How Racist is Australia on a Global Spectrum?

By Sonia Nair

The ‘Stop the Boats’ rhetoric in national politics, vilification of public figures of ethnic backgrounds and evidence that AFL recruiters only hire indigenous players with at least one white parent are markers that racial discrimination and intolerance continue to underline the fabric of Australia’s society. But how prejudiced is Australia when placed on a global spectrum of other multicultural countries? Sonia Nair examines her upbringing in Malaysia and talks to people from Singapore, South Africa, France and Hong Kong to find out.

I remember the first time I became acutely aware of a thing called “racism”. I was 12 years old. It’s almost ironic I first observed it in my home country of Malaysia rather than in the Anglo Saxon neighbourhood of Mortdale, Sydney where I’d spent the first nine years of my life. My school was hosting an all-girls netball tournament and there was a particular team that was fast emerging as one of the better ones. It was a team of all Indian girls from a Tamil school – that is, a government-aided school that uses Tamil as its medium of instruction. As this team of Indian girls quickly trounced all opposition and progressed through the ranks to meet my school’s team, the home supporters developed an ugly mind of their own. Twelve-year-old boys and girls started chanting “black, black, black, black” as the team of Indian girls played. As I was engulfed in the repulsive cacophony of loathsome jeering, I felt sick to my stomach, a feeling only compounded by the fact that I was Indian as well. A friend caught wind of my expression and merely told me, “Don’t worry, you’re not like them. You’re a higher-class Indian with hair that doesn’t smell like coconut oil.” This from a 12-year-old girl.

Being able to easily reprise the Australian accent of my earlier years simplified things for me as locals often mistook me for one of their own , a fact that – in my opinion – has opened doors that would not have been available to me had I retained my Malaysian accent.

From an immensely young age, I had grown accustomed to completing forms for schools in Malaysia where I would have to tick a box, specifying if I was ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘Indian’. As I progressed into secondary school, our history syllabus was dominated by the mandatory study of Islam and how Malay Muslim freedom fighters had fought for the independence of our nation. Scant mention was made of Chinese and Indian minorities except that they were brought in by British colonisers to address a labour shortage problem. As part of a social studies subject in Year 9, I learnt about the Malaysian New Economic Policy – a program aimed at increasing the share of the economy held by the Malay population by introducing quotas for them in areas such as public education, access to housing, vehicle imports, government contracts and ownership of shares.

The insidious undercurrent of Malay superiority in Malaysian society manifested itself in numerous ways. Chinese and Indians – who constitute more than a third of Malaysia’s population – were granted citizenship by the Malaysian Constitution but this implied a social contract that left them at a disadvantage in other ways, as the Constitution refers to the special ‘position’ of Malays. Questioning any matters or rights in relation to this constitutional article is considered a challenge to Malay supremacy and a threat to national security. Government administration is monopolised by Malays. Police violence, abuse of power and human right violations often happen to non-Malays as instruments to reinforce the status quo.

As human rights activist P. Waytha Moorthy eloquently said, “Malaysia is a country based on a subtle, pervasive and increasingly aggressive form of racism. The conflict that lies just below this artificial calm state is so well concealed, that someone with just a cursory knowledge of Malaysia would find it hard to believe and this is part of the problem.”

It therefore came as no surprise when my parents urged me at the age of 18, to utilise my permanent residency in Australia and further my studies there. While occasionally I was met with the patronising ‘Namaste’ and a shake of the head from passers-by, subtly racist remarks about my skin colour and incredulous stares when someone learned that English was my first language, I faced no problems in making new friends, integrating into Australian society and immersing myself in Australian culture. Being able to easily reprise the Australian accent of my earlier years simplified things for me as locals often mistook me for one of their own , a fact that – in my opinion – has opened doors that would not have been available to me had I retained my Malaysian accent.

Rubhinni Durai, a 22-year-old social work student originates from a near identical background with her Singaporean-Indian heritage. However, Rubhinni’s experiences differ to that of mine. During her first few weeks in Melbourne, she was racially accosted by an older white man in a tram, who took one look at her and told her to “go back to where she came from” as he put his feet up on the seat across from him so Rubhinni couldn’t sit there. Dismayed by her first encounter of racism in Melbourne, Rubhinni says till this day, she does not always feel welcomed in Melbourne – especially when it comes to looking for a job.

“Any work experience I’ve acquired in Singapore is generally disregarded as unsubstantial and irrelevant. I have heard so many of my local friends tell me accounts of their employers rejecting applications with ‘foreign-sounding’ names that I have started applying under the name ‘Ruby’ rather than Rubhinni just so employers might have a glance at my CV and true enough, I have gotten more responses.”

Just as I found the need to assume an Australian accent to truly assimilate into the local society, Rubhinni discovered that it was a requirement. “Sadly, I do feel like I have very much needed to assimilate. The locals were not going to bother trying to form relationships with me if they had to take extra effort to understand my accent.”

“I quickly learnt that if I didn’t learn how to talk, think, and act like a local, I wasn’t going to survive very long – not at university, not in the workplace.”

Assimilation is not a new phenomenon for Rubhinni. Having grown up in Singapore with a population that comprises 74 per cent Chinese, 13.4 per cent Malay, 9.2 per cent Indians and 3.2 per cent Eurasians and other groups, Rubhinni also faced racism in her own home country.

“As a young student, I did get teased by students of the dominant culture (Chinese) who made racist comments about the colour of my skin or my mother tongue. I think I did, and still today, do take on an ‘assimilation mindset’ when interacting with the Chinese in Singapore.”

“I think Australians definitely take what they believe are the ‘desirable’ aspects of a culture such as food but they’re not diligent at looking deeper than that.”

Thirty-two-year-old South African communications specialist Justin Cohen, who came to Melbourne four years ago, concurs with Rubhinni and thinks Australia’s acceptance of immigrants is based on a model of forced assimilation rather than integration.

“I think Australians definitely take what they believe are the ‘desirable’ aspects of a culture such as food but they’re not diligent at looking deeper than that. You’re not going to get many Aussies joining in on a Hindu festival or an African festival, for instance, whilst it would be expected for an Indian person whose part of a peer group here to attend a barbeque and watch the Grand Final.”

Having grown up during South Africa’s deeply oppressive apartheid regime, Justin is immensely conscious of how harmful ‘casually racist’ remarks are, like those that touch on skin colour, in a multicultural society such as that of Australia. “Growing up in South Africa makes you acutely aware of the immense negative effect your words and thoughts have on society whereas in Australia, they’re insulated from that and when they’re racist, they just think it’s funny.”

Despite the seemingly innocuous nature of such casually racist comments, Justin says they are indicative of a deeper psyche of prejudice in Australia’s society. “I work closely with Aboriginal societies in a volunteering capacity and I think Australia’s cultural genocide of Aboriginal people was equivalent if not worse to what happened in South Africa during the apartheid. I think that policy still lingers – the recent AFL scandal where recruiters only hire indigenous players with at least one white parent is a sign that racism still exists in the undercurrent of Australian society.”

“Growing up in South Africa makes you acutely aware of the immense negative effect your words and thoughts have on society whereas in Australia, they’re insulated from that and when they’re racist, they just think it’s funny.”

Although Justin is of Jewish heritage with a noticeably strong South African accent, he says he has not suffered any racial discrimination in Australia – mainly because he is conceived to be Anglo Saxon. “I think if you’re white in Australia, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from. I see discrimination mainly aimed at Asian, Indian and African societies.”

“If I were to walk everywhere with the Star of David on me, that would make me very uncomfortable and unfortunately, an African person for instance, can’t change the colour of their skin. I sometimes imagine what this would feel like and it makes me think a person of colour walking around in Australia must feel very marginalised.”

Regardless of the racial discrimination that still takes place in Australia however, Justin says there are positive things to take from Australia’s acceptance of other races, especially when compared to South Africa. “I think here in Australia, if you’re the best qualified one for the job, 7 out of 10 times it doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is. I’d imagine there’s a greater chance of a person getting a job here if they are very well qualified whereas in South Africa now, Africans will get the job even if they’re not the best qualified due to the Black Economic Empowerment and the Equal Opportunity Act.”

Justin also finds Australia’s treatment of its refugees and immigrants refreshing, when juxtaposed against refugees in South Africa who covertly sneak into the country only to become violent perpetrators of crime out of sheer desperation and a lack of government assistance

“I think if you want to live in Australia, you need to contribute to society and that’s great. In South Africa, if you’re a refugee, you’re often lost in the masses and you face massive violence and discrimination from local Africans. These refugees are often killed.”

Lucie Marie, a 26-year-old French hairdresser who migrated to Australia four years ago is no stranger to multiculturalism, having lived among African, Eastern European and Asian immigrants. Despite having never faced any overt discrimination in Australia, Lucie thinks Australia adopts a tough stance when it comes to immigrants.

“Looking at France and how many immigrants manage to stay in the country, I don’t believe it’s too hard to get visas. Here in Australia, the process of getting a visa is complicated, expensive and requires you to either provide a lot of proof or have an Australian relative or partner.”

Lucie also remembers feeling excluded when she first arrived, mainly due to the lack of access to facilities “When you’re on a temporary visa, you also can’t, for example get access to certain phone and internet contracts as they sell these products only to permanent residents and citizens.”

Unlike Rubhinni, Justin and Lucie, 22-year-old environmental studies student Genny Ying originates from the near homogenous Hong Kong. Despite observing the same lack of access to certain facilities as Lucie did, Genny does not perceive it to be racism.

“I think Australia tries very hard to ensure every citizen enjoys the rights and opportunities the country has provided. Yes, there is a downside to not being a citizen while living here. As an international student, you don’t get concession rates on public transport; as a fresh graduate, it might not be as easy as your fellow schoolmates to find a job here without some sort of working visa or permanent residency.

“But I don’t think that is racism, it is providing what’s best for the people of the country,” Genny says.

Through their personal experiences and observations, Rubhinni, Justin, Lucie and Genny have demonstrated that ignorance, embedded intolerance and exclusion of certain services to particular groups of people still pervade through the Australian public spectrum. Despite facing this on a personal front as well,  I find that I am privy to services and opportunities as a permanent resident in Australia that I’m not able to enjoy as a citizen in my own home country. As much as I concede that it is imperative to adopt certain Australian values to fit into its society, I often feel like an outsider in Malaysia – the very country I was born in – despite speaking in the same accent, sharing common experiences and being part of the overarching national culture.  For every racist person I’ve met in Australia, there are twenty more who make me feel comfortable, appreciated and valued in a country that’s not my own. For all those reasons and more, I think it could get a lot worse than how it currently is in Australia.



  • Andreas

    “The ‘Stop the Boats’ rhetoric in national politics”

    Given the immense cost of running detention centres, and the hundreds of people who have died just in the last few years it makes good sense to want to discourage boat arrivals. There is nothing necessarily racist about it. Nor is border protection necessarily racist. Just because I lock my door at night does not mean I despise my neighbours.

    “vilification of public figures of ethnic backgrounds”

    Where, when, who?

    “evidence that AFL recruiters only hire indigenous players with at least one white parent”

    This has much more to do with culture, and little to do with race. The gulf between aboriginal culture and western culture is wide, the differences are not cosmetic. No value judgements there, just a statement of fact. Smearing the recruiters as ‘racist’ is simplistic and unhelpful and simply covers over real problems – the difficulties both westerners and aboriginals have understanding each other – instead of confronting them.

    I would say very few people in Australia are racist by its actual definition – i.e. thinking they are *racially* superior. Cultural superiority, or cultural intolerance might be another matter, but if we want to address that issue then the word “racism” should be avoided, because that’s not what racism is.

  • Nick

    Woo! Mortdale!

  • Step Up

    Hmmm, Andreas, this smacks of those comments that start with “I’m not racist but….” as does your ‘aww-shucks’ example of locking one’s door at night … and confirms the ‘casual racism’ mentioned above.
    And “where, when, who” with regard to villification? Well one recent example would be the famous Andrew Bolt “white is the new black” case. You offer no denial of the fact of the racial slandering of public figures, but a feeble who-what-where, to which I respond “What the…!
    Interesting that you also dredge up that awful and obviously accepted by yourself term “cultural superiority”. The assumed standpoint that one speaks from a ‘superior’ position should surely direct anyone with intact synapses to recognise the point actually made in this very article … that Australians, while perhaps not being overtly or consciously racist in the majority of instances, still need to wrestle with a ‘casual’ racism that we are perhaps too complacent about.

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