Educational Diversity, Social Learning, and Multicultural Citizenship — The Malaysian Experience


by Johan Saravanamuttu


Malaysia has been a unique site of cultural and linguistic diversity in education. Educational diversity occurs from primary to tertiary levels of teaching and learning. But do such educational policies help to advance values of multicultural citizenship? This essay focuses on the role of universities in advancing such a project. Notably, student bodies in most public universities have ethnically mixed students based on ethnic quotas, but despite the prevalence of common sites for social interaction — such as libraries, cafeteria, recreational facilities and the like — ethnic groups tend to find their own exclusive comfort zones. While it could well be argued that top-down multicultural policies of enhancing ethnic rights have been largely embraced and practised, it is not clear that Malaysian public universities constitute adequate sites of social learning for the values of multicultural citizenship. Early years of vernacular education have tended to reinforce a tendency of separate ethnic and social interaction up until the tertiary level of education.


Multiculturalism and Citizenship
The notion of the “multination state” or “polyethnic state” was propounded by Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka. The concept refers to the presence of distinct ethnic groups and migrant communities in states. In Malaysia, groups with territorial presence are the dominant Malays on the peninsula and other indigenous groups (Bumiputera) in the Borneo states. Chinese and Indians, who were migrants during colonial times, are distributed across the whole country.

For a country like Malaysia, advancing ideas of multicultural citizenship could in theory lead to the following progressive practices: recognition of the equal worth of citizens and equal rights of individuals; protection of distinctive cultures of minorities; protection of small first nations such as Orang Asli; acceptance of the special status of Malays and other Bumiputera.

Malaysia already recognises minority languages, as primary education is conducted in Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil in vernacular schools. A major controversy arose over the rejection of the Chinese language Merdeka University project in 1982, and the 1987 protest over the  appointment of non-Mandarin speaking senior assistants in Chinese schools that led to political detentions. With the promulgation of the Education Act of 1996, the liberalisation of higher education eased ethnic tensions caused by educational policies. It also led to the mushrooming of private colleges, including the New Era College, which uses Mandarin as a medium of instruction.


Universities and Multicultural Learning
Let me now address the issue of universities as sites of multicultural learning in enhancing multicultural citizenship. Ethnic mixing occurs within all universities but is severely constrained because of the lack of common interactive zones and social spaces. Ideally multi-ethnic social interaction should occur within residential colleges, through sporting activities, cafeterias, societies, and associations. However, there is general tendency for ethnic groups to find their own comfort zones within universities or outside campuses, such as in monocultural restaurants, mosques, churches, temples, and other mutually exclusive spaces. In a study of multi-ethnic social interaction, Guyer (2002) observed that there were few common spaces for students to socialise. Guyer found that attempts to address ethnic segregation were not successful and that affirmative action policies for Bumiputera students tended to entrench ethnic differences.

A major top-down policy in the early 2000s was the introduction of an ethnic relations module or university course as an instrument of cross-cultural learning. However, the first module used by Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) in 2006 sparked controversy because of its biased narrative on the 1969 Race Riots and the 2001 Kampong Medan incident of ethnic violence. Professor A. B. Shamsul of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) was tasked to edit the ethnic relations module and with the support of academic colleagues produced a well-crafted module which is now used by all universities. Shamsul also established the Ethnic Relations Institute at UKM which helps to coordinate and receive feedback on the course. A study conducted by UKM lecturers on 320 students of the ethnic relations module found that it had led to some ethnic mingling and social learning (Khalim et al., 2010). However, critics have argued that the module had too many students to be effective and that it was hard to find competent lecturers to teach it well. A medical student intimated to me that most students aimed to just pass the exam and that the lecturer showed little passion in conducting the course. The student said the only appealing part of the course came from watching the movie Sepet (directed by the late Yasmin Ahmad) about interracial romance.


Some Observations
In some 35 years as a university lecturer and  professor at USM, I have seen a decline in multi-ethnic student interaction and social learning because of unresolved and deep ethnic divides. In the 1970s, students were small in numbers and came from mostly English-based schooling. The different ethnic groups showed a great propensity to mix in the common sites of interaction. There was a better environment of social learning because of moderate attitudes and fewer religious strictures especially on Muslims.

By the 1980s, a shift occurred with large student numbers from two overall sets: those from more rural settings and those from the more urban environments and, moreover, students tended to polarise socially according to ethnic schooling streams. University associations reflected this. Cafeteria mixing became less evident. University policies premised on religious strictures also made mixing increasingly monocultural. Non-Malay students would go outside the campus for their food and recreation. The ethnic mixing among lecturers also seemed to mimic the student pattern.

Since the mid-1990s, private universities saw a large enrolment of the affluent non-Bumiputera students, while public universities became the predominant domain of Bumiputera students and lecturers. The divide between public and private universities mirrored Malaysian ethnic divisions, and universities are hardly important sites of multicultural social mixing and social learning.

The ethnic relations module aimed at bridging ethnic differences through formal learning does too little too late. Social learning has to start at least at the secondary school level, if not earlier. A social studies course stressing the value of multicultural citizenship needs to be introduced in all national schools. Alongside this, other policies of enhancing social interaction could also be introduced as suggested by many studies on multicultural education.



Guyer, Ellen D. Understanding Multicultural Relations: Lessons from the Malaysian Student Experience. Malaysia Crossroads of Diversity in Southeast Asia, Macalester International. 12 (Autumn 2002): 161–169.

Khalim Zainal, Datuk Taip Abu, Zulkifli Mohamad. The Effect of Ethnic Relations Course on the Students Perceptions towards Ethnic Relations among First Year Students of One Public University in Malaysia Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 2 (2010): 3596–3599.

Kymlicka, Will (1995). Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Amrita Kaur, Rosna Awang-Hashim, and Mohammad Noman. Defining Intercultural Education for Social Cohesion in Malaysian Context. International Journal of Multicultural Education 19, no. 2 (2017): 44–60.

Johan Saravanamuttu is Adjunct Senior Fellow, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #06. Click here to read the full issue.

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