Increasingly there is a sense by many in the world that certain groups of people and various religions must inherently hate each other, advocating separation to avoid hostility…most of whom likely haven’t experienced traveling in Malaysia. Despite being far from perfection, the majority of Malaysia’s varied population exists with awareness but without focus on the different groups all around them. According to the Pew Research Center in 2010, Malaysia ranks as one of the world’s most religiously tolerant nations, ranking higher than Sweden and the United States.
Although religious intolerance is on the rise globally, cohesion in Malaysia is strengthened by variation in its population, in a balance struck between the government, its mass-minorities, and reality.
The official state religion of Malaysia is Islam, whose followers make up approximately 60% of the population, dispersed across two landmasses separated by the South China Sea. Since the first millennium, what is now Malaysia has been settled in several major waves of people from other parts of Southeast Asia, looking to take advantage of its ideal maritime trading location. The result today is large minorities of Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus who comprise 20, 10, and 6 percent respectively of Malaysia’s 28 million citizens.
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Although Malaysia’s state religion is (controversially) Islam, the constitution of the country is officially secular. Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution expresses the right for persons to practice their own religion, however makes clear that restrictions may be placed on how Muslims practice and propagate their own religion. Malaysia’s two federal territories and 11 states may also enact legislation in regards to its Muslim residents. For example, a Muslim may not marry another non-Muslim without the other person converting to the religion, however two non-Muslims may marry members of the opposite sex without such restrictions.
- This a la carte legal system reveals the government’s bias toward Islam; in practice it’s much more difficult to covert out of, than into, the religion.
In some parts with large Christian minorities, Sunday is the official end of week, while in others, it’s (the traditional Islamic) Friday. There are two judicial systems – sharia law, determined under state law for Muslims, and secular for everyone else.
Balance Of The Minority
Walking around the streets of Kuala Lumpur last fall, after the release of an incendiary Mohammad film clip had ignited protests in several Muslim-majority nations, I asked residents: why there weren’t the same large-scale demonstrations in Malaysia? Generally, the consensus was there are too many other religious groups for any one to make too much noise. The government, although biased toward Islam, realizes the potential for serious conflict to arise if harmony is not maintained its 40% religious minority.
Further, Southeast Asian cultures have long had to adapt to the benefits and disadvantages of their location on Earth. Trade routes bring as many invaders as they do fortune, and historically tribal regions couldn’t repel incoming armies effectively. Rather, military forces and the traditions living within their soldiers, were absorbed. Research implies that inter-group contact may reduce prejudice and tolerance, like the best tastes of Malaysian cuisine, come from mixing, not separating your national ingredients.