30 April 2017

Re-stitching Malaysia’s social fabric
Focus, Sunday Star
Findings show that strategies and initiatives are needed to foster greater interaction between communities.
By Nazir Razak, Ananthi AL Ramiah and Miles Hewstone.

WHEN the protest of Malaysians for fair elections and against corruption is reframed as an attack by non-Malays against the dignity of Malays, we should be alarmed. Race seems to be the default narrative to explain everything one is unhappy about, from frustrations at school to dissatisfaction at work to altercations in the neighbourhood.

The fact that multi-cultural Malaysia has enjoyed decades of prosperity with little violent conflict does not necessarily equate to harmony. In recent years, with religion being politicised to reinforce communal barriers and more children being schooled separately, we intuitively know that Malaysia’s Malays, Chinese and Indians are growing further apart.

But what are the real facts? How do we measure growing apart? Do we really know what helps communal integration and what does not, and what simply fuels the divide?

We recently conducted a representative survey of communal relations in Peninsular Malaysia, funded by CIMB Foundation. It is one of the most detailed of its kind and unique in that it samples rigorously from the main racial groups. A report on the results and recommendations, now publicly available at www.cimbfoundation.com, provides a snapshot into what works in Malaysia and where the risks lie.
The findings strengthen the case for strategies and initiatives to foster greater interaction between communities.

We found that Malaysians seem to live alongside each other, but apart – having little meaningful interaction with people from other races for most of their lives, preferring instead to spend time with people from their own racial groups; about 90% of Malay respondents, 80% of Chinese respondents and 70% of Indian respondents reported that almost all of their friends were from their own respective racial groups (see Table 1).

Yet, research stretching from Northern Ireland to South Africa to Bosnia demonstrates that successful cross-group interactions are vitally important in making multi-cultural societies work.

Further, we know that having friends and social support is one of the most important predictors of mental health and longevity, so we asked: what should a friendship network look like for a person living in a multicultural society? We found that people who live in racially-mixed neighbourhoods are happier and mentally healthier than people who live in neighbourhoods that are dominated by one racial group, even if the dominant racial group is their own. People also report better mental health when they interact positively with neighbours from other races and feel socially supported by them.
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