Commenting on the seemingly rising racial rhetoric, 1Malaysia Foundation Board of Trustees chairman Dr Chandra Muzaffar said that it would most likely increase.
"This is what is happening now. Each side would get more and more aggressive. And I hope we don't come to a point of no return," he said.
"But I must emphasise that the situation today is very different from 1969. If you look at the economic situation then, there was clear Chinese dominance. The vast majority of Malays were very poor, even the Malays in Kuala Lumpur lived in the poorest homes," Chandra said, adding that Malaysia now has a more multi-ethnic working class.
Chandra said Malaysia did not suffer from "racism" but rather "communalism and chauvanism" as racism has a physical dimension to it, which does not apply in Malaysia.
"The terms 'communalism and chauvanism' are more appropriate in Malaysia. It is a feeling towards the 'outgroup', those not of your own group, ethnicity and kind. In chauvinism, you glorify your own kind to the detriment of other communities.”
"Communal sentiment has always been strong. I don't think it has become worse specifically. But the sentiments now have been expressed for a very long time, even before and after Merdeka," he said.
Chandra said that those sentiments simply underwent different phases.
"In the 50s and 60s, the big issue that impacted communities was citizenship; in the 60s and 70s, language was the issue; and from mid-70s onwards, the whole question of the New Economic Policy and 'special position' became very important.
"Today we find that religion is one of the issues which generates communal feelings on both sides," he said.
Chandra categorised Malaysians as either "accomodative and inclusive" or those who are chauvanistic or communal.
He said words such as "pendatang" or "penumpang" or "balik China or India", were an extension of communal sentiments related to citizenship as was in the past.
"In the past, many Malays were very anxious and concerned over citizenship for non-Malays. The terms to forming the country were liberal and almost unheard-of. Gates were sort of opened (to the non-Malays). Now of course it is different; the non-Malays are now part of the country."
Chandra attributed the current sitution to the product of the last general election.
"You have Malays seeing Umno and BN losing their two-thirds majority and are feeling very uneasy about this. At the same time you find that some segments of the Chinese and Indian communities have become more assertive, with some raising questions on the special position (of the Malays).
"And you have all the Malay-based parties – Umno, PAS and PKR – trying to reach out to the Chinese community and play the 'Chinese card', which makes segments of the Malay community feel uneasy. The Chinese-based parties like MCA, DAP and Gerakan have also become more assertive," he said.
Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia movement co-founder Haris Ibrahim told FMT that racial polarisation (but not racism) has dramatically increased in Malaysia.
"Communities these days tend to mix less with each other than it did previously, if I were to use my personal experiences back in my school days," said the prominent lawyer-blogger.
Fanning racial discord
Haris, 51, said in his younger days, he would go to the houses of his Chinese friends during Chinese New Year and his parents would not worry about what he can or cannot eat.
Haris accused certain political parties and individuals such as Umno and Perkasa boss Ibrahim Ali of perpetually fanning the flames of racial discord.
He said he believed certain racial issues were deliberately played up by certain individuals, adding: "If we look at the Allah issue and the people calling for protests at the mosques, we see that most of these (protests) actually fizzled out. I believe that there were certain people with their own agenda who stirred up trouble."
However, Haris said many people, including those from the rural areas, were not affected.
"Racism was also clearly played out in 1987 before Ops Lalang when Najib Tun Razak and Lee Kim Sai were then exchanging racial threats and the press was playing it up. But those two were never arrested," he said.
He added that now it seemed that Perkasa and MCA leaders, including Wee Ka Siong and Dr Chua Soi Lek, are playing the "race card" again.
"Do they think that the people would be influenced and would vote for stability because of all this game?" asked Haris.
Haris also agreed that a Race Relation Act should be formulated.
However, Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism president Dr Thomas Philips had a more positive outlook.
He said Malaysia was doing much better today but he also blamed politicians for instigating the people and "compartmentalising" people along racial lines.
"Malaysians are still moving forward despite the frequency of racially tinged speeches. It would have been terrible if these were said in 1969," he said.
He said that in 1969 and in the years after, people were so suspicious of each other that they would be scurrying back home at the slightest sign or rumour of racial tension.
"But today a number of things have changed. People are more matured now. We saw several incidents, including churches being burnt, but our lives went on... people went back to their homes and continued working," Thomas said.
Thomas said he observed that the public had "transcended racial lines" in the way they voted in the 2008 general election.
"We are talking about the younger generations who are totally Malaysians, and don't seem to look at themselves as Chinese or Malays or Indians. Some have married interracially. They are getting more involved in politics and issues. They can't be instigated anymore," he said, adding that there was another group that wants to gain political mileage by playing the race card.
Thomas also said people are more well informed thanks to the alternative media.
Attributing the "increase in racism" to perception, cultural critic and writer Sharaad Kuttan said people feel or experience a greater degree of racism today because of the negative feelings of the people about the country and its prospects.
"The feelings were probably not much different from a decade ago; it is just that people were more positive about the economy 10 years ago. Now people tend to read and interpret things more harshly and this could be attributed to the economic and political situation of the country."
Sharaad said Malaysians were "quite tolerant" to a certain extent, but believed they would always speak as though they were the victims.
"It is a Malaysian trait to feel that you are being victimised. Everybody speaks like he is a victim. The Malays have a feeling that historically they are displaced by the Chinese. You can create these things in your mind and feel paranoid.
"Umno has often used the fear of the minorities, in particular the Chinese, to fuel racism. If it is a legitimate way to rally your troops, how do you stop it from happening? I think BTN (Biro Tata Negara) is an extension of Umno's ideology of creating fear among the races."
Chandra also said: "I think we need to build up on that 'Malaysianness' despite our differences. What we need right now are people who are able to see both sides of the divide; they must have an earnest attempt to build bridges between the communities. Let's try to understand each other and find our meeting point."