Malaysia, Truly Asia? Religious Pluralism in Malaysia (2006)

The slogan “Malaysia, Truly Asia” is commonly heard around the world as part of a large and expensive advertising campaign sponsored by the Malaysian government. It is an attempt to attract foreign visitors to this country of 22 million people which boasts of a highly diverse ethnic and religious composition (Embong 2000, p.59). 51 percent of the population is Malay, all of whom are Muslim. (1) Chinese make up 26 percent of the population, most of whom are Buddhists combining Taoist and Confucian practices, while a small number identify as Christian. Indians comprise 7 percent of the population of which most are Hindu with a small minority of Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. Various ethnic groups, such as different indigenous groups mostly situated in the Borneo region, and Eurasians and migrants workers, most of whom are Indonesians, make up the remaining 16 percent of the population (Peletz 2005, p.243).

Despite the Muslim majority, Malaysia is not an Islamic state. (2) Instead it is considered to be a “Malay-dominated plural society” where Malays, as the first people of the land, are entitled to special rights and privileges in the country as part of an ‘ethnic bargain’ between the Malays, the Chinese, and the Indians during the formation of Malaysia in 1957 after nearly two decades under British rule. In exchange, the Chinese and Indians were granted Malaysian citizenship. This ‘ethnic bargain’ highlights the mutual respect and tolerance among these ethnic groups that has existed ever since they came into contact in the early 16th century in Southeast Asia. This mutual respect became the foundational basis for Malaysia’s multi-religious society.

The spectacular economic growth of Malaysia in recent years has greatly impacted the state of religious pluralism in Malaysia. However, this growth has also created an attitude of indifference, if not silence, when it comes to matters pertaining to religion in Malaysia. Many Malaysians are not prone to discuss religious matters publicly due to the sensitive nature of such discussion as well as a fear that such discussion might trigger racial unrest. The role of the government in promoting a policy of silence rather than active discussion regarding issues of religion further exacerbates this attitude of indifference. (3) As a result, many Malaysians suffer from a paradox; they remain a sophisticated society in terms of their material growth but are constrained when it comes to understanding their multi-religiosity.

The purpose of this report is to provide an overview of the state of religious pluralism in Malaysia by first looking at Malaysia’s historical setting, followed by an analysis of the impact of colonial rule on religious and ethic pluralism and finally, a description of the current state of religious pluralism in Malaysia.(4)

—Christopher Rodney Yeoh, Pluralism Project Research Associate

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(1) All ethnic Malays are Muslims. This is a unique position in comparison with other Muslim-dominated regions. For example, not all Arabs are Muslims. The converging of ethnicity and religion in Malaysia’s case can be a thorny issue as we shall see in this paper.

(2) The question of whether Malaysia is an Islamic state remains highly contentious and ambiguous. The former prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohammad stated explicitly that Malaysia is an Islamic state on September 29, 2001. This was seen as a political move to detract supporters from the rising Islamic resurgence in Malaysia. Mahathir’s statement provoked an outrage from the Chinese and Indian communities who claimed that Malaysia is not an Islamic state under the Federal Constitution.

(3) The government proclaims itself to be a supporter of inter-religious dialogue to the international community. However, their actions in prohibiting inter-religious discussions in Malaysia itself prove otherwise.

(4) This paper is intended only to provide an overview, and not a detailed description of the state of religious pluralism in Malaysia. As such, other primary references are still needed to provide further and more detailed understanding regarding this issue.


Embong, A. R. 2001, ‘The Culture and Practice of Pluralism in Postcolonial Malaysia’ in
The Politics of Multiculturalism, ed. R. W. Hefner, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

Peletz, M.G. 2005, ‘Islam and the Cultural Politics of Legitimacy: Malaysia in the
Aftermath of September 11’ in Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization, ed. R.W. Hefner, Princeton University Press, Princeton.