“Overseas research has consistently shown that students in classes with ethnic diversity benefit from exposure to different perspectives leading to enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills.“

ETHNIC conflict is one of five most destructive consequences of our bifurcated way of thinking – the mindset of carving up all human experiences into the combative halves of “I versus you” and “us versus them” that began when humanity moved into permanent settlements to cope with greatly enlarged group sizes.

The other four are conflicts over religion, politics, economy and conflict with nature. In the June 26 article of this Adam and Eve series, we discussed economic conflicts. Today, we delve into the trigger points for ethnic conflicts around the world.

As the first civilisations arose in West Asia, ethnic conflicts had their initiation in that region. Reading the ancient Hebrew scripture called Torah, we find that during the early childless days of Abraham – who later beget children who became ancestors of the Jews and Arabs – various ethnic groups in West Asia formed warring alliances.

This pattern of warfare has characterised every region of the world. Ethnic groups fought against rival ethnic groups or formed alliances with related ethnic groups to battle rival alliances.

Last year, ethnic violence between Meiteis and Kukis turned the Northeast Indian state of Manipur into a war zone, and many citizens painted their ethnicity on doors to avoid the risk of their homes being set on fire out of mistaken identity.

A seriously damaging practice in Malaysia is the classification of Malays, Chinese and Indians into separate races. Whenever there is an election, politicians play the race card by appealing for votes from the Malay race, the Chinese race or the Indian race.

The terms “race” and “racial” turn porous ethnic boundaries into concrete barriers. Racial consciousness is a sharp manifestation of the “us versus them” bifurcation.

In the first quarter of this year, police statistics on racially-charged arguments showed 162 cases nationwide. The National Unity Ministry disclosed last April that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission took down 1,454 online contents related to race, religion and royalty (3Rs) issues from January to March 31 this year. The contents included 588 that were related to racially-charged speeches. Cases involving the 3Rs saw a massive 123% increase this year compared to 2023.

Our obsession with racial identity runs counter to the biological fact that there is only one human race. The wrong division of humanity into races was systematised in 1775 with formal acceptance of a classification into whites (mainly Europeans and Middle Easterners), blacks (sub-Shaharan Africans), yellows (East Asians), browns (Southeast Asians) and reds (native Americans).

As biologists were able to show that the classification of people into races was based on false data, the word “race” was dumped in the 1950s and its use in genetics was formally renounced by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2023.

Race has no meaning genetically for humans. Back in 2002, a study conducted by university researchers and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated: “There is wide agreement among anthropologists and human geneticists that, from a biological standpoint, human races do not exist.”

As the American anthropologist A.L. Kroeber wrote in 1923: “Biologists employ the term ‘race’ only with reference to a hereditary subdivision of a species. It is equally important that the word be used with the same exact denotation in anthropology.”

The correct term to use is ethnic group. Our country does not have Malay, Chinese and Indian races, but Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups or ethnicities.

For any human group to be classified as a race, the genetic diversity separating it from other groups must be significant enough. The genetic variation between different human populations is around 0.1% only.

A study analysing genetic diversity in Southeast Asian populations found the genetic differentiation between Malays, Chinese and Indians to be generally small compared to the diversity found within each group.

There was larger diversity within each ethnic group than between Malays and non-Malays, and the same was found to be true of the Indians and the Chinese – more genetic diversity within their own ethnic groups than with other groups.

The very slight differences that separate one ethnic population from another are useful in only one field: medicine. Studies conducted by the All of Us Research Programme launched in 2018 by the National Institutes of Health in the US found that gene variants affected how bodies processed medicinal drugs. Asians who took the anti-seizure drug carbamazepine showed a higher risk of a severe and sometimes fatal reaction.

Malays may have higher prevalence rates of certain health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and thalassemia. Chinese populations may have higher risks for conditions like colorectal cancer, while Indians may have higher susceptibility to conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

These differences arise from evolution of genetic variants to cope with different sociogeographical conditions existing in Nusantara, India and China.

But, these associations are not deterministic. Lifestyle choices, access to healthcare, the food you eat, the stress you feel, socioeconomic status and environmental factors play significant roles in determining health outcomes for individuals.

Other than genetic variances that carry medical implications, ethnic differences are predominantly sociocultural and, hence, can and must be bridged.

Malaysian voters need to demand that a law be enacted to ban the word “race” in politics as it is frequently used to pit one community against another. Without insistence on such a law, the electorate must blame itself for any conflicts.

The moment we shake off the racial bifurcation, we awake to the dangers posed by ethnic stereotypes. One very senior politician claimed four years ago that “the Chinese are a wealthy lot”, but the truth as revealed by ethnic relations specialist Dr Chandra Muzaffar is that 70% of Malaysian Chinese belong to the working class and are employees, not employers.

While the ethnic breakdown percentages in the B40 category are Bumiputra 73.6%, Chinese 17.5% and Indians 7.5%, the figures do expose substantial numbers of Chinese and Indian poor. These figures also reveal that there are more poor Indians than poor Bumis proportionate to their population share (Bumiputra 69.9%, Chinese 22.8% and Indians 6.6%).

A Khazanah Research Institute report in 2014 showed that more Bumiputra households earned RM10,000 a month than Chinese households.There were 280,000 Bumiputra households in that rich category compared with 254,000 Chinese households and 45,000 Indian households.

Visit a soup kitchen and you will see as many Indians and Chinese as there are Malays lining up for a free meal. Only by dumping the binary opposition between Bumiputras and non-Bumis can we see that all have common needs and aspirations.

As a former secretary-general of the Treasury, Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Kassim, pointed out three years ago: “Many of the Malay boys and girls are so adept with the internet and information technology that they quit their office jobs to start their own businesses online” (theSun April 12, 2021). He cited the example of a Malay woman who quit her job with an international accounting firm to focus on baking cakes as a business that she can run from the comfort of her apartment.

Studies of cooperative behaviour in ethnically divisive parts of Eastern Europe where inter-ethnic relations are strained suggests that there is nothing about ethnicity itself that makes people uncooperative. Political scientist Max Schaub of Bocconi University in Milan finds lab-in-the-field evidence that cooperation is often in everyone’s best interest.

Conflict is costly for both parties, so cooperation helps ease tensions and keeps mutually beneficial relationsthips flowing. “Trading is particularly profitable across group lines as groups are often economically differently specialised,” he reports in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (2017). “If you think about how damaging conflicts can be, it might be worth investing some in keeping the relationships positive,” Schaub writes.

Historian Ranjit Singh Malhi has written much about Malay-Chinese cooperation from 1844 in developing Johor’s economy through pepper and gambier plantations that became the mainstay of the state’s economy right into the early 20th century. “We must acknowledge and be proud of the roles played by all ethnic communities in shaping our present-day society and nation,” Ranjit wrote in theSun (Feb 25, 2021).

Public universities have for too long clung to the outdated belief that a policy of reserving many classes exclusively for Malays will help spur their economic advancement. But overseas research has consistently shown that students in classes with ethnic diversity benefit from exposure to different perspectives leading to enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

For decades now, human resource personnel have found that private university graduates on average perform better on the job than graduates from our low-diversity public universities.

Although it is known that America has regained its position as a country at the cutting-edge of innovation fuelled by entrepreneural vim, most are not aware that it is largely due to the increasing integration into the wider economy of black and Hispanic businesses that had previously served ethnic sectors only. Over a recent three-year period, the black share has surged 60% and the Hispanic share 75%.

In the fourth article of this series on mental bifurcation, we shall explain why it has become urgent and essential for the big six religions – Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism – to forge a partnership and pull Malaysians out of their parochialism to face the worsening ecological crisis together as one global family.

The writer champions interfaith harmony. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com