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Malaysian Race, Ethnicity and Ethnic Relations

Race, Ethnicity, and Ethnic Relations: A Malaysian Case Study

A Curriculum Project for the Fulbright-Hays Seminar Abroad: Malaysia and Singapore, 2005


William Guinee

Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Westminster College

Fulton, Missouri

November, 2005

Race, Ethnicity, and Ethnic Relations: A Malaysian Case Study

Use of this Module. I began this curriculum project with the intent of writing some notes to be used during the ethnicity section of my “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” course at Westminster College. The course is aimed primarily at first year liberal arts students, and I normally only have one or two fifty-minute lectures to introduce a few ideas concerning ethnicity. The idea for this document then was to frame an outline of a few broad ideas about ethnicity and illustrate it with material from the Malaysian situation. Malaysia is particularly relevant in this context due to the extreme historical and current importance of ethnicity in human relations, economics, politics, and the general tenor of the nation. Consequently, the 2005 Fulbright-Hays seminar abroad in Malaysia and Singapore had, as one of its primary missions, an investigation of ethnicity and ethnic relations. The incredible superfluity of material on this subject, however, quickly overcame my intentions for this document; it just kept growing. There is now no way that these notes can be condensed into a couple of short lectures. Rather, I will need to take a small subset of this information for my use in the introductory course. I am presenting this fuller version of the notes, however, as they may prove more generally useful for other scholars who may wish to emphasize different features than I in their teaching. I also intend to further expand the current notes, at a later date, for use as a larger section of a course more directly oriented towards issues of ethnicity (especially issues of the “plural society”) or the region of Southeast Asia.


Structural Framework and Sources. Specifically, my students are required, for this section of the introductory course to read chapter 17, “Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflict,” in Humanity 7th ed., as homework for this unit of the course. Consequently, much of the orientation and structure for this discussion comes from that work, and follows on classroom exposure to ideas about class, gender, and globalization. A significant portion of the textbook chapter, however, concerns ethnic conflict at a level, fortunately, not part of the Malaysian experience – issues of genocide, forced assimilation, ethnic civil war, and so forth. So, to really “cover” the chapter in Humanity one would need to do additional lectures concerning the second half of the “ethnicity” chapter. Additional framework for the general conceptions of ethnicity and race in this curriculum unit was taken from Marger’s Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives, a quite nice textbook for a course focusing on ethnicity. Virtually all of the sources cited are from published accounts in order to enable greater ease of use by other educators. Personally, however, I would not have been able to understand and organize Malaysian ethnicity (even to the degree that this first effort represents) without having been able to hear the many splendid lectures and make the first-hand observations of ethnic relations afforded by the Fulbright-Hays Malaysian immersion experience. A later project will involve the more full coordination of my lecture and field notes with theoretical models.


Pedagogical Aim. The unit seeks primarily to indicate a range of relationships between conceptions of ethnicity and other aspects of society and behavior. It also explores the origin, development, and consequences of ethnicity, arguing that ethnicity is historically conditioned. Further, it seeks to illustrate relationships between ethnicity politics, economics, and culture. Ethnic identity is also described as fluid and frequently strategic. All of this is done with reference to the Malaysian example.

William Guinee

Westminster College, Missouri

November, 2005

1) Introduction:

a) Introduce video by asking the students to watch for the way it displays types of people, their customs, and the quality of their relations with each other.

b) Show the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” DVD. This is a Malaysian promotional tourist video.

c) What is this video trying to tell you about the people of Malaysia? Diversity, exotic and beautiful customs, groups living in harmony, etc. d) The Malaysian people are customarily divided into four categories: Malays (58% with other “indigenous” groups), Chinese (24%), and Indians (7%), and Others (11%) (M, C, I, O). (In addition to the three primary named groups, there are many other peoples in Malaysia such as the multiple groups of “natives” of Sabah and Sarawak, the “Orang Asli” indigenous groups of the peninsula, Eurasians, Europeans, Thai, Indonesians, Arabs, and so forth.) These groups are all considered racial or ethnic groups. e) Issues of ethnicity and race have been incredibly important to Malaysian history, economy, politics, religion, and society. Ethnicity or race, in fact, plays a significant part in the discourse concerning virtually any Malaysian social condition or issue. This also applies to personal interactions.

Rehman (267) commented about his fellow passengers on a train journey: “These were the real Malaysians, these people around me…each sealed into the private cocoon of self, into which might be admitted only those of their own kind. What had been the most frequent question asked of me on this journey? ‘Are you Malay or Indian? Are you Eurasian? Are you Muslim? What ARE you?’ Everything that emerged subsequently—every comment, opinion and answer—would depend on my response to that question.” (Quoted in Thompson, 418).

2) What is Race? (Marger 16-23; Peoples and Bailey 30-31)

a) The biological basis of race–assumption of hereditary factors differentiating the group from others. The primary difference between race and ethnicity is the ascription of race to biology.

b) Problems with the biological conception of race. Despite the fact that race may seem obvious to you and you can easily “spot” different races, the great majority of scientists and social scientists argue that race has no biological validity.

i) Genetic Interchangeability. Humans can and do interbreed. As a consequence there are no firm biological lines between races; they are all culturally established. Human biological variation is along a continuum rather than located in separate categories.

ii) Genetic variation within a race exceeds the variation between the average members of different races.

iii) How many races are there? Different cultures develop different schemas for assigning people to races.

iv) Arbitrary choice of significant physical traits to represent race – usually chosen on the basis of easy observation rather than biological importance.

v) Lack of significant relationship between race, intelligence, and cultural behavior.

The Bell Curve – identification of race with IQ and consequent cultural behaviors leading to policy questions. Problems: difficulty with cross-cultural validity of IQ tests, difficulty of assigning participants to races, etc.

c) Race as a Cultural Construct.

i) The identification and reification of specific physical traits into racial categories.

ii) The association of the racial category with a presumption of social and behavioral differences.

iii) Racial constructs, despite their lack of biological reality, subsequently create significant social and cultural consequences.

iv) The racial construct can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Example: if a minority group is given fewer scholarships because they are considered intellectually inferior, then that group in the future is more likely to be seen and described as intellectually inferior.

v) The Ideology of Racism (Marger 25)

(1) “Humans are divided naturally into different physical types.

(2) Such physical traits as people display are intrinsically related to their culture, personality, and intelligence.

(3) The differences among groups are innate, not subject to change, and on the basis of their genetic inheritance, some groups are innately superior to others.” (Marger 25).

(4) Public policy and personal behavior should reflect this understanding of human bio-cultural variation.

d) In Malaysia divisions between groups of people are often constructed in terms of race. The Malays, Chinese, and Indians are commonly seen as separate biological races with consequent differences in culture.

3) What is an Ethnic Group?

a) A group of people in a “larger society that displays a unique set of cultural traits” (Marger, 10).

Following Barth (1969) we may describe these unique cultural traits as “ethnic boundary markers.” These may take the form of language, religion, clothing, food preferences, distinctive rites of passage, housing styles, or any other cultural items the use of which indicates group membership and differentiates the group from other groups.

i) In Malaysia, traditionally the three primary ethnic groups could be distinguished through all of these traits and others.

ii) Now some of the markers are tending to disappear: ordinary daily clothing among men has become highly westernized, though Malay women still frequently wear head scarves, and housing styles normally no longer have distinctive architectural style.

iii) In the most important cultural areas, however, there are still substantial boundary markers.

(1) Language: While Malays speak Bahasa Malaya and it is the national language, Indians usually speak Tamil in the home, and the Chinese speak a variety of dialects. The Chinese insistence on publicly speaking Chinese languages has, in fact, created a stereotype of Chinese separatism and clannishness.

(2) Religion: Although there is a substantial minority of Indians who are Muslim and a number of converted Chinese (especially those who have married Malays), Islam is still considered the religion of the Malays. Indians are expected to be Hindus and Chinese to be Buddhist/Taoist.

Religious injunctions, in fact, also create a culinary ethnic boundary. In addition to the different spices, methods of cooking, and taste, Muslims consider pork unclean, Hindus will not eat the venerated cow, and the Buddhist Chinese will happily partake of either. (Sometimes, however, restaurants will not serve either beef or pork in hopes of attracting the widest possible clientele.

(3) Physical Appearance: Although we have described both race and ethnicity as actually being socially constructed, differences in physical appearance between members of different ethnic groups are probably the most commonly used method of recognizing whether someone is or is not in your ethnic group. Physical distinctiveness of ethnic groups also creates the single most substantial barrier to assimilation.

iv) Secondary Ethnic Boundary Markers: Participation in ethnic associations is both made possible by one’s ethnic identity and helps to concretize and define that identity. There are also public ethnic venues that are made possible due to the institutionalization of ethnicity which will be described below: political parties, ethnic or religious courts, etc.

b) A group of people who share a common ancestry, heritage, or history.

i) This may be real or fictive.

ii) Differs from biological conceptions of race.

iii) Commonly ethnic groups will have an “origin myth.”

For Malaysians, this includes the posited origin of the ethnic group as either indigenous to Malaysia (a designation that the Malays adopt along with the Orang Asli and the Natives), or as a privileged early settler, or as a migrant laborer for the tin mines or the rubber plantations. It is also constructed from such periods of history as the 1969 racial riots, and the communist insurgence emergency. This origin myth interacts with “true history” to define ethic groups and relations. (The historical events contributing to ethnic relations will be discussed later.)

c) A group of people who “display a sense of community…a consciousness of kind or an awareness of close association.” (Marger 11).

d) Thus – two different ways of thinking about ethnicity: an objective set of cultural behaviors vs. a subjective sense of belonging (originating in ascription by either the individual, the group, or outsiders to the group).

i) Can a person renounce all cultural traits of an ethnicity and still claim that ethnicity?

ii) Can a person adopt cultural traits and thus adopt ethnicity without having the common heritage of the group. Would this constitute cultural appropriation or the recognition that ethnicity is culturally constructed and not biological?

e) Peoples and Bailey (355) say an “ethnic group is a named social category of people based on perceptions of shared social experience or ancestry. Members of the ethnic group see themselves as sharing cultural traditions and history that distinguish them from other groups. Ethnic group identity has a strong psychological or emotional component that divides the people of the world into the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ In contrast to social stratification which divides and unites people along a series of horizontal axes on the basis of socioeconomic factors, ethnic identities divide and unify people along a series of vertical axes. Thus ethnic groups, at least theoretically, cross-cut socioeconomic class differences, drawing members from all strata of the population.”

i) Thus your text adds an additional component to the definition: a distinction between ethnicity and class.

ii) In practice, the distinction between ethnicity and class is not always clear-cut, and as we will see, its conflation frequently leads to significant social problems.

4) The Historical Origins of Ethnic Consciousness and Ethnic Relations

a) Ethnic relations are historical. They are not just the natural consequences of the differences between cultures.

b) The Pre-colonial situation.

i) Due to its strategic location, peninsular Malaysia was a bustling trade center and a meeting point for people from all over Asia.

Numerous ethnic and religious groups were present at least in the trading areas of the coast. Hinduism and Buddhism had been present from the 1st century c.e. They had established significant footholds and become the major religions of the area. Islam began major conversions from the 13th to the 17th centuries. (Hefner, 12) and ruling elites were converted in the 15th and 16 centuries.

ii) “This organization was conducive to interethnic collaboration and rich cultural exchange.” (Hefner, 12).

iii) Although ethnocentrism was undoubtedly present, there was still a great degree of harmony and cooperation among the ethnic groups.

“The record indicates that early contacts between Chinese, Indians, and Malays may not have been entirely harmonious and free of mutual suspicion, but it does not seem that racial divisions (in the sense of impenetrable barriers) were present.” (Hirschman 1986, 338).

c) Colonial transformations of ethnic relations

i) “The twentieth century structure of ‘race relations’ of Peninsular Malaysia is largely a product of social forces engendered by the expansion of British colonialism of the late nineteenth century.” (Hirschman 1986, 331).

ii) Colonialism as product of European capitalist expansion (discussed previously in “globalization” section of course).

(1) In particular the historical transformation from a mercantile to a capitalist phase transformed the relations between Britain and the Malay Peninsula: dominance of Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore, Malacca) for trade expanded to directly exploit natural resources (especially tin) and create an export economy in the mid-nineteenth century (Hirschman 1986, 333-336). Malaysia became the world’s leading tin and rubber exporting country.

iii) European Colonial Attitudes towards Race and Ethnicity (Hirschman 1986, 341-348).

(1) The growth of social Darwinism as a colonial ideology.

(2) Malays described as lazy, treacherous and incompetent.

(a) This stereotype was largely founded on the Malay failure to exploit resources such as tin found in their country, and their unwillingness to work for Europeans. But British compensation for workers was not superior to the “real wage” obtained from peasant agriculture. (Hirschman 1986, 349).

(b) Consequent need for outsiders (British) to administer their affairs in a paternalistic fashion.

(3) Chinese viewed with “grudging admiration” especially concerning their ability to achieve economically. Indians seen as docile laborers.

(4) Many modern Malaysians continue to subscribe to these racial stereotypes. “Even if Asians rejected the colonial assumptions of white superiority and the stereotypes of their own ethnic community, they tended to accept the unfounded generalizations of innate racial differences about other communities. Once established, ideas have a life of their own (Hirschman 1986, 357).”

iv) Large scale importation (immigration) of Chinese and Indian workers.

(1) As an inevitable consequence of the economic motivations and racial ideologies of the colonizing British.

(2) Creates inter-ethnic competition for control of resources.

(3) Chinese and Indian immigrants arrive under different conditions. Chinese capitalists controlled significant portions of the tin industry, so Chinese often arrive with kinship relations to capitalists or at least an inspirational model regarding potential achievement. The Indians, on the other hand, are almost entirely brought in to work on British owned and operated rubber plantations, so estate workers see little opportunity for advancement. (Shaukani Abbas 2005, personal communication). The origin myths and perceived place in society are quite different.

(4) Large scale immigration alters the demographic mix and threatens the position of the Malays, who now perceive themselves as indigenous.

(5) Scale and rapidity of Chinese migration along with their economic success and ethnic segregation “removed all remaining incentives for Chinese to accommodate to Malay ways” (Hefner 17-18) or to assimilate.

(6) The British encouraged the attitude that Chinese and Indian immigrants were not full members of the local society, no matter how many generations had lived locally. They were and would always remain foreigners, so policies had to be established that promoted Malay control of political power (Hirschman 353).

v) Assignment of different economic activities on the basis of “race” (Abraham, 2004).

(1) “Divide and conquer” as colonial policy.

(a) Chinese to the tin mines, Indians to the rubber estates, and Malays as native peasants.

(2) This segregation (which involved not only employment, but community, schools, markets, access to political power, etc.) lead inevitably to polarization, antagonism, and envy between the ethnic groups that persists until today.

vi) Segregation and the conceptions of foreignness lead to an overarching division between foreigners and “children of the soil” (bumiputera).

vii) Consequent disharmony and ethnic tension required the British to take greater political control of the area. This was compounded when inter-ethnic conflict threatened the interests of merchants engaged in international trade. (Hirschman 336).

(1) The British defined their responsibility, in part, as reinforcing and supporting the Malay role in the society—including validating the Malay aristocracy. They “elevated the sultans to positions of real as well as ritual authority…provided them with the bureaucratic and legal machinery to implement their directives in a more systematic and invasive manner than ever before in Malay history (Hefner 16).”

(2) They also felt it necessary to protect Malay landholdings and enacted policies which were to become the model for the broader Malaysian affirmative action policies which followed later (Omar 13-14).

viii) The period of Japanese control during WWII led to significant conflict with the Chinese Malaysians (because of similar Japanese/Sino relations in China) and resulted in the Japanese trying to elevate the position, again, of the Malays. This further political disenfranchisement of the Chinese led to some of them joining a lengthy communist insurrection against the government (12 years of emergency rule), and the consequent creation of further ethnic discord between the Chinese and Malay populations (Abdullah and Pedersen 45-46).

d) Malaysia thus became a plural society and an artificial country.

i) The Plural Society.

(1) A society that has “two or more elements or social orders which live side by side, yet without mingling in one political unit” (Furnivall 466, quoted in Hefner, 4). It is also characterized by an ethno-religious division of economic activity and the lack of a common social will (Hefner, 4).

(2) In Malaysia, one of the most striking aspects of this is a split between a Malay political dominance and a Chinese economic dominance.

ii) The Artificial Country.

(1) Peoples and Bailey (362) describe the artificial country as created by colonialist formulations that disregard the boundaries of natural ethnic nationalities. Sometimes political borders are created which divide ethnic groups (e.g. Indonesian and Malaysian Malays) or ethnic groups are imported (e.g. Chinese and Indian migration).

5) The Institutionalization of Ethnicity: Political and Economic Implications.

a) Perhaps the most significant aspect of ethnicity in Malaysia is the degree to which it has been officially institutionalized. Even government identification cards proclaim the ethnic group of the bearer.

b) Constitutional definition of Malay: Article 160(2) (Faruqi 43-44). The term “Malay” officially refers to persons who meet four criteria:

i) The person must profess the religion of Islam

ii) The person must habitually speak the Malay language

iii) The person must conform to Malay custom

iv) The person must either have been born before or descended from ancestors who were present in what is now Peninsular Malaysia or Singapore prior to August 1957.

v) Note that this is a definition of an ethnicity without racial conceptions of biology or even descent.

c) The merdeka deal.

i) Malay opposition to immigrant citizenship from 1946-48 was ultimately resolved when the Chinese and Indians were granted citizenship but Malays are guaranteed special privileges. After independence, these privileges were formalized in the 1957 constitution.

(1) Malay dominance in politics and culture guaranteed (Hefner 29).

(a) Institutionalizes the role of the sultans as the administrators of Islam (Hefner 23).

(b) Islam as the state religion, though freedom of religion for others.

(c) Malay declared the official language, but other medium schools, etc. still allowed.

(2) This produces a “’Differentiated citizenship’ in which group rights are recognized alongside individual rights (Hefner 29).”

(3) Problem of the “heavy handed” nature of official policies. For example, the implementation of a “sedition act” which makes it illegal to question constitutional ethnic privileges.

d) Malaysian Political Parties.

i) Malaysian political parties are largely formed along ethnic lines: UMNO (United Malays National Organization); MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association); MIC (Malayan Indian Congress).

ii) UMNO (the United Malay National Organization), the most powerful party in Malaysia, was originally formed in 1946 to oppose Chinese citizenship.

(1) The Bumiputera Concept. Politicization of earlier macro-ethnic distinction between “children of the soil” and foreigners.

iii) PAS (the all-Malaysia Islamic Party), the most significant opposition party which advocates a transition to a more conservative Islamic state complete with strict application of Islamic law. This threat of Islamic dominance has frequently been used by the ruling coalition to generate non-Muslim fears and bring them into support of the ruling coalition (Hefner 32-33).

iv) Barisan Nasional (BN – National Front) as ruling inter-ethnic coalition.

e) Creation of ethnic law/courts.

i) Civil law, Syariah law, Adat law, and Native law.

ii) A legal system that does not judge all people uniformly. Rather, one’s ethno-religious group partially determines the legal standards that one will be judged by and the penalties that will pertain.

f) The New Economic Program (NEP) (NDP and Vision 2020 follow up).

i) Emerges following the 1969 riots. Following success of non-Malay political parties in elections, Malays and Chinese rioted and almost 200 people died. This served as a national “wake-up” call to the potentially volatile nature of Malaysian ethnic relations.

ii) NEP as an affirmative action program (also locally known as a “positive discrimination policy”) aimed at reducing Malay poverty and creating a “new class of Malay capitalists” (Hefner 30). It offered special consideration of Malays for business loans, scholarships, land tenure, preferential shares, hiring and promoting practices in some occupations, and other benefits.

iii) Although it has not completely met its goals, the NEP has made significant progress towards helping the Malay population. “Between the early 1970s and 1993, the Malay middle class rose from 19 percent to 28 percent of the population” (Hefner 30). “Poverty was reduced from 50% to a mere 7% for Malaysians irrespective of race within a period of 30 years. By 1995, there was full employment. Everyone’s income including those of the non-indigenous citizens have more than quadrupled while the cost of living remains low with only 3% inflation on average. There were almost as many rich Malays as there were rich Chinese” (Abdullah and Pedersen 53-54).

iv) The Chinese and the NEP (Omar 27-28).

(1) Misconception that the Chinese suffered as a result of the NEP.

(2) New connections and alliances emerged between Chinese and Malays. By created business and political ties with Malays, Chinese businessmen were able to profit from the NEP and avoid its pitfalls.

v) Problems with the NEP.

(1) An unusual affirmative action program in that it is oriented towards benefiting the numerical majority of the population that is politically dominant. Does this make a difference? Some claim that such a policy inevitably will lead to cronyism and corruption.

(2) Many non-Malays felt the NEP was a policy which would institutionalize discrimination against them.

(3) The NEP solution to economic disparities (a class issue) is based on ethnicity. This has been criticized as failing to address significant poverty issues in non-bumiputera populations such as the conditions of the Indian estate workers and squatters.

(4) Although avowedly intended to help all bumiputeras, there has been relatively little impact on the “native” and other non-Malay bumiputera populations.

6) The Conflation of Ethnicity and Class

a) The colonial assignation of different positions in the relations of production on the basis of ethnicity created inevitable conflict. What was often class conflict was re-contextualized as ethnic conflict.


b) Each of the three primary ethnic groups actually contains class divisions. There is a Malay aristocracy, a Chinese capitalist class, and even an Indian upper class (e.g. Chettiers who traditionally serviced and lent money to the Indian peasants).

i) On several occasions, I witnessed middle and upper class Malaysians describing the lower or working class members of their own ethnic group in the same racial stereotypes that often were applied to the group by outsiders.

c) As we have mentioned above, the solution to issues of poverty has also been framed in terms of ethnicity through the NEP. The results have been questionable.

7) Ethnicity as Situational and Strategic.

a) Peoples and Bailey (355) describe ethnic group identity as situational, and having a hierarchical nesting quality.

b) Nagata describes a condition of considerable ethnic mobility between different ethnic groups of Muslims in Malaysia. She explains that traditionally Islam was so conflated with being Malay that converts to Islam were “said to masok Malayu (become a Malay) (339). Although she points out that it is now widely understood that ethnicity and religion are independent variables, there is still a high degree of ethnic fluidity among Malaysian Muslims.

c) Nagata further describes three primary “pressures involved in the selection of reference groups” for Malaysian Muslims (Malays, Indians, Arabs, etc.) (339-342).

i) Social Solidarity and Social Distance.

Choosing an ethnic reference group in a given situation to emphasize affinity. Example: a person who customarily identifies herself as Malay, in a given situation claims “we Arabs are not lazy like Malays.” (340). “Identification of individuals against whom there is some negative feeling is frequently appended by an ethnic epithet different from the one currently being claimed by the speaker, whereas positive sentiments are more likely to generate common identification” (341).

ii) Expediency – ethnicity based on personal interest.

Example: Malaysian affirmative action programs are making it desirable to identify one’s ethnic status as Malay. Other Muslims have at times claimed Malay status to help achieve business loans, scholarships, housing (341).

iii) Concern with Social Status and Mobility.

Different ethnic groups are accorded different status, so one’s affiliation may change based on the situation of power or status. Example: the children of a Malay mother and an Indian Muslim father who identify themselves as Malay. Example: a Malay woman who feels it is better to employ servants of a different “race.” She complains of her lazy Malay servant, while temporarily explaining that she is actually Arab (342).

d) This ethnic fluidity does not seem to apply to Chinese Muslims – they seldom claim to be Malays. This seems to reflect the more significant Chinese/Malay ethnic tensions in the society that trump religious identification.

e) Melayu Baru

i) Sometimes the forces of institutionalization and fluidity combine. In 1991, Prime Minister Mahathir made a speech which “introduced his vision of the New Malay.” In this new version Malays would be educated, urban, progressive, sophisticated, trustworthy and successful. They would largely be merchants, entrepreneurs, or industrialists. The “new Malay” was to move away from his backward rural peasant origins (no matter how romanticized they were) and become a new force in society (Thompson 428-429).

8) Some Problems with the Ethnic Paradigm

a) Ethnicity is cross-cut by other fields of identification such as class, urban/rural/regional issues, gender, education, and religion (c.f. Thompson). It is only one parameter in the location of identity. There is, thus, tremendous variability within ethnic groups based on both affiliations with other categories and on individual personality variables.

b) As a cultural construct ethnicity is fluid, situational, historically changing, and frequently manipulated.

c) Strict ethnic categories are often made problematical due to the actions of real humans. Consider the child of an inter-ethnic marriage. Does this argue that ethnic groups are “ideal types?”

d) Nonetheless, an individual’s identification with an ethnic group can profoundly affect his or her worldview, and the ascription of a person to an ethnic category can profoundly affect his or her available life choices.

e) So, is Malaysia a model of a successful multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country, or is it a “powder-keg” of ethnic tension poised to erupt into ethnic conflict? In Malaysia, I heard both accounts, and it was clear that while ethnicity was virtually an obsession mitigating any situation, it was also an area of tension to be handled with great care.

Works Cited

Abdullah, Asma and Paul B. Pederson. Understanding Multicultural Malaysia: Delights, Puzzles, and Irritations. Selangor, Malaysia: Prentice Hall, Pearson: 2003.

Abraham, Collin. The Naked Social Order: The Roots of Racial Polarisation in Malaysia. Subang Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 2004.

Barth, Fredrik. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1969.

Faruqi, Shad Saleem. “Affirmative Action Policies and the Constitution.” IN The Bumiputera Policy: Dynamics and Dilemmas ed. Richard Mason and Ariffin S.M. Omar. Pulau Pinang, Malaysia: Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2005, pp 31-57.

Hefner, Robert W. “Multiculturalism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.” IN The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia ed. Robert W. Hefner. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001.

Hirschman, Charles. “The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology.” Sociological Forum 1 (2): 330-361, 1986.

Marger, Martin N. Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.

Nagata, Judith A. “What is a Malay? Situational Selection of Ethnic Identity in a Plural Society.” American Ethnologist 1 (2): 331-350, 1974.

Omar, Ariffin. “Origins and Development of the Affirmative Action Policy in Malaya and Malaysia: A Historical Overview.” IN The Bumiputeral Policy: Dynamics and Dilemmas ed. Richard Mason and Ariffin S.M. Omar. Pulau Pinang, Malaysia: Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2005, pp 13-29.

Peoples, James and Garrick Bailey. Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.

Rehman Rashid. A Malaysian Journey. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1994.

Thompson, Eric C. “Malay Male Migrants: Negotiating Contested Identities in Malaysia.” American Ethnologist 30 (3): 418-438, 2003.


Sunday, November 12, 2006 - Posted by | Commentary, General Info, Issues


  1. i love this research where it help a lot for me to continue with my architecture thesis proposal – “peace for malaysia”. The incident pointed out here is quite true and real. Any updates can forward to my email as well. Thank You.

    Comment by daigou | Monday, August 3, 2009 | Reply

  2. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a coworker who has been conducting a little research on this. And he in fact bought me lunch simply because I found it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to discuss this issue here on your blog.

    Comment by | Sunday, August 25, 2013 | Reply

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