Racism used for ‘divide and rule’ in Malaysia, says report
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Racism used for ‘divide and rule’ in Malaysia, says report

MALAYSIA’S government is utilising racism as a tool to “divide and rule” the country, according to a damning new report from a local human rights organisation.

Pusat KOMAS released the Malaysia Racial Discrimination Report on Wednesday, tracking what it said were increased instances of racism recorded in the media during 2017 in the multicultural, Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nation.

Malaysia has long dealt with racial and religious tensions between its Malay majority and sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian communities. The ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has for decades provided economic advantages to Muslim Malays to the exclusion of minorities.

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With the country’s 14th General Election expected sometime in the coming months, the Pusat KOMAS report argued that “racism has become more pronounced and is being increasingly used as a tool to divide and rule.”


Performers dance during the 60th Merdeka Day (Independence Day) celebrations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Aug 31, 2017. Source: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

It cites “entrenched racism among Malaysians” and rising “religious extremism” as factors in the rise of discriminatory actions. Pusat KOMAS said greater numbers of discrimination cases highlights the “inherent danger of the overreach of bureaucratic Islamic institution[s].”

While since 2010 Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has run the 1Malaysia program aimed at emphasising the country’s ethnic harmony and national unity, it has refused to implement anti-discrimination laws because, as he has claimed, “unity is in a good and controlled state”.

Racial discrimination is practiced widely by certain groups and agencies including being “prevalent in the Malaysian property market” said Pusat KOMAS, with perpetrators never dealt with by authorities.

“Lack of action by the authorities has allowed these groups to continue damaging the nation’s national unity and social cohesion,” it said.

Pusat KOMAS pointed to a range of localised cases of racism, including a ‘Muslim only’ public toilet and laundromats, separate drinking cups issued for Muslim and non-Muslim students at a school, as well as a hotel chain’s policy of forbidding women to wear headscarves at work.


A controversial ‘blackface’ advertising campaign run by Watson’s Malaysia during Ramadan 2017. Source: Facebook

There were nevertheless leaders who pushed back against racism and religious discrimination, noted the report, including the Sultan of Johor who ordered Muslim-only businesses to open themselves to all or shut down.

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The Malaysian Armed Forces also announced its intention to recruit different races to the military in 2017, aiming to increase non-Malay participation by 10 percent annually. The country’s civil service of some 1.3 million people remains dominated by ethnic Malays.

While 179 countries have ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), Malaysia is not one of them.

“Malaysian political and public leaders should step up their efforts to demonstrate an unequivocal political will and commitment in overcoming racism,” said Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, a former UN Special Rapporteur on minority rights issues.

She said Malaysian leaders should take swift action against “hate speech and any acts of incitement to hatred and should join the ICERD family without delay.”