Racism in the real estate market

A new law aimed at ending racial preferences in the rental sector should be accelerated to protect landlords and tenants.

Realtor: Hey, what race are you ah? You look different.

Potential tenant: Indian from Malaysia.

Agent: Oh, I can’t, I can’t. The owner only wants Chinese. The conversation above is all too familiar if you are looking for rental accommodation but are of a certain race.

This particular exchange was reported to me by the potential tenant who chose to remain anonymous.

“I was stressed because my previous landlord didn’t renew the lease on our rented house in Subang Jaya and my mother had very short notice to look for alternative accommodation,” Jaya said (name changed) .

Jaya, who lost her father at a young age, said she was discriminated against by the majority of landlords or estate agents she contacted.

“And even though my race was not the issue, they rejected me because I was a single woman with an elderly mother.

“They wondered if I could afford to pay the rent even when I proved I had a stable source of income,” she told me.

Jaya eventually managed to get an apartment in Jalan Kuching and, in her own words, “a good landlord who is also Chinese.”

“I feel that the younger generation of owners is more open-minded. It’s the older ones who are stuck in a racial mindset.

“These people help perpetuate certain stereotypes such as Indian tenants stink of the place because they tend to cook with lots of spices or Malay tenants are deadbeats,” she said.

The sad reality is that Jaya’s rental experiences are actually the norm. Take a look at social media these days and you’ll find plenty of other people with similar stories to tell.

But what about the real estate agents themselves? Are their rental policies discriminatory or are they themselves under orders from landlords to select only “certain” tenants?

“My interest is purely for my client,” said Jane (name changed upon request), adding that she must protect her owner’s interest.

Admitting that there are customers who insist on only renting to a particular breed, Jane said that practice is slowly decreasing.

“I find that in multi-racial urban areas like Taman Tun Dr Ismail, people are more broad-minded and don’t set conditions for renting their properties,” she said.

Jane, who has been on the property line for more than 20 years, believes racial profiling of tenants should not be practiced.

“I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with all races, including foreigners. My job is to screen potential tenants and based on face-to-face interviews as well as checks with employers and even the Companies Commission, I then recommend them to my clients,” she added.

But from the perspective of customers (in this case, landlords), there are many pitfalls in renting residential property to the wrong type of tenants.

“I have so many horror stories about the kind of tenants I’ve had over the years,” said a friend who manages her family’s upmarket condominium unit in Bukit Ceylon, Kuala Lumpur .

“We don’t look at a person’s race or religion, but I want to know if my tenant can take care of my property and not skip the rental payments,” she told me.

His list of horror tenants includes the case of someone who let 20 people sleep in the apartment, a tenant who was caught with drugs in the toilet and the latest being the tenant who disappeared without pay rent for nine months.

The fact is that without dedicated anti-discrimination laws, landlords are free to arbitrarily decide who can rent their property and can reject a tenant on the slightest excuse.

And this is the crux of the problem. Rental contracts in Malaysia are covered by the Contracts Act 1950, but we do not have specific legislation that protects both landlords and tenants, which is common in other countries.

However, this should change by 2023.

A new Residential Tenancies Bill (RTA) will include laws to protect both tenants and landlords. But when the Department of Housing and Local Government announced it in 2020, it was aimed at tackling racial discrimination in the rental market.

The far-reaching law was tabled in parliament last year but has yet to be enacted as the ministry asked various stakeholders for input before the law is passed next year.

Although the bill has received positive feedback from the Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents (MIEA), the Home Buyers Association and the Malaysian Property and Property Developers Association have already expressed concern about the impact of laws on the real estate market.

The fear of these two parties is that the rental may tend to increase as landlords take into account the additional charges they have.

The unnecessary complexity of government intervention in what should have been a private agreement between two parties is also of concern.

Despite these concerns which are real, I am of the opinion that the government should expedite the law as racial preferences have become a norm as can be seen in rental advertisements.

We can be proud to be a multiracial and multicultural country, but unfortunately racial discrimination is still very much present in the rental market.