Towards a More Democratic Regime and Society? The Politics of Faith and Ethnicity in a Transitional Multi-Ethnic Malaysia

Kikue Hamayotsu


The rising antagonistic attitudes and tension between the Malay majority and ethnic and religious minorities in Malaysia since 2007 is intriguing because it has occurred when society experienced an unprecedentedly large-scale and assertive multi-ethnic pro-democracy movement. This article argues that precisely these assertive and confident civil and political societies – and their emphasis on equal rights and equitable development for all Malaysians – have put the traditional Malay and religious elites on the defensive. The pro-democracy movement and the prospects of regime change have threatened not only the party-dominant regime but also – and more importantly – the constitutional and institutional foundations of ethnic exclusivism and privileges. Moreover, two Malay-based parties, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), are viewed as giving too many political concessions to the non-Malay communities to gain an electoral advantage, making the traditional Malay and religious elites even more defensive of their position and power. As a result, religious issues are excessively politicised, further deteriorating the already complicated inter-ethnic relations of the country. The prospects for achieving a democratic regime and society appear grim, although hopes have run high since the electoral rise of the multi-ethnic opposition.

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