KUALA LUMPUR, 16 June 2009: A pilot project to measure racial harmony is underway in five places, with plans to roll out the research nationwide at the end of the year.
The Malaysian Ethnic Relations Monitoring System, known by its acronym Mesra, was developed by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita) and was launched on a pilot basis in February.
The project’s aim is to develop early-warning indicators to prevent potential racial clashes.
Kita founding director Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin said the five places were three around the Klang Valley, one in Sabah and one in Sarawak.
The research methodology includes use of a quality of life index and a perception index to gauge people’s needs and feelings about race relations in their area.
Shamsul Amri said the quality of life index included criteria such as housing, health, income and education.
“Combined with the perception index, we can know who is getting what, who is not getting what, and what are the points of differentiation between different ethnic groups,” he told reporters at a Kita public forum on race relations today.
“By mapping people’s quality of life and their perceptions, hopefully we can see what is making people really unhappy.”
Shamsul Amri said Kita hoped to conduct similar research projects in more places by the end of the year with the help of the National Unity Department’s officers in these areas.
Koh The public forum was launched by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of unity, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, who said the government would support Kita’s endeavour as it was in line with the implementation of the 1Malaysia concept.
“The Mesra project will contribute to the empowerment of 1Malaysia. At policy level, the government does not want any race to be marginalised. But at local level, we must be able to implement this.
“Had we known about the living conditions and about the inter-racial relationships in a place like Kampung Medan, we could have taken preventive measures to avoid the racial clash there,” Koh said, referring to the riots in a poor residential area along Jalan Klang Lama in 2001.
Koh said measurements or indicators that could help predict potential clashes were needed, as currently, a simplistic picture of race relations was obtained through the number of police reports on inter-ethnic fights.
The public forum’s guest speaker was Prof Dr Aneez Esmail, a medical professor and also the associate vice-president for equality and diversity at the University of Manchester in the UK.
Aneez said the debate on race should never be confined to “singular identities” as this would cause people to take up fixed positions which were difficult to negotiate.
Instead, the race relations debate should accept the “multiple identities” of people to find holistic solutions that would address needs.
“If people give themselves and others a singular identity, we’ll never get beyond that to appreciate the diversity and complexity of each person’s identity.
Aneez “You are never just a Chinese [Malaysian] or whatever race. A rich Malay is different from a poor Malay, who would have more in common with a poor Chinese or a poor Indian [Malaysian],” Aneez said.
Aneez is of Indian heritage but was born in Uganda. His family became refugees during Idi Amin‘s rule. They fled to the UK where he became an anti-racism activist.
Speaking to reporters later, he said he observed from the question-and-answer session that Malaysians appeared to have “a huge desire to talk about race relations”.
“But I also sense that desire is constrained, perhaps by politicians or by singular identities,” he added.
During the question-and-answer session, several members from the floor spoke against politicians who used the race card to maintain their popularity with their constituents.
Aneez also spoke about affirmative action policies, saying that class-based affirmative action was acceptable but not race-based action. His comments on that were applauded by the audience.
He also spoke on the UK’s Race Relations Act 1976, which although could not get rid of racism completely, was essential in creating a framework for debate.
“You must have legislation in order to have a platform for people to start talking about racial discrimination openly,” he said. The UK law outlaws discrimination as well as promotes activism on racial equality.
When told by some members of the floor that the government had raised and then shot down the idea of a similar Act last year, Aneez said debate on the matter should continue.
More than 300 people attended the public forum, including police officers, civil servants and school heads and principals.