Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Cultural and Religious Tolerance and Acceptance in Urban Housing: A Study of Multi-Ethnic Malaysia

Academic journal article Asian Social Science

Cultural and Religious Tolerance and Acceptance in Urban Housing: A Study of Multi-Ethnic Malaysia

Article excerpt


This paper attempts to describe some housing issues pertaining to religious and cultural practices in Malaysia. As a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, residential arrangements are used as a tool to achieve greater social and ethnic mix as envisioned by the government under the New Economic Policy and its Housing Policy. While the aim is for social integration among its population, living with people who do not share similar cultural and religious practices may cause problems too, especially that related to the use of space. This is especially true in urban housing areas where space is scarce and thus does not always cater to the residents' needs. Using a sample of 400 respondents from four urbanized areas of Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Johor Bahru, we try to understand the respondents' views about their neighbours' religious and cultural practices that differ from theirs. Our findings will be discussed within the framework of cultural acceptance and tolerance as well as to gauge whether the government's policy is translated well by the population.

Keywords: Urban living, Cultural acceptance, Cultural tolerance, Malaysia

1. Introduction

An ethnically diverse society faces the challenge of maintaining, if not fully achieving, harmonious relations among its population. In the case of multi-ethnic Malaysia, its society is further divided in terms of language, customs and religions. That stable ethnic relations is one of the key ingredients to political and economical stability is not mere exaggeration. Indeed, Malaysia faced its worst ethnic conflict in 1969 that shook the country and forced the government to abandon the fairly laissez faire policy it had adopted since independence in 1957 with regards to ethnic relations and economic growth. Malaysia's plural society is a legacy inherited from the British rule of the country. During this colonial period, the local Malays who made up the majority of the country's population resided in the rural areas where their economic activities revolved mainly around small-scale farming, far removed from the colonial economic activities (Syed Husin Alatas 1977). On the other hand, the Chinese and Indians who were brought into then-Malaya to provide labor to the key sectors such as mining and large-scale plantations dwelled in what later developed into small towns and cities. This living pattern persisted well until the country achieved its independence in 1957, creating an urban-rural gap with a racial undertone. Precisely because a group's geographical location will in turn determine its access to major economic activities and ultimately a share of the nation's wealth, feelings of inequality, dissatisfaction and marginalization were high among the Malays culminating in the above mentioned racial riot. This incident proved that the country had a lot to lose unless the disparity, not only in wealth, but also access to important economic activities among its major ethnic groups was properly (and sensitively) tackled. With the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1971, the government proactively seek to restructure society so as to achieve social integration as well as to eradicate poverty.

One area in which this policy was used is the urban residential pattern. Housing is then viewed as a tool for fostering better social relations among the various ethnic groups by enforcing a quota system in the allocation of houses (or units) in urban residential areas with the aim of achieving a more "balanced" ethnic mix. According to this formula, all housing projects undertaken by the private sector will have a mixture of all types of housing, including low cost and medium cost houses. In addition, there must be allocation of units according to ethnic groups in order to encourage the Malays to own housing units in urban areas. In this way, it is hoped that in the long run residential segregation would be eliminated, interaction opportunities among these various ethnic groups would be created thus achieving better understanding of one another which in turn would keep the ethnic relations in the country relatively stable and harmonious. …

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