Local pollster Merdeka Centre today released survey figures that show a heightened level of distrust among the three largest ethnic communities in Malaysia.
The organisation said the survey, carried out from May 24 to June 8 this year, indicated a "significant shift in Malaysian public thinking", where ethnicity has a direct bearing on the level of trust respondents had for their fellow citizens.
"... the optimism of the mid-2000s appears to have given way to increased insecurities and distrust, which is in part due to the current competitive political environment," Merdeka Centre said in a statement.
Based on data collected from 1,013 respondents, the centre found that overall trust towards Indians declined to about 31 percent, six percent lower than the results of a similar poll in 2006, which recorded a slightly higher level of 37 percent.
The same went for the Chinese community, with trust going down five percent from 47 percent in 2006 to 42 percent this year, while trust towards Malays went down marginally, from 66 percent to 65 percent.
The figures were supported by respondents' answers to more specific questions, with 60 percent of the Malay respondents stating they "somewhat distrusted" or "strongly distrusted" the Chinese, who likewise polled 42 percent in stating their distrust of the Malays.
Interestingly, 16 percent of the Malay respondents were also reported to have stated they did not trust their own community.
The Merdeka Centre said the findings also had a direct correlation to the prevalence of derogatory racial stereotypes, with a minute drop of between two and three percent in respondents' answering in the affirmative if they believed racist statements such as "the Malays are lazy", "the Chinese are greedy" and "the Indians cannot be trusted".
"It is important to note that each of these stereotypes was believed by a majority of the respondents.
"Ironically, and perhaps as a marker of how deeply ingrained these stereotypes are, even members of the stereotyped community also accepted them. For example, 57% of Malays, 50% of Chinese and 36% of Indians, respectively report acceptance of the negative stereotypes of their communities."
The Merdeka Centre noted that of the respondents, nearly 25 percent said their views on racial stereotypes were shaped by personal observations while 26 percent said they were influenced by friends.
One in five also noted that their views were derived largely by what they consumed from the media.
Malay culture better understood
Despite the deep-seated distrust indicated by the survey, the figures appeared to be inversely proportional to the level of understanding of Malay culture, with a slight increase in respondents saying they understood Malay culture.
A total of 73 percent of the respondents said they understood Malay culture in this latest survey, compared with 68 percent of the respondents polled in 2006.
However, the figures did not change for public understanding of Chinese and Indian culture, with a negligible drop of one percent in the number of respondents who said they understood Chinese culture, at around 55 percent compared to the 2006 figure of 56 percent.
The figures remained static for Indian culture, with only 35 percent claiming to understand the community's culture - the same level as in 2006.
Though the survey highlighted a heightened distrust in ethnic relations, it did indicate a slight increase in the number of respondents who said they have a multi-racial group of friends.
Tolerance taking its toll
A total of 84 percent said they have friends of other races while 16 percent said they did not, compared with 78 percent and 22 percent respectively in 2006.
For those who said they did not have friends from other races, 51 percent of them said this was because they lived in largely mono-ethnic areas, while smaller percentages said they rarely left home (16 percent), rarely interacted with other races (11 percent), only befriended people of their own race (8 percent) and other reasons (11 percent).
However, these figures ran counter to the general sentiments of the respondents polled, with less of them feeling happy to live in a multi-ethnic society.
The Merdeka Centre reported a 10 percent dip this year in the number of people happy to be part of a multi-ethnic society, with 82 percent agreeing with the statement, compared with 92 percent in 2006.
There was also a proportional rise in the percentage of people who "feel stressed because we have to be tolerant of one another", with 13 percent of respondents ticking this answer, compared to just six percent in the previous survey.