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The convergence of racial politics and sectarianism in Malaysia

Article by Saleena Saleem

July 19, 2022

The convergence of racial politics and sectarianism in Malaysia

The Muslim-majority countries of Southeast Asia – Indonesia and Malaysia – are known for its ethnically plural societies. This is in part an outcome of Chinese and Indian labour migration to meet the needs of capitalist production in the region during the colonial period. These plural Southeast Asian societies today are shaped by legacies of colonial racial categories and state-led racialisation practices that have effectively essentialised ethnic groups in the region. Central in this is the prevailing colonial-inspired worldview forwarded by ruling elites that racial and religious differences are intrinsic, unstable and divisive in plural societies. Hence, it is common for these Southeast Asian states to implement interventionist and illiberal governance approaches to manage matters of race and religion. This is done on the pretext that inter-ethnic differences can easily result in outbreaks of violence in the absence of such approaches.


This same argument for managing racial and religious pluralism is used by the Indonesian and Malaysian states to adopt interventionist and illiberal approaches to homogenise Islam and strengthen Sunni Muslim groups. Political and religious elites attempt to dilute intra-Muslim group differences, be it through the overt criminalisation of Muslim minority groups and/or through divisive sectarian rhetoric. For example, Shia Muslim minorities are securitised by the state as societal threats on claims of religious deviancy in Malaysia and state actors on similar claims in Indonesia foster Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions.[1] In more recent times, political and religious elites in Indonesia and Malaysia invoke religious orthodoxy arguments to otherise Islamic reformists as ‘liberal’ enemies of an authentic Islam.[2]


These latter forms of intra-Sunni Muslim divisions in which Muslim reformists, who advocate for democratic values of racial inclusion, equality and fairness, are otherised and labelled as religiously ‘deviant’, are typically less considered in studies of sectarianism.[3] This is partly because Islamic reformists in Indonesia and Malaysia usually do not identify nor organise themselves as a distinctive sect in the same way Muslim minority sects such as the Shia and Ahmadiyya do, with their centuries-long history of sedimented theological differences. Nevertheless, when political and religious elites successfully label Muslim reformists as religiously ‘deviant’, they also consequently rigidify the boundaries of socially acceptable beliefs, attitudes and actions of Muslims in ethnically plural societies in ways that intersect with other long-existing social divisions of race, class and gender.


Through reflections on the ruling elites’ othering of ‘liberal’ Muslims as a pejorative category in Malaysian politics and its social implications in Malaysia, this essay explores how racial politics is implicated in and contributes to sectarianism. It contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the complex and intersectional nature of emergent forms of intra-Muslim divisions in ethnically plural Southeast Asian contexts, which will help to inform policy and grassroots initiatives aimed at improving social cohesion.


Colonial roots of racial divisions in Malaysia

The local people who lived in the ‘Malay world’ did not initially see themselves as part of a bounded community of Malays.[4] However, British colonial policy driven by the needs of the colonial economy in Malaysia was responsible for enacting policies that heightened racial group distinctions in society. Through the allocation of different racial groups to specialised occupations, the British colonials created racial and class distinctions between the bumiputera group (consisting of Malays and indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak) and the immigrant Chinese and Indian groups. The Malays and indigenous peoples worked in agricultural and fishing occupations while the Chinese worked in trade and commercial labourers and the Indians worked in service and in the plantations.[5] These British colonials regarded each group as separate racial entities that only interacted in the marketplace for specific economic interests and purposes, and largely lived in isolated social units because they lacked common social will and values.[6]


During the later years of colonial rule – in the run up to independence – a competitive attitude developed between the Malay elites and the Chinese and Indian elites as each group sought political power and rights. The Malay elites had little incentive to cooperate with the other minority group elites toward a political framework based on equal rights because the heightened racial differences were accompanied by strong perceptions of unequal class differences. For example, the Chinese were perceived to be economically well off compared to the other groups. In the jockeying for political power during this period, the Malay identity became explicitly marked as Muslim and the religion of Islam was harnessed as a tool for inter-ethnic rivalry and control because this had the benefit of limiting the power of non-Malay groups during negotiations on the new nation-state of Malaysia.[7]


State-led racialisation of non-Malays

This racially divided social order structured during the colonial period became entrenched in political and institutional configurations when Malaysia became independent in 1957. The Malay elites in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) forged a political alliance with Chinese elites from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Indian elites from the Malayan Indian Association (MIC). The three racial-based political parties negotiated a political understanding where the primacy of the ethno-religious identity of the Malays was enshrined in the 1957 Federal Constitution.


In the constitutional framework, the minority ethnic groups in exchange for the recognition of non-Malay jus soli citizenship rights at independence accepted Malay political dominance.[8] Historically, this colloquial understanding of Malay dominance (ketuanan Melayu) entailed a social compact between the three races wherein the Malays were understood to be indigenous to the land of Malaysia and hence the rightful ethnic group holding political power in accordance with its constitutionally mandated special position.[9] Initially, governmental power was shared between politicians from the three race-based parties, and inter-racial demands were addressed through bargaining and compromises, but this practice was short-lived.


The newly independent Malaysia was fraught with issues of rural poverty that predominantly affected Malays. After an outbreak of post-election violence between the Malays and the Chinese in 1969, the government responded to growing Malay disaffection with an affirmative action policy, the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was intended to help increase Malay participation in the Malaysian economy and to reduce poverty. As race was a governmental criterion for the allocation of scarce resources, the NEP became responsible for heightening racial distinctions between Malay and non-Malay citizens.[10] To stay politically relevant and win Malay votes, Malay ruling elites conflated the notion of ketuanan Melayu with Malay special rights by positioning themselves as defenders of indigenous citizens’ rights.


The notion of ketuanan Melayu and the continued implementation of pro-Malay affirmative action policies that are linked to racial categories effectively racialised the Chinese and Indians minorities in Malaysia as immigrant cultural outsiders in contrast with Malays, who are upheld by the state and its civil society supporters as indigenous cultural insiders.[11]


Sectarianisation of the ‘Liberal’ Muslim other

Since the 1998 pro-democracy Reformasi (Reform) movement in Malaysia though, ketuanan Melayu became a polarising point of contention between UMNO Malay elites and reform-oriented opposition politicians. The opposition coalition, which was multi-ethnic and also included Malay politicians, advocated equal treatment for all ethnicities and emphasised needs-based assistance instead of pro-Malay policies; the political push for a new social compact increasingly attracted votes from non-Malay minorities and also Malays in the urban areas between 2008 and 2018.


This context of increasing political competition and mounting electoral losses motivated UMNO elites to reaffirm their commitment to ketuanan Melayu and construct the meaning of ‘liberal’ as ‘anti-Islam’ in an effort to retain political power. Through a sectarianising discourse, they framed ‘liberal’ Malays as a threat by associating them with non-Malay ethnic minorities and, by extension, with secular values to politically de-legitimise them. The state’s religious bureaucracies too were instrumental in bolstering this depiction of the ‘liberal’ threat through propagation of religious sermons. Central in this framing was the divisive argument that ketuanan Melayu, Malay special rights, and Islamic values were threatened by non-Muslim ethnic minorities and their ‘liberal’ Malay Muslim partners who were pushing for pro-democratic reforms.[12]


As political competition increased, the entrenched race-based political system and the constitutional provisions for Malay special position that heightened inter-ethnic differences also facilitated the sectarianisation of the ‘liberal’ Muslim. In the Malaysian context, the racialisation of non-Malays as cultural outsiders and the recent sectarianisation of the ‘liberal’ Muslim other by UMNO elites function together to construct social divisions for political gains.


The social cost of the ‘Liberal’ Muslim label

The ‘liberal’ Muslim as a pejorative category in Malaysian politics functions powerfully as a divisive tool when used to signal threat under changing contexts of political competition and socio-political crises. Having been ousted from government in the 2018 general elections, UMNO utilised the pejorative understanding of reform-oriented politicians as the ‘liberal’ other to manoeuvre its way back into the folds of power in less than two years with significant Malay support. New survey data also indicate Malays are more supportive of Malay-led political leadership than an ethnically plural leadership.[13] Therefore, it is likely that the ‘liberal’ other sectarianising arsenal would be used again for political gains because it works.


However, this comes at a social cost. While Malaysia rarely suffers from ethnic violence, there is a marked uptick in occurrences of ethno-religious controversies played out at the national level, which contribute to polarising societal attitudes about inclusive governance.[14] This polarisation contributes to the pejorative understanding of the ‘liberal’ other. This in turn affects the behaviours and choices of civil society actors engaged in inter-religious and inter-ethnic advocacy work.


Recent interviews with Malay Muslim women activists from ideologically different groups – secular, Islamic feminist and Islamic – indicate that self-awareness of the ‘liberal’ other label do influence some of them to modify their behaviours and choices in the course of their advocacy work.[15] Some women activists from the Islamic groups were reluctant to openly endorse certain advocacy positions by Malay activists and civil society groups who have been labelled by Malay politicians and the state religious bureaucracies as ‘liberal’.


For example, one women activist from the Islamic group, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM, Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia) praised a prominent Malay women activist-lawyer for her work on helping the Orang Asli (indigenous people) defend for their lands against mining and logging activities in Peninsula Malaysia. However, the woman lawyer-activist was labelled as ‘liberal’ because she strongly opposed the overreach of religious bureaucracies and the UMNO government, and also supported the LBGT community. For the ABIM activist, the label made it impossible for her group to openly support the activist-lawyer’s Orang Asli agenda, even though she personally agreed with it. Women activists from Islamic groups also described being pulled into controversies in Islamic NGO circles after being labelled by other more conservative Islamic groups as ‘liberal’ for engaging with non-Malays in inter-religious activities.


Conclusion: Civil society’s role in mitigating divisions

The social cost then arises when the fear of social stigmatisation due to the ‘liberal’ Muslim label makes Muslims from Islamic civil society groups less willing to openly engage and work together with secular civil society groups or reform-oriented individuals on pertinent social issues. Yet such inter-group civil society engagement at the grassroots level is precisely what is necessary to help mitigate the negative consequences of political polarisation in Malaysia. Civil society groups of different ideological leanings (race-based/multi-ethnic groups and religious/secular) groups that can find common ground over specific issues will be better placed to build inter-group solidarity without fear of being drawn into polarising controversies that are ultimately due to the machinations of politicians interested in maintaining their hold on power.


Perhaps as a consequence of Malaysia’s rapid descent into political chaos and amplification of polarising rhetoric by politicians since UMNO’s sudden ouster from power in 2018, there is already an indication that civil society groups are making more attempts to build inter-ethnic and inter-religious bridges. For example, recent research indicates that there is evidence of inter-group engagement and instances of social learning that occur between women activists from the secular, Islamic feminist, and Islamic groups.[16] The prospects for mitigating polarising divisions lie in civil society activists from ideologically different groups recognising and building upon these emerging points of intersection, which will enable them to better hold politicians to account. Therefore, initiatives that promote and facilitate inter-group engagement can be a helpful start in helping civil society actors make these necessary recognitions.


Saleena Saleem is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Liverpool. Her research interests are on religion, state, and gender in South-east Asia. Saleena holds a Master of Science in Political Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Master of Science in Business and Economics Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Boston University. She held research positions at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and at the Centre for Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.


[1] Saleem, Saleena. State Use of Public Order and Social Cohesion Concerns in the Securitisation of Non-mainstream Muslims in Malaysia. Journal of Religious and Political Practice 4, no. 3, (2018): 314–335. Formichi, Chiara. Violence, Sectarianism, and the Politics of Religion: Articulations of Anti-Shi’a Discourses in Indonesia. Indonesia 98, (2014): 1–27.

[2] Sebastian, Leonard C., Hasyim, Syafiq, and Arifianto, Alexander R. 2020. Rising Islamic Conservatism in Indonesia Islamic Groups and Identity Politics. Milton Park, UK: Routledge. Saleena Saleem, Saleena. Constructing the ‘liberal’ Muslim other: Ethnic Politics, Competition, and Polarisation in Malaysia. Religion, State & Society 49, no. 2, (2021): 109-125.

[3] One exception is a recent special issue collection that focuses on exploring emergent forms of sectarian divisions between Sunni Muslim groups in Southeast Asia, which are theologically and religiously more similar than dissimilar (Arifianto and Saleem 2021). Arifianto, Alexander R. and Saleem, Saleena. Introduction: Sectarianisation in Southeast Asia and Beyond. Religion, State & Society 49, no. 2, (2021): 86-92

[4] Milner, Anthony. 2002. The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[5] Hirschman, Charles. The making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and racial ideology. Sociological Forum 1, no. 2, (1986): 330–61.

[6] Hock Guan, Lee. Furnivall’s plural society and Leach’s political systems of Highland Burma. SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 24, no. 1, (2009): 32-46.

[7] Hefner, Robert W. 2001. Multiculturalism and citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, in The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, Robert W. Hefner (ed), Hawaii, USA: University of Hawaii, pp. 1-58.

[8] Milne, Robert Stephan and Mauzy, Diane K. 1980. Politics and Government in Malaysia. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press.

[9] The Constitution recognises the special position of the Malays, along with Malay rulers as heads of Islam, and accords Malay as the sole official language and Islam as the state religion; it also provides for special rights to protect the Malays. The special rights are related to the reservation of positions for Malays in the civil service, public scholarships and in public education. These special rights were later extended to the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak when the two states joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963.

[10] Peletz, Michael. 2005. Islam and the Cultural Politics of Legitimacy: Malaysia in the Aftermath of September 11, in Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization, Robert Hefner (ed), Princeton, US: Princeton University Press.

[11] Gabriel, Sharmani Patricia. Racialisation in Malaysia: Multiracialism, Multiculturalism, and the Cultural Politics of the Possible. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 52, no. 4, (2021): 611–633

[12] Saleem, Saleena. Constructing the ‘liberal’ Muslim other: Ethnic Politics, Competition, and Polarisation in Malaysia. Religion, State & Society 49, no. 2, (2021): 109-125.

[13] Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, New Study Reveals Empirical-based Insights into the Thinking, Behaviour and Living Conditions of Malaysia’s Majority Population, December 2021,

[14] Saleem, Saleena. Malaysia 2019: The Politics of Fear and UMNO’s Renewed Relevance. Asia Maior, (2020): 267–286.

[15] The interviews were conducted between December 2020 and July 2021 by the author for her PhD dissertation entitled “Mitigating Polarization in Plural Southeast Asian Societies: Trust Building, Social Learning, and Muslim Women Activism in Malaysia”.

[16] Findings from author’s PhD dissertation on “Mitigating Polarization in Plural Southeast Asian Societies”.

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