Ethnic Tensions in Malaysia - Radical

Ethnic Tensions in Malaysia

Malaysia is well known for its diverse peoples. Many different cultures make up the fabric of the country. Additionally, this includes Malaysians from different ethnicities and expatriates from countries around the world. The four largest groups in Malaysia are the ethnic Malay, Chinese Malaysians, Indian Malaysians, and Malaysians from tribal backgrounds. Each of these groups has its own set of traditions, religions, and challenges.

One of the largest issues in Malaysia is tension between these people groups. Moreover, racism and special privileges leave some at a disadvantage and others walled in from outside influences. As you read about these four groups, take time to pray for them. Ask the Lord to remove the tension between Malaysia’s many peoples for the sake of the spread of the gospel.

Ethnic Malay Culture

The ethnic Malay people group is the largest group in Malaysia, numbering around 13 million. However, Ethnic Malays are defined by three things. First, those who speak the Malay language. Secondly, those who practice Malay culture. Lastly, those who follow Islam. To be ethnically Malay is to be Muslim. Sunni Islam is the official religion for the ethnic Malays.

Community and family are highly valued in ethnic Malay culture. Therefore, ethnic Malays are expected to follow the traditions and practices of their people. As a result, it is illegal for ethnic Malays to practice another religion besides Islam. Those who do decide to leave Islam often face persecution and cultural isolation.

One mission of Malaysia’s government is to preserve and protect Islam, and thus the ethnic Malay culture. Ethnic Malays enjoy certain privileges in education, employment, business, etc., that other groups do not. These privileges cause tension and distance between ethnic Malays and other groups. However, in most states, it is illegal for people to share the gospel with an ethnic Malay. Therefore, rarely will you see an ethnic Malay attending church. These rules further separate ethnic Malays from other groups and from the gospel.

Chinese Malaysians

Making up about 20% of the population of Malaysia, Malaysians of Chinese descent are the second largest people group in the country. Additionally, Chinese background Malaysians mostly descend from Han Chinese and speak a variety of languages, including Hokkien, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

Chinese Malaysian Christians are the largest group of Christ followers in Malaysia, about 9% percent of the Chinese Malaysian population. The country has several Chinese Malaysian churches, and some families have passed Christianity down through generations. However, the majority of Malaysian Chinese (more than 70%), still follow Buddhism or traditional Chinese religions.

Known for their success in business and commerce, most Malaysian Chinese can be found in urban areas. They have a well-established middle class. But, they often struggle with the social and economic policies that favor ethnic Malays, especially in education and business.

Indian Malaysians

Indian Malaysians can be found in all levels of Malaysian society, differing from the very wealthy to the very poor. About 7% of the population, Indian Malaysians are the third largest group in Malaysia. Most come from Tamil backgrounds and speak Tamil, Malay, and English.

The majority of Indian Malaysians (85%) follow Hinduism, worshipping millions of gods. Hindu temples can be found throughout major cities and some rural areas. Christians make up about 5% of the Indian Malaysian population, with Muslims following close behind at 4%.

Similarly, most Indian Malaysians face the same social, economic, and political discrimination as Chinese Malaysians. Likewise, these discriminations hit them hardest in education, cost of living, and business. Many Indian Malaysian Christians worship together with Chinese Malaysian Christians, although some worship in Indian Malaysian churches.

Malaysians from Tribal Backgrounds

A less known group of Malaysians, called Orang Asli, or original people, are the oldest inhabitants of Malaysia. They come from many different tribes, each with their own cultures, religions, and languages. Officially there are 18 tribes of Orang Asli in Malaysia. When counted as one group, the tribal background Malaysians make up about 12% of the population, making them larger than the Indian Malaysians.

Malaysians from tribal backgrounds can be found all throughout Malaysia, but many of them are located in rural areas, especially in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Many tribal Malaysians rely on hunting, fishing, or agriculture to make a living, but some migrate to cities for work.

Traditionally, the tribal background Malaysians are animists. They believe in many spirits and their ability to inhabit inanimate and animate objects. Many have recently chosen to follow other religions, particularly Islam and Christianity. The Malaysian constitution allows the tribal Malaysians to practice the religion of their choice.

While being indigenous to Malaysia is supposed to allow tribal Malaysians access to social, economic, and political privileges, they are not always treated as native Malaysians. Moreover, some politicians have caused difficulties for the tribal Malaysians, saying they do not deserve the same status as ethnic Malays.


While Malaysia has a rich culture of diversity, the country is not without its problems. In conclusion, pray for these major people groups in Malaysia. Especially, for equal treatment for all and for easing of ethnic tensions. Pray also for many more from these groups to have access to the gospel and to respond it in faith.

Harper McKay is a global worker in Southeast Asia who has served as a guest contributor for Radical covering missions and work among the unreached.


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