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Muslims and Malays face discrimination too


As a Malaysian Chinese, I’m only too familiar with the many resentments nursed by my kin since the early days of independence. We bitterly describe ourselves as ‘second-class citizens’ and, at first opportunity, rant about rampant discrimination against us. We’re the natural constituency of Pakatan Harapan because it supposedly promotes equality for all. Of course, it may not surprise you that a good bunch of us are actually bald-faced hypocrites.


When I read that some Malaysian hotels prohibited their female Muslim staff from wearing the hijab while doing frontline work, I was appalled. But what absolutely sickened me was the number of non-Muslims and non-Malays defending those hotels. Apparently, some instances of discrimination are more equal than others.


This isn’t even a close call by any means. The excuse given by the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) – that the hotels, especially the international chains, were merely following worldwide policies – was an extraordinarily poor one. International hotel chains routinely make changes and exceptions to suit local laws, customs, sensitivities, and tastes.


In fact, in the United States, the anti-hijab rule described above would almost certainly be a violation of federal law (see the legal precedent laid down by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores).  


More importantly, there’s nothing about the hijab that prevents the wearer from performing her duties competently and efficiently. Nothing that would hamper her interactions with guests. To argue otherwise is to imply that Muslim identity is inherently inferior (read: unpresentable) and/or threatening – textbook Islamophobia. I doubt hotels mean to endorse this vile sentiment, but they should amend their policies accordingly to prove that they don’t.


What’s much harder to rectify is our worsening religious and racial polarization. On social media, many non-Muslims and non-Malays were quick to dismiss the controversy. They took turns to call it a small matter, a distraction, and/or a private business decision. Of course, I’m willing to bet that these same people reacted quite differently when they learnt that a launderette in Johor had restricted its customers to only Muslims.


Remember the smoldering outrage that swept social media and newspaper front pages back then? The Godzilla-sized hypocrisy here is grating, but also utterly predictable. I’ve seen it so regularly that I can’t be bothered to keep tabs anymore.


When I wrote last year about a systemic anti-Malay bias in the private sector hiring, I saw torrent of comments from non-Malays denying that the discrimination was even real. Never mind that my article cited the findings of two prominent economists who studied job interview callback rates. Many commenters even made vague and not-so-vague insinuations about how Malays were lazy and/or less capable – which, of course, only served to prove my point.


Others eagerly highlighted racism practiced by the government and Malays. But they miss what should be elementary to anyone: two wrongs don’t make a right. And they sure as hell don’t make things any better – quite the opposite, in fact.


In Malaysia, the unsaid truth is no religious or ethnic group has a monopoly on prejudice. And we’re obliged to call out discrimination in whatever form whenever we see it. I, for one, am determined to have the backs of Muslims and Malays, just as I expect them to do the same for me. If you’re unwilling to do that – to reject hypocrisy and hold fast to basic principles – then at least have the decency to shut up and accept you’re just as bigoted as the very people you criticize.




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