Malaysia’s Political Polarization: Race, Religion, and Reform

Polarization over race, religion, and reform has afflicted Malaysia for decades and powerfully shaped its electoral politics. Since the country’s independence in 1957, its ethnic Malay majority has enjoyed a constitutionally protected special status, while ethnic minorities have been treated as second-class citizens. But what makes Malaysia’s polarization so complex is that two additional cleavages—over religion and competing visions for political reform—overlap with and often intensify ethnic divides.

Political elites regularly appeal to these divides to mobilize their supporters but also make intermittent efforts to downplay one or more of these fissures, with the aim of winning the “center ground” and securing power.1 Ultimately, however, these polarizing issues have scuttled efforts to reach political compromises, constrained the adoption of much-needed reforms, and fueled political instability. The damaging effects of polarization were evident most recently in February 2020, when sharp, identity-driven divisions contributed to the collapse of the most inclusive, secular government in the country’s history. What is more, although polarization is largely confined to the elite level, it is increasingly permeating Malaysian society, endangering interethnic harmony, and eroding social cohesion.


Malaysia’s polarization feeds on three primary divisions, each of which has deep historical roots. The country’s main dividing line is ethnic. Ever since independence, the dominant narrative of national identity has been that Malaysia is for the Malays—the country’s largest ethnic group, which comprises 50.8 percent of the population.2 Other communities—namely the Chinese and Indian Malaysians, whose families immigrated to the country before independence, and the plethora of smaller indigenous ethnic groups on the island of Borneo—have not enjoyed equal rights and status in various ways. The country’s prevailing racial hierarchy has faced repeated challenges, which have exposed ethnic cleavages and led to different levels of inclusion over time.

Malaysia’s ethnic divisions date back to the struggle for independence from British colonialism. A key moment came in 1946, when the British formed one administrative unit, the Malayan Union, for the ethnically diverse states that later would become part of Malaysia.3 In response, Malay elites mobilized, and that same year they formed the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), an ethnonationalist party that defended special privileges for Malays.4 Nonetheless, UMNO joined forces with political parties from the Chinese and Indian ethnic communities, and it became the leading force in a multiethnic national coalition known as the Alliance, which later expanded and renamed itself the National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN). This UMNO-led coalition would govern from independence in 1957 through 2018. Although it stood as an example of interethnic political cooperation, it also institutionalized the fundamental role of ethnicity in Malaysian politics and granted Malays special rights.

The country’s independence period also saw the emergence of a second divide, this one between Islamists and secularists. Debates over the appropriate role of Islam in public life intensified among Malay elites starting in the 1930s and shaped different conceptions of Malay nationalism. These divisions led Muslim clerics to break off from UMNO and form the Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or PAS) in 1951. The enduring push for a less secular state has shaped Malaysian politics for decades, sharpening differences over political Islam. At the same time, divisions between Islamists and secularists have reinforced Malaysia’s ethnic polarization. Almost all Malays are Muslim, whereas ethnic minorities predominantly are not, and Islamist groups thus have melded their religious appeals with Malay nationalist messages. Race and religion have increasingly fused, with most (although not all) Malays adopting an Islamist outlook and minority communities being more secular.

A third divide, over the issue of political reform, rooted in different conceptions of state power, has further intensified racial polarization. Malay political elites have propagated the view that they are the “protector[s]” of the Malay/Muslim community and, as such, that they are implicitly entitled to control state resources as they see fit, including for their own personal benefit.5 Based on a feudal model of politics, this outlook implies that the public should show loyalty and obedience to their protectors. Other elites and Malaysia’s expanding civil society have challenged this view and championed a more participatory system, arguing that the government should respect the inputs, interests, and rights of ordinary citizens. They have called for checks on corruption and abuse of power, directly challenging the behavior of political elites. Both sides, the self-appointed “protectors” and the “participants,” advocate for reform, but their ideas of what reform means and whom it should empower differ sharply.

This complex third divide did not materialize until 1969, when the governing Alliance lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time, leading to racial riots and eighteen months of emergency rule. In the aftermath of this turmoil, rising Malay nationalism became tightly intertwined with a hierarchical, undemocratic model of politics. In this period, Malay special rights became embedded in a social contract through the concept of ketuanan Melayu or Malay dominance. The government also introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, an affirmative action plan nominally based on need but that favored Malays in practice. Crucially, this period also marked a shift in how state power was to be controlled; it was now to be dominated by Malay elites, viewed as the protectors of the community. The government narrowed democratic space and limited civil liberties, seeking to protect Malay rights and those in power. These antidemocratic changes crystallized very different outlooks regarding the state, its legitimacy, and how and by whom it should be controlled and reformed.


These three cleavages—over race, religion, and reform—have intersected in complex ways over Malaysia’s postindependence history. Over the years, they have fueled elite divisions and led to shifts in the intensity and dominant mode of polarization.


After Merdeka (independence), Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, led the Alliance, ensuring that all ethnic communities had elite representation. Nation building overshadowed the divides of race and religion, and this period was known as one of ethnic harmony in a climate of robust political freedoms. Furthermore, divisions over the usage of state power had yet to fully emerge, as state capacity was weak, the postcolonial bureaucracy was still being developed, and the private sector and commodities were the country’s main economic drivers.

Race, however, continued to shape the political narrative. Initially, attention focused on Singapore, which briefly joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. From the outset, there were tensions between Rahman and Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. These territories also had different ethnic compositions, with Singapore being majority Chinese and the federation mostly Malay. In 1965, however, the Malaysian parliament voted to expel Singapore from the federation, after personal antagonisms and racial tensions boiled over.6 This turning point intensified racial mobilization within Malaysia, especially over vernacular education and economic empowerment. These issues would culminate in the May 1969 postelection race riots, which reflected deep divisions over the representation of ethnic communities.


The period of emergency rule after May 1969 marked a rupture for Malaysia. Not only did the special rights of the Malay community become institutionalized through the idea of ketuanan Melayu and policies such as the NEP, but the state became a vehicle to maintain ethnic hierarchies and enrich the Malay elite. Opportunistic political elites played a central role in aggravating ethnic tensions. Indeed, the 1969 race riots were as much about elites using race for political ends as about actual racial grievances.7

A fusion of Malay nationalism and state power shaped the next thirty years of elite polarization in Malaysia. In the 1970s, the government reframed policies and spending relating to social development, language, and education along racial lines. Political representation reflected the new, institutionalized Malay dominance, as the Alliance became BN, dominated by UMNO but including a larger range of parties. Malay political power became not a responsibility earned at the ballot box, but an entitlement to be protected. The state became the driver of the domestic economy, investing heavily in infrastructure, expanding government-linked companies, and increasing overall spending, aided by discoveries of oil and gas deposits. A by-product of this spending was greater corruption and cronyism, and state resources and positions became a fount of patronage for the parties in power.

During this period, elite ethnic polarization also became increasingly linked to religious divisions. During the 1970s, as political freedoms were tightened, the only major arena left for political mobilization was religion, a space filled by students engaged in a global Islamic revival. To offset opposition from Islamists, in the early 1980s, the BN government, led by Mahathir Mohamad, coopted the Islamist student leader Anwar Ibrahim. Rather than allowing Islamism to challenge their grip on power, Malay nationalist elites instead made the state a promoter of Islam, massively expanding the country’s religious bureaucracy and blurring the line between religious and secular authority. Ever since, cooperation between Malay nationalists and Islamists has happened regularly, with racial and religious divisions reinforcing one another.

During this period, as BN coopted or neutralized most opposition parties, a party on the opposite side of Malaysia’s polarizing divides became its primary opponent. The predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) largely represents non-Malays, champions secularism, and implicitly calls for reforms of the unchecked privileges of the Malay-oriented state. Elections between 1969 and 1995 thus pitted two starkly polarized alternatives and elite visions of Malaysia against each other. For most of this period, the overwhelming majority of the electorate stayed loyal to the incumbent government, as BN delivered robust economic growth.


The Asian financial crisis of 1997–1999 dealt a blow to the BN government and initiated profound changes within Malaysia’s opposition. The economic contraction provoked elite competition within UMNO and a challenge against prime minister Mahathir, led by his own deputy, the former student leader Anwar. In 1998, Anwar was arrested and tried for corruption and sodomy in a politically motivated trial.

These events sparked Malaysia’s reformasi (reform) movement, which called for better governance, anticorruption measures, greater ethnic inclusion, and political freedoms. The movement transformed the opposition by moving it toward the center and enabling new electoral alliances among the previously fragmented opposition parties. Although race and religion continued to divide Malaysia, the opposition became more inclusive and managed to form a coalition between 2008 and 2015 that included the progressive DAP, former deputy prime minister Anwar’s newly founded reformist People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or the PKR), and even the Islamist PAS. This diverse coalition began to win elections from 2008 onward, initially taking control of two state governments.

As the opposition gained traction in the center, BN began losing popular support and turned to polarizing tactics to compensate. As UMNO disengaged from its political roots as a mass-membership party and became a vehicle for its elites, it relied ever more on racialized rhetoric.8 Interethnic cooperation within BN fell apart, as non-Malay electoral support collapsed. Furthermore, corruption allegations severely damaged BN and prime minister Najib Razak, who in 2015 was tied to the world’s largest kleptocracy scandal, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.9 To hold on to power, Najib tapped into state and 1MDB funds and ratcheted up rhetoric over race and religion. He even argued that reform would threaten businesses tied to the patronage machine. Although Najib had managed to hold onto power in 2013 despite losing the popular vote, in 2018, BN lost power for the first time.

Crucial to the opposition’s success in the 2018 election was the inclusion of Mahathir, a BN prime minister for more than two decades, within the opposition’s Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan, or PH). He joined in 2017, leading a new Malay race-based party along with then former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who had been sacked for raising concerns about 1MDB in 2015. Widespread discontent with Najib helped overshadow the divisive issues of race and religion, and the goal of Najib’s removal became a broad umbrella for different visions of reform, especially for non-Malay supporters who envisioned a fairer system. With the promise of a “New Malaysia,” Mahathir returned to lead the country’s first-ever non-UMNO government.10


In February 2020, after less than two years in power, the PH government dramatically collapsed, destabilized by internal divisions. As prime minister, Mahathir was unable or unwilling to leave behind racial politics, respond to criticisms that he was selling out Islam to the secularists, and engage in meaningful reform. Anwar’s positions on racial inclusion and secularism also differed from those of many other coalition partners. Furthermore, even though personality differences between Mahathir and Anwar and disagreements over power sharing fueled acrimony, it was the deeply entrenched divisions over governance that severed, distracted, and delegitimized PH.

Meanwhile, after their devastating defeat in 2018, the Malay nationalists of UMNO joined forces with their erstwhile Islamist foe PAS and began reigniting the country’s polarizing divides. In by-elections, the two parties tapped into Malay resentments over ethnic displacement, stoked antireform resistance, and called for the protection of Islam. Ultimately, they united with disgruntled, less reform-oriented factions within PH to form a new coalition, the National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional, or PN), which took power in March 2020.

Muhyiddin, formerly an UMNO deputy prime minister and home minister in the PH government, became prime minister at the head of a Malay ethnonationalist government. He appointed only one minister each from the country’s two largest ethnic minority communities. PN was not elected, opting to come to power through the back door with support from those who argued that power should be overwhelmingly in Malay hands. Casting itself as a Malay-dominant, pro-Islamist protector, PN sustains itself by appealing to all three main divisions in society. Yet PN has an untested, razor-thin majority in parliament and comprises parties that are competing for the same slice of the electorate. As was the case with PH, the fissures inside the coalition on these issues contribute to PN’s instability.

Arguably having risen to power by stoking polarization, Muhyiddin is now grappling firsthand with its consequences, even as he faces a historic national crisis: the coronavirus pandemic. Comparatively early healthcare interventions; Muhyiddin’s short-lived, crisis-driven boost in public support; and responsive (albeit uneven) policy implementation helped Malaysia impressively flatten the curve of the virus’s spread. Yet polarization has remained close to the surface during the pandemic. As xenophobic sentiments have increased, foreign workers and refugees have become a proxy for race-based anger. Large religious gatherings have also been blamed for spreading the virus, often through hostile and otherizing lenses.

Amid this crisis, Muhyiddin remains beholden to his coalition partners, who expect racial preferences, Islamist policies, and patronage—all of which work against the social solidarity and unity needed to respond to the pandemic’s public health and economic consequences. The distribution of patronage, including through appointments blatantly aimed at shoring up Muhyiddin’s political majority, has provoked significant controversy. Some observers are critical of them as a waste of public resources in a time of need; others regard them as entitlements necessary for political stability. The coronavirus thus has yet to surmount Malaysia’s entrenched divisions. In fact, the virus is already showing signs of becoming a new arena for political jockeying. The period has seen controversial, politicized appointments in government-linked companies, which have undercut governance reforms, as well as the dismissal of criminal charges against those seen to be engaged in corruption under UMNO rule.11 So far, however, politicians have held off against openly appealing to the poles of race and religion for support, but it may only be a matter of time until they do so given PN’s political fragility.

Over the past twenty years, Malaysia has witnessed intensive mobilization around polarizing divisions by elites aiming to both hold on to and win power. Political contests have become zero-sum games that have normalized a destructive takedown political culture. The state continues to serve as a vehicle for elite patronage, even plunder. As political parties lose ground in the center, they return to polarizing rhetoric and mobilization to secure their bases. When elites reach accommodation on these issues to win broader public support, enduring divisions hamper cooperation in office, foster public anger and distrust among their core supporters, and ultimately contribute to political instability. It is too early to assess whether the coronavirus will disrupt this pattern or further reinforce Malaysia’s long-standing polarization.


The sources of the country’s polarization extend beyond the interests and strategies of political elites. They involve deep socioeconomic changes that have contributed to different outlooks within Malaysian society.


Malaysia’s economic transformation created new constituencies supportive of reform. As the economy grew by 5 to 7 percent annually on average in the 1980s and 1990s (until the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s), the middle class expanded, creating a largely urban and cosmopolitan group of voters who tended to be critical of UMNO’s policies.12 This new middle class comprised not only ethnic minorities who faced discrimination but also Malays who aspired to be part of the elite and were shut out. The growth of the middle class also supported an expansion of civil society, which mobilized around issues such as corruption, electoral reform, and human rights. Ironically, the economic changes that BN brought about strengthened the opposition and thereby intensified political competition.


At the same time, economic inequality, long seen through an ethnic lens, has fueled support for ethnonationalist appeals. Since 1997, economic divisions in Malaysia have persisted, and inequalities between ethnic communities have become an increasingly salient issue.13 A large share of those deemed to be in the Bottom 40 percent (B40) are economically insecure, with low wages and high debt. This group is disproportionately composed of Malays and East Malaysians. Using its ethnonationalist rhetoric, UMNO has heightened the insecurities of these voters around elections, using fear to its advantage and reinforcing polarization. BN relied heavily on support from these lower-class and rural voters, often using its control of patronage resources to win their votes. These strategies did not work in 2018, as sharp increases in the cost of living and a series of political scandals battered the ruling coalition. But UMNO continued to tap effectively into economic insecurities after PH came into office, as Mahathir’s coalition failed to address economic inequality. The B40 now comprises the base for the Muhyiddin government, and this underlying driver of polarization remains salient.


A religious revival across faiths has reinforced polarization. From the late 1970s to the present, levels of religiosity within Malaysian society have been increasing gradually. All the major faiths have strengthened the organization of their religions, including by politically mobilizing their faithful, and more children have been segregated from peers of different faiths through religious schools or home schooling. These shifts have deepened societal divisions, as religious groups have been mobilized around different poles and socialized into righteous outlooks in how they engage with the “other” side.

The expansion of the state’s Islamic bureaucracy since the 1980s has further increased sectarian divisions and amplified the Islamist-secularist divide. Today, the federal Islamic religious department, housed in the prime minister’s office, has an annual budget of approximately $300 million and thousands of staff involved in monitoring social behavior and regulating the economy.14 In public education, religious classes often take up almost half the school day, and students are segregated by religion for these courses, creating resentments. The number of Islamic religious schools has grown exponentially, with many students growing up without friends from other communities.

The state’s administration of Islam has been seen to encroach on the rights of non-Muslims and many Muslims, especially in Muslim minority sects that have been targeted by state authorities. At the same time, the growth of the country’s religious bureaucracy has created a constituency with a vested interest in promoting religion, particularly the conservative interpretations of the faith predominant among state clerics, and thus has enhanced sharp differences between Islamists and secularists.


Another important catalyst extending polarization into Malaysian society has been changes in the country’s media landscape. Up until 1999, before the internet age began, the BN-led government controlled the mainstream media and dominant public narratives. The 1999 election cracked the government’s control of information, as opposition speeches about reform were emailed over the internet and in many cases put on CDs to be heard in rural communities. By 2010, the internet was dubbed a “liberation technology,” allowing the opposition to circumvent the government’s tight media controls.15 In 2013, flush with funds, BN dominated social media with trolls and targeted communication; in 2018, lacking the same funds and politically damaged, it was unable to counter the opposition’s savvy use of social media, including WhatsApp. Social media has enhanced the capacity of political elites to deliver alternative messages, feeding polarization.

New media platforms have amplified tensions surrounding race and religion as well. In 2013, UMNO used highly emotive messaging to convince citizens that voting against the party was selling out their community and religion, both of which needed to be protected. Increasingly, Malaysian citizens get their news from echo chambers that reflect and reinforce their own side of the country’s polarized split.


The weakness of Malaysian political parties has exacerbated polarization, as party leaders have turned to divisive rhetoric to compensate for their loss of grassroots connections and patronage resources after 2018. The country’s political parties have always been leader-centric, but campaigns from 2004 onward have become more “presidential” and professional, less connected to Malaysian society through personal ties and networks. Political parties have relied more on polarizing tactics to maintain their bases, demonizing the other side to hold on to support. Messages surrounding traditional divides of race, religion, and reform are much easier to deliver than a clear policy program, and fueling discontent is simpler than engaging with Malaysia’s diversity. Common slogans such as “Anything but UMNO,” “No DAP [Chinese],” “Save Malaysia [from Najib and UMNO],” and “Protect Islam” have effectively tapped into the insecurities and righteous indignation that have taken root throughout the country.


Malaysia has been reaping the consequences of elite polarization for decades.


The collapse of PH in February 2020 showcases the debilitating effects of elite polarization, as deep distrust and divisions between parties caused the government to fall apart. Political fragmentation over race, religion, and reform has made postelection coalitions less stable, because polarization narrows the number of politically viable partners and thus constrains the range of possible alliances. The instability of coalition governments means that the attention of officeholders centers on political survival rather than policy solutions to address the country’s challenges. Given this insecurity, the default option for parties is to use polarization to reenergize their traditional political bases, a strategy that perpetuates polarization.


Both government and opposition figures often myopically view policy issues through the lens of overarching divisions. With political frames and alliances locked in, polarization closes off discussions and the compromises needed to find solutions to the country’s challenges, notably structural issues in the economy, inequalities, persistent poverty, corruption, and deficits in education and human capital. Reform has itself been polarizing, as it has been a rallying call for different groups—for those opposed to BN, for Islamists and secularists, and for those demanding inclusion and fairness. The very divisiveness of reform is a serious obstacle to effective policymaking.


Elite political divisions have also fragmented Malaysian society. Different communities have deeply held resentments and insecurities about rights, often expressed as open intolerance and systemic exclusion. Racial and religious minorities are on the front lines, but all communities have been affected by the dominance of race and religion over other forms of political identity. Even though interethnic trust remains strong and quotidian relations remain cordial, more Malaysians live in separate ethnic silos, which furthers interethnic distancing. The mobilization of divisions has worsened ethnic relations, particularly since 2018, as UMNO has amplified its polarizing rhetoric to come back to power.

Overall, Malaysia has lacked the level of ethnic violence seen elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia. However, given the country’s history of race riots and the salience of ethnic identity, racial divides remain near the surface. In recent years, there have been a few attacks on religious sites and reports of racialized rage, often widely circulated on social media.16


Over the past decade, two broad efforts have emerged to redress polarization in Malaysia. The first has come from political elites themselves through the opposition’s move toward the center and inclusion of those with different outlooks. Efforts to adopt an inclusive Malaysian national identity have been essential in connecting fragmented parties, and approaches that groom younger leaders with national outlooks and a willingness to engage in new political arrangements offer the promise of easing polarization. According to 2018 United Nations data, more than half of Malaysia’s voting-age population is under forty years old, so engaging the youth is essential for ameliorating divisions and reshaping elite outlooks.17

A second set of efforts to address polarization has originated within civil society. Groups have worked to bridge differences through interfaith dialogues and cross-ethnic learning programs. Others have pushed for alternative forms of political identity that break out of existing divides and bring attention to needs-based issues such as poverty, gender disparities, and socioeconomic inequality. These initiatives have been effective in forging networks and at times shifting attention away from dominant polarizing paradigms. Facilitating these alternative narratives outside the country’s polarizing cleavages strengthens needed social networks.

Now, in the wake of PH’s collapse in February 2020, political elites face the difficult task of learning lessons and adjusting to new alliances. Malaysia’s polarizing divides remain dominant and seem entrenched. Yet, as the realities of the coronavirus pandemic set in, shocking the system as the 1MDB scandal did, the opportunities for new political arrangements and thinking are real.


1 Liew Chin Tong, Middle Malaysia: Centre Ground Is Battle Ground (Kuala Lumpur: Genta Media, 2013).

2 In this 2015 statistical record, the Malay population is listed separately from other Bumiputera communities. See the Malaysian Ministry of Communications and Multimedia Department of Information, “Unjuran Populasi Penduduk 2015” [2015 population projections], 2015,

3 Timothy Norman Harper, The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

4 Clive Kessler, “UMNO: Then, Now – and Always?” in The End of UMNO? Essays on Malaysia’s Dominant Party, Bridget Welsh ed. (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2016), 147–170.

5 Chandra Muzaffar, Protector?: An Analysis of the Concept and Practice of Loyalty in Leader-Led Relationships Within Malay Society (Pulau Pinang, Malaysia: Aliran, 1979).

6 Albert Lau, A Moment of Anguish: Singapore in Malaysia and the Politics of Disengagement (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998).

7 Kua Kia Soong, May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: SUARAM, 2007).

8 Bridget Welsh ed., The End of UMNO? Essays on Malaysia’s Former Dominant Party, new ed. (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2018).

9 Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World (New York: Hachette Books, 2018).

10 Richard C. Paddock, “In Malaysia, the Old Prime Minister Promises a New Order,” New York Times, May 10, 2018,

11 Eileen Ng, “Malaysian Prosecutors Drop Second High-Profile Graft Case,” Associated Press, June 9, 2020,

12 “GDP Growth (Annual %) – Malaysia,” World Bank, 2019,

13 Muhammed Abdul Khalid and Li Yang, “Income Inequality and Ethnic Cleavages in Malaysia: Evidence From Distributional National Accounts (1984–2014),” World Inequality Lab, Issue Brief 2019/5, July 2019,

14 Yuen Meikeng, “Budget 2020: Jakim Welcomes Increase in Allocations for Islamic Affairs,” Star, October 11, 2019,

15 Larry Diamond, “Liberation Technology,” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 3 (2010): 69–83.

16 For an overview of the key human rights challenges facing Malaysia, see Human Rights Watch, “Malaysia: Events of 2019,” World Report 2020, 2020,

17 United Nations Statistics Division, “United Nations Demographic Yearbook, 2018,” 2018, 237,



Published in Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia: Old Divisions, New Dangers, by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.