Sharing Likeness in Oppression: How Malaysia’s Institutional Racism is interconnected to the Black Lives Matter movement
Image by UnratedStudio from Pixabay 

Malaysia is no stranger to anti-Black sentiment, especially in recent years. This can be seen through its lack of legislation that outlaws racial discrimination within the housing market, to the bestial metaphors adopted by well-known institutions. However, this issue is steeped in the larger context of racial inequality in Malaysia, in which minority groups struggle to find parity in education and economic standing.

Some Malaysians say: Say No to African People!

In June 2016, local residents in a large apartment complex in Cheras, a district in Selangor – with a substantial African student demographic – put up a banner featuring a dark-skinned face with a large yellow ‘X’ over it. The words across the banner spelt, “Say No to African People!”

Despite public outcry over the blatantly racist act, no action was taken. In April 2020, another banner was spotted in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, which read: “Do Not Rent to African/Negro. 0% African tenants.”

This open xenophobia is not restricted to accommodation alone – in fact, it is rife in social life as well.

Last month, Malaysian university ‘Lim Kok Wing’ was seen to put up a poster hailing its founder – a Chinese man – as the ‘King of Africa’, due to the university’s large African student population. Then, soon after, popular Malaysian singer, Wani Kayrie, was seen doing ‘blackface’ on TikTok, as publicity for her latest acting role.

This, juxtaposed to the wave of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement sweeping across the globe, is nothing short of abhorrent. Despite the informative posts, and the videos of police brutality shared and reposted multiple times, some Malaysians still seem apathetic to the plight of Black lives, even on home soil. However, given the ingrained racism within Malaysian institutions themselves, this is largely unsurprising.

Pot meet kettle: The institutionalised racism in Malaysia in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Malaysia has fostered institutionalised racism for over sixty years, which is why, to some, supporting the BLM movement hits too close to home. There are fundamental parallels between the plight of African-Americans and the minority groups in Malaysia that are too hard to ignore.

Malaysian Indians and African-Americans have higher unemployment rates than the national average. Both have high school dropout rates (8% for Indians; 6.5% for African-American youth) that are higher than other major ethnic groups in their respective countries.

The Orang Asli indigenous tribes in Malaysia suffer a worse fate. About 75% of the community – though around 192,000 households are still excluded from official data – are estimated to be under the poverty line. In context, the national average is 0.4 percent. This is similar to how Black communities in American neighbourhoods are disproportionately affected by poverty, at about 45%.

Crucially, it is also important to note that more Malaysians Indians are killed proportionately compared to other ethnic groups while in police custody. The suspicious deaths of Indian detainees can be exemplified by a recent tragic case.

On July 2nd, V. Mugilarasu, an Indian man who was held in remand for an alleged drug offence, was rushed to the nearby hospital due to chest pains. He eventually died from a heart attack, according to the state police department, even though he never suffered from chronic diseases and was in good health upon his arrest. Further suspicions of foul play arose after the pathologist tasked with his post-mortem noted bruising on his face and swelling on his arms. The district police chief still insists there was no misconduct leading to Mugilarasu’s sudden death.

Stories like these bear a stark resemblance to the police brutality cases against African-Americans, in which more unarmed black men are killed as a result of lethal force by the police than any other group, with a fatality rate of 2.8 times the white average. These cases are also often shrouded in cover-ups and secrecy, which form more obstacles to grieving families pursuing justice.

However, discussion and action surrounding racial inequality is relatively more stagnant in Malaysia than in the United States since the abolition of slavery. This is largely due to the nature of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution and its contradiction.

Article 8 of the Malaysian constitution states that all Malaysian citizens are deemed equal and receive equal protection under the law. The rest of the article prohibits discriminatory practices in the “carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment” of Malaysians. However, Article 153 of the Constitution reserves the right for the Malaysian King to exercise his function in ‘safeguarding the special position of Malays and natives’– the Bumiputera group- in public service, scholarships, exhibitions and other educational privileges.

Admittedly, this constitutionally-sanctioned affirmative action was necessary to promote the social and economic status of the Bumiputera, who were the largest and most impoverished ethnic group in post-colonial Malaya. In 1970, just under half of all households in Peninsular Malaysia had incomes below the official poverty line; Malays accounted for about 65 percent of these.

This justified the National Economic Plan (NEP) for over two decades, 1970-1990, with the aim of redistributing corporate equity to increase the Bumiputera share from around 2% to 30%.

Politically, however, the NEP was required to quell the disquiet interethnic tension that culminated in the infamous 1969 May 13th racial riots. These riots were triggered by the 1969 national election where non-Malay opposition parties were able to make gains in the electoral vote, which was viewed as a threat to Malay political power. The May 13th riots are
etched in Malaysian history as the most violent interracial riots, with approximately 196 deaths. However, foreign diplomats believe the real number was closer to 800.

According to some estimates, the NEP was a success in stimulating economic growth across all ethnic groups. The Bumiputera economic share rose to 19% in 2002, while at the same time the overall poverty rate fell to 1% in 2014. However, it is worth bearing in mind that while the minority races suffer disproportionately from poverty, the Bumiputera poverty rate is still highest among the B40 group (lowest 40% of income).

This ultimately makes it difficult to push for economic investment into the progression of minority races since it’s widely believed that it is Bumiputera interest that should be prioritised- as per the constitutional mandate of Bumiputera privilege. To date, many of the quotas in education, housing and jobs still persist, creating a nefarious mentality of ‘Bumiputera-first’ across many sectors.

For example, state-funded tertiary education in Malaysia, the Malaysian Matriculation, still has a 90% Bumiputera student quota despite efforts made to increase the number of available places across ethnic lines. There are also reportedly six Malays to every non-Malay in the Malaysian civil service. Though quotas are not at fault, this reality fosters an unconscious bias against a diverse civil workforce as it is viewed as traditionally dominated by Malays.

Any attempt to alter the status quo suffers great pushback. For example, news of Malaysia’s potential ratification of the United Nations’ International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) sparked a wave of protests for fear of the erosion of the privileges the majority enjoy. The convention was eventually not ratified by parliament (two-thirds majority required for this to happen) which, in itself, is an inherently Malay-Muslim institution. Leading from the 2018 general election, 55% of the House of Representatives are Malays.

Therefore, it is possible that the empowerment of oppressed communities around the globe would only embolden the pleas of minority groups here in Malaysia. A movement here that could potentially spread so widely that no legal document would be able to silence it. The legal document that was partially drafted by white men intending to exert influence, after all.

The colonial hangover: Malaysia’s misplaced nostalgia towards white dominance.

Malaysia – or then known as Malaya- was a colony of the British empire from approximately 1786 to 1957. The assumption of British strength both economically and militarily kept the native Malays largely docile and submissive to the whims of the colonisers.

Through the government-issued history syllabus, the story of our independence was one of compromise and peace. The British were urged by the United Nations, due to their post-war bankruptcy, to decolonise, and the local coalition government resorted to diplomatic tactics to ensure that was the case. As the story goes, the fervent negotiations for independence wore down the white colonists, who ‘awarded’ us with emancipation for relatively good behavior, juxtaposed to the violent routes taken by other countries towards the same feat.

Tangentially, stories like the 1948 Batang Kali massacre, the murder of 25 Chinese villagers by British soldiers during the Malayan Communist Insurgency, are swept under the rug, absolving the colonisers of blame.

Furthermore, there is a clear lack of politicians who openly discuss the British policy of ‘divide and rule’ as a driving factor behind our longstanding racial tension.

Even now, the psychological effects of colonialism are staggering. Skin whitening creams are still widely marketed, with the standards of Eurocentric beauty still playing a substantial role in the entertainment industry, and inherently, in Malaysian mentality. Even in the wake
of the Black Lives Matter movement, during a parliament sitting on July 13th, a politician was heard making racist statements to an Indian MP, commenting she was “too dark” and needed “powder to fix it.”

Along the same vein, Western media, more often than not, features dramatised clips of white cops catching brown and black criminals. In fact, a recent report – analysing 26 American crime series – finds that “the scripted crime television genre plays a deeply concerning role in
popularising distorted representations of crime, justice, race and gender, thereby reinforcing erroneous understandings.”

The youth, as well, are victims to this mindset. In a 2015 poll, more than 70% of the respondents (Malaysian students in private local universities) held hopes of studying abroad and eventually migrating there – almost 50% chose the UK as their preferred destination.

It is not difficult to consider how easily this ‘white saviour’ narrative is underpinned and accepted in all societies, including Malaysia where it is present in every facet of life. It has caused Malaysians like Samantha Katie James, Miss Universe Malaysia 2017, to urge Black people to “relax” in the midst of protest against four hundred years of systemic racism and police brutality. She added that responding to racism with rage and anguish meant that the “Whites won.” Some might argue that they did.

When will Black (and minority) Lives Matter? When discussing a future for racial equality, Malaysia’s internal race struggles are inextricably connected with how we view foreign communities. In particular, the Black Lives Matter movement exposes the worst of Malaysian tolerance, given the array of insensitive statements espoused across ethnic lines and within all social spheres.

Fundamentally, it is difficult to have constructive debate about racial equality without discussing the notion of Malay supremacy from the constitution to education. Besides, the ingrained attractiveness of the white race, and a rose-tinted view of the Western lifestyle, further undermines the disenfranchised minorities struggling for acceptance.

It is heartening to see more Malaysians pick up the baton for racial justice, especially in recent months. Even if there are more racially insensitive sentiments, there are more Malaysians willing to call out such behavior, leading to numerous online petitions with thousands of signatures.

However, until all Malaysians are willing to admit that people of colour deserve better across the board – until politicians are willing to back a bill preventing racial discrimination, at the very least – the fight will go on.

We must uphold progressive values now, or else the Malaysian melting pot will soon bubble over.