Ethnic stereotypes are a bane upon any society.
Most of the time they are based upon simplistic generalisations that do not reflect actual realities. They exacerbate ethnic relations in multi-ethnic societies. Worse, they 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 that they “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 Merdeka, the majority of Chinese, as the well-known economist, the late James Puthucheary pointed out were employees 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 which needs to be scrutinised. There are many non-Malays who argue that Malays exercise total monopoly 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 the UMNO elite who decided to confer political rights upon the domiciled non-Malay populace through extraordinarily accommodative citizenship provisions in the Constitution which had no precedent or parallel anywhere in the world. 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 monopolisation of political power by the Malays. There would be a more empathetic attitude towards the Malay position. It would improve inter-ethnic relations in the country and contribute towards national integration.
To explain the question of ‘political power’ in more concrete terms, it is often forgotten that the UMNO led Alliance coalition from the first Federal legislative election itself 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 though there was a Chinese majority in only two out of the 52 constituencies. All the MCA and MIC contestants won, most of them needless to say, with Malay votes. This phenomenon of cross ethnic voting is not confined to the Alliance or its successor, the Barisan Nasional. Other parties have also demonstrated their capacity to elicit support transcending ethnic boundaries. And yet the myth about Malay monopolisation of political power persists.
There are other ethnic stereotypes that are equally pernicious even if their political impact is not as serious as the two we have just examined. Segments of different Malaysian communities believe that greed is a Chinese trait; that Indians are untrustworthy; or that Malays are lazy. These are stereotypes that are easily demolished. That many Chinese have displayed tremendous generosity is an irrefutable fact; that there are trustworthy Indians is so many sectors of society is an unchallengeable truth ; that industrious and diligent Malays are found in all walks of life is obvious to any casual observer of Malaysian society.
The stereotype about Malay laziness is perhaps the only instance of a stereotype subscribed to by certain leaders of the targeted people themselves. It is a stereotype that two-time Prime Minister Dr Mahathir has clung on to stubbornly for decades —- in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and in spite of the wide range of persuasive arguments marshalled in Syed Hussein Alatas’ much lauded classic, The Myth of the Lazy Native published in 1977. It is a pity that 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 by purveyors of communal politics to denigrate native peoples.
The persistence of stereotypes of this sort underscores the importance of emphasising public education on the impediments that obstruct integration in societies like ours. It is revealing that there has not been a single discussion on The Myth over any Malaysian television channel. It is not just the media that should be harnessed for this purpose. The school and the university should also play their role. The family is even more crucial since so many of our values and attitudes are formed through intimate interaction within the confines of the home. Religious and cultural organisations are equally decisive in this mammoth task of raising social awareness on how destructive stereotypes are.