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Executive Summary

Résumé exécutif

Résumé exécutif: Malaisie

Les efforts déployés pour mettre en œuvre des politiques intégrationnistes en Malaisie ont abouti à leur assimilation, créant ainsi de nouvelles sourc

Global Centre for Pluralism

Overall Score: 5

This assessment was completed in 2022.

Touted for its successful approach to embracing diversity through tolerance and harmony, Malaysia’s goal of achieving national unity seems more remote due to the growth of Malay nationalism and Islamization. In discussing Malaysia’s constitutional and legal frameworks that can constrain pluralism and affirmative action policies that have resulted in the marginalization of minorities, the Monitor report emphasizes the need for a transition towards a more inclusive concept of nationhood. In focussing on ethno-racial groups, religion, and vulnerable groups (non-citizens), the report discusses today’s challenges for achieving a greater pluralism.

Affirmative action policies which normalized Bumiputera (Malays and Indigenous groups) receiving special treatment have instead resulted in a festering sense of deprivation and injustice among non-Bumiputera Malaysians that springs from the unequal access to opportunities. Despite affirmative action policies directed to the Bumiputera population at large, the systemic marginalization and lagging economic development of Indigenous Bumiputera has echoed how inclusion into Malaysian society is often elusive for non-Malays. Although Malays have been awarded many benefits and constitute the majority of the population, a sense that the position of their race or religion is under threat by ethno-racial minorities creates new sources of exclusion in all echelons of society. Thus, social cohesion is characterized as stable tension, and efforts for integrationist policies have veered toward assimilation.

Legal Commitments

Malaysia’s international commitments to human rights are lackluster. Malaysia has only acceded to three United Nations treaties, but as a dualist country, these have not been incorporated into national law by the legislature. However, the constitutional framework recognizes the multicultural nature of the country and espouses pluralism under the slogan ‘unity in diversity’. Efforts such as the National Unity Blueprint, which seeks to foster harmony, do not clearly spell out requirements for addressing national unity, adding on to the challenges faced by Malaysia.

Citizenship provisions are inclusive regarding race and religion, allowing all citizens to practice their religions in harmony. Notwithstanding, substantial issues exist for marginalized populations when securing citizenship documentation, resulting in a growing statelessness crisis.

Practices and Leadership

The Ministry of National Unity oversees pluralist policies, although shortcomings in implementation are derived from the limited scope of national commitments. In contrast to the Ministry’s work, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) has stood out as a voice of moderation and social cohesion. By recognizing the need for continuous work on national unity, inequalities and gaps between Bumiputera, Chinese and Indian populations are consistently tracked. Among these disparities, unequal treatment is perceived and experienced by non-Malay when making claims. Notably, Tamils and Hindus are more likely to be taken into custody, while Malay ethno-racial causes often proceed without obstruction.

There are conscious efforts to promote diversity in political parties, news media and private sector, and their resilience has carved out spaces for multi-ethnic politics and workspaces. However, vulnerable groups such as women, refugees and migrants are still typically underrepresented and omitted in political discourse. There is also a concerning trend of news media and civil society organizations being censured, investigated, and charged in court for publishing commentaries that are unfavorable towards the government. This raises further concerns about Malaysians’ ability to hold their government accountable in cases of human rights violations or discrimination against minority groups.

Despite affirmative action policies directed to the Bumiputera population at large, the systemic marginalization and lagging economic development of Indigenous Bumiputera has echoed how inclusion into Malaysian society is often elusive for non-Malays.

Group-based Inequalities, Intergroup Relations and Belonging

The political underrepresentation of minority groups has translated into the limited access to justice and the socio-economic marginalization of women, migrants and Indigenous groups. East Malaysia, predominantly made up of Indigenous groups, has continuously lagged the peninsula due to problems of inadequate rural infrastructure and poor socio-economic development. Disparities in the quality of education and healthcare have also impacted Indigenous groups across all of Malaysia. Overall, Malaysia has also underperformed in issues of gender equality, failing to bridge the gender gap for economic empowerment and in the provision of social services for mothers.

Despite perceived and experienced unequal treatment, intergroup trust and relations are strong in Malaysia, and most Malaysians regard their country as harmonious. However, tolerance and appreciation for ethno-racial and religious diversity does not necessarily translate into friendship between groups. On the contrary, the centering of Islam in all levels of society has resulted in the unequal standing of other religions and cultures across the country. For example, Malays are more likely to be discriminatory to other groups on the issue of having diverse neighbors. Per the Global Centre for Pluralism’s Pluralism Perceptions Survey, most groups feel strong ties with Malaysia, although Malays score significantly higher than Indians, Chinese Malaysians, or non-Malay Bumiputeras.

Monitor Takeaways

The report discusses in depth the paradoxical inter-group relations of Malaysia: although quantitative data suggests good inter-group relations, there is a simultaneous high prevalence of experiences and perceptions of discrimination amongst cultural and religious minorities. Despite efforts to visibilize and prioritize efforts for inclusive citizenship and address inequalities, the concept of nationhood in Malaysia is still contested. While being a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, Malaysia nurtures a National Culture Policy which opens space for multiculturalism while simultaneously centering Islam within Malay culture. In doing so, Islam has become the reference point for the acceptability of other religions and cultures to be part of Malaysia’s national culture, positioning other religions in unequal footing. Disparities emerge from the unequal treatment of religious backgrounds. Although there is a lack of data of socioeconomic inequalities delineated by religion, the Monitor report signals to how Muslims tend to have greater access to opportunities related to education and income. Even amongst the majority Bumiputera groups, Christian Bumiputera often face exclusions from public services and pressures to convert into Islam, as opposed to their Muslim counterparts.

Malaysia has taken important steps towards the recognition of customary law for Indigenous peoples in Sabah and Sarawak. Nonetheless, these communities are disproportionately impacted by socio-economic inequalities. Being some of the most impoverished communities in Malaysia, they often face difficulties in accessing citizenship documentation and public services, quality education, and often see their traditional land rights contested. Although the Indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak are Bumiputera, they are vulnerable to the poor treatment often directed at non-citizens. Scarce data on vulnerable communities such as these does not only pose a challenge for the evaluation of pluralism in the country, but for the development of meaningful policies that successfully address these disparities.

Although the Indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak are Bumiputea, they are vulnerable to the poor treatment directed at non-citizens.

Overall, discrimination has become one of the most difficult issues to investigate in Malaysia, for multiple reasons. Restrictions on freedom of speech for news media outlets, censure of CSOs, and persecution of minorities for voicing complaints make it a challenge to be openly critical about experienced inequalities at the hand of the government. With raw data being hard to access, quantifying these inequalities and disparities becomes even more challenging. However, the silences regarding the efficient action to target discrimination and inequalities instead reveal a lack of political will to address preferential policies, citizenship that is not based on mutual respect, and a political landscape that has confused inclusivity and integration with assimilation.

Call to action fallback image


The Monitor’s recommendations reinforce what experts, activists and stakeholders have long called for in Malaysia and provide several pathways to pluralism for the country.

  • The international treaties already signed and ratified by Malaysia provide the opportunity to revitalize the country’s commitment to pluralism. Malaysia could improve the reporting of their state treaties related to diversity and inclusiveness for this effect. These include the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
  • Consolidate authority and resources of policy-making and implementation institutions, especially on national unity and Indigenous peoples’ issues. This can also have the effect of addressing ‘claims of supremacy’ among majority ethnic groups and the concerns of minority groups.
  • Civil society and media currently face obstacles to engaging in inclusive and diverse reporting or activism due to restrictive legislation. Malaysia has the opportunity to further support these non-state actors by reviewing or reforming such legislation.
  • Existing economic policies and empowerment programs can effectively reduce ethnic, gender and regional disparities. To further improve the effectiveness of these programs, implementation can be revised to ensure fairness in access to education and diversity in enrollment, address the acute lack of access for vulnerable groups, and promote integration.
  • Ethnic relations programs and strategies could be reviewed to ensure they promote inclusive values and appreciation for diversity, especially through the education system. This can improve the management of racial tensions and conflicts, safeguard communities’ voices and senses of belonging.

Documents supplémentaires

Profil du Pays: Malaisie

Pour devenir une société plus pluraliste, la Malaisie doit d'abord s'attaquer à la question de la citoyenneté inclusive pour chacun.

Malaysia: References

To access more information that supported the development of the Malaysia report, you can access the references below.

Rapport du Moniteur: Malaisie

Malgré des efforts pour parvenir à l’unité nationale, la cohésion sociale de la Malaisie se caractérise de plus en plus par une tension stable.