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To become a more pluralist society, Malaysia must first grapple with inclusive citizenship for everyone, whether they are Bumiputera or not.

Assessed Groups

  • Ethno-racial groups
  • Religion
  • Vulnerable groups

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country with officially conceived notions of national unity. However, in recent years the social cohesion that characterized the country has transformed into social tension, with affirmative action policies at the centre of this change. These affirmative action policies have allowed Bumiputera (Malay and Indigenous groups) to receive access to more social and economic opportunities. These policies along with the growing role of Islam as the country’s national culture have contributed to social tensions and resulted in feelings of exclusion among non-Malays and non-Muslim Bumiputera. By focusing on ethno-racial groups, religion, and vulnerable groups (Indigenous groups and stateless groups), the Monitor report underscores Malaysia’s greatest challenges for achieving pluralism. This assessment was completed in 2022.

Key Takeaways

Affirmative action policies are a challenge for pluralism

Affirmative action policies from the 1960s, which normalized government’s focus on the needs of Bumiputera, remain in place today.

Although these policies were meant to support a then-vulnerable population, their existence today has resulted in a growing sense of deprivation and injustice among non-Bumiputera Malaysians. Malay Bumiputera have developed majoritarian sentiments from these benefits. Instead of strengthening social cohesion, inclusive citizenship has become more elusive for Indigenous Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera Malaysians.

Restrictive freedom of speech policies limits the ability to address inequalities

Discrimination has become one of the hardest issues to track in Malaysia. Raw data on inequalities between groups is hard to access, impacting the ability to quantify these inequalities and disparities.

Additionally, news media outlets and CSOs are often censured for reporting on the persecution of minorities. Being critical of the government is therefore contested, and these voices can be silenced. This reveals a need for renewed political will to address the impact of preferential policies and approaches to inclusive citizenship.

The centering of Islam as the religion of Malaysia has isolated religious minorities

Malaysia’s National Culture Policy (NCP) gives Islam a central role within Malay culture, positioning other religions on different social, political and cultural standings.

Although there is a lack of data on socioeconomic inequalities delineated by religion, Muslim Malays tend to have more income and education-related opportunities. Even within the Bumiputera group, Christian Bumiputera are more likely to face exclusions than their Muslim counterparts. Although uneven treatment based on religion is not legislated, it is a result of the NCP.

Drivers for Pluralism in Malaysia

These best practices are driving and enhancing pluralism in Malaysia

Indigenous Rights

Constitutional amendments stipulate state and autonomy rights for Sabah and Sarawak, two predominantly Indigenous provinces.

Inclusive Citizenship

Legislation ensuring gender equality for the passing down of citizenship by parents has meant progress for inclusive citizenship.

Human Rights Accountability

SUHAKAM, the Human Rights Commission, has stood out as a voice of moderation and justice. It has helped hold the government accountable for policy implementation.


Improve the reporting of international obligations

Malaysia can improve the reporting of international obligations to international human rights treaty monitoring bodies.

Specifically, 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). Reporting to these treaty bodies and integrating the treaties into national legislation can have significant impacts that support diversity, inclusiveness and pluralism.

Consolidate the authority of policy-making and implementation institutions

Consolidating the authority of policy-making and implementation institutions, especially those that focus on national unity and Indigenous peoples’ issues would increase feelings of belonging and ownership across all social, economic and cultural groups.

Strengthen policies and programs that address diversity and equality.

Strengthening policies and empowerment programs that address diversity and equality can effectively reduce ethnic, gender and regional disparities. These programs could enable fairness in access to education and diversity in enrollment. Additionally, they could result in the social integration of groups made vulnerable by statelessness.

Improve ethnic relations programs.

Review and improve ethnic relations programs and strategies to instill inclusive values and appreciation for diversity. This could be done especially through the education system. A measure like this can improve the management of racial tensions and conflict, and safeguard communities’ voices.


Legal Commitments

International Commitments

Average score: 4

Malaysia has a dualistic approach to international law, meaning that treaties do not decidedly become incorporated into national legislation. This has translated into lackluster human rights commitments. However, Malaysia’s active role in Universal Periodic Review processes signals some level of political will towards international standards of human rights.

National Commitments

Average score: 4

Malaysia’s Constitution provides protections for citizens of all ethnic and religious communities. Malaysia promotes pluralist policies and religious freedom under the slogan of ‘unity in diversity’ and has made commitments on national unity. These policies, however, are shaped by symbolic visions and often lack legislative requirements for their implementation.

Inclusive Citizenship

Average score: 4

Malaysia’s citizenship provisions are generally inclusive when it comes to race and religion, although some communities still face exclusion. For example, migrant Indian and Chinese families, as well as remote Indigenous communities, struggle to secure citizenship documentation or show proof of citizenship. While citizenship provisions aim to be inclusive, pathways to citizenship are not.


Policy Implementation

Average score: 7

Malaysia has promoted inclusion and pluralism in their policies with substantial consistency. Shortcomings in implementation are often derived from the limited scope of legislation or commitments. Actors such as the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) have played an important role in holding the government accountable for poor policy implementation, soothing social discontent on the issue.

Data Collection

Average score: 4

The Department of Statistics Malaysia maintains a repository of demographic, economic and social data, although access to it is highly restrictive. Gaps between Bumiputera, Chinese and Indian populations are consistently tracked. However, the census often fails to differentiate Malay and non-Malay Bumiputera and there is a growing absence of disaggregated data. As such, the inequalities impacting non-Malay Bumiputera become invisibilized.

Claims-making and Contestation

Average score: 6

Malaysia has made gradual but steady gains in freedom of expression and of assembly. While all groups can make claims to the government, the reception of claims is unequal between Malays and non-Malays. For example, when Tamils or Hindus make claims, they are more likely to be taken into custody, whereas Malays can participate in protests without any obstructions.

Leadership for Pluralism

Political Parties

Average score: 5

Post-independence Malaysia saw the rise of many race-based political parties. This resulted in an unhealthy political environment, as each party heavily focused on their own interests and agenda. To this day, many Malaysians feel unrepresented by political parties. In recent years, however, multi-ethnic parties have carved out a space offering greater diversity in political representation.

News Media: Representation & Prominence of Pluralistic Actors

Average score: 5

News media is fairly accessible in that it discusses issues of inclusiveness and tends to operate in Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English. However, many media outlets have started to fall short in the filtering of misinformation.  Overall, media outlets are biased towards the government to reduce the risk of being censured or prosecuted for unfavourable commentaries.

Civil Society

Average score: 5

Restrictive laws are used to control CSO’s activism and presence, particularly in situations in which they are seen as being critical of the government. CSOs have found the space to sustain peoples’ movements through the social media platform, E-Reform. Overall, Malaysian CSOs demonstrate significant resilience in their ability to operate in innovative ways despite restrictive freedom of speech regulations.

Private Sector

Average score: 5

There are conscious efforts to diversify the private sector in management and board positions. These efforts have targeted Indians, Orang Asli and women, but not so much religious diversity or migrant communities. As the labour market is hierarchical in terms of nationality, foreign migrant workers often endure poor working conditions.

Group-based Inequalities


Average score: 7

Politics in Malaysia are structured along ethno-racial lines. Malay parties are strongly favoured by Malay voters, whereas multi-ethnic parties are the overwhelming choice for non-Malay voters. Despite the presence of multi-ethnic parties that represent the interest of the diverse communities, Malay-dominant parties are over-represented in electorate and the parliament.


Average score: 5

The Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak have some of the highest income poverty rates in the country. This is due to inadequate rural infrastructure, stretched public resources, and lack of political will. It is also worth noting that Sabah and Sarawak are populated mostly by Indigenous groups, pointing to their economic inequalities as well.


Average score: 6

Although school enrollment rates are relatively equal across all groups, the quality of education is not. Malaysia’s education system has become segmented, with Chinese students attending Chinese vernacular schools; Indian students in Tamil vernacular schools and Malay students in religious schools or national schools. Inequalities experienced by refugees and migrants are dire, as they face exclusion from most, if not all social and public services.


Average score: 6

Malaysia’s National Culture Policy, which provides the guidelines for Malaysian national identity, clearly stresses the role of Islam as central to Malaysia. This has resulted in issues of marginalization for other cultures and religions. Overall, most cultural and religious minorities feel dissatisfied with their treatment, despite their holidays being recognized and celebrated.

Access to Justice

Average score: 7

Malaysia’s legal system is historically and constitutionally plural. However, access to justice can vary depending on the issues or the groups seeking legal recourse. As such, Indigenous groups have consistently sought legal recourse for the recognition of customary land and oral traditions, with the support of SUHAKAM.

Intergroup Relations and Belongong

Intergroup Violence

Average score: 7

Findings from the Pluralism Perceptions survey indicate that over half of Malaysians are concerned about national unity and safety. Overall, incidents of intergroup violence have occurred sparingly since independence in 1957. These incidents of violence tend to be between ethnic, religious or nationality groups.

Intergroup Trust

Average score: 7

Intergroup relations largely define intergroup trust in Malaysia. Most Malaysians would describe their country as harmonious, although disparities exist. Although Malays tend to be comfortable with non-Malay neighbours or schoolmates, they tend to feel their position and religion are threatened by other ethno-religious minority groups.

Trust in Institutions

Average score: 5

Most Malaysians are concerned about the efficacy of democracy. This crisis of confidence emerges from ongoing enforced disappearance cases, distrust in the public health system and unequal treatment experienced by non-Malays. Due to this difference in treatment, the Pluralism Perception Survey shows how Malays feel protected by policies and have more trust in institutions.

Inclusion and Acceptance

Average score: 5

There is an overwhelming sense of tolerance and peaceful coexistence in Malaysia. Unfortunately, this does not always translate to amity and integration across all groups. There is still overwhelming support for policies that improve the conditions of Malay/Bumiputera, mostly coming from this group. That support is challenged by other minorities who instead feel excluded.

Shared Ownership of Society

Average score: 5

Findings from the Pluralism Perceptions survey indicate that most groups feel strong ties with Malaysia, although Malays score significantly higher than other groups. Despite Bumiputera being subject to many privileges, Christian Bumiputera typically feel less welcome into society than their Muslim counterpart. This indicates that levels of ties with Malaysia are not equal across groups.