Whither Integration? How our children are growing up in separate bubbles | Malaysiakini

Whither Integration?

How our children are growing up in separate bubbles

Reporting by Aidila Razak. Published on 30 August 2019.

Editor's note: Education is one of the many hot button issues which have created deep divisions among Malaysians.

Over the years, parents have lost confidence in national schools for a variety of reasons. Some of them have instead opted to send their children to vernacular and private schools.

This special report is not arguing for the abolition of vernacular or private schools. After all, every parent should have the right to choose how their child is educated.

That said, ways have to be found to make national schools the preferred choice for parents as they once were.

The rot in our education system not only affects the future of our children but also our country. There must be a national conversation, no matter how difficult, on this very important issue.

Education reform is a job not just for politicians but for everybody. Do share with us your views in the comment section below.

Photo: Lim Huey Teng

When Anita Mennen was a child in the 1980s, she was living in a plantation estate with neighbours who were ethnic Indian like her.

But the national school she attended was attended by Malaysians of various races, and by the time she entered the workforce, she had no issues interacting with her colleagues who were from different backgrounds.

Things are very different for her daughter, Azriela George, aged 17. Having attended a Chinese vernacular primary school and soon graduating from a private secondary school, her daughter does not have a single Malay friend.

“It’s very sad. I had Malay friends, Chinese friends (growing up), but she doesn’t. (She) doesn’t have that opportunity. Where would they meet?” she asked.

"It's very sad. I had Malay friends, Chinese friends (growing up), but she doesn’t. (She) doesn’t have that opportunity. Where would they meet?”

Anita’s daughter is among the thousands of non-Malay children who did not attend national primary schools (sekolah rendah kebangsaan, SRK) for a variety of reasons. The demographic change in these school populations has impacted integration, some experts say.

In 2016, bumiputera students made up 97 percent of SRK. This is up from 91 percent in the year 2000.

This indicates that from the ages of seven to 12, bumiputera children, who make up the largest group of Malaysian children, are growing up in a monoethnic bubble.

Where are the non-bumiputera children?

The concentration of bumiputera students in SRK happens when fewer and fewer non-Malay students, particularly Chinese students, enrol in national primary schools.

The Education Ministry said it cannot reveal data on enrolment by ethnicity, but according to the National Education Blueprint, in 2011, some 96 percent of ethnic Chinese parents were sending their children to national-type primary vernacular Chinese schools (SJKC).

The figure today is estimated to be 99 percent, ministry sources say. As the ethnic Chinese make up the bulk of the non-bumiputera numbers, it leaves a compounding impact on diversity in SRK.

For example, in Peninsular Malaysia where the bumiputera are largely made up of Malays, non-Muslim students are a hyper minority, creating situations unpalatable for many non-Muslim parents.

Photo: Anita Mennen

Azriela George in SJKC, SMK, and private secondary school

Although Anita’s daughter Azriela is graduating from a private school and had attended Chinese vernacular primary school, her first days of primary school was spent at an SRK in their Klang Valley neighbourhood.

Products of the national school, her parents did not think twice about sending Azriela to the local SRK.

But what they did not account for was that she would be the only non-Muslim student in her class, making it difficult for her school to accommodate her needs.

Instead of attending Moral Studies lessons like other non-Muslim students in SRK nationwide, she had to sit in on Islamic Studies lessons.

“(The school) were very accommodative in that she could (sit in) the class, but she didn’t have to do the test or participate in it, but still I didn’t feel comfortable ,” said Anita, who is Christian by faith.

All-Malay environments in these schools also provide space for proliferation of more conservative and racially-skewed sentiments which are less likely to emerge in a more diverse setting, as mother of three Liyana Osman found.

“Malays must only sit with Malays and Chinese must always sit with Chinese."

Liyana shared how her eldest daughter, who attends an SRK, returns with views which she finds problematic in a multicultural and multireligious country.

“She returns home saying things like Malays must only sit with Malays and Chinese must always sit with Chinese.

“Or that she cannot go to Methodist secondary school because her teacher says that is a school for Christians,” she said, referring to one of the many schools in Malaysia founded by missionaries before Independence, which now follow the national syllabus.

“This is something I would have to undo,” she said.

Islamisation and homogeneity

One father, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Islamisation and the homogeneity of SRK, including among teaching staff, was his main concern and the reason his son attended SJKC.

This concern was even secondary to the quality of teaching in national schools, which he felt can be as good as private schools.

Indeed, Islamisation was one of five reasons cited by non-bumiputera parents when asked why they do not want to send their children to national schools, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia professor Teo Kok Seong said.

This was revealed in a study by the government’s Education Policy Research Division (EPRD), said Teo, who sat on the National Education Advisory Council.

He said non-Malay parents told researchers they had no issues with the recitation of the doa during assembly or even having Quranic verses on classroom walls, but did not like that the teaching time was used for various school celebrations related to the Islamic calendar.

“The parents complain that this may take half a day, which leaves only a few hours after that for teaching,” he said.

Other reasons given was the perception of lower academic quality, poor discipline, and poor school infrastructure.

“My boys were in Chinese schools for language and discipline, because we heard of discipline and bullying cases (in SRK),” said Marsha Beh.

“Of course it doesn’t hurt gaining an additional language. He came up trilingual instead of bilingual like the mum who went to national school.”

It was not always this way.

A survey by Vase.ai commissioned by Malaysiakini found the proportion of ethnic Chinese respondents who said they attended SJKC grew as the age groups became younger.

Some 1,049 people nationwide responded to the survey conducted earlier this month.

Among ethnic Chinese respondents, 35 percent of those born from 1970 to 1974 attended SJKC. In contrast, 80 percent of ethnic Chinese respondents born from 1990 to 1994 said that they attended SJKC.

One factor not captured by the EPRD study is the rise of China as a superpower, making Mandarin fluency and literacy increasingly important skills.

Lin Yee, who went to national school, said she struggled in her career because she could not speak, read or write Mandarin.

“I was practically quarrelling with customers (from Taiwan) and my boss and I were using direct translation (software) to translate from English and Mandarin. We had a tough time penetrating the mainland China market, too.

“So after considering and comparing notes with my (Chinese-educated) husband, I relented to send our only child to SJKC,” she said.

[Read Kiniguide on Chinese schools education system here]

Ethnic Chinese parents share why they send their children to SJKC, in a Facebook group on education, which has more than 66,000 members.

Language is also a reason why Liyana’s second daughter, Zara, attends SJKC. She is one of an estimated 94,000 non-Chinese students in SJKC. They make up about 18 percent of the student population there.

“I want her to experience what it is like not to have things just handed to her.”

Her mother also hopes Zara will learn the value of hard work, discipline and how to deal with pressure which is already mounting on her at the tender age of 7, thanks to the copious amount of homework assigned by her teachers.

But most importantly, Liyana said, Zara will experience being a minority.

How we got here

Vernacular education existed as a heritage of the laissez faire education policy of the British colonial government, which allowed the proliferation of different types of schools with instructions in the Tamil, Chinese, Malay and English languages.

But by 1982, through a variety of policy measures, all public-funded schools used Bahasa Malaysia as a medium of instruction and taught the national curriculum.

By standardising the language and syllabus of schools and assimilating most Chinese-medium secondary schools, the architects of Malaysian education intended to form a hybrid system.

In this system, children were allowed to learn in their mother tongues at primary level, but merge into a unified stream at secondary level. And on the surface, this objective has been met.

The National Education Blueprint 2013-2025 notes that in 2011, 72 percent of students in national secondary schools (SMK) were bumiputera, 22 percent Chinese, seven percent Indian and one percent from other ethnicities.

This is vastly more diverse compared to the SRK that year, which had a bumiputera to non-bumiputera ratio of 94:6.

Segregation at secondary school

Streaming of non-bumiputera students into national schools at the secondary level is important for national integration because the key stages of identity development occur from the ages of 13 to 18, said Dataluminescence Research director and social psychologist Ananthi Al Ramiah.

But a look deeper into the enrolment figures reveals a troubling thread, said the Oxford University-trained researcher whose area of study is interethnic and interreligious relations.

The data shows that while non-bumiputera students are converging into a shared space to learn with and from other Malaysians, a sizeable section of bumiputera students are moving out of that space and into monoethnic or monoreligious spaces.

These spaces are fully residential schools, religious-stream national secondary schools, Mara Junior Science Colleges, federal government-assisted religious schools (GARS), state religious secondary schools (Sekolah Menengah Agama Negeri), people’s religious secondary schools (Sekolah Menengah Agama Rakyat, SMAR) and private religious schools.

In 2018, 249,671 or 11 percent of all secondary school students were enrolled in these schools, which are almost entirely Malay/bumiputera and Muslim.

The religious schools are also likely to be highly conservative, especially considering that schools like the GARS, SMAR and the private religious schools have wide autonomy to determine the curriculum.

“From what we know of the teaching of Islam in Islamic Studies (Pendidikan Agama) lessons in national schools is that there isn’t emphasis of bringing communities together.

“Instead, there is quite a lot of emphasis on othering, of fearing contamination, fearing corruption (of values), of keeping a distance (from others).

“So if this is happening in a multicultural context, with a standard national education, I have to ask what is happening (in these religious schools),” Ananthi.

Rosly Ahmad, 47, is in a position to answer that question.

His eldest son, Mohammad Syukry, attended community-run religious schools, while his siblings went to either SJKC or mainstream national schools.

Their parents chose different types of schools for each child depending on their interests and capabilities.

Rosly does not believe Syukry is any more conservative than his siblings.

Now working in Australia, Syukry adapted well to people from different backgrounds and has a more diverse group of friends than his siblings who went through more mainstream education, his father said.

Negative views towards fellow Malaysians

Ananthi’s concern over Muslim-only schools is linked to findings of a study she co-authored in 2017.

In the study, respondents were asked to rate how they feel about their fellow citizens according to their religion on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being most favourable.

It was found that Muslim Malaysians had very favourable views of fellow Muslim Malaysians, but viewed others much less favourably.

The ratings given by Muslim Malaysians towards Hindu, Buddhists and Christian Malaysians were much lower than what Hindu and Buddhist rated Muslims.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the same study, Malay respondents rated Chinese and Indian respondents much lower, than vice versa.

With most teachers being Malay, it might explain discrimination allegedly faced by some non-Malay children in secondary schools, where the student cohort is more diverse.

Escaping racism

Unwilling to give up on the national school system, Anita said she coached Azriela in BM while she was in primary school to make sure it was sufficient for her to cope in SMK.

But by the end of Form 1, it was evident that the dominance of one ethnicity and religion in SMK would make it difficult for Azriela to thrive in national school, she said.

For example, she said, the school administration decided that top three classes had to take Arabic as a compulsory subject.

This inadvertently imposed segregation, as non-Malay parents did not want their children to study Arabic, leaving the classes with only Malay students.

When a request was made by parents for Mandarin classes, the school said they had problems securing a teacher to teach Mandarin at that advanced level, she said.

“Why did the teacher say Indians are smelly, that Indians drink a lot?”

But what really made it untenable, she said, was the fact that her petite daughter was always made to sit at the back of her class, and worse, subjected to racist remarks, sometimes by teachers.

“I remember her asking me, ‘Why did the teacher say Indians are smelly, that Indians drink a lot?’

“They always perceived Indians as lower-class citizens, so they automatically put a label on her. (The message was) ‘You are not going to do well because you are not meant to do well’. That really impacted her confidence, as well,” she said.

Listen to Anita Mennen speak about discrimination faced by her daughter in SMK.

Then she found out some of her daughter’s teachers were either absent or actually coming into class and sleeping, and when she checked Azriela’s books, homework was not checked.

“I did try to meet (the teachers) to find out what was going on. They would say, 'Set an appointment', or that the teacher’s not in.

“It would be Monday to Friday so I would take days off from work, but after a while I realised it was just not (happening). I didn’t pursue it further.”

It was then that her parents decided to put a cap on their national school aspirations for Azriela and send her to a private school. Her younger sister who is now 11 will also follow her path.

“I wanted (my daughters) to have friends from every other race, but when her teacher keeps picking on her and telling her she’s no good, what’s going to happen to her later in life? That’s something I cannot undo.”

When contacted, the National Union of the Teaching Profession says the perception of rampant absenteeism and racial discrimination among teachers is untrue.

These are “rare cases”, said NUTP secretary-general Harry Tan, who also urged parents who encounter them to report the teachers to the district Education Department (PPD) or the Education Ministry.

Growth of private education

The increased affordability of private school has made it a much more attractive option for Malaysia’s growing middle class.

At about four percent of all secondary school enrolment, private schools are still very much an exclusive experience – but the rapid growth of its popularity warrants attention.

In 2008, for example, only 13,658 students were enrolled in private academic secondary schools. A decade later, that number grew fivefold to 87,326 students.

This does not include students who enrolled in international or expatriate schools where the enrolment numbers reported include primary students, too. Enrolment for those schools grew by more than four times in the same period.

At the same time, enrolment in public secondary schools shrunk by 12 percent, down about 300,000 students to two million in 2018.

The growth of private education not only creates division between children from different social classes, Ananthi said, but also exacerbates the declining quality of national schools.

This is because it means parents who are more educated, vocal and involved will no longer be there to play the crucial role of advocating for higher quality in national schools.

Transition issues

Even if all children remain in SMK, there is no guarantee of easy integration.

Muhamad Fazlan Shah Sulaiman, 29, and his two sisters attended SJKC in the early 2000s before moving on to an SMK.

Their daily routine as children involved rising at 5.30am so they can be at school by 7am, attending extra classes in school until 4pm, and then straight to religious school (Sekolah Agama).

Sekolah Agama are funded by state governments and conventionally run from 2.30pm to 5.30pm. It is attended by many Malay/Muslim students after they finish their schools day at SRK.

  • Fazlan (third from right, top row) in SKJC

    Photo: Muhamad Fazlan Shah Sulaiman

  • Fazlan (front row, right) with parents and siblings.

    Photo: Muhamad Fazlan Shah Sulaiman

  • Fazlan with wife and son, who will also attend SJKC.

    Photo: Muhamad Fazlan Shah Sulaiman

And yet, when he transitioned to SMK at 13, Fazlan said, the first months of his Form One year were so lonely that he lost weight.

“I didn’t have friends to eat with so I just sat there. I didn’t know how to play football because in SJKC we didn’t really have physical education classes – they were converted into mathematics lessons – so I didn’t know how to make friends with the Malay boys,” the Rawang native said.

He eventually made friends about a semester in when some Malay boys started talking to him.

Interestingly, although he remained fluent in Mandarin and his SMK was very diverse, Fazlan’s group of friends when he completed Form Five were mostly Malay.

“It was just like that. Malay boys hung around with Malay boys,” he said.

Language barriers

Fazlan’s difficulties transitioning to an SMK, despite being fluent in the language of instruction, may indicate how doubly difficult it is for children from non-Malay speaking backgrounds to integrate into a BM-medium SMK.

UKM’s Teo said despite performing reasonably well in BM exams, vernacular educated students have difficulties using the language to interact.

“The students learn BM but with an instrumental orientation, that is to pass their exams; and in secondary school, it is to obtain SPM certification.

“But BM should be taught with an integrative orientation, that is for integration with the Malay and Malaysian population,” he said.

Much of it is the opportunity to practise the language, which Lucas Yap found lacking in his secondary school even though classes were taught in BM.

This is because, 95 percent of the students in the conforming school he attended in Malacca were ethnic Chinese.

Conforming schools are former missionary or Chinese secondary schools which were turned into national-type schools, with Chinese language as a compulsory subject.

Photo: Lucas Yap

Lucas Yap (left) in SJKC

Photo: Lucas Yap

Lucas Yap (extreme left) in conforming school

The Malay students who attended his school were also from SJKC, so they would mostly converse in Mandarin, he said.

“I didn’t have many Malay or Indian friends in school, so the only person I could practice with was my BM teacher,” he said.

It was only after he transferred to a Malay-dominated SMK for Form Six at the age of 18 that an entirely different world opened up to him, he said.

“I enrolled late because the transfer took time, so there were no other seats available but the one next to Malay classmates.

“When I first started speaking to them, I had to first try to structure my sentences in Malay before starting the conversation,” he said.

Besides developing his BM skills, Yap said Form Six was also where he learnt how to interact with other ethnicities.

“We had a lot of interactions and I could ask many things to my Malay friends about their religion or lifestyle. Some things were quite silly, like can you swallow your saliva when you’re fasting during Ramadan?”

Photo: Lucas Yap

Lucas Yap's Form 6 class

Ramadan also brought about other learning moments for both parties, including when Yap asked his Malay friends if he could eat in front of them.

Without an authoritative figure dictating their responses to each other, the students were able to negotiate their own boundaries and found ways to share the same space to meet their different needs. None of his Malay friends said no to him eating in front of them during Ramadan, he said.

“Once I even ate pork in class because it was the dumpling festival. I asked my friends first, but they said it’s ok,” he said.

His understanding of the Malay community deepened when he attended a public university, where he had a chance to interact with even more Malay students.

But more importantly, he said, he was exposed through his student activism to the struggles of marginalised communities, including Malay settlers who were evicted from their homes.

“It changed my mindset. I saw that poor Malay people faced the same problem as the rest of us. It really impacted me.”

Photo: Lucas Yap

Lucas Yap attending a demonstration while holding a Tamil language placard

A separate community

Contrast this with Walter Chou, 30, who grew up in an exclusively ethnic Chinese neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur and attended an SJKC.

To instil independence in her boy, his mother chose to enrol him in a residential Chinese independent school far from home for his secondary education, further entrenching him in a monoethnic bubble.

Now a teacher in a Chinese independent school, Chou said he cannot count a single Malaysian friend of a different ethnicity than him.

“I feel sometimes that I am not in Malaysia. I have my own little community. But it’s not by choice,” he said.

Photo: Aidila Razak

Walter Chou, a teacher at a Chinese independent school, assigns homework which helps his students see beyond their ethnic cocoon.

Much of the difficulties he had as an adult in making deeper and more meaningful connections with Malaysians of different ethnicity, is due to language, he said.

His written BM improved tremendously while attending Chinese Independent secondary school thanks to a dedicated teacher, he said, but his spoken BM is just enough to get by.

“I had a lack of exposure to different languages, and I never had the chance to learn from other races.

“I feel that I have no confidence to speak to others because I cannot express myself fully,” he said.

Can extracurricular activities become a bridge?

Realising his own limitations, Chou hopes to give his students a chance to see beyond their own ethnic cocoon.

He assigns them projects where they have to find out more about other communities living in Malaysia, and recently he showed them a film called “Gadoh” (Fight), which tells the story of a group of teenagers who clashed on ethnic lines.

Tellingly, his students asked for Chinese subtitles for the film.

The film screening was part of a collaboration with Chinese education group Dong Zong, who along with other partners are working on a project to help bridge the gap between Chinese independent school-educated children and the rest of Malaysian society.

The project includes hosting extracurricular activities like a treasure hunt in June involving 110 students from Chinese independent schools and private Islamic schools. Each team had to have members from the two types of schools.

“At the end of the event we noticed that the students started to add each other on Instagram and Facebook,” said Lucas Yap, who is part of the Dong Zong Multiethnic and Multicultural Project team.

  • Photo: Dong Zong

  • Photo: Dong Zong

  • Photo: Dong Zong

  • Photo: Dong Zong

Chinese independent school students and private religious school students participate in a treasure hunt in Kuala Lumpur, as part of activities by Dong Zong and other partners to bridge the ethnic divide amongst school children. Private religious school students also visited a Chinese independent school for Chinese New Year.

Soon, they will host a ‘Muhibbah Camp’, involving even more students from various ethnicities, with a focus on helping children learn about each other’s cultures in a way that is not possible in their largely monoethnic schools.

This is similar to extracurricular activities held by the Education Ministry involving students from different ethnicities and types of school under the Rancangan Integrasi Murid Untuk Perpaduan (Student Integration for Unity Plan, Rimup). Rimup was first launched in 1986.

However, with just RM1,500 allocated annually for such activities per school, coupled with the intermittent nature, its efficacy is questionable.

“At the end of the event we noticed that the students started to add each other on Instagram and Facebook."

Even well-funded activities meant to promote integration appear to have limited impact.

In studying interethnic relations between youths in Malaysia, Ananthi co-authored a study looking into the effects of the National Service (NS) programme.

The three-month programme for 18-year-olds, meant to encourage interethnic friendships, has since been scrapped under Pakatan Harapan.

Among others, the study saw participants answer questions that gauged their attitudes towards people from different ethnicities, before and after the programme.

The results were then compared to responses by college students who were asked the same questions over the same period of time.

Ananthi and co-author Miles Hewstone found that while there was an increase in positive feelings for other ethnicities among the NS participants, it was not higher than those reported by the college students, who did not undergo the programme which cost taxpayers RM400 million a year.

A school for all Malaysians

Teo believes that while the integration issue is complicated, the formula to solve it is simple.

He believes the one way out is to combine all schools into a unified stream, where children of all backgrounds can learn and grow up together.

Getting societal buy-in, however, would not be so easy.

Several attempts by the government to introduce pilot projects to tackle integration issues created by the different streams of schooling since the mid-1980s have received strenuous resistance by Dong Zong and fellow Chinese education group Jiao Zong.

Part of the resistance was the belief that these projects were an attempt to assimilate SJKC, in keeping with the Razak Report's final objective of eventually making BM the medium of instruction for all schools.

The most prominent attempts were the Integration School in the 1980s and Vision School project in the 2000s, where selected vernacular primary schools and national primary schools would jointly hold co-curricular activities.

Vision Schools went a step further. Vernacular and national schools taking part in the Vision School project were placed in the same complex, so students share facilities like the canteen or field, but teaching and school administration remained separate.

Photo: SK Dato' Onn Jaafar

The Vision Schools still operate to this day, but the project's impact on integration is likely to be limited, based on a sample study of one Vision School in Kedah published in 2017.

The study involved 60 Malay students from SRK and 29 ethnic Indian students from the national-type Tamil vernacular primary school (SJKT) which shares the complex.

Researchers found that all the Malay students from the SRK said they only interact with Malay friends during recess, while only seven percent of the ethnic Indian children in the SJKT said they interacted with children of different ethnicity.

This is because the opportunity for interaction is so limited that it cannot counter the existing bonds between children from the same ethnicity who share the same language, culture, and religious beliefs, researchers Suresh Kumar N Vellymalay and Puvaneswary Murugaiah said.

“Although they share common facilities and are involved in joint school activities, there is limited opportunity for friendship and interaction among pupils of different schools due to the independent administrative system and curriculum of each school."

Teo said in order to embark on a productive conversation on a unified model of education for all Malaysians, the narrative must be shifted to one where no community loses.

He said it should be a school which combines the best practices of the current national school, vernacular schools, and Islamic schools.

Eventually, the aim is to make national schools the preferred choice for all parents, he said.

The school in Teo’s mind runs for longer from 7am to 3pm, with hours divided between academics, ethnic education (which includes learning one’s mother tongue and heritage) and religious or spiritual education.

“I believe if you show this proposal to people, we would be able to at least talk about single-stream education,” he said.

As it is, society appears split over whether a unified school is what the nation needs to move forward.

Respondents of the Malaysiakini-commissioned survey were split down the middle when asked if they support combining all public-funded government schools, including Islamic schools, into a unified stream.

“Multiculturalism is an asset in Malaysia. It is not a burden. Politicians are narrow-minded if they cannot see this.”

Promoting unity is the top reason given for those who support the call, but those who do not cite fear of racial discrimination in these schools and loss of language and cultural heritage.

For Dong Zong, the promotion of a single stream education unfairly blames vernacular education as stumbling blocks for integration and neglects that Chinese education in Malaysia emphasis nationalism.

“I myself am a graduate of Chinese primary school, independent high school and furthered my studies in Taiwan. Yet, during my study in Taiwan, we always raise the Jalur Gemilang and organise national day dinner on August 31,” Dong Zong committee member Low Chee Chong said.

Instead of problematising Chinese education, Low said the government should encourage multiracial connections and positively respond to issues which might split society.

“Multiculturalism is an asset in Malaysia. It is not a burden. Politicians are narrow-minded if they cannot see this,” said Low, who is in charge of the Chinese Education progressing committee.

Losing our ability to live together

Social psychologist Ananthi agrees that multiculturalism is an asset and believes abolishing vernacular schools could mean a tremendous loss in cultural and linguistic diversity in Malaysia.

But she also believes Teo’s model unified school proposal has merit because it means children would spend the most amount of time together.

She believes the unified school can only work if minority cultures and languages are given due space within the curriculum and treated as important languages and cultures within the school.

Without opportunities to develop deeper friendships with those from other ethnicities at a young age, Malaysians are losing the ability to live together, she said.

In her yet unpublished research, she interviewed employees of a large multinational company in Malaysia on their interactions with colleagues of different ethnicities.

What cropped up were mundane issues like sharing refrigerators, what language to use when in a group of different ethnicities, or whether they can go for lunch together, she said.

“There are real challenges in knowing how to negotiate these differences respectfully.”

For example, she said, ethnic Chinese workers found it problematic that they could not bring a pork dish from home to eat at work, as Malay workers feared the shared plates or dishwashing sponges would come into contact with non-halal meat.

Malay workers, meanwhile, complained of feeling excluded when their ethnic Chinese colleagues chose to speak to each other in a Chinese dialect in their presence, instead of a common language like English or BM.

Photo: Twitter @fax101

Observing halal in a shared office pantry is one of the issues raised by office workers when asked about interactions with colleagues of other ethnicity, research found. Such issues are also discussed in the Malaysian Twittersphere.

“I really have a sense even among our well-educated workforce there are real challenges in knowing how to negotiate these differences respectfully, and how to know when not to make it an issue,” she said.

Having not had experiences finding amicable solutions to these differences as children, she said, many Malaysians in their adulthood find it is easier to just segregate themselves.

“So you go for lunch on your own and I go for lunch on my own.”

Multifaith education

This is also a case to be made for having a subject on multifaith education, where children are taught about different religions in school, especially as children have fewer and fewer opportunities to organically learn from each other.

It is particularly important for students enrolling in monoethnic Islamic schools, she said, as Muslims in Malaysia have been found to identify more strongly with their religion compared to followers of other religions.

“In our research, we found that people who are strongly religiously-identified have a poorer attitude towards people from other religious groups. They feel more cold and negative about them.

“But this effect is buffered, or significantly reduced, when people have knowledge about other religions,” she said.

“The knowledge of the fundamental beliefs of other groups, understanding why they do what they do, understanding there are essential similarities in our spirituality, our devotion and our desire to be good, is phenomenally important in a context that is becoming increasingly religious.”

The missing bridge

Even if policymakers agree to multifaith education, it will be a political minefield that is unlikely to be crossed by the time Anita’s youngest child, who is 12, finishes secondary school.

Education is also just one piece in the complicated jigsaw puzzle that is the story of integration in multiethnic and multireligious Malaysia.

For instance, combining all schools into a unified stream of education will not fix divisions caused by the pro-bumiputera National Economic Policy.

Meant to address ethnic economic disparity, the NEP had “also resulted in greater resentment by those who feel deprived by such policies, resulting at various times in emigration, capital flight and ethnic mobilisation”, economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram once wrote in a study examining the impact of economic policy on national unity.

Such policies have also created ethnic streams within the workforce. In 2017, 81 percent of the civil service was bumiputera, with most non-bumiputera in the private sector.

“We grew up in a situation where everybody respected each other and everyone could go into each other's houses, and now people are just not aware of each other's cultures anymore.”

Anita believes that on the trajectory they are on, her daughters are likely to work in the private sector, and continue to be segregated from the the Malay/Muslim community.

Photo: Anita Mennen

Anita Mennen (extreme left) says unlike their parents, her two daughters Aleesah, 12, and Azriela, 17, are growing up without Malay friends.

At least for her children, Anita can be that bridge to connects her children to the Malay or Muslim community, answering questions they have about the community they have no interaction with.

This bridge will cease to exist for the generation after that.

“My grandkids will be in another situation completely,” she said.

“We grew up in a situation where everybody respected each other and everyone could go into each other's house and now people are just not aware of each others' cultures anymore.”