Is Malaysia still a ‘poster-child’ for multiculturalism?

The discriminatory policies, unbalanced rights, and special privileges for the majority ethnic group say otherwise.

(FMT) – Malaysia is often described as “Asia in miniature.”

It’s the textbook definition of our country, which we love to repeat over and over again to ourselves, and to the rest of the world. Our prime minister keeps proclaiming at every opportunity that a Malay child, a Chinese child, an Indian child, an Iban child, and a Kadazan child, are all Malaysian children.

A multicultural nation is characterised by people of different races, and ethnicities living together in the same community. In these communities, people retain, celebrate, and share their unique cultural ways of life, languages, arts, traditions, and practices.

Let’s be clear. This was passionately advertised on the “packaging” for the “Malaysia” project.

Growing up in Penang, my next door neighbour to the right was En Hussein’s family, and to the left was Mr Tan’s family. The Santhirams were in the middle. We regularly played badminton across our fences, and exchanged “Pyrex” bowls filled with the Husseins’ mee hoon goreng, the Santhiram’s mutton curry, and the Tan’s delectable cakes. The goodies would be passed back and forth between our houses.

All the kids from these three households knew each other well, grew up together, and connected. This was my multicultural reality as a kid.

Ironically, in Kuala Lumpur now, my next door neighbour to my left is a Chinese family and to my right, is a Malay family. Regrettably, we no longer swap food. And, apart from the cursory nod we give each other, when we pass by, there is no other real connection.

Of course, some might argue that it is my fault for being disengaged from my neighbours. Perhaps, the generation ahead of me felt the need to connect more, and live harmoniously together, instead of being in silos.

I remember my parents’ Muslim friends, and there were quite a few of them, who came to our home for Deepavali open-house. They happily feasted on everything my mum cooked, and no questions were ever asked. This went on for years. Then, I left in the late eighties to study abroad. When I came back in the mid-nineties, things had changed dramatically.

The fewer Muslim friends who did come for our family open-house now, seemed highly concerned about the food we cooked. Notwithstanding that my folks would ensure that the produce bought for these occasions always came from “certified” suppliers, it was still a cause of concern for these guests.

The ease with which we interacted in the past seemed to have been lost. Things were done in trepidation, and people walked on egg-shells around each other. When Muslim friends and work colleagues came, I was instructed to make sure that any (and we never had many) beer cans should be kept out of sight.

I simply didn’t understand it. Why had things changed in such a short time?

I had just come back from being abroad for six years, and never had to deal with this. At university, I coexisted happily with people from many different races, and religions. We never had to tip-toe around people of different faiths. Everyone just respected each other’s cultural differences, and carried on.

Fast forward to 2023. This week, Malaysia saw another “controversy.” This time about Christmas greetings on cakes. Go figure!

After a huge public outcry, the government had to declare a new rule. This overturned an earlier ban on the display of food with non-Muslim festive greetings. It was so ridiculous that the Sarawak premier (chief minister of the largest state by size, in Malaysia) was reported to have said “…itu bodoh punya” or “this is stupid.”

The premier urged his people in Sarawak not to be influenced by the happenings on the Malaysian peninsula. For good measure, he added that there must be mutual respect within a diverse and multi-religious society.

It is dumbfounding that these types of absurd controversies still continue in our “old multicultural” nation.

While in newer multi-ethnic societies, so much more progress has been made. In the UK, they now have a prime minister who hails from a migrant family. He is a first generation British. But, here in Malaysia, we are still arguing and debating about whether a non-Malay can be PM.

Our neighbour Singapore, while not without their own “race” problems, seems to have tackled their multiculturalism with much more finesse. Their head of state is a fourth-generation Singaporean of Tamil ancestry and a Hindu. And, he took over from a Malay Muslim president, in an ethnically Chinese majority nation.

Of course, some Malaysians will argue that only when a non-Chinese person becomes their prime minister, should we truly use Singapore as an example. But frankly, the direction that Singapore has taken, is far better, and infinitely more progressive than what we experience here.

So, it really begs the question about how we got into this quandary with discriminatory policies, unbalanced rights, and special privileges for the majority ethnic group. Was it down to the demands from the citizenry? Or was it simply decades of political agendas to disunite our people, and to continue ruling through parochialism and fear?

In any case, do we really think Malaysia is still a “model” multicultural nation?