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A billboard depicting Limkokwing University founder as the 'King of Africa' which went viral and was later removed. It led to claims of racism at the institution, as well as debate on widespread discrimination in Malaysia. Photo: Twitter

‘King of Africa’ billboard sparks racism claims at university started by Chinese-Malaysian

  • Former staff and students at Malaysia’s Limkokwing University have spoken out about alleged discrimination amid global Black Lives Matter protests
  • The incident has fuelled discussions of discrimination against ethnic minorities and those of African descent
As Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests continue around the world, the spotlight in Malaysia has shifted to accusations of racial discrimination at a university started by a Malaysian Chinese businessman.

Limkokwing University, named for its founder Lim Kok Wing, came under fire after former students and staff took to social media to accuse it of having racist policies. The furore was sparked after a photo of a billboard depicting the university’s flamboyant founder as the ‘King of Africa’ went viral, with a petition calling for its removal.

One Twitter user asked why Lim, who was surrounded by African students in the photo, was presenting himself as the “saviour” of African people, adding that he was perpetuating a “negative stereotype of Africans not having access to education”.

The institution, which has satellite campuses in Botswana and Lesotho, touts itself as a global university, with students from 117 countries.

The university soon apologised, saying on Twitter it had taken down the hoarding and did not “condone any discriminatory acts against any particular race”. It said it was “proud” to have students from 38 African countries on its main campus.

Lim Kok Wing University in Malaysia. Photo: Handout

“African students have studied with us since 2001 and the university is extremely proud to have supported Nelson Mandela’s campaign for independence from the apartheid regime [in South Africa] in 1994,” the university said.

Soon after, however, a rash of claims of discrimination went viral as former Limkokwing student and staff member Malaz El shared her experiences during her time at the university. Malaz, who left Limkokwing in 2017 after completing her master's degree there and working at the university full-time, claimed African students were not allowed to be ambassadors at open days and that school administrators had made racist remarks on several occasions.

She also collated and posted complaints made by other social media users.

The university has not responded to requests for comment.

University founder Lim Kok Wing has also not yet responded to the allegations and has locked his Twitter account, although his profile picture remains one of him surrounded by African students. Known for always dressing in black, the former advertising executive once described himself as “a rebel and nonconformist” in an interview.

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Malaz said the recent Black Lives Matter protests that started in the United States after the death of George Floyd and had spread around the world, nudged her into highlighting these incidents.

“As a black person I think the movement has affected me in many ways. I’ve always been quite outspoken when it comes to racism and discrimination, but with this recent movement I feel more empowered to speak up. That’s one of the main reasons why I chose to use my personal social media account – I just don’t feel afraid to speak up any more. I want them to know who it’s coming from, I want them to know I’m still mad,” she said, adding that she had gotten messages of support.

“I think I speak for a lot of us staff and students of LKWU when I say that reading these comments and tweets assured us that what we went through is not OK and unacceptable no matter where in the world you are. Nobody should have to put up with this,” said

Limkokwing university president, Lim Kok Wing. Photo: Handout

The campus episode has also fuelled discussions on long-standing anti-black sentiment in Malaysia, with advocates pointing to discriminatory renting policies, police intimidation, and unlawful detentions.

In 2019, the death of Orhions Ewansiha Thomas, a Nigerian PhD student at the university who was detained in an immigration raid, made national headlines. It was initially reported that Thomas had suffered a seizure in his sleep.

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The incident led to protests outside the Nigerian embassy in Kuala Lumpur and calls for a fresh autopsy and inquest. According to the lawyers acting on behalf of his family, the ongoing inquest has revealed that controlled drugs were illegally prescribed to Thomas by an unauthorised person, and that he had valid documents, “making his arrest and detention unnecessary and borderline illegal”.

“What is disheartening is the manner in which the Malaysian Department of Immigration deals with the detention of foreigners in general. There is a clear lack of due process,” said lawyers Sachpreetraj Singh Sohanpal and Rajesh Nagarajan.

“Mr Thomas was unfairly detained despite having a valid visa and passport which begs the question, was there some level of prejudice on the part of the Immigration Department in their detention of Mr Thomas?”

The family intends to launch civil proceedings against the Malaysian government for negligence. But the immigration department said they had not committed any negligence or wrongdoing, and that they had detained Thomas because he had attempted to run away.

A Malaysian flag is reflected on bus window in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Bloomberg

Although Malaysia’s constitution forbids discrimination against citizens based on sex, religion, and race – aside from clauses that enshrine race-based affirmative action policies – rights watchdogs say racial discrimination is still commonplace, and many are continuing to push for laws explicitly banning it.

Property agent Siva Shanker said racist policies were common, “from job-hunting to looking for housing”, he said.

“I’ve encountered apartments that advertise their racist policies proudly, even towards fellow Malaysians. I’ve heard property owners say ethnic Indians ‘have a funny smell’ and that foreigners are a nuisance,” said Siva, who was former president of the Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents.

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However, he noted that these racist or xenophobic attitudes did not seem to apply to white foreigners.

“White people, they are taken care of. So many are discriminatory towards fellow Malaysians and black foreigners, but white foreigners they prize. That is the same discrimination that is being proven all around the world right now. Skin colour does seem to matter,” he said.

Activists have also highlighted custodial deaths in Malaysia, which involve mostly people from the ethnic Indian minority population. Other issues include anti-migrant attitudes as well as discrimination against refugees and asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work or access public education in the country.

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Promoting a culture of non-discrimination while domestic laws still allow for Malaysians to openly discriminate against others in matters such as choosing a tenant or applying for a job is a challenge said prominent lawyer and human rights advocate Ambiga Sreenevasan.

“There must be a mechanism to deal with such situations to ensure that no one is allowed to deny anyone a job, or access to an organisation, or a tenancy, solely because of the colour of their skin, their place of birth, their beliefs, or their gender,” she said.

“It does not help that we have race-based political parties. It also does not help that people in positions of power do not show by example that racism is not OK. Some are in fact openly racist. Until we encourage a culture of respect for all, nothing will change. Sometimes, the law must lead the way,” Sreenevasan said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: University founded by ‘King of Africa’ accused of racism