By Hugh M. Lewis

Copyright 1996, by Hugh M. Lewis


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Malaysian Ethnicity Malaysian 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 terms.

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 constitution.

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 "administrative" reality.4

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 (Rogers 1993).

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 surprise attacks.

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 superior position.5

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 minority presence.8

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 boundary.

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 groups.

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 the beholder.

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 money.

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.


Malaysian Ethnicity

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 ethnic politics.

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 (Brown 1976:95).

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 behavior.

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 out-groups.12

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 racial designation.

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 degrees.

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 group.

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).

Malaysian Ethnocultures and Ethno-classes

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 uniforms.

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 men.

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 Christianized.

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 appliances, etc.

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 different groupings.

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 categories.

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 1967:129-147).

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 compensation.

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 Goodenough 1981).

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 political policies.