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Students find it difficult to rent due to race & ethnicity

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%.

[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. “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.”