Institutionalised racism and fussy landlords are not the same thing
By Zan Azlee
I’m going to put it out there. I don’t find it a problem if a landlord specifies certain criteria when they advertise looking for tenants to either rent rooms or homes.
To me, it does not necessarily mean that they are racist or discriminatory, and it definitely does not mean that they cannot be supporting the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd).
For context, the Malaysian government last year decided not to ratify the United Nations’ Icerd convention which calls for equal rights for all, without regard to ethnicity, religion, et cetera. I am extremely upset that the government decided not to sign and be a part of the convention because I believe in human rights and equality for all.
If we look at the big discussion happening in the media right now, there is a significant movement calling for the banning of racial criteria when renting out property. According to the discussion also, I would be known as a hypocrite because, although I call for the ratification of Icerd, I still believe that specifying criteria for renters is okay.
But hey, I can understand why these people think that it is hypocritical because it definitely looks racist when you post an advertisement looking for people to rent your place but then state things like ‘Chinese Only’ or ‘No Africans’. It gives off a very discriminatory vibe indeed.
Institutionalised racism vs cultural differences
But let me explain my position. I feel that there is a big difference between something like racist-sounding rental advertisements and institutionalised racism in the government (ie, bumiputera affirmative action).
Institutionalised racism is so wrong and unethical because is clearly and blatantly discriminatory.
We need to eliminate racism which is built into the system of a government or even corporation. That is wrong because race and religion bears no influence when it comes to hiring employees for their ability and skill to serve in a profession. Renting criteria, however, is a little bit more subjective.
I used to rent out properties I owned, and personally, I do not specify race when it comes to who I accept as tenants. It really doesn’t matter to me. I have rented out to locals of different races and religions and also foreigners of different races and religions. Race and religion does not factor in when I choose renters.
However, I have other criteria that I look for and think are important. Tenants who rent from me need to be responsible, have good financial standing so that I know that the rent will be paid, they are clean and they need to be trustworthy so I know that they won’t abuse the tenancy agreement.
But different people have different criteria and I can understand if it concerns cultural differences because tenants will be in very close proximity to you. For example, if you are a Hindu who is a strict vegetarian and you want to rent a room to someone who will be sharing a kitchen with you.
You might only be comfortable with someone who will not bring in beef or any other kind of meat into the kitchen. This is clearly not racism. It is just a matter of personal beliefs. It is just the same if you are a Muslim and would prefer only halal food be handled in your kitchen. No offense to others who don’t share that belief.
It would be the same if the landlord is a woman and would only prefer women tenants. That’s not discrimination, is it?
Restaurants that are halal or non-halal, kosher or non-kosher, vegetarian or non-vegetarian are definitely not labeled as racist. It is just there to serve a particular type of people. And the people who frequent these restaurants would be aware of this fact, so they choose the right restaurant which fits their preferences.
The state’s responsibility
If the argument is that everyone deserves the right to be able to have a place to live, then I believe the responsibility to ensure that should not fall on individual property owners.
That would be a larger issue that should fall on the shoulders of the state. The state should be the one implementing policies that will ensure there is affordable housing or even provide state-owned housing.
And if the state didn’t practice racist affirmative action, then maybe the economic disparity wouldn’t be so jarring as it is now.
Don’t get me wrong. I do understand the fact that many of the advertisements that state ‘No Africans’ and the like are actually racist in nature.
But we have to figure out different ways to curb the racial problem instead of just forcing property owners to accept anyone and everyone. That should be the right of the property owner himself or herself.
Maybe, one of the things that can be done is to provide education and create awareness.
We need to create an environment where differences are accepted and understood instead of just tolerated. We need to have a safe environment where there can be disagreements, discourse and debate so we can understand each other better.
Changing mentalities is what needs to be done instead of imposing laws that encroach on personal and individual freedom.
One thing is for sure: the fact that we are now moving on and discussing issues like this in a very mature way is proof that our society is slowly creating that safe space for discourse. Slowly but surely, Malaysia will be okay.
[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]
Get Zan Azlee’s best-selling book ‘Liberal, Malay and Malaysian‘ today!
Buy more Fat Bidin books, films and merchandise at The Fat Bidin Store!