Ethnic Relations and Public Policy: The Case of Malaysia

Haji-Yusuf, Mohammad

     This study has been concerned with interethnic relations and conflict in Malaysia where three major ethnic groups--Malay, Chinese and Indian--show diversity not only in cultural background but also in socio-economic development. Two of the most widely applied frameworks that focus on intergroup relations with emphasis on intergroup conflict--middleman minority and plural society--have been applied and their appropriateness assayed in explaining the phenomena to the specific Malaysian context. Public policy implementation in three suggested periods was chosen to delineate the nature intergroup conflict is channelled. Empirical data on group attitudes toward recent government policy were also collected to assess variations in individual attitudes.
     The results of our analysis have shown the inappropriateness of labelling Chinese and Indians as middleman minorities and as such the framework has limited utility and effectiveness in analyzing the Malaysian case study. The plural society framework has been shown to be more suitably applied to the study of Malaysian intergroup relations and conflict, where ethnic and racial divisions become the major axes of differentiation.
     We have emphasized in this study that people may also be differentiated by criteria other than ethnic or racial divisions. Although our empirical evidence of the differences in ethnic group attitudes toward recent government policy does not reveal significant differences along class lines, it should not be assumed that ethnicity will necessarily remain a dominant or salient factor in intergroup political responses. The increasing industrialization of Malaysia raises possibility that a single-minded focus on ethnic differences could cause researchers to overlook significant class differences in behavior and attitudes among members of the same group.
     Accordingly, the incorporation of both focus on ethnic differences (as emphasized by plural society perspective) and an emphasis on class differences may become increasingly appropriate in future studies of Malaysian society. However, at the present time, with ethnic divisions being strongly reinforced by government policy, ethnicity is the dominant factor in Malaysian group relations. The plural society perspective, therefore, has significant import today. It remains to be seen whether or not it can account for major intergroup differences in Malaysia in the near future.