Multiculturlism in Malaysia: The Need for Local Knowledge to Grapple with Identity and Ethnicity

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Local knowledge is needed in order to grapple with the discourse on multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, multiethnicity, pluralism and plurality as linked to identity and nation-building can mean many things to many people. Often the failure to understand ‘this local knowledge-based of identity’ brought dire socio-political consequences to the ‘communities’ who are brought together as nation. Such scenario is historically evident to nation that was political constructed by the colonial master who placed their own economic interest rather than the local community in defining the political boundary of nation.

In this study, attempts will be made to show that the identity of Malaysians is closely linked to ethnicity. The dimensions of ethnicity are language, culture, religion and kinship. Each Malaysian community might be defined ethnically but the dimension that is central to their group formation and mobilisation varies from one another. The basis of group formation and mobilisation for the Malays and Indians is religion, Chinese is the Mandarin language and the Bumiputera of Sarawak and Sabah the tribal ties.

Malaysians conception of identity and ethnicity resemble Robert Miles and Clifford Geertz discourses of these concepts; they can be a cause and primordial in sentiment. Despite of this ethnic divide, Malaysians were observed to be pro-stability and progress. Wolfgang Kasper argues that Malaysian success story likes not in her economic strategy planned and implemented of which most conflict ridden areas of Africa, Sri Lanka etc do possess but more so to an institutional mechanism of conflict management. Reading evidents from studies on ethnic relations in Malaysia do suggest that ethnicity is real and need to be acknowledged as given but the taste of development has opened up the group boundary where individuals tend to give prominance to stability and foundational concern of living rather than issue-based which could pit one ethnic group against the others. Thus a strategy of good governance, development and managing social injustice might be the answer in the creation of a harmonious multicultural society rather than defining multiculturalism and nation-building without taking account of the local knowledge of identity and ethnicity.


Keywords: Multiculturalism, Identity, Ethnicity, Nation-building
Stream: Ethnicity, Difference, Identity
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Assoc. Prof. Mansor Mohd-Noor

Chairman of Public Administration, College of Law, Government & International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia
Sintok, Kedah, Malaysia

Ph.D. University of Bristol (Ethnic Relations): His research ranges from agrarian issues, local government, regional development, ethnic relations, and voting behaviours.

Ref: H08P0525