Rejecting ethnic stereotypes

ETHNIC stereotypes are a bane on any society. They exacerbate ethnic relations and, worse, impede the growth of understanding and empathy among individuals from different communities that have had minimum social interaction over a long period of time.

Recent remarks by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad that “ the Chinese are a wealthy lot” and “control all the towns in the country” would be examples of such stereotyping.

According to the Department of Statistics, 70% of Chinese Malaysians in 2016 belonged to the working class. In fact, even at the time of independence, the majority of Chinese, as the well-known economist (the late) James Puthucheary pointed out, were employees and not employers of capital.

If some Chinese from working-class backgrounds have become rich over the years, it is because of opportunities and mobility afforded by the prevailing socio-economic system, apart from their own hard work, perseverance and frugality.

As for towns, while it is true that many present-day towns were pioneered by Chinese, their current management and control are in the hands of largely Malay bureaucrats. Local government bureaucracy in turn is linked to a mainly Malay political order.

This leads us to yet another stereotype that needs to be scrutinised. There are many non-Malays who argue that Malays exercise total monopolisation over political power. This is not true if one appreciates the nature and evolution of political power in Malaysia.

Monarchical power, which has been exclusively Malay for centuries, was preserved by British colonial rule and shared with the people through democratic procedures and practices embodied in the Merdeka Constitution of 1957.

It was the Malay Rulers and Umno elite who decided to confer political rights upon the domiciled non-Malay populace through accommodative citizenship provisions in the Constitution.

Of course, a number of factors contributed to this momentous decision, including colonial interests. But what is critically important is that the decision transformed the entire political landscape forever: From a people associated with a land, the Malays became a community among communities.

If this process of accommodation and acceptance is understood, no thinking Chinese or Indian Malaysian would talk of the monopolization of political power by the Malays.

It is often forgotten that the Umno-led Alliance coalition from the first Federal legislative election in 1955 set a trend that has remained through 14 general elections. In that election, 17 Chinese and Indian candidates from the MCA and MIC were fielded although there was a Chinese majority in only two out of the 52 constituencies. All the MCA and MIC contestants won, most of them with Malay votes. There are other ethnic stereotypes that are equally pernicious even if their political impact is not as serious.

The stereotype about Malay laziness, however, is perhaps the only one subscribed to by certain leaders, like Dr Mahathir, of the targeted people themselves. Dr Mahathir has clung on to this stereotype for decades in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the wide range of persuasive arguments in Syed Hussein Alatas’ The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977).

It is a pity Dr Mahathir does not seem to understand that this myth is rooted in the ideology of colonial capitalism and has been exploited by both the colonialists and purveyors of communal politics to denigrate native peoples.

The media, schools and universities, religious and cultural organisations and families should all be involved in the mammoth task of raising social awareness on how destructive stereotypes are.


Kuala Lumpur

(Dr Chandra has been writing on ethnic relations since the early 70s.)

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