Building a multiracial society

Lessons from a “model” country on how to, and how not to.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

How do you build a multiracial society? According to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, you should look east, to Malaysia, for inspiration. It "has much to teach the world about how to construct a vibrant, multiracial, multi-ethnic, multicultural society", he said in 2007. Its success "should be studied both by those looking for economic prosperity and those seeking to understand how people live together, not just with tolerance, but with respect".

This 28-million-strong country, made up ethnically of roughly 50 per cent Malays, 25 per cent Chinese, 8 per cent Indians and the balance indigenous peoples and others, makes much of its diversity in its glossy "Malaysia, Truly Asia" tourism advertisements. But there is another side to this happy picture, with the freedom of worship and equality before the law of all guaranteed by the constitution often appearing to be mere ciphers.

Malay chauvinists still refer to Chinese and Indians as "pendatang" – immigrants – 53 years after independence, and one of the WikiLeaks cables quoted a Singaporean official warning that interracial tension could get so bad that Chinese would "flee" Malaysia and "overwhelm" its city-state neighbour to the south.

I've recently been investigating this for the National, the United Arab Emirates' leading English-language newspaper, and the resulting 3,000-word essay has just been published. (You can find it here. It's currently the second most viewed article on the National's website.) I bring this to your attention first because Malaysia has a unique mix of races and religions, and how it works or doesn't work could provide lessons about how to manage harmonious relations elsewhere; second because many readers have noted – and queried – my interest in the country; and third because it is a former British colony, and the roots of some of its problems lie during that period of occupation.

My conclusion is that, with some violent bumps on the way, Malaysia is and has mostly been a very successful plural society. But it is not and has never been an integrated, united society – which is one of the reasons why the flagship policy of the current prime minister, Dato Sri Najib Tun Razak, is called 1Malaysia. A genuinely Malaysian identity has yet to be created.

The phenomenon was described by the south-east Asia scholar Anthony Milner in his 2008 study, The Malays, as "different communities living side by side without mingling". This was a pattern actively encouraged and enforced by the British, and which troubles the country to this day.

There is a "silo mentality", as an MP tipped as a future prime minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, put it to me. And it is ingrained to the point that, when I asked the former law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, a reformist and now leader of a new opposition party, when he thought Malaysia would be ready for a non-Malay prime minister, he replied: "Not in my lifetime."

I won't go into further detail, as the essay provides greater depth (though even that space did not allow me to consider properly how religion and the legal system have become intertwined, nor examine the situation in the northern, Borneo parts of the country). However, as Sudan looks to separate and other units – such as the former Czechoslovakia and maybe even Belgium – either split or show the strain of forces pulling them apart, Malaysia's continued stability is an impressive achievement: even if one element of nation-building – the creation of a common identity, regardless of race or religion – has a very long way to go.

Readers who have accused me of painting an overly rosy picture of the country in the past may find some answers in the essay. If they have further questions or points to make, I will be happy to answer them, either on this thread or, if too many queries come in at once, in a longer reply that I will post later this week.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman