most Malays believe that such policies are necessary to reverse the
disadvantages that Malays suffer, ostensibly at the hands of the Chinese.
Chinese do not feel a need to adopt a subordinate or inferior status vis-a-vis
the Malays, and fundamentally resist the formation of any such complex. Malays
feel a need to compensate for and overcome those attitudes of inferiority
related to their identity that was the carry-over of the British colonial era.
Symbolically, the Chinese have come to occupy the place that the British
created, and have become the objects of Malay racial projection.
Many of the social issues which are couched in terms of
race in Malaysia can be more realistically defined in terms of ethnicity.
Often "racial politics" or the "politics of race" is used
in the literature synonymously and as connotatively interchangeable with
multi-ethnic or ethnic politics, and understanding of the position of the
Chinese of Malaysia versus the Malays is necessarily a study in ethnicity and
Ethnicity has become an increasingly important
consideration in the modern integration of the world (Ratcliffe 1994). In
general it can be said that ethnization of issues, the promotion of ethnic
consciousness, identity and solidarity, and ethnic-based social organization
is rarely without its current political-economic motivations, which are
frequently the exclusive prerogative of an ethnic elite who pose themselves as
the leadership, models and trend-setters of such ethnic movements. It can also
be said that no such ethnic movements are without their symbolic ideologies
and systems of rationalization, which are often rooted in and derived from
deeper religious and ethnocultural traditions.
In the elaboration of ethnic principles of corporate
organization, Brown (1976) hypothesizes that ethnic diversity varies with
closed hierarchies, which beget community closure in the inter-group
competition for resources. Hierarchy begets cultural differentiation. Closed
hierarchies can base such cultural differentiation upon ethnic distinctions
between biologically "closed groups." Open hierarchies cannot be
based upon such a presumption of racial difference. Such societies, like
traditional Chinese society, have tremendous powers of universal incorporation
According to Strauch (1981:235), ethnic groups, ethnic
identity, and ethnic categories are separate but interdependent phenomena in
Malaysia. Ethnic identity and categories may operate independently, but ethnic
groups, with the connotation of some form of consensus or corporate,
functional organization, must be built upon internalized identities and
categories, and in turn reinforce these. Ethnic categories promote order and
expectability in complex, heterogeneous social situations--ethnic identities
result from a labeling process relating to categorical expectations of social
Differences that arise from and primarily exist upon the
structural level may not be apparent upon the social, interpersonal level.
Individuals may readily cross ethnic-group boundaries, and individual ethnic
classifications and identity may not completely coincide with these
boundaries. Tension may exist as a "sub-surface" phenomena--as a
latent potentiality of structural rift and schism. Structural discrimination
may exist where social discrimination does not. There is a general need to
maintain some form of alignment between the structural and social levels of
interaction--social conflict may lead to structural breakdown and change,
while structural contradictions may result in social conflict.
The predominant racial categories and racial policies
provide the foundation, structurally and socially, for the construction of
alternate, counter-reference ethnic identities and groups, and for the
maintenance of boundaries between these groups which preserve asymmetrical
relations. Thus race-based construction, maintenance, manipulation and
negotiation of ethnic identity constitutes a central methodology in the
formation of ethnic groups and boundaries. These identities are often
stereotypical in their appropriation of symbols and markers of identity, and
we are left to consider the role of ethnic stereotypes in the management of
differences between the Malays and Chinese and in the organization of
diversity that these kinds of differences imply in a plural society.
Promotion of ethnic identity (ethnicity) and solidarity
often involves markers of in-group identity, language, dress, behavior, styles
of life, values, attitudes, etc., that serve to both identify membership and
rank within the in-group, as well as to mark off the boundary of difference
between in-group members and non-members who are associated with other
Ethnic communities in a plural setting like Malaysia, in
competition in the (now global) market place with one another, are emergent
from such processes, defining ethnic based values as reward structures,
"reinforcement priorities" or "resource systems," and come
to compose networks of "opportunity structures" (Siaw 1981:395-6).
The Chinese community in Malaysia and its responses to "outsiders"
can be interpreted by Max Weber's ideas about the nature of a community in
relation to ethnicity (Weber 1946). Weber contends that ethnic or racial
stereotypes are developed as a result of competition for, and successful
monopolization by groups of, economic and social power at various levels of
the society's opportunity structure. Ethnic stereotypes can be accumulated
through what Weber calls "direct understanding" of social action.
Meaningful social interactions must be based on a common system of linguistic
and nonlinguistic symbols (Wallace 1970). When such a common system of symbols
is absent or inadequately developed, meaningful interaction is hindered, hence
limiting interpersonal and inter-group understanding. Such a situation tends
to strengthen in-group solidarity and heighten the ethnic and racial
stereotypes of out-groups, resulting in the sanctioning of actions taken by
the dominant groups, and depriving the weaker communities of access to
economic and political opportunities (Siaw 1983:395).
Rabushka considers such stereotypes as economical means
for storing large amounts of information, which might otherwise be costly to
elaborate or validate. Stereotypes do not vary in relation with social
introversion/extroversion and are not correlated with expressed attitudes of
willingness to interact. "....the holding of narrow stereotyped views in
Malaya has no visible impact on either social interchange or political
unity" (Rabushka 1973: 67).13
Stereotypes provide "cognitive models"
defining expectations and appropriate behaviors in situations of interethnic
contact and interaction, models of reciprocal expectations of behavior that
can be managed and manipulated under different circumstances to achieve status
vis-a-vis the counter-reference other. Thus, stereotypes can be expected to be
employed in contexts in which alternative symbolic or behavioral realities as
represented across ethnic boundaries serve to threaten and
"relativize" the collective function and orientation of one's own
primary reference orientation. Ackerman and Lee (1981) refer to the use of
ethnic or sub-ethnic stereotypes in mutual ascription as a means of managing
social identities in complex interethnic interactions and as a convenient
means of rationalizing differences or handling unexpected events which occur
across such boundaries.14
Ethnic symbolizations are preeminently symbolism of
collective group awareness--that are a part of the symbolic representations of
our culture by which we tend define our shared experiences, values, beliefs
and relations with others in the world. The collectivizing function of such
symbolizations serves to unify our experience, to render as if real the
subjectivity of our awareness, and to unite this experience inter-subjectively
with other people.
One may ask legitimately to what extent do the ever
present Chinese realities serve to relativize and threaten the collective
sense of Malay world order? How might a Muslim oriented sense of the world
continually threaten and undermine the strong sense of Chineseness that is
reiterated as a basic theme on an everyday basis? Such different worlds in
such close proximity to one another must provide countless occasions for the
breach of the symbolic armature of one's own world view and for the flooding
in of alternate possibilities--a flood which can wreak havoc upon the
subjective order and complacency of one's own world. It is primarily for this
reason, that interrelations between the Chinese and Malays are for the most
part characterized by patterns of mutual avoidance and separation, patterns
which are then strongly reinforced by pressures to group conformity and
socially reinforced resistance to "alternation."15
The Malays and Chinese can be seen to be pursuing
fundamentally different strategies in the management of their ethnic identity
and position vis-a-vis the other group, though these strategies must to some
extent be characterized by a certain amount of mutualism and asymmetrical
accommodation to the other group, through reinforcement of mutual expectations
and stereotypes. What are recognizable are two strategies: a dominant,
semi-explicit strategy by the Bumi Malays as they are organized by and under
the UMNO umbrella, and another predominantly entrepreneurial business strategy
that is adopted by most Chinese. Few Chinese regard a career in government or
politics as rewarding, or worthwhile, or even very promising, while most
Malays are probably too intimidated and insecure to consider an
entrepreneurial business strategy with the degree of seriousness required to
make such a course in life very profitable. The very same type of
attitudes which drive the Chinese to sub-ethnic and individualistic
competition and achievement within a strongly, but basically open, sinocentric
world, drive the Malays toward greater communalistic cooperation over
non-Malays in a relatively closed ethnocentric Malay worldview.
The Chinese community can be expected to be more divided
than the Malay community by the hyphenation of its Malay-Chinese identity and
by its interpositional relation between a tradition bound Chinese orientation
and a modern Malaysian Chinese life. Leadership within the Chinese community
will reflect this distribution of orientation, as well as different
expectations and ideologies of involvement in the dominant national culture.
It can be expected that few if any Malays will adopt a strongly pro-Chinese
orientation, but more Chinese may adopt a more pro-Malay orientation, while
still maintaining a sense of distinctive Chinese identity by virtue of their
Leadership orientations and socialization for leadership
appear to be also significantly different. Religious involvement and UMNO
party politics describe the leadership training for the almost exclusively
male Malay world of politics, while economic involvement, education and social
activities provide the forum of leadership socialization among the Chinese.
Chinese leadership is taking its model from the business world, Malay
leadership is finding its model in the political and religious world.
Majority-minority differences can also be seen
sociologically and asymmetries of relations between these two communities, and
in the processes which characterize these relations. There is next to no
cultural amalgamation, assimilation, or acculturation between the two
communities as these processes are sociologically defined by inter-marriage,
and the adoption of dominant majority culture or cultural values by the
minority group. There is thus next to no national integration between Malays
and Chinese, or of Malaysian society overall, occurring in critical areas. The
situation in such a racially polarized society can be described as one of
minimal interethnic acculturation between the Chinese and the Malays, and
usually in the direction favoring Malay cultural values.16
The dominant model of acculturation for both communities
appears neither the Chinese nor the Malay, but rather the values and facets of
Western cultural orientations. Western cultural values and facets are adopted
by and effect the Chinese and Malay worlds in different ways and to different
This aspect of Western acculturation demonstrates that
both Malay and Chinese groups occupy a structurally subordinate position
vis-a-vis dominant Western cultures, and thus the nature of the
interrelationships between the Chinese and the Malays is also constrained by
the nature of the relationships of either of these groups to the Western
World. To some extent, it is the nature of the interethnic
competition between the Malays and the Chinese for markets, opportunities,
advantages, etc., in relation to the West, that we can see some of the reason
for the continued polarization of the two communities for reasons other than
those of a history of internal strife or irreconcilable interethnic or
ethnocultural differences or racial policies.
Many of the racially motivated policies are designed to
make the Malay community more competitive and more prosperous within a global
market economy, and often at the expense of the Chinese, while many of the
Chinese business practices in relation to foreign companies are often to the
effective exclusion of Malay participation.
Muslim values and a fundamentalist Islamic world view
are intimately bound up with Malay culture and Malay world view and with the
Malay style of doing things politically. Islam has become a major expression
of Malay ethnic solidarity and has been used as a primary instrument by the
elite who are in power in Malaysia as a means of gaining symbolic legitimacy
for their regime and their racial politics, and as a means for organizing and
maintaining a majority following among their own Malay constituency.
Racial policies and the politics of "race" can
be used by the Malays to reinforce an Islamic world view, and the invocation
of an Islamic world order can be used in turn to reinforce, reify and
legitimate racial policies and politics and the inequalities they give rise to
within the Malaysian social system. Of course, linking up being a good Muslim
to being a good Malay supporter of UMNO makes it difficult to remain a good
Muslim if one does not support UMNO. Of course, the Malay world is not
monolithic, but it does share a strong and clearly dominant consensus, one
that seems to be mostly defined and managed from above.
Both Malay and Chinese share a deeply rooted sense of
the importance of their own cultural orientations--the vitality of culture
that is intimately bound up with a relative sense of security, identity,
feeling and reality of the self. To question the culture is to automatically
threaten the sense of reality of the self that is shared with the significant
others of his/her world. It can also be expected that the limits of tolerance
for the two groups vary as well, such that one or the other community may be
strained to its limits of forbearance and tolerance sooner than the other
The politically subordinate position of the Chinese
minority entails that they are inherently more vulnerable and susceptible to
victimization--to conflict and confiscation, and are less capable or willing
to react violently unless pushed to an endpoint. On the other hand, the
political superordinate position of the Malay majority, their
"disadvantaged" orientation vis-a-vis the Chinese minority, and the
virtually unlimited arbitrariness of their supreme authority, entails that
they are more likely to respond to an uncertain situation with violence and
that it would not require a great deal of friction to light their fuses.
Racial politics and multicultural rhetoric has been the
principle platform of UMNO from the beginning, and remains effectively the
basic strategy of its political management of Malaysia. "Economic
interests are viewed in an ethnic framework come to be seen as
structured by that ethnic framework. The shift is so subtle as to be
easily overlooked or ignored" (Judith Strauch 1980:11).
Contemporary Malaysian society is an ideal context for
the development of ethnocultural studies of human social complexity. It has
long been known as a laboratory for ethnicity. Besides providing the
multicultural context for studying ethnicity and interethnic relations,
contemporary Malaysian society conveniently juxtaposes the modern and the
traditional, the developed and the underdeveloped, the rich and the poor,
native and western. Malaysian identity is also stratified on more than one
level. This multi-leveled tiering is also cross-sected at many points by basic
cleavages of sex, ethnicity, age, language, religion, sense of tradition,
history and world-view, class, rural versus urban settings and backgrounds and
the many modes of labor and production found in any modern society.
An understanding of modern Malaysian ethnoculture stems
from a general analysis of the broader national patterns. The following set of
basic problems are important in considering this Malaysian social patterning:
1) tropical poverty, 2) the organization of labor, 3) the dilemmas of
development and dependency, 4) asymmetrical accommodation and acculturation,
5) national integration, solidarity and legitimation.17
1. Tropical Poverty is endemic to many
"Third World" nations that constitute the "Tropical Belt"
about the equator. It is necessary to separate factors of poverty which are of
an historical and colonial origin from those which can be considered inherent
to a tropical zone.18
These problems and ethnocultural responses of Malaysians
will not simply disappear as a modern Malaysia achieves rapid if uneven
development, and they may eventually come to pose an even greater paradox in
which basic ethnocultural patterning of Malaysian society adapted to poverty
must readjust itself to rising affluence--shedding old clothes for new.
2. The problem of the organization of labor in a modern
nation like Malaysia is a complex one, and evidence for its pervasiveness and
importance is present in many facets throughout Malaysian society--from
council workers to factory buses to school children and women in work
The problem of the organization of labor in Malaysia
centrally concerns the dilemma of development in Malaysia in overcoming the
primary problem of tropical poverty in context to a larger global economy
characterized by unequal class relations between overdeveloped, developed,
developing and underdeveloped nations.
3. The third major set of problems are deeply rooted
dilemmas of continuing patterns of development-underdevelopment and of
relations of "dominance-dependency," especially within the context
of a Eurocentric history of colonial imperialism and a more recent
post-colonial history of a capitalist world system dominated by the developed
societies of the West and by Japan.
Development involves dilemmas of dependency with more
developed nations, and a young nation like Malaysia must walk a long and
difficult tight-rope in its relations with the rest of the world. It is caught
between the disadvantages of being underdeveloped and dependent upon Western
development, with the advantages of cheap, disciplined labor, untapped raw
resources, low cost of living, and cultural adaptations to chronic poverty and
shortage such as the values of conservation versus values of consumerism.
4. The critical importance of patterns of asymmetrical
accommodation and acculturation which are evident in virtually every facet of
life in contemporary Malaysia, cannot be overemphasized in understanding the
problems of modern Malaysia.
Accommodation is the act of making mutual adjustments in
harmonious adaptation to another person or group. The foundation of social
harmony and social relations in Malaysian society can be said to be rooted in
blanket application of the principle of accommodation by many different kinds
of peoples to the presence of one another. Accommodation implies an inherent
respect leading to tolerance and acknowledgment of such differences primarily
through appropriate acts.
Asymmetrical acculturation is the other side of the coin
of Malaysian social patterning, and involves both the processes of
acculturation from foreign sources, as well as processes of domestic national
acculturation from the dominant Malays.
5. The problem of achieving national integration,
promoting a sense of national solidarity which effectively transcends all the
differences and communalisms, and forging a strong, pan-ethnic and permanent
sense of legitimacy for the government that is impervious to criticism or
attack, is a basic concern of national Malaysian society.
The patterning and complex stratification in
contemporary Malaysian society encompass a number of social differences
besides race. These differences include: 1) gender, 2) age, 3) class, 4)
occupation, 5) religion, 6) lineage and clan (especially for the Chinese), 7)
rural-urban, 8) modern-traditional, 9) caste. Though these differences may not
be as well marked as the more prominent "racial" categories, they
may nonetheless be basic to Malaysian society and important in understanding
its social organization.
There is a relative distribution of these different
factors, as well as of knowledge, values, sentiments, habits, stresses, etc.,
across a variegated and uneven social landscape, in many ways which may
cross-cut the conventional racial or ethnic boundaries.
1. Differences of gender are embedded in the society in
general. This difference clearly cuts across ethnic cleavages, and it can be
said for all three main ethnic groups, as well as for all other ethnic groups
in Malaysia, including the Indian Muslims, Thai and Sikh peoples, that women
definitely occupy a separate and unequal social status compared to that of
Across the board, women bear greater uniformity of dress
both in the home and the workplace, which is symbolic of greater supervisorial
authority over their labor. Women have fewer opportunities and probably lower
pay and less education than male counterparts, have less freedom and more
restricted mobility than male counterparts, and have greater domestic
responsibilities and suffer greater victimization and abuse than men. Chinese
women show the least asymmetry with their male counterparts and enjoy the
least restricted public freedom--hence in business they are more frequently
found in more mobile, higher managerial positions.
2. Differences in age can be expected to be expressed in
inter-generational conflicts between the old who knew the tutelage of colonial
authority, the threat of military occupation and political warfare, and with
the younger generation of a more affluent economy.
The youngest generation is the most susceptible to the
influences of Western acculturation via the media and advertising and the
consumption of hamburgers and sodas at MacDonalds, and are themselves the
by-products of the modern development of Malaysia. We have countless times
watched fashionably dressed young teenage men and women of all ethnic groups
flirt and tease each other, always in groups, at MacDonald's and Komtar--and
it doesn't seem to matter too much what time of day it is--carrying on in a
manner that was strikingly daring and different from my wife's age group of
twenty years ago.
3. The differences of class are less well marked, but
clearly also cut across the three ethnic boundaries. Much if not most labor
organization is for the sake of the private profit for those who possess the
means of production and who manage labor.
Many of the frustrations felt in the personal lives of
Chinese, Indians or Malays may largely be due to problems of powerlessness and
poverty, and are created by unequal class relations in the market place.
4. Occupational stratification and its consequences in
social patterning in modern state societies have not been well studied, but
such stratification is bound to become more important during development as
jobs and roles become increasingly specialized.
Multiple occupational subcultures may develop in an
increasingly complex social patterning as people spend their lives in law
offices, medical clinics, hospitals, government offices, in taxis, lorries, or
on the street. Not all these different kinds of people, whose lives are
largely defined by the work they do and their status-role identity within an
occupational category, will share the same kinds of experience, values,
worldview or expectations.
5. Religious differences are also apparent and next to
ethnic differences, are one of the central cleavages separating the three
ethnic groups. But looked at internally, religion is the main principle of
solidarity among the Malays, fostering a strong sense of communalism and
promoting in-group/out-group consciousness in relation to the other ethnic
groups. Though religion is equally important among the other groups, the same
pattern does not hold at all among all ethnic groups.
The Indian community is clearly divided by a number of
major religious divisions--Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Catholicism--splits
that speak of the great age and importance of religious culture in India. The
Chinese community, though mostly of the Buddhist-Taoist orientation, which is
inherently "synthetic" and syncretistic, is becoming increasingly
6. Differences based upon lineage and clan are
especially apparent with the Chinese as their traditional form of social
organization was patrilineal clan organization, and this kind of social
organization still occurs and has great importance in many of the overseas
Chinese communities of Malaysia. Lineage differences may also affect the
Indian community as well, albeit in a different way, as much as their social
system is defined by the traditional Hindu jati system.
7. The rural-urban distinction poses a dilemma in a
shift of world view and attitudes from a narrower, more inbound perspective of
the world marked by in-group/out-group reference, isolation, traditional
religious values, and intolerance of differences, toward a more cosmopolitan
world view rooted in the experience and acceptance of difference. Many people
I have talked with and interviewed have made this transition from rural to
urban living within their own lifetimes and still have relatives or parents
living in or who come from, rural areas. For many people, this has been a
recent kind of transformation.
8. Modernization entails an implicit valuation of the
new and the young and devaluation of the old. The valuation of the new entails
that the newer is always better--the newer car, the newer condominium, the
newer set of clothes. Modernism threatens traditional points of view with
alternative realities that are rooted in the attraction of development. Walk
into any real estate or developers office in Penang, as well as many other
businesses, and view wonderful pictures on the walls of planned development
communities, complete with new playgrounds, swimming pools and luxurious
plants. In the artist's conception of the new way of life, everything is like
Disneyland, and this is what many Malaysians may expect when they go to apply
to live in a new, as yet uncompleted high-rise.
Once tradition has yielded and given ground to the
modern, there is change in the traditional world that cannot be undone. The
new becomes a permanent fixture of the landscape, a symbolic reminder of the
inevitability, if not the preferability, of uncontrollable changes. Even if
one doesn't like it or want to go there, one is always eventually lead back to
Komtar--all roads lead to Komtar, and one cannot escape from its long shadow.
9. There appears no clear cut or obvious example of
caste stratification in Malaysia, but there is the possibility of some
caste-like patterning that may be a small part of the larger Malaysian system.
Among the Indian communities that follow the Hindu model, the traditional
Hindu jati-system must be perpetuated in some revised and limited way among
those Indians whose lives are centered in Little India, the news-stall owners,
the barbers, roti-men, and shop-keepers and restaurateurs. There is some
occupational stratification between barbers, domestic caretakers, and other
traditional trades like gold-smiths, "botoy" men (recyclers),
stevedores and money-lenders.
I introduce the Malaysian social spectrum as an
ethno-class model that consists of a social scale in which Malaysian social
patterning can be defined by certain empirically overt patterns of behavior,
dress, possession, class and income. This scale of being and status can be
used in analyzing the overall class system of the Malaysian society, and in
possibly divining some of the basic models of identity, class and social
difference upon which the patterning of Malaysian society may be based. More
explicitly, the model consists of the following hypothetical categories:
1. The first category of the scale consists of what is
apparently the Malaysian street person. These people are usually a little
older and are characterized by a number of common traits and adaptations.
Their hair is usually unkempt, and often filthy, as are their clothes. There
is a general lack of regard for their personal appearance, a lack that is
especially marked given the public visibility of their condition. This
disregard reflects as well a basic inability to coordinate or appropriately
attire oneself in a manner that is even a little "normal" by any
Malaysian's standards. These people are for the most part living in a world of
their own, though they are not completely shut off or insensitive to the world
around them, which is often a source of confusion and turmoil.
2. The second category is what I have glossed as the
"borderline" and the most common characteristic of this group is
their begging. They usually walk. They are usually better clothed than the
street people, though their clothes are almost always old and simple. They are
undoubtedly poor, as they do not appear to work at all. I call them borderline
as they seem to live at the edge, and they are at times indistinguishable from
the street people.
3. The third category consists of people who probably
have been chronically underemployed or only intermittently employed in menial
labor and can be seen as the most unskilled of the labor force. This category
may be composed of many people who are prevented from pursuing a fuller life
and better employment because of illiteracy, lack of schooling, lack of
opportunity or physical handicaps. This group includes many trishaw men and
can be characterized by the use of bicycles, peddle-carts and handcarts. Many
of these people work quite hard and long in grueling physical manual labor for
a very low wage.19
4. The fourth category consists of people who have
regular jobs at the lower end of the income scale, including some semi-skilled
positions, clerks, secretaries, nurses, and is characterized by the adaptation
of using the public bus as a principle means of transportation, and a
subordinate position within some family arrangement upon which they are
dependent for their cost of living expenses. A large number of working women
and young men occupy this category.
5. The fifth category consists of people who have better
than average semi-skilled and skilled jobs, or who own small businesses on the
side, and are best characterized by the use of the motorcycle as a principle
means of transportation. Many young men and women occupy this position, as
well as some drivers like sapus, taxis, bus drivers, lorry drivers. This
category might be characterized by paying rent for flats or houses.
6. The sixth category consists of people whose families
are shop owners or have a small business, or whose family has successfully
worked together to pool resources. This category can be characterized by
ownership of residence, ownership of one or more cars, a variety of new
7. The seventh category consists of people who are
managers of successful businesses employing a number of people outside of the
family, and the service of a maid or amah, baby-sitter or day care for
children, with the husband and wife both working. This category includes a
professional class with a college education and who hold down
semi-professional or professional or government positions lawyers, such as
doctors, bankers, engineers, etc.
8. The eighth category consists of high level managers
and administrators, big businessmen, and politicians who possess a great deal
of prestige associated with their wealth and power within the society.
We may use these distinctions and their implied statuses
to examine alternate "profiles" or shapes of the curve defined by
various dimensions of difference across the different ethnic categories--thus
Chinese men may be distinguished from Chinese, Malay or Indian women according
to the differences in the profiles of each of these groups.
Familial patterns vary markedly among ethnic groups, and
yet in all three groups a familial orientation remains strong, even central,
in understanding the ethos and dynamics of the social patterning. Mobility is
largely achieved not just individually, but as an individual attached to some
family unit which is also relatively mobile. Familial immobility or factors of
dependency may hinder or effectively block individual mobility, and individual
patterns of dependency may affect adversely or positively familial patterns
leading to mobility. Families may effectively work together or pool resources
to achieve common, shared goals. The small family owned and operated
businesses can be a source of much profit and eventual mobility for many
hardworking families who are able to overcome petty personal differences in
pursuit of a shared goal of fortune or success.
The close similarity between this ethno-class model and
the differences of class stratification that is fundamental in any state
organization, suggests a critical connection between ethnocultural factors and
class differences and what can be referred to as "class-based"
consciousness. Several hypothetical considerations follow from this possible
connection with class:
1. Status-role identity defined by one's class position,
occupation and prestige within a larger social framework is a primary
determinant of the psycho-social integration and conflicts which serve to
characterize the various categories of the spectrum.
2. Though class considerations underlie and affect all
the different dimensions, the different profiles of alternate groups suggests
that class and class-based consciousness varies significantly between the
3. Class considerations and class-based consciousness
largely (and increasingly) prestructure and constrain ethnocultural values,
attitudes, behaviors and factors of familial relation in the construction of
complex, stratified realities.
4. We can hypothesize the patterning of alternate
ethnocultural "models" which are central to and critically influence
the patterning of belief, behavior, attitudes and relations within different
ethnocultural groupings and between different categories within the different
groupings, such that the common identities, values, attitudes, styles of life,
etc., are most shared within the grouping and category and serve to define the
social boundaries for that grouping. We can refer to an ethnoculturally
typical and corporate "class based" consciousness and stylization of
patterns of living which stereotypically characterize different groupings and
5. Ethnoculturally predominant patterns rooted in class
stratification tend to reinforce and reproduce in a conservative manner the
typical class-based consciousness and constructions of reality which preserve
the overall integrity of the class system.
6. Exogenous acculturative pressures (from totally
outside the social system) and endogenous acculturative pressures (between
different groups and categories of people who are asymmetrical), tend to have
a divisive, skewing effect upon the patterning of ethnocultural integration
upon the subordinate categories and groupings, resulting in an overall
shifting of the profiles of such categories and groupings, as well as of the
entire class system.
7. Secondary institutions such as the news media,
education and formal religious organizations will serve to reinforce the
received normal order of class relations in the society, and in a
characteristically Southeast Asian pattern, will define this normal order in
terms of a symbolic isomorphism between the person, the ethnic group, the
state and the supernatural.
8. Ethnocultural identities and relations rooted in
class stratification within the state will be symbolically expressed in a
number of different ways. The ethnocultural embodiment of class experience and
consciousness entails the reification of the asymmetries and consequences that
are tied to the relationship of the ethnocultural grouping to the larger
social context. Conflict, contradiction and "marginalizing"
experiences of alternate conflictual realities that serve to delegitimate and
relativize the collectivizing function of such symbolisms will be expressed
symbolically in terms of an "anti-structural" order rooted in rites
(i.e. religion, trancing, spirit possession, devotional worship).
Different ethnocultural models may be based upon similar
factors across the social spectrum and the different ethnocultural groupings
of Malaysian society. These factors are: 1) the family, 2) the primary ethnic
community, including religious symbolism, dress, shared values, food, etc., 3)
the secondary interethnic community (i.e. pan-Malaysian society). Altogether,
these basic factors provide a sense of obligation, emotional attachment,
social screens of support and personal identity. These factors are expressed
differently across the many groupings and categories and may work together to
reinforce one another, or may be locked in a fundamental contradiction.20
There is occurring within Malaysian society a radical
transformation of ethnocultural identities. Ethnocultures that were primarily
situated in small communities--jetties, fishing settlements, kampongs, and
plantations across Malaysia--are becoming increasingly articulated in the
contexts of multi-ethnic flats and housing estates or neighborhoods. Relations
of capital and labor which occur in the factory and the market place, as well
as socio-political-economic relations defined by bureaucratic encapsulation,
are coming increasingly to penetrate and influence the patterning of
ethnoculture upon a local level.
Ethnocultural identities are shifting toward more
complex forms of social networks and patterning that reflect the rise of
national integration and also the penetration of development into these
neighborhoods and the lives of their constituencies. With this shift of
ethnocultural identity, values and relations defined by class and
status-identity within a larger social world are becoming increasingly
important in the lives of these people, and come to have an increasingly
relativizing influence upon the locally rooted orientation.
Thus, our understanding of ethnoculture must take into
account this shift from that patterning which is characteristic of a
gemeinschaft "community" to that alternative patterning which comes
to typify networks in multiethnic flats, culturally mixed suburban residential
neighborhoods and cosmopolitan centers. Cultural forms become in these
contexts increasingly "ethnized" and increasingly tied to class
position and status identity within a larger social system.
For each ethnic category, the pressures of change and
conformity to tradition will differently effect alternate ethno-class and
sub-ethnocultural groupings and identities, and thus will have an effect of
rending in different directions the entire ethnic category that is constructed
mainly upon the basis of a shared traditional cultural orientation. At the
same time, processes of development, capitalist penetration of markets,
emergent residential patterning, and national education and media, are
effectively creating a form of national cultural integration (and an implicit
consensus of values) on at least two or three different levels of
socialization and symbolic patterning.
Despite the great ethnic differences which characterize
Malaysia, and despite the racial politics which continue on course, evidence
from participant observation and from a variety of indirect sources suggest
that Malaysians may actually share a great deal in common with one another on
a very basic level that can be considered to be a part of a rich and elaborate
national cultural heritage.
Already, there are a number of genuine
"shared" values that can be said to characterize most Malaysians no
matter what age, sex, or ethnic category. Most Malaysians value stability and
security, family, work, discipline, obedience, propriety, communal solidarity,
national achievements in development, food, religion, ethnic diversity,
health, upward mobility, social status, and peaceful, polite and friendly
interrelationship with a wider world--what might be referred to as social
harmony. Although there are obvious cultural differences among the different
ethnic groups within Malaysia, the real boundaries of basic cultural
differences, especially those of a primary orientation, are less clear-cut,
and many patterns which definitely apply to the Chinese may also apply in
altered form to other communities as well.
The poorer people of the Jetty seem largely caught in a
self-perpetuating web of social relations that is a community adaptation to
poverty and which is rooted in the common and widely shared interrelation
between a number of salient factors in "primary" and
"secondary" orientations of basic culture (Berger & Luckmann
Primary orientation of children's basic culture is
operationally defined as those patterns of child behavior and response
directly tied to domestic family relations, child socialization and
enculturation, parent-child relations, and which affect mostly the child's
identity and ego-development. A secondary orientation consists of those
adult-oriented institutions--religion, education, labor, social organization,
social networks and extra-familial relations, and patterns of secondary
socialization and identification, which reinforce and affect mostly adult
behavior. Intermediate, pre-adult institutions specifically affecting
adolescent and teenage culture must also be taken into account.
At the primary level of basic culture, there are salient
patterns of strong authoritarian identification between both the parent and
child, frequent and common verbal and physical punishment of children, lack of
enrichment and deprivation of children tied to the lack of self-esteem,
inconsistent reinforcement of behavior, and orality as a primary form of
These patterns of primary socialization are reinforced
by strong nurturance, large, crowded extended family households, physical
proximity and personal closeness, early socialization and enculturation in a
number of community-wide habits which are incongruent with the dominant ethos
of national society, including gambling, profane language, early introduction
to sexually explicit knowledge, participatory involvement in certain religious
rituals, a strong sinocentrism including preference for Chinese-style
education, reliance upon Chinese medical practices and beliefs, a basic
distrust in government and police, and a lack of trust in the efficacy of
nontraditional or western medicine, lack of privacy, and widespread
involvement in local patterns of gossip and external social pressures to
communal solidarity and conformity, reinforced by threats and abuse.
These patterns of socialization are reinforced by high
rates of early school leaving, the relative lack of opportunity, experience,
training or participation within wider society, or part-time, impermanent or
irregular employment only on the most menial levels of the social structure
and a tendency to remain within the security of the local community versus
more uncertain and stressful participation within the larger world.
This pattern appears to be stronger and more prevalent
among males than females, though gender inequality and the subordination of
women effectively hinders their capacity to improve their own and their
children's condition. Thus, there may be a fundamental sense of a
"personal lack of control" over the effective environment, a basic
insecurity which may be tied to early parent-child relations and which may
become extended in adulthood onto other social relations in the wider world.
Furthermore, this sense of "lack of control" that may normally be
rooted in the local community itself may become displaced during nearly
exclusive participatory involvement in local community life onto social
relations in the wider world or onto other people or groups which are
considered not to be a part of the community.
"Dependability" as a core value of the
achievement orientation overseas Chinese ethnoculture may be compromised by
the incapacity of the individual to form extradomestic relationships which are
rooted implicitly in "trust" and dependability. At the same time, we
must understand that competing, alternative ethnocultural orientations that
are in many ways inherently incompatible, may be working in the background of
individuals' lives to differentially influence individuals' identity and
social relations in a wider world. Thus, Jetty society provides a small world
context that is in many ways "complete" and closed, but which at the
same time may be fundamentally at odds with the dominant values of either the
Malaysian national culture or those associated with Western modernization. We
may refer to the coexistence of alternate, "discrepant" (Berger and
Luckmann 1967:165-173) realities which compete for symbolic authority in the
subjective experience of the individual.
I would also speculate that humans have a certain basic
need for order and regularity in their perceived environments--there is a
differential threshold of tolerance for the symbolic disambiguation of noise
or contradiction in the behavioral setting. If noise or contradiction
chronically exceeds an individuals capacity to symbolically disambiguate or
meaningfully "filter" this noise, then a certain
"passiveness" (versus active, Fuller 1982) of adaptation is
encouraged which renders the individual merely responsive (versus initiative)
to environmental stimuli and undifferentiated (versus articulated, Witkin and
These may be basic differences of personality
configuration which may be linked cybernetically to the: 1) symbolic
patterning of cultural psychological organization of the individual, 2)
familial context of its original formation, 3) ethnocultural context of its
eventual elaboration, 4) symbolic and social patterns of status-identification
in a larger socio-structural context.
Many of the hypothesized patterns described above should
not be regarded as the predominant or exclusive predicament of poor Chinese,
but possibly also of poor Malays and Indians as well who may also be bound
with the small world contexts of kampongs or plantations. There may thus
already exist in place the potential for a more common foundation for national
cultural unity and interethnic integration than is currently realized or
realizable within predominantly communal and "race" oriented
1 The use of a folk notion of race
underlying cultural differences between people is to be found on almost every
page of the book. In discussing "other characteristics" of race than
ethnic origin, for instance, Mahathir notes (1970:84) that "The Jews for
example are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively. The
Europeans are not only fair-skinned, but have an insatiable curiosity"
(Mahathir 1970:84). Other examples abound in the text, for instance (Mahathir
1970:96), "Inherent racial character explains the rapid recovery of
Germany and Japan after their defeat in World War II." Closer to home,
"The Malays are not merely brown, but are also easy-going and tolerant.
And the Chinese are not just almond-eyed people, but are also inherently good
businessmen" (Mahathir 1970:84).
2 Furthermore, it is used to define the
racial basis of national unity, a "Malaysia for the
Malays"--"the basis of national unity, simply stated, is a single
ethnic group possessing a common language, culture and religion confined in an
area of definite geographical boundaries" (Mahathir 1970:98).
3 The racial problems which so characterize
Malaysian society today can be clearly laid at the doorstep of the British
colonialists who instituted policies favoring the massive immigration of
Chinese and Indian labor into the Malay peninsula, to the point of radically
and permanently altering the original demographic map of Malaysia and of
laying the historical foundation for a potentially explosive social context in
4 Less well understood is the social context
in Malaysia before the arrival of the British, and the patterning of the
"mosaic society" that could be found in the marketplaces of
especially the cosmopolitan entrepot's such as Malacca. Judith Nagata (1979)
refers to the ethnic "mosaic" which is apparent in pre-colonial
Malaysian society prior to the installation of British administrative
machinery which set up a rigid census system based on three racial
categories--Malay, Indian and Chinese.
5 The two-tiered system effectively
separates the "Bumiputra" from the "non-Bumi's"--granting
first-class citizenship, special rights and privileges in government hiring,
education, discounts in loans and in buying cars, houses, business and other
major acquisitions in life, to all those who fall "racially" within
the first category, and in effect conferring constitutionally
"second-class" status to all "alien" groups--Chinese and
Indians, who are given only token, back of the line treatment in government
hiring, education, etc.
6 A bureaucratic tendency has emerged which
minimizes the interaction of local groups within wider fields of action.
"Chinese middlemen at all levels serve as specialized middle-men linking
their fellow Chinese further down the scale into the Malay-dominated political
system. Rather than integration per se, an attenuated encapsulation
prevails" (Judith Strauch 1981:12).
7 Because "racial" politics are
thus systematically embedded and articulated, they acquire an unmarked
"basicness" about them which enables them to be more easily
construed as a "natural" and "unquestionable" part of the
social order and therefore they become less susceptible and less available to
open criticism and attack. To then question such aspects of the system is to
cause a breach of faith with the unspoken, "received" reality and
therefore it is to risk having one's political sentiments or national
loyalties being called into question, or being called in for questioning,
This ordinary way of doing things, as if it
were a normal part of the order of the Muslim universe, is then also
reinforced by a more explicit system of repression, rules and restrictions the
violation of which, under one act of national security or another, will
definitely result in some form of "rehabilitation."
8 It is even more important to recognize
that the pluralism of the Malaysian mosaic has largely, from a political point
of view, become the "bi-polarization" of the society between the
Malays on the one hand and the Chinese on the other. It is this polarization
between Chinese and Malay which has largely fueled the ethnic differences and
the development of contrasting ethnicities, and the drawing of the rigid
boundary between the two groups. It has resulted in the clear ethnization of
the social and political environment, a process of emphasizing and redefining
internal ethnic solidarity and markers of ethnic identity vis-a-vis the
counter reference group, and of constructing stereotypes of the out group,
which become to some extent self-sustaining and perpetuating of the same
"politics of race" in which they are rooted in the first place.
9 While this is true for the separate
communities as a whole, in which the community orientation tends to maintain
the boundary between the groups and reinforce in-group solidarity, it can also
be said that individuals can and often do pass between the two boundaries into
the worlds of the other, but only as individuals, and only under circumstances
in which there is individual and interpersonal recognition and friendship.
10 Thus their symbols of such ethnic
solidarity involve those symbols of social mobility and socio-economic
status--hand phones, business cards, fancy cars, nice homes, servants.
11 Rabushka's work (1973) reveals some of
the fundamental differences between Chinese and Malay. Chinese tend to be more
culturally ethnocentric than the Malay. More cosmopolitan contexts, inducing
social extroversion, hence greater interracial social interaction, reduces
such ethnocentrism, while social introverts tend to be much more ethnocentric
in orientation. In terms of relative social distance, and the degree of
tolerance between these groups, "Penang Malays are more tolerant of the
Chinese than their Kuala Lumpur counterparts, but they are less tolerant on
the question of interracial marriage. But omitting eating and marriage, the
two associations affected by religion, we find (with one exception) that
two-thirds of all Malay respondents are not opposed to crossing racial
boundaries in employment, social activity or neighborhood of residence"
In regard to Chinese attitudes, no religious
obstacles interfere with Chinese eating with Malays in the same eating houses.
"Chinese in both Kuala Lumpur and Penang are more tolerant of Malays than
Malays are tolerant of them. In greater degree, they are willing to eat, work,
join and live with members of the Malay race" (Rabushka 1967:62). The
study holds that racial stereotypes have little or not role in promoting
social or political harmony, and that positive or negative attitudes are
relatively independent of such stereotypes.
Chinese tend to see Malay behavior in the
local context as childlike, with a lack of ambition--"traits that can be
smiled on with some condescension" (Rabushka 1973:254) These attitudes
are somewhat separate from feelings of structural discrimination as second
class citizens. "Government officials, by contrast, may be viewed as
heavy-handed tyrants spoon-feeding the Malay peasant on the one hand and
constricting natural Chinese rights on the other" (Rabushka 1973: 254).
Malay stereotypes of the Chinese; are that
they are intelligent, ambitious, active, honest, thrifty, industrious and
hardworking, yet ritually unclean and impure. The Chinese tend to see the
Malays as clean, and yet lacking ambition, while "Intelligence, thrift,
activity, and honesty are given approximately equal point values... and fall
significantly below the scores registered for cleanliness and (lack of)
ambition." (Rabushka 1973:67)
12 Ethnicity and race are terms often
used interchangeably, in part because obvious markers of "racial
identity" are often used in the definition of ethnic identity. Though
related, the notions of ethnicity and ethnoculture must be critically
distinguished--ethnoculture consists of that orientation which is more-or-less
culturally embedded and traditionally defined, whereas ethnicity tends to be
defined in the social context, in terms that are economic, religious, and
political, and which tend to be more superficial, hence transient, than more
deeply embedded ethnocultural traits.
13 From these findings, a conclusion is
drawn, among others, that "multi-racial living experiences do not
necessarily promote racial tolerance or political unity" (Rabushka
1973:101). The data tended to support a "transaction hypothesis"
that higher levels of daily social interaction tends to promote higher levels
of positive effect. On the other hand, evidence points out that social
integration does not necessarily correlate with "democratic political
stability"--"the transaction model does not clearly distinguish the
political and nonpolitical aspects of "integration." Living in
multiracial neighborhoods increases affect, whereas ethnic enclaves reduces
it. Education enhances interethnic interaction, while age, religious and
sexual differences have little impact "on the extent of racial
integration" (Rabushka 1973:124-5).
14 Wallace's theory of the organization of
diversity (1970) holds that a society must have developed a set of mutually
shared equivalence structures which facilitate communication and interaction
across ethnic boundaries, mechanisms which allow for the translation of common
value across such boundaries.
It is to be expected that a complex
multi-ethnic society like Malaysia will have worked out a simple set of
equivalence structures for the translation of value between groups, that the
expression of these equivalence structures will follow the idioms of the
dominant group, or will be of Malay in expression or substance, and that they
will be focus to deal with interactions across the main set of boundaries
between the Malays and the Chinese.
15 Situations involving intermarriage, which
are very infrequent, heterosexual discourse, or groups of Malays or Chinese
sharing the same eating facilities and eating within the same set of stalls,
are those in which there is great risk for such alternation to occur and thus
provide those circumstances in which practices of self-reinforcing social
discrimination and indirect constraints work to reinforce the structural
realities of ethnic differences.
16 Thus, while many Chinese will dress with
the sarong, frequently visit Malay hawkers and eat Malay food, and watch Malay
programs and movies on television, worship local Malay spirits or deities, and
while the language of almost all interethnic, government, or school
interaction is now in the national Bahasa Malaysia, or in the pidgin Pasar
Malay, except in the world of Chinese business which remains either
dialectically Chinese or English, most Malays will never eat in Chinese places
which are considered basically contaminated by the presence of pork, will not
learn Chinese or watch Chinese movies, even though the Malays are probably
frequently using products of Chinese manufacture or frequenting or working
within businesses organized, run or owned by Chinese on a Chinese model.
17 These six problems are themselves
intertwined in complex ways, suggesting that there can be no simple or
18 Brand new nations were forged in an
arbitrary manner on maps in European meeting rooms, creating new superficial
administrative unities among large areas of cultural diversities. The demand
for cheap labor in primary production on plantations, mines and in primary
processing led to the en mass importation of cheap and exploitable labor
forces, permanently disturbing local patterns of population distribution.
19 It is believed that among this group
there can be expected to be a high rate of alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling
and patterns of abuse in families. This is the category in which sociological
factors begin to play a bigger part in determining the identity of its members
than the psychological factors, thought the sociological forces may have
psychological consequences in the behavioral adaptations of the members.
20 Furthermore, underlying all of these
principles is the overarching principle of psycho-social integration which is
critically tied to status-role identification at each of the three levels.
Thus, there is a source of constant conflict between personal desires and
goals and familial relations and obligations, communal interests and
expectations, and super-communal commitments and loyalties.