Malaysia struggles for harmony as tensions bubble

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Malaysia is proud of its diverse population, more than half of which is Muslim. It is also home to large Chinese and Indian communities, who are mainly Christian, Buddhist and Hindu. But, as Jennifer Pak discovers, recent violence surrounding the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims, has brought into question just how unified Malaysia is.

A Chinese man once offered to be my pimp. Or at least that is what I deduced from the candid way he talked to me about how many girls from China come here to work as prostitutes.

I was eating at a street stall in a shady district of Kuala Lumpur.

The owner, Mr Ng, rents apartments to these women, and told me he has recommended their services to his friends.

"I know a lot about these girls," he said in Chinese, handing me his mobile number on a crumpled business card.

"Give me a shout if you ever need an apartment… or anything."

I'm Chinese-Canadian. But I learned Mandarin in Beijing. Mr Ng must have picked up on my accent and thought I was from China - a forgivable mistake.

I remembered reading about how Chinese prostitutes were in high demand in Malaysia because of their "fair skin" and "statuesque figure".

I found it odd - considering the Chinese are the second largest ethnic group in the country. So why would there be such a big demand from China?

"None of the local Chinese are willing to go into the industry," said Mr Ng, leaning back in his chair. "They're more educated here."

But not all Malaysians see that distinction.

Divisive sentiments

Nasir Safar, an adviser to the prime minister, recently resigned after he reportedly said Chinese women mainly came to the country to dabble in the flesh trade.

He called the Chinese and Indians, who make up a third of the country's population, "immigrants". He threatened to take citizenship away from Indians if they continued to make extreme demands on the government.

Ironically, these comments were made at a conference aimed at promoting national unity.

Mr Nasir's comments were widely condemned, but sadly these divisive sentiments are not uncommon in the country.

Some blame it on the education system.

Take, for example, the national civics course, which is mandatory for civil servants and students on government scholarships. It is designed to instil patriotism.

Critics of the course have likened it to a brainwashing exercise to promote Malay supremacy.

At a public forum, a Chinese man described his experience at national civics courses as "demotivating".

His speech was delivered in a fluent mix of English and Malay.

"When we are left alone by these officials, we are like family," he said.

"But when we attend these official events, they divide us according to Chinese, Malay and Indian.

"Leave us alone, and we are very patriotic. We are all Malaysians."

The crowd broke into applause and laughter.

Government officials deny that racism is part of the curriculum.

Malaysia, they say, is still a moderate Muslim nation that embraces diversity.

That is true if you come to Kuala Lumpur. You can always hear a mix of Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English spoken on the streets.

No mixing

On a recent visit, an old high school friend from Canada marvelled at how multicultural the country is.

But many Malaysian analysts, mainly Chinese, have warned me that this is superficial.

History professor Khoo Kay Kim at the University of Malaya told me to keep my eyes open when I walked through the campus.

"See whether there are students of various ethnic groups mingling," he said, sounding resigned. "Never."

"There will always be a group of Chinese, a group of Indians and a group of Malays. There is no mixing between the races."

Professor Khoo said ethnic separation was not nearly as pronounced back in the 1950s. So where was the turning point?

Special privileges

Professor Khoo traces it back to the late 1960s, when ethnic tensions erupted into riots.

The Malays made up the majority, but they were consistently among the poorest group in the country.

To rebalance this, the government gave special privileges to Malays in all aspects of life; in education, housing, jobs in the public sector - a kind-of positive discrimination policy.

This is a constant source of resentment among the country's Chinese and Indian minority.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has tried to chip away at this policy, and is now in overdrive to rebuild national unity with his One Malaysia campaign that preaches religious, cultural and ethnic tolerance.

Professor Khoo said the concept was good, but wondered if the prime minister could move it beyond rhetoric.

"So how big is the task of national unity?" I asked.

He sighed, and said: "Ethnic separation has been so entrenched in Malaysia."

I got a sense of this myself the first time I met a senior government official in Malaysia.

The only question he asked me was where I was from.

"Canada," I replied.

The look of relief on his face was unmistakable.

He stood up to shake my hand. "Welcome to Malaysia," he said smiling.

I guess he felt reassured - at least my reports would not be racially biased.