Academic journal article Asian Social Science

"Choose One!": Challenges of Inter-Ethnic Marriages in Malaysia

Academic journal article Asian Social Science

"Choose One!": Challenges of Inter-Ethnic Marriages in Malaysia

Article excerpt


The fact that inter-ethnic marriage has been practiced in Malaysia since pre-colonial times is well known and recorded in its history. While there is a modest rise in number of people who choose to marry spouses from different ethnic group in the country, the practice itself has been generally portrayed as a problematic and wanting especially in the Peninsular Malaysia. Popular writings and mass media play a significant role in stereotyping the phenomenon as a current modern (read: western)-influenced trend in contemporary society, as well as its potential to create tensions between the spouses due to their differences in ethnic background and culture. Based on our qualitative study conducted in 2011 on 50 respondents with first-hand experience in inter-ethnic marriages, this paper argues that sources of conflict faced by the couples are not originated from spouses themselves. Instead, they were initiated by various external sources which stem from overwhelming dominance of authority-defined social reality in the organisation of social differences according to rigid ethnic lines in the society. As a result, positive effects of inter-ethnic marriages on maintaining social cohesion in the society, as reflected from first-hand experiences of spouses and progeny of inter-ethnic marriages, are affectively eclipsed.

Keywords: inter-ethnic marriages, Malaysia, social cohesion, qualitative study, authority-defined social reality

1. Introduction

The practice of inter-ethnic marriages in Malaysia as part and parcel of the society is evident in the existence of Peranakan communities whose ethnic group formation stemmed from long-term, intense assimilation process that was catalysed by inter-ethnic marriage between non-native and native ethnic groups (Note 1). Out of the context of Peranakan communities, the phenomenon has been under-studied and under-documented by the government and scholars alike. Thus, general description and perception of the phenomenon among Malaysian society is, at best, mixed. Positive perspective views inter-ethnic marriages as beneficial in contributing towards social cohesion in the society, creating new generations that are more open towards others of different ethnic backgrounds, as well as possibility of producing progeny who are more advantageous in terms of intelligence, beauty, emotional and behavioural stability (Tan, 2012; Zainon, 2005). However, positive perception of inter-ethnic marriage tends to be over-shadowed by negative perception. This is mainly due to influence from popular writing and media coverage that sensationalise selected cases of high profile inter-ethnic marriages among celebrities, public figures as well as controversial and lengthy court cases. As a result, inter-marriage is portrayed as problematic and wanting practice that is troublesome and short-lived (Minuddin, 2005; Zakaria, 2010; Jalil, 2010). Negative perception towards inter-ethnic marriage is more apparent when it involves conversion of religion as part of the requirement for the marriage to take place. In particular, Muslim-non-Muslim marriage in Malaysia is seen as notorious due to political and legal contestation between Islamic Syariah laws and civil laws (Lindenberg, 2009; Mohamad, Aziz & Oy, 2009; Hak, 2012; Sintang, Khambali, Baharuddin & Ahmad, 2011). Due to its seemingly conflict-prone nature, greater problem in marital relationship are recorded among inter-ethnic marriages than mono-ethnic marriages, such as low marital satisfaction and higher rate of conflict (Ismail, 2003; Baharuddin, Juhari & Tan, 2003). Based on 1981 Marriage Survey, Tan (1989) finds that majority of Malaysian society that transcends gender and ethnic groups agree that inter-ethnic marriage should not be encouraged. Such view still echoes in Malaysian society 30 years later (Jalil, 2010; Minuddin, 2005).

In spite of the mixed perceptions, scholars believed that the trend of inter-ethnic marriage in Malaysia is on the rise (Osman, 1981; Chong, 2009; Nagaraj, 2009). …

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