Ethnic Tolerance In Multiethnic Society: The Case Of Pulau Pinang


This article discusses the level of ethnic tolerance in the multiethnic society of Malaysia, with specific reference to the parliamentary seat of Bukit Bendera, Pulau Pinang. It also aims at identifying factors that influence ethnic tolerance in the area involved. In a survey of ethnic and political tolerance of 174 respondents, this study raises the question of majority-minority tolerance in a multiethnic society. This study is crucial due to the demographic uniqueness of the particularly mentioned area in terms of the majority-minority composition of its ethnicity. The findings reveal that the people of Bukit Bendera can be categorised as medium-good practitioners of ethnic tolerance, as attitude and perceptions are more important to them than the issue of political parties and ethnicity. It is significant where moderation has progressively become Malaysia’s national plan in managing a plural society. The article ends with relevant discussions and suggestions.

Keywords: Rational Choicedemocratic learningelectionethnic relationsurbanismmoderation


Being applauded as an example for developing states (Lijphart, 1977; Shamsul, 2005), maintaining

Malaysia’s racial harmony and tolerance has become a massive task (Cheah, 2004) as its political affairs

are frequently discussed through ethnic senses (Jayum A. Jawan & King, 2004; Jayum A. Jawan &

Mohammad Agus, 2008). Thus, tolerance amongst ethnic groups is an elemental and essential

determinant for Malaysia's political strength and stability. The outcome of the 2013 Malaysia General

Elections showed only two state cities in peninsular Malaysia were won by the governing party of Barisan

Nasional (BN), while the rest fell to the opposition party of Pakatan Rakyat (PR). This reflects the

emergence of a new pattern among urban voters. Thus, this study was initiated to investigate the level of

tolerance among ethnic groups in the Bukit Bendera parliamentary seat of Pulau Pinang state. It is

significant to study this phenomenon because Bukit Bendera offers distinctive demographic factors of

minority-majority relations. Most importantly, it helps researchers to devise an ethnic tolerance scale for

nationwide measurement.

The definition of ethnic is derived from the Latin word ethnicus which means nation, people or

“races”. Thus, ethnic describes an assemblage of group of people that are genetically, culturally,

historically related. The Oxford English Dictionary (2014) defines tolerance as "the ability or

willingness to endure the existence of thoughts or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees". Tolerance

also refers to as an acceptance of others whose actions, beliefs, physical capabilities, religion, customs,

ethnicity, nationality, and so on differs from one's own (American Psychological Association, 2007).

Previous researches are regularly concerned with immigrants and native groups (Cote & Erickson,

2009; Crepaz & Damron, 2008; Weldon, 2006) and religious identity (Ahmad Tarmizi, Sarjit Singh Gill,

Razaleigh, & Puvaneswaran, 2013; Eisenstein, 2006; Jha, 2012). However, Wilson (2007) offered ethnic

relations from social and political constructs, which compensate the concern of deficiency of literatures

on inter-ethnic tolerance. It then paves to the various scholars examining measurement of ethnic

tolerance. Sijuwade (2011) specifically assessed multivariate predictors of tolerance among ethnic,

including gender, marital status, religiosity, income, occupation, and education. Other indicators such as

inter-ethnic marriage, friendship, entertainment forms (Sijuwade, 2011), workplace (Thomsen, 2012),

ethnic demography, conscious and unconsciousness (Bambulyakа, 2011), societal status (Bettelheim &

Janowitz, 1949), social network and voluntary association (Cote & Erickson, 2009) and political

competition (Kasara, 2013) are also often regarded as tests of ethnic tolerance with a mixture of end

result. Studies also found that education, ranging from moderate to strong, contributes to tolerance

measures (Statistics New Zealand, 2011) but was reported vice versa in Malaysia (Najeemah, 2006;

Yasmin & Najeemah, 2010). Numerous studies in Malaysia found that socialisation to the news via media

(Ezhar Tamam, Tien, Fazilah , & Azimi , 2006), and enhancing cognitive readiness, attitude, pro social

behaviour and individual openness (Fazilah, 2008) positively contribute to ethnic tolerance level. On a

more recent study, Nazri & Mansor (2014) found that the tolerance level has been very good at the public

higher education institutions. However, "forced interaction" does not always work best as various field of

studies reported that racial polarisation still exists (Abdullah Taib, 1984; Helen Ting, 2012; Mohd

Ridhuan, 2010; Morsin, 1991; Mutang et al., 2014; Najeemah, 2006; Zahara, Amla, & Hardiana, 2010).

But there is still insufficient information on the ethnic tolerance in relation to ethnic voting patterns. All

the above literatures confirmed that demographic indicators, including heterogeneity, contribute to the

ethnic tolerance attitudes level which eventually support the democratic learning theory premises.

Studies also found that ethnic tolerance level of urbanites is higher compared to non-urban

citizens (Mansor Mohd Noor, 1999; Mohd Azmir Mohd Nizah, 2015; Mohd Azmir Mohd Nizah & Ku

Hasnita Ku Samsu, 2015; Mohd Azmir Mohd Nizah, Ku Hasnita Ku Samsu, Jayum Jawan, & Sarjit Singh

Gill, 2015; Mohd Nizah, Atoma, Mohd Azmir, & Paimah, 2012; Sanusi, 1989). Therefore, it is obvious

that ‘urban’ is a significant construct in understanding the politics of Malaysian plural society. These

cases have proven that ethnic factor is still a major determinant in Malaysian ethnic relations. Thus, it is

imperative to study the level of tolerance among different ethnics and its implications toward their voting

behaviour in elections. This is because factors like education and social interaction empirically enhance

cultural integration, but not politically , which suggests that concentration on the political dimensions

needs to be prioritised for analysing group competitiveness (Nazri Muslim & Mansor Mohd Noor, 2014).

In doing so, an out-group aspect is not suitable to measure the ethnic tolerance level. In fact, ethnic

considerations were imparted in the political system, including constitutional, party politics and electoral

system since the earliest days of Malaya independence. This study however, will measure ethnic tolerance

from the perception and attitude component that later on is combined as behavioural factors of ethnic

tolerance. As to date, a synonymous examination of both ethnic tolerance perception and attitude is not

available. Obviously, not all citizens are ethnically and politically tolerant, but evidence has confirmed

that there is still insignificant numbers of literature emphasising on ethnic tolerance behaviour, especially

in developing countries. Social polarisation (Amir & Faridah , 2004; Balasubramaniam, 2006; Ramlee

Mustapha, Norzaini, Faridah, Abdul Razak, & Maimun , 1999) has impeded ethnic political tolerance

attitude, and thus affecting ethnic political tolerance behaviour. Ascertaining ethnic tolerance behaviour is

a significant facet in managing "unity in diversity" community especially in Bukit Bendera parliamentary

where majority-minority traits prevailed.

Problem Statement

General Elections Results in 2008 and 2013 showed distinctive pattern of ethnic politics and

electoral decision among voters, especially in urban areas. Thus, understanding the factors and

ascertaining the level of ethnic tolerance among voters are crucial aspects to be investigated in a multi

ethnic society especially in Penang which involves minority-majority relationship.

Research Questions

The study was guided by the following questions:

What is the level of ethnic tolerance in the research area?

What are the types of factors that influence voters’ decision in the research area?

Purpose of the Study

This study was initiated to investigate the level of tolerance among the different ethnicities in

Bukit Bendera parliamentary seat of Pulau Pinang state.

Research Methods

This study is explanatory in nature. A quantitative design was employed using a survey method

with a set of questionnaire for data collection. The sample frame for this study consists of 32,778

registered voters in Bukit Bendera constituency, and is considered as minority Malay constituency.

However, voters have elected an ethnic Malay as their representative in the Malaysian parliament. Bukit

Bendera is also considered an urban area (Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2010; Usman , Tarmiji , &

Masami, 2010). Multistage clustered sampling method and simple random technique were used to select

the 174 respondents of whom 128 were Chinese respondents, 25 were Malay, and 21 were Indian. In

terms of gender, 124 were males, while 50 were female respondentswhich resembled the demographic

mixture of peninsular Malaysia.

This study employed a set of questionnaire, which contained four parts, namely demographics

identification, ethnic tolerance constructs, political tolerance constructs, and voting behaviour constructs.

Likert scale ranging from 1 (totally disagree) to 10 (totally agree) was designed. Cronbach Alpha value of

0.79 proves that the validity and reliability assumptions are met. Due to lower correlational score, 3 items

were deleted (Coakes & Ong, 2011, p. 126). Data were then analysed using Statistical Package for the

Social Sciences (SPSS) version 20.


Generally, the mean score for ethnic tolerance construct was 6.63. This score can be interpreted as

medium-good, referring to the scale developed by Mohd Azmir Mohd Nizah & Ku Hasnita Ku

Samsu (2015). The finding echoed previous study of Nazri Muslim & Mansor Mohd Noor (2014) and

Zainal, Abu, & Mohamad (2010). However, they differ in terms of respondents as both were measured in

a "forced-institution" while this study was done in a day-to-day condition. Table 1 shows the analysis.

Table 1 -
See Full Size >

Table 1 shows that respondents achieved medium-good level of ethnic tolerance. The scores are

dependent on ethnicity, constituency, gender and academic qualification. Statistical analysis presented

that there was a significant difference based on ethnicity.

Table 2 -
See Full Size >

Table 2 shows the result of the difference where there was a statistically significant difference between groups as determined by one-way ANOVA (F 2, 171) = 11.426, p<.05. Thus, Post Hoc analysis is required to determine the mean difference and size difference for the research area. (Refer to Table 3 ).

Table 3 -
See Full Size >

Results indicate that the level of ethnic tolerance of the Malays are lower than the Chinese in Bukit Bendera constituency by 1.858 difference. There is no significant difference of ethnic tolerance between the Malays and the Indian, and also the Chinese and the Indian. Table 4 showcased the level of ethnic tolerance, and the mean scores of each ethnic group.

Table 4 -
See Full Size >

From the above results, the Chinese ethnic tolerance mean score was highest, followed by the Indian and the Malays. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Chinese level of ethnic tolerance is better than the Indian and the Malays. These findings are synonymous with previous studies on minoritymajority relationship which concluded that the majority is less tolerant compared to the minority (Ahmad Tarmizi et al., 2013; Massey, Hodson, & Sekulić, 1999). Although the above results were limited in scope, it presented a general picture of the level of ethnic tolerance among Malaysians, particularly those in clear minority-majority ethnicities constituencies. Overall, the level of ethnic tolerance among respondents in Bukit Bendera constituency exhibited quite good level of ethnic tolerance.


It can be concluded that the people of Bukit Bendera can be categorised as medium-good of ethnic

tolerance practitioners, as attitude and perceptions are more important than the issue of political parties

and ethnicity. This result may be synonymous with previous studies (Junaidi Awang Besar et al., 2012;

Mohammad Redzuan & Amer Saifude, 2013; Mohd Fuad Mat Jali et al., 2011) but interestingly, the

minority is more ethnically tolerant when there is a majority ethnic in a specific constituency. Therefore,

more studies on majority and mixed majority spaces are needed in measuring and understanding ethnic

tolerance. Most importantly, when it involves gaining political support and harnessing votes in electoral

process, definitely ethnic tolerance becomes one of the indicators, at least it prevails in urban society.

Governing parties should chart new strategies for upcoming election. This is the way forward.


This material is based upon work supported by the Ministry of Higher Education under grant No. USIM/TRGS02_PROJEK02/ISI/59/50516.


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