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Story by CLARISSA SAY and ABIRAMI DURAI

ROOM hunting during your undergraduate years is hard enough as it is.

Most students find themselves picking their way through a minefield of poor plumbing, lousy locations, misleading images and opportunistic realtors. But add racial discrimination to the mix and a whole lot of Malaysian students are suddenly finding themselves laden with an extra set of difficulties.

All it takes is a cursory glance at any Malaysian property site to see what’s wrong with the picture – close to 50% of the first 100 ads for Selangor properties on a local room rental website stated a specific racial preference. On classifieds websites, the number is over 70%.

Property, Rental, Racism

Students of certain races and nationalities are having a much tougher time finding rooms to rent in Malaysia.

‘[Specific race] only’

Just ask Ezriann Charanya, 20, a student at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman who nearly found herself without a place to stay.

“It took me five months to find a new place, which is astonishing because I had a four-month head start before I had to move out of my previous home,” said Ezriann, who is currently staying in Wangsa Maju.

The best response I got was ‘I’m not racist but we only want Chinese tenants.’”

“It was the same process over and over – I went to the property sites, filtered locations, skimmed past the ads that specified racial preferences, read the ones with no preference only to find out they stuck in a sneaky little line about which ethnic group they were willing to rent to.”

“Also, there were some ads that didn’t indicate a preference – until I called. The best response I got was ‘I’m not racist but we only want Chinese tenants.’”

Ezriann isn’t the only one to have experienced this, but she represents a wave of young Malaysians who are getting fed up of having to deal with the stereotypes.

“Some of the homeowners said it was because they were afraid the Indian cooking would stain the walls and carpets, or that my prayers would disrupt the other tenants. I told them that I didn’t do any of that, but the answer was still ‘No.’ I felt robbed,” she said. “Because I had the means to pay, I was often one of the first few to call and yet I got passed over because of the colour of my skin!”

Another student, Dharshini Shanker, 20, says this sort of conduct isn’t uncommon when looking for rooms to rent.

Dharshini's brush with racist rental ads hasn't dented her spirit, and she still thinks people are entitled to their own opinions, so long as they don't hurt other people.

Dharshini’s brush with racist rental ads hasn’t dented her spirit, and she still thinks people are entitled to their own opinions, so long as they don’t hurt other people.

“Most of the ads I encountered when trying to find a place usually had some sort of specification like, ‘Only for Chinese females’. And if I said I was Indian, rejection always followed.”

Mass Communications student Tania Jillian Joseph, 21, can empathise with Dharshini’s predicament.

Of Portuguese-Chinese descent, Joseph actually had to bring her Oriental mother with her on room-hunting expeditions, as many of the homeowners who had a ‘Chinese only’ stipulation refused to believe that she had Chinese blood!

“I was turned down numerous times because I wasn’t pure Chinese,” she said disbelievingly.

Abroad and alone

Things are worse for international students, like Mwamba Chisanga, 22, from Switzerland, and Dipo Emmanuel, 24, from Nigeria.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad that something as thin as a layer of skin should stand in the way of two well-educated, well-spoken young men. Dipo found this out the hard way.

“It took me almost a year before I was able to get an apartment,” he says. “I went through countless houses but as soon as the homeowner heard that I was African, vacancies would magically fill themselves up.”

Even Mwamba, who speaks in perfectly intoned English, found himself at a dead end after meeting realtors.

“I picked up the phone numerous times, calling agent after agent. I visited the places they had to offer, met the owners … ” Everything seemed fine until he tried to contact the agents afterwards. His calls went unanswered, texts un-replied, it was as if the agents had fallen off the face of the earth.

While this is not the experience of all international students, Ravi (not his real name), a Sri Lankan undergraduate at Monash University Malaysia, thinks that most international students of colour face racial discrimination, with students from the African continent suffering the bulk of the prejudice. Ravi said:

I have an African friend who used to live in my condominium, but he left after the management forbade him from using the swimming pool and other facilities in the condo

This extreme bigotry towards Africans is not isolated.

In August of 2013, residents of Ridzuan Condominium in Bandar Sri Subang actually voted to completely ban Africans from renting units in the building, citing the fact that they “caused a lot of nuisance” as one of the reasons for the edict.

Siva Shanker, the President of the Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents (the body that represents all registered estate agents in Malaysia) agrees that students of African origin are at a disadvantage in this situation.

Siva Shanker says that even real estate agents sometimes have to grit their teeth and bear with racially-motivated clients, whether they like it or not.

Siva Shanker says that even real estate agents sometimes have to grit their teeth and bear with racially-motivated clients, whether they like it or not.

“I think the perception is that African students don’t end up paying their rent and are constantly up to no good. The Nigerian fraud schemes and news reports about Africans behaving badly have only added fuel to the fire. It’s sad but in this instance, the actions of a few have tarnished the image of many.”

A silent battle

Still, not all students in this position find it a major issue.

Sandhya Prem, a 19-year-old pre-med student at Taylors Subang says that whilst racism in rental practices is an inconvenience, it isn’t a particularly debilitating one. She said:

Well, it is an annoyance to be sure, but honestly I think there are much more prevalent issues of racism in Malaysia.”

Perhaps because most students share Sandhya’s sentiments about picking their battles, there hasn’t been much brouhaha about the apparent unfairness of the situation.

Another reason the issue may be marginalised is because the student population seems to be split between those who face discrimination, those who don’t face it and a third category that isn’t even aware it happens because it doesn’t affect them.

Fabian Chan, 22, a chemical engineering student is one of the lucky ones who has never had a problem finding a place to say.

“Most of the tenants in my condo are Malaysian Chinese and Indonesian Chinese. I’ve seen those ads that say ‘only Malaysian Chinese’, but I guess because I’m Chinese, I haven’t been turned down before,” he said.

There are also students like Mass Communications scholar Aimee Choon, 20, who hadn’t even known the issue existed.

Choon, who lives with her parents, said, “Before you brought the matter up, I’d never heard of it. I don’t really think it’s a major issue. Or at least that cases where it happens are the exceptions rather than the norm.”

Are these cases really the exceptions?

Siva Shanker has dealt with many homeowners over the years and says that racial profiling is relatively common in rental practices.

“Are homeowners justified in their preferences? Not really, because sometimes they take one bad experience with a particular race and then generalise it, so everyone gets tarred with the same brush.”

Because estate agents are often the first point of contact for students making enquiries, they are also the ones who get cast in a negative light. But Shanker is adamant that estate agents are themselves not guilty of racial preferences; they are simply acting on their clients’ whims.

Estate agents are really the middlemen – our job is to sell and rent and do whatever the client tells us.

— Siva Shanker, President of the Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents

This brings to light an interesting question: should estate agents, who often act as intermediaries between clients and potential tenants, be doing more to take a stand against clients who practise racial discrimination?

Shanker, for one, is doing just that.

“Because I am more established in the industry, I can turn to potential clients and say, ‘You’re a racist and I don’t want to deal with you.’”

However, he agrees that younger estate agents cutting their teeth in the property market don’t have the same luxury.

“When they’re just starting out, they have to take whichever client comes to them, whether they’re racist or not. They are not in a position to turn down work.”

Nurul Asmui Md Azmi, 27, the web editor of rental database site iBilik.my, has also noticed – in the course of moderating the website – that most homeowners prefer to rent to their own race.

“I don’t think people are trying to be spiteful, it’s mostly to do with the commonalities that they share.

For example, most Malay Muslims would prefer to live with someone of the same faith who understands the religious and culinary restrictions involved – it just seems more convenient that way, for both owner and tenant.”

Homeowners and racial preferences

Some of my Chinese clients in the area won’t rent out to Chinese nationals either! I’ve heard of a few cases where Chinese nationals rented high-end condos here and turned them into ‘semi-commercial’ lots, or even hubs for illegal activity.

Why do homeowners have racial preferences? It’s a loaded question and one that Felix, a 35-year-old homeowner, has some perspective on.

Based on his experience, he has found that Chinese female occupants feel more comfortable sharing a bathroom with other Chinese female occupants.

“My emphasis is on maintaining the cleanliness of the home,” he said. “I also do not rent to Malays because of religious matters.

“I filter based on jobs and background, and the racial preference is added just to make things easier, so I won’t have to bring up the racial issue later on.”

Others said it was simply a matter of having a “better cultural understanding” when choosing to rent to people of the same race, as it helps avoid misunderstandings.

Poh, 33, said: “I don’t think it’s a big issue. People choose tenants of the same race as they feel more comfortable and secure. It’s also easier to communicate, especially when dealing with rent collection.”

One real estate negotiator representing several Malay homeowners with high-end properties said they often instruct him to reject tenants from Korea and the Middle East.

“In the area I operate in, they have a reputation for being difficult tenants. Their culture is very different from ours,” he said.

“Some of my Chinese clients in the area won’t rent out to Chinese nationals either! I’ve heard of a few cases where Chinese nationals rented high-end condos here and turned them into ‘semi-commercial’ lots, or even hubs for illegal activity.”

On the other hand, others like octogenarian M.J. Vincent does not even think about race when renting out his property in Kerinchi, which has been tenanted by Malay university students for years.

“As long as they are nice, I am happy.”

Students and racial preferences

Tackling the issue in a hateful manner won’t get you anywhere. People are entitled to their own opinions, but when it hurts someone else, well, that’s where you draw the line between right and wrong.”

In the same way some homeowners practise racial profiling, it seems that a portion of students have their own racial preferences too.

Eunice Ng, 24, is a recent graduate who said: “I currently live with Chinese housemates and feel like they are part of my family. I come home every day to a warm and cosy place instead of a cold and strange one.”

Some students, like Nur Salsabrina Ibrahim, 20, a medical undergraduate at Taylors University, approach room-hunting more pragmatically.

“I look at the location, how many other housemates there are and then I think about religion.

“Since I am a Muslim, it would be easier if my housemates were also Muslim because then, there wouldn’t be any problem with storing food or sharing food. But I also don’t mind rooming with other races as my current housemate is of another race.”

Others refuse to be deterred by negative experiences.

Even though Shalini is still on the hunt for a place to stay and has been racially discriminated the whole time, she is still open to living with people of all races.

Even though Shalini is still on the hunt for a place to stay and has been racially discriminated the whole time, she is still open to living with people of all races.

Shalini Jabala, 22, an accounting student at Inti University, has faced a lot of discrimination in her search for a place to stay, but this hasn’t put her off living with students of other races.

“In my current hostel, all the other students are Chinese and we get along well. So I am willing to live with anyone, so long as they are nice,” she said.

Ultimately, however, the best summation may come from Dharshini who said: “Obviously, tackling the issue in a hateful manner won’t get you anywhere. People are entitled to their own opinions, but when it hurts someone else, well, that’s where you draw the line between right and wrong.”

UPDATE: Young real estate agents in Malaysia are making a stand against racism in the property market, but they face an uphill battle.

 

  • Ming

    The MassComm student’s ignorance saddens me a little. I’ve passed countless ‘place-for-rent’ and hiring messages that had some variation of ‘candidates of a certain gender/race only/preferred’. Have they not also encountered them?

  • Tan

    Well the property belongs to the owner and they have a right to rent it out to whoever they feel most comfortable renting it out too.

    • William

      The property belongs to owner alright and that sort of thinking will in a way permeates to the company belongs to them and they can hire whoever they feel like it – solely based on nepotism and of own race. Now where would that lead to ? The government needs to look at these matters especially on the advertisements of preferring such and such a race.

      Totally agree with Ian Vern’s comments below. Race should not be a factor.

      • William

        I meant, totally agree on Ian Yee’s comment. Race should not be a factor.

    • Ian Yee

      What William said =)

  • No Name

    When you are young, you don’t know what nuisance some of kids your age may bring. Take African/Middle Eastern/China kids. Do they actually care if they are making noises in the middle of the nights? Do they take into consideration that their disturbances are hell to family members (especially those staying in condo)? Owners have right to rent out to whoever they want. If you as a owner, facing the same problem from foreigner tenant 1 after another, do you still want to rent to the foreigner students? They don’t share our culture, where after 11pm is the most that we can tolerate. You kids talk about discrimination of races, we talk about peace and toleration. When we can’t take it anymore, we don’t rent it out. College should pay extra more attention in putting foreign students into hostels than letting them searching for own place independently. Look into own yard before start making public complain.

  • Vern

    As an Owner, we have absolutely full rights to rent to whomever we feel comfortable with. After all we paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a meagre % returns each month. This is a risk that owner takes and stating our preferences is a logical risk management exercise. In fact stating our preferences helps the rent-seeker not to waste time and knock on the wrong door. Unfortunately, this is life and I believe this is what they will face in real life.

    • Ian Yee

      Hello Vern, my name is Ian and I’m the editor who helped produce this story.

      As a landlord myself, I can relate with those issues. And I agree with you completely — homeowners should have the right to rent to whoever they feel comfortable with. It is a right protected by law.

      However, refusing to rent to someone because you feel they will be difficult tenants is different from refusing someone because of a racial stereotype. And that’s where the problem lies today.

      Many students (and our own reporters posing as students) have faced that. They weren’t even given a chance to prove that they are not rowdy, dirty people. They were simply refused because of their skin colour or passport.

      In fact, our reporters that went undercover are all very well-mannered people, and even I was surprised that they would be dismissed so quickly just because they were of a certain race.

      So our point of this story is not that landlords should be forced to accept any tenant. We are saying that race shouldn’t be a factor — they should give all races/nationalities the benefit of the doubt, because we can’t be exposing students to this kind of discrimination and stereotyping at such a young age.

      • Pointless

        The word as written by you – the benefit of the doubt, is one risk.

        Would you be willing to take responsibility of any damage done to the property?

        I myself understanding when these tenants choose to have their unit rented out to a specific race. I have a friend who rented out her unit to a middle eastern race. What happen next was horror. The tenant keep on requesting for adding of furnitures for her friends when even in the first place before she agreed to rent the room, she didn’t request for it. There are many things that happen later too which I can’t recall but if I were to rent it out to her, I too would get frustrated.

        Not only this middle eastern, there were others who stayed with the same middle eastern countryman, also came across similar issues. Not only that, being in the same university assignment group with them. It is horror. Only know how to take advantage of malaysians and talk big but no effort coming from them to do their part of the assignment.

  • anggun3

    To be honest, filtering people based on race and religion is absurd. Filtering people based on their passport is as equivalent as being racist.

    Am a Sabahan, and I don’t even fit in any criteria stated in the room-hunting portal i.e. ibilik. I have to skim through, plenty of ad and turned down so many times. It is all mentality, understanding and compromising in living together under one roof.

    I used to live in a room with a timor leste girl, a good christian and extremely clean. A family of chinese, a malay girl with an indian girl, and now with an indian couple and a new zealander guy, and I have no problem interacting with them and still maintain my private space/time.

    • Abirami Durai

      Hi Anggun,

      Yes, it’s not very nice when homeowners filter purely based on race and religion and don’t employ any other criteria in their selection process.
      I totally get where you’re coming from, because I went through pretty much everything that you did when I was apartment-hunting too.
      It’s so refreshing to hear that those negative experiences haven’t deterred you from living with people of all races though. I think that is exactly the sort of open-mindedness that will set about the wheels of change and hopefully change perceptions about living with people from other ethnic groups/nationalities.

  • Daniel Lim

    Ya as mentioned different race has different body Oder because of the feed they eat and the habits also differ. Most Malaysian have always been pampered by parents so not uncommon if the different races stick to their kind.

    Example Muslims will not stay in a Christian”s House because they have been brainwashed that the Christians will convert them. Christians will not allow Muslims to stay in their house because the Religious authorities will suggest that they are trying to convert them.
    The Hindus and Buddhist also may not want to stay in a Christian House because of eating Beef.

    All in all how can the writer say that there is racial discrimination with all these standing in the way. Until and unless Malaysian begin to be Open Minded, learn to accept for who and what they are, have tolerance, fairness , sharing, love, caring and understanding (Like the good old days when Malaysians who are one) nothing will change.

    Finally Parents, School Teachers, Media and Politics plays an important role in teaching the children, if we keep teaching the children Hate, publish in media Hate,and talk Hate. Or keep drumming wrong or negative information into their brains what do you expect the child to grow up to to be!!!!

    So saying it is racial discrimination is incorrect because you need to tackle the source not just what we see and hear

    • ChRiS

      Totally agreed with Daniel here.

      I personally thought when as an owner that have invested hard earn money, they will always look for the best for their investment.

      Most of the times, the misunderstanding come from the different culture background of owner and tenant. (Have anyone studied South Korea way of renting House? The rental income was like around 10% per annum of initial investment, but at the end of tenancy the house owner have to return back the rental the received from tenant during the tenancy time! I was also shocked when I found out this while I was on Korea)

      Sometimes is just a case of cultural shock , and owner choose the easy way out by filtering through race and religion. I don’t think all owner are racist.

  • KM Chin

    Take the challenge as part of education. Do realize though this is not unique to Malaysia. Landlords everywhere exercise their right to choose tenants based on criteria that may differ considerably. Sometimes, you are lucky and an agreeable match is found. You just have to keep trying.

    • Abirami Durai

      Hi KM Chin,

      You’re totally right about taking the challenges thrown and turning them into learning exercises. I certainly learnt a lot when I was looking for apartments to rent and ended up being rejected numerous times because I wasn’t the right race. It was for the most part, an illuminating experience. Here are the top three things I discovered from my apartment-hunt:

      1) Being turned away numerous times by estate agents/homeowners helps you develop a very tough skin. You become stronger and more resilient, both of which are great traits to have in the long run.
      2) There are really good people in the country who genuinely don’t care about race and are actually interested in what sort of person you are. People like my landlord, who isn’t the same race as me and is an absolute darling!
      3) The experience motivates you to save up and become a homeowner yourself, so you won’t have to be in the same position ever again.

      I’m currently working on making point no 3 a reality, so wish me luck:)

  • definitely not renting to african.negro shld not be in this country in the first place.look at what damage they hv done to our country.they r not worth at all.chinese nationalities r rude n altitude prob.a few might be good but the bad one hv overcome all of them so its their prob,not us to sweep it away.

    • malaysian

      Wow what a strong statement saying negro should not be in this country. Just wondering how if others think malaysian should not be in their country. make sure you don’t leave the country as some may not feel you should in their country either.

  • malaysian

    To be frank this whole lot of issue related with 1 race only and we all are aware who are they and i don’t want to mention them. the whole real estate industry being controlled and manipulated by them in term of house price and rent. A friend of mine told me an agent approach him saying he should consider buying that particular property just because 80% of the resident is from that particular ‘race’ and in future the value might increase tremendously because of that. how ridiculous can be that. how a particular race can cause the property price increase? i do encounter same issue when searching for a place to rent. most of the ads will come with that particular race preference. my cousin called an agent and the deal almost broke until the last question ‘sorry may i know your race please?’ and he end up starting the whole process with few other agents. not forgetting the latest issue happened at cheras where Autism Consultancy early intervention centre tenant been chased out from the house she was renting. that can tell you to what extent this particular race can reach to. and by the way im a property owner as well.

    • Not really. Didn’t you recently read about the protest about the Datum Jelatek condo & the Hindu temple in Putrajaya? The protesters didn’t want Chinese moving into that suburb, or Hindus building a temple “near” their houses.

  • Daniel

    Just my 2 cents, years ago – when I was new in KL, I shared the same room with my Chinese friend & wife! (I’m an Indian guy) – the room was partitioned of course, but still…

    Then the first ‘room for rent’ I called – I was accepted by a retired Chinese couple in PJ – who not only accepted me as a tenant, but over time, as a friend & ‘son’ – and we remain so, to date, though I’ve moved out almost 10 years ago!
    Unfortunately, I think I’m the exception rather than the norm….

    My point of sharing is, to discourage tarring all people from a particular race with the same brush and to keep a positive and optimistic mind in all things & to always look for the best in people & give them the benefit of the doubt….easier said than done, though.
    For a better, Malaysia….

    • Ian Yee

      Thanks for sharing your story! As you said, it’s easier said than done giving people the benefit of doubt, but these kind-hearted Malaysians you lived with can definitely inspire us to keep trying.

  • I’ve done my fair share of househunting in Malaysia & it pissed me off to see so many ‘Chinese Only’, ‘Indian only’, or ‘Malay only’ conditions in the ads. We Malaysians always like to complain about people from other countries being prejudiced towards us. But at the same time we don’t hesitate to dish out racism at a higher level towards our own countrymen or visitors.

  • Tenny Wong

    Hi my name is Tenny and first time reading this. I have few african friends some are doing business some are students and they are good, kind and helpful. Now, one of my african friends who has very good attitude and behaviors wants to move out from Jalan Kuching to Ara Damansara or Kota Damansara and was looking for a house for more than half year till now still looking. I have tried helping him to call countless calls but like what being written on this page, once hearing the potential tenant is African and vacancies being automatically filled up. Please anyone here can really help my friend, he is a good person and totally has no reason being discriminated like this. I am feeling so sad about this happening to not only him but also others people who are facing the same. Please if anyone of you know any places in Ara Damansara or Kota Damansara is available thus allowable for him, watsapp me Tenny at 011-12372377 or email tenny.wyn@gmail.com. God is watching what we are doing. I just want to help my friend to get a quiet and comfortable stay.

  • minouon

    Only a few ppl got d point. Ppl d iscriminate coz of behaviour reputation. So happens a particular nationality or race hav demonstrated a highr tendency for unsavory behavior dat is offensiv to any landlord. Indians r particularly sensitv coz their culture since ancient times is caste based discrim. Ur caste determines ur status n entitlemts more than capabilities. Chi landlords tend to b practical. They also reject certain pr china tenants coz of reputation bad behavr.

  • Isn’t there a commercial opportunity here for a landlady/lord to advertise upfront that (s)he will accept a tenant from any race? Such an advertisement will sell well. Another suggestion is for potential tenants who have rented before and now wish to move to seek verbal/written references from their previous landladies/lords so as to reassure future landladies/lords that they have been good tenants in the past.

  • datsun12

    I am a house-owner and I do not discriminate. However, I have encountered various problems from various races when I was renting out my apartment and I am still encountering problems, especially on rentals. When I rent a room to a single Chinese lady (just one room), she brought in her boyfriend, although she paid the rent on time, but they messed up the place and broke a bathroom door. Then I rent to a Christian Chinese, she ran off without notice (I used her deposit to cover up the 2 months rent but with unpaid electricity and water bills) with lot piles of rubbish. Now I am renting out my house to a Malay family, they skipped my April rent (now it is like pay after stay) and pay the utility bills once in a few months and they said to my agent that I am being noisy. What say you? Should I keep on renting my house or do I just leave the house empty without any headache? All I need them to do are to pay up the rent on time and pay up the electricity and water bills for what they have used, and try not to create nuisance to my neighbours, while I handle the management fee charges, Indah Water bill and parking lot charge. Am I noisy or asking too much?

  • unhappy onwer

    I rented out to a Nigerian family who worked as lecturer (Islamic studies) in Kedah and promised to pay rent and settle all bills before moving out. Gave me promise after promise that he will pay the bills and ask me not to worry. However, he moved out quietly without settle the electricity bill and water bill. He purposely accumulate the bills exceeding the utilities deposit. Such a irresponsible tenant! Should I rent to foreigner again? Certainly not!

    • R.AGE

      Surely there are irresponsible tenants from all races who would do the same. Why would you single out the Nigerian family?

  • Zai

    I am planning to rent my unit to students in Feb 2016 onwards. My Condo is located at Damansara area (Damansara Foresta). 2 bedrooms are available for rental, light cooking and washing allowed. Opened to any races.
    High floor, Nice View and nearby Malls and IKEA.

    Please contact me via email. Thank you.

  • Jeany Magno

    Can somebody ask the Malaysian government how can this racism be ended ? Aren’t they pass a bill that prohibits landlords or penalize those who would intend to discriminate people looking a room for rent especially for all students.

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