Ethno-religious politics in Malaysia: Will Malaysia ever escape the ‘political religio-race trap’?

“The first of these is the challenge of establishing a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny. This must be a nation at peace with itself, territorially, and ethnically integrated, living in harmony and full and fair partnership, made up of one ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ (Malaysian race) with political loyalty and dedication to the nation.” 1
Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, The Way Forward (Vision 2020)

The above excerpt is taken from a working paper, titled ‘The Way Forward’ by former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad presented in 1991 that outlined Dr. Mahathir’s then vision of making Malaysia a developed country by the year 2020 and the nine strategic challenges in achieving that goal, the first of which being the establishment of a united Malaysian nation as mentioned above. Little would he have expected that 29 years later, Malaysia would have been hit by a political crisis and he himself would be ousted in a political coup that was motivated by the underlying influences of racial and religious politics. The 2020 political crisis resulted from the decision of a faction of Dr. Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM, or the Malaysian United Indigenous Party), led by Muhyiddin Yassin (then Home Minister and currently the 8th Prime Minister) and a faction of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party) led by Azmin Ali (then Economic Affairs Minister) to pull out of the Pakatan Harapan (PH, or Pact of Hope) government and join forces with the opposition comprising of the Malay-based United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamist party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) to form the new national government called the Perikatan Nasional (PN, or National Alliance).

The current Prime Minister of Malaysia, Muhyiddin Yassin

Whilst there were many factors that led to the crisis namely intra and inter-party rivalry and structural weaknesses within the PH government, the question of race was an underlying central feature. The PH government’s collapse was blamed on the growing resentment among the Malays who felt threatened by the dominance of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of the coalition members of the former PH government, and on the other hand, the non-Malays who felt short-changed with a government who failed to fulfill their electoral promises.

Prior to the crisis, former political rivals UMNO and PAS had formed an opposition coalition called Muafakat Nasional (National Consensus Pact). The coalition was formed solely on the premise of Malay supremacy or ketuanan Melayu and by creating a narrative that the Malays were coming under threat by the non-Malays particularly the Chinese-based DAP party. The words of PAS leader, Abdul Hadi Awang sums this up clearly:

“The Muafakat Nasional idea (is) targeted at consolidating Malay political power and Islam. This is essential. The political power of Islam must dominate the government. PH is dominated by non-Muslims and the majority of the people in the country are Muslims and suddenly they are at the helm of the government”. 2

Hadi had also mentioned that those who go against the Malay language are enemies of Islam and jihad was permitted against them. 3

Non-communal parties and coalitions have not been able to survive ethno-religious political hegemony in Malaysia thus far. Historically, any effort at creating multi-racial plural parties from Dato’ Onn Jaafar’s Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) to the Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People’s Movement Party) and finally Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR has been constantly undermined by the idea of sectarianism and identity politics. The PH government was the first non-communal coalition to take power but that too failed, as it came to an abrupt end at the hands of a communal based coalition. Non-communal parties have always been blamed for not doing enough for their individual races while communal parties have been blamed for a culture of sectarianism, communalism and lack of racial unity creating a ‘political religio-race trap’ that governments and coalitions have continued to fall prey to. One of the key reasons for the PN’s success was that it was able to create a Malay-centric narrative that attracted the majority Malay population at a strategic time when the PH government was coming under racially motivated criticism. One may ask then why is ethno-religious politics such a central feature in Malaysian politics and can Malaysia ever escape this ‘political religio-race trap’?

The answers to those questions stems back to Malaysia’s colonial and political history. The concept of ‘race’ was in fact a colonial construct and an arbitrary label brought about by the British in Malaya. C.A. Vlieland, author of the 1931 British Malayan census states that the term ‘Race’ was used merely for census purposes and was in reality a judicious blend of various ideas, sympathies and affinities. 4 The colonial census was created specifically to monitor the different ethnic, racial and linguistic communities in the Malayan colonial economy while keeping them separated from each other. 5 The classifications of the population census and hence the concept of ‘race’ in British Malaya was invented for purposes of the British divide and rule policy. 6 Therefore, the idea of race was imposed upon the people of Malaya by the British.

The divide-and-rule policy employed by the British created a societal structure that was pillared where race was associated with economic enterprise. This was precisely the root cause of the racial divide in the country. Hirschman (1986) states that the racial divisions among the multiethnic population in Malaysia is largely the product of colonial practices and European construct.

This social, political and economic structures engineered by the British in colonial Malaya then led to the formation of identity-based communal political parties such as UMNO, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), and a political electorate divided by race. The reason for this was the fact that interaction among the different races was hindered due to the pillared societal structures and each community remained in its own pillared enclave as a result of the economic functions they were meant to perform in the colonial economy. The Malays were confined to agriculture and the civil service, the Chinese were confined to mining and business whilst the Indians were in plantations. Therefore, the formation of race-based political parties was simply the most practical and effective way of mobilizing support from the people. It was simply realpolitik, on the part of the political parties.

The racial divide between the Malays and the non-Malays was further exacerbated by the attitude of the British themselves who viewed the Chinese (and Indian) immigrants as foreigners and frequently questioned their loyalty. 7 This was despite the fact that for hundreds of years, the Indians and the Chinese had migrated to Southeast Asia, married into the local communities and had assimilated into the society. The formation of UMNO itself was fueled by racial elements. UMNO was formed from a loose coalition of approximately 40 Malay based organizations of various political leanings i.e. nationalist, Islamist, liberal, conservative and leftist. One of the reasons for its formation was to unite the Malay voice against the formation of the Malayan Union in 1946 that granted citizenship to the Chinese and Indians by virtue of jus soli. 8 This infamous colonial legacy of racial divide embedded a deep-rooted sense of communalism that remains in Malaysian society and remains one of the driving forces of identity politics in the country till date.

“Dr. Mahathir’s understanding of Islam which was modernist, progressive, scientific and compatible with liberal capitalism as opposed to PAS’s version of Islam that was traditionalist and fundamentalist.” Mahathir with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2003.

The 1970-1980 period saw the rise of an entrepreneurial Bumiputera (Malay and native) elite class who were business oriented. These people were the direct beneficiaries of state assistance programs such as the New Economic Policy. The BN coalition at the time began dabbling into a neo-feudalistic culture of political patronage that patronized certain business elites with contracts in exchange for support and political funding. This was taken a step further by Mahathir who turned UMNO into a corporate conglomerate through the means of investments via Malay-based nominee companies and executives with many people joining the party not to engage in community service but for contacts and contracts that would bring easy profits. 9 The same was being done by MCA and MIC with the Chinese and Indian elite. The system of political patronage coincided with the racial cleavages in the country. 10 This inadvertently further cemented the need for communal-based parties in the country and consolidated the position race-based identity politics as a central feature of the political culture in Malaysia.

Apart from the colonial legacy of the political economy that brought about racial divide and the rise of patronage politics, another turning point in the effort to trace back the roots of ethno-religious politics in Malaysia was the rise of political Islam in the country. The formation of the Islamist party, PAS in 1951 brought about two new domains to Malayan politics; intra-Malay competition between UMNO and PAS; and a religious, Islamist dimension to the political landscape. This, however, was not Islam’s first entry into Malayan politics. Malaya’s first Islamist party was the Hizbul Muslimin formed in 1948 which only survived a couple of months due to the security crackdown prior to the communist insurgency. UMNO and PAS have had an intimate, love-hate relationship ever since its conception. In fact, PAS emerged ‘from the womb of UMNO’, when members of UMNO’s Religious Bureau decided to break away and form their own party due to differences with the UMNO leadership. 11 UMNO looked upon PAS as a rival from the very beginning as it was the only other party that could compete with it for the Malay vote bank. The long term goal of PAS from its conception was the creation of an Islamic State in Malaya. 12 Its foundations had been built around Islam and Islamist principles. As a result, UMNO had no other choice but to play the religious card on top of the racial card to win the masses and hence further cemented ethno-religious politics at the core of Malaysian politics and brought with it the Islamisation race between UMNO and PAS. Noor (2014) sums up the role of PAS in its competition with UMNO precisely:

“PAS has been able to shift the centre of gravity of Malaysia’s public political domain to the Islamist register. Simply by upping the stakes in the holier-than-thou contestation between itself and its adversaries, it has compelled its opponents to enter its preferred discursive domain – Islam – and fight on its ground.” 13

The Islamisation race and UMNO-PAS rivalry was at its peak in the 1980s-1990s period during Dr. Mahathir’s first administration. State-sanctioned Islamisation programs comprising of the setting up of the International Islamic University, the Islamic banking and finance system, the Islamic Department under the Prime Minister’s office and increasing the number of ulama in government 14 were driven by the need to promote Dr. Mahathir’s understanding of Islam which was modernist, progressive, scientific and compatible with liberal capitalism as opposed to PAS’s version of Islam that was traditionalist and fundamentalist. The irony of the whole Islamisation race was the fact that by granting gradual concessions to the Islamists in order to stem Islamism in the country, UMNO was unknowingly playing proxy to PAS’s goal of Islamising the society and the country. 15 In fact, it was not PAS but UMNO themselves who were responsible for the Islamisation of the state apparatus through the continued use of Islam ‘in its bid to legitimize its rule and discredit its Islamist opponent (PAS)’. 16 Islam and ideas of racial (Malay) supremacy were used as clear tools for political leverage and to win the hearts and minds of the masses. Nair (1997) describes the role of Islam in Malaysian politics as follows:

“Islam has constituted a powerful weapon in the struggle for political supremacy. In the face of intensive intra-Malay rivalry, Islam has been used by the Mahathir Administration as a continuing source of political legitimacy and as a shield against external interference in Malay politics. The fear of the emasculation of Malay power through political divisions within the community, in part explains the special concern of Malaysian leaders over the theme of ‘unity’.” 17

The 2020 crisis witnessed shifting political alliances with politicians and political parties alike, switching allegiances from side to side to ensure their own political survival. In the same way, identity, i.e. ethnicity and religion are used as a tool for political leverage, to gain popular support and ensure political survival. It all boils down to the most effective strategy that is able to win over the majority political electorate. The fact that the UMNO-PAS alliance has taken over the government is not something new. PAS had in fact joined forces with UMNO before when it joined the UMNO-led National Alliance from 1973-1977 under the leadership of Asri Muda. UMNO leaders at the time felt that it was a good time to subdue the growing popularity of PAS by joining forces with it while Asri thought the move would bring PAS closer to the center of power. 18 This was realpolitik played by both sides.

So, will Malaysia ever escape the ‘political religio-race trap’ or will it continue to be entrenched in an ethno-religious political culture that continues to pit one race and religion against the other? Malaysians are neither racists nor religious fanatics. However, the political culture in Malaysia, owing to its colonial and political history, has developed into one that uses racial and religious discourse as a means to gain votes and political power. The PH government too, in its short stint fell victim to the trap of divisive racial and religious discourse that was the major cause of their downfall. For example, parties that were meant to be left leaning like the DAP became capitalist in nature catering towards the needs of Chinese business interests to ensure its political survival. Therefore, until and unless politicians stop using racial and religious identity as mere tools for political leverage, the concept of race is completely uprooted from the society and the structural legacy of the colonial political economy is vigorously challenged, ethno-religious based identity politics will remain a feature of Malaysian politics regardless of whether the PN government survives or not.

Rueben Ananthan Santhana Dass

Rueben Ananthan Santhana Dass is a graduate student in Strategic Studies, at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.



  1. Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, “The Way Forward (Vision 2020)” (Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia, February 28, 1991).
  2. [1] Free Malaysia Today, “Pakatan Baru Dengan Dr M Demi Kembalikan Kerajaan Dikuasai Pemimpin Islam, Kata Hadi,” February 7, 2020, sec. Berita,
  3. Ida Lim, “Hadi Defends ‘Malay World’ Remark, Tells Other Races to Be Grateful to Malays Who Came First | Malay Mail,” Malay Mail, December 29, 2019,
  4. C. A. Vlieland, “British Malaya: A Report on the 1931 Census and Certain Problems of Vital Statistics” (London: Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1932), 73-74.
  5. C. A. Vlieland, “British Malaya: A Report on the 1931 Census and Certain Problems of Vital Statistics” (London: Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1932), 73-74.
  6. Charles Hirschman, “The Meaning and Measurement of Ethnicity in Malaysia: An Analysis of Census Classifications,” The Journal of Asian Studies 46, no. 3 (1987): 561,
  7. Charles Hirschman, “The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology,” Sociological Forum 1, no. 2 (1986): 355,
  8. Anthony Milner, “‘Malaysia: History’ in Europa Publications,” in The Far East and Australasia 2015, 46th ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 663.
  9. Barry Wain, Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times (United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 124-125.
  10. Farish A. Noor, “Lecture Delivered at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies” (Singapore, 2020).
  11. Farish A. Noor, The Malaysian Islamic Party 1951-2013 – Islamism in a Mottled Nation (Amsterdam University Press, 2014),, 40.
  12. Noor, 224
  13. Noor, 226
  14. Joseph Liow, “Deconstructing Political Islam In Malaysia: UMNO’S Response To PAS’ Religio-Political Dialectic” (Singapore: Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (Now known as S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies), March 2003), 15.
  15. Noor, The Malaysian Islamic Party 1951-2013 – Islamism in a Mottled Nation, 227.
  16. Noor,
  17. Shanti Nair, Islam in Malaysian Foreign Policy, Politics in Asia Series. (London: Routledge, 1997), 270.
  18. Noor, The Malaysian Islamic Party 1951-2013 – Islamism in a Mottled Nation, 82-85.