Rise of Neo-Malay Ethnonationalism

Image: Midjourney
Image: Midjourney
COMMENT | Proclamations on religion and ethnonationalism are being made, with the tension dialled up to 11. But amid reports of attempts to destabilise the current government, the bigger issue is that the challenges faced by the Malay community and Malaysia remain unaddressed. Political analyst Dr BRIDGET WELSH writes.
First month free!

Get our newsletter to receive summaries on main Malaysian news, straight to your inbox!

As Malaysia’s leaders continue to harp on claims of displacement through ex-prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s “Malay Proclamation” and PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang’s persistent racialised attacks on non-Malays, big questions are being asked about how political narratives are being used to destabilise, divide and shape the country’s future.

Despite the shadows of the past — in the form of leaders themselves and repeated playbooks in calls for “Malay unity” and racialised mindsets — there is the evolution of an even more divisive political narrative; a neo-Malay ethnonationalism that reflects a worrying political trajectory of Malaysia’s move towards the right.

Not only does this narrative deepen political polarisation, but it also narrows the space for the country to move forward; towards stronger more inclusive politics that focuses on addressing challenges.

More than a ‘Green Wave’

The “green wave” has been the wrong label used to describe Malaysia’s move to the right. With its focus only on Islamism, this rubric fails to properly account for the totality of what is happening in conservative politics. Today’s new narrative on Malaysia’s right is much more than a matter of religion or conservative interpretations of the faith made by political leaders for political position(ing).

A careful study of voting in last November’s general election (GE15) shows that Malaysians didn’t vote for Islamism to the extent being touted, especially younger Malaysians. Rather and importantly, more voters opted to protest Umno’s governance, and many opted for new alternatives.

This includes those on the political right who are attracted to the evolving contemporary brand of neo-Malay ethnonationalism in which religion and nationalism are intertwined.

Never be out of the loop

Sign up for free to be updated on BTL columns and special reports like this one!

Who is Umno fighting for?
Generic file pic by Ravin Rau, via Unsplash

What’s Old and Changing

Malay nationalism has been tied to Malaysian politics since before independence. It served as the raison d’etre for the formation of Umno, which governed the country for over 6 decades, and underscored social policies, not least of which was the New Economic Policy (NEP), that increased social mobility among the Malay community while simultaneously entrenching racialised divisions into governance.

Like the NEP, Malay nationalist policies have focused on building the capital of the community, with important yet uneven gains in Malay ownership and entrepreneurship. They depended heavily on unquestioned control of the levers of government patronage. 

Gains have become hard to sustain with demographic pressures, heightened global and regional economic competition and a more demanding and social media-connected electorate. Despite more innovative Malay entrepreneurs and successful professionals, the Malay middle class as a whole is contracting. Too many in the community are burdened with too much debt and unable to save, with persistent inter-generational poverty far too prevalent. Social problems from drug use to divided families have compounded economic challenges.  

As such, older conceptions of Malay nationalism — initially tied to promoting the well-being of the Malay community and later used to legitimise holding onto power — are evolving into a new form, shaped by changes within the Malay community, in Malaysia and global patterns. Politically, the focus has moved away from building the capital of the community as a whole towards a focus on building the wealth of political elites. This has widened the gap within the Malay community, deepened competition among Malays, and left many lacking access to power in conditions of greater vulnerability.

Now, after the election of more progressive forces into power in 2018 and the hardships of the Covid-19 pandemic, conservative forces have deepened. There is disquiet with the changes in the political order. And there is unease with new faces and greater diversity in the current government under Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

We see, as such, a revitalisation of old messages, calls for Malay power, anti-colonialism and anti-West, themes in the popular 2022 film Mat Kilau. And concurrently, there is confidence and pride that comes from a sense of place, and perception of righteous destiny. There is a renewed and growing sense that neo-Malay ethnonationalism provides empowerment.   

As with white nationalism in the United States, melding conservative Christianity with Trumpism, fuelled by social media and powerful emotive messaging, today’s neo-Malay nationalism powerfully channels both contemporary resentments and aspirations.

On the surface, the neo-Malay ethnonationalist political narrative seems the same, pushed for by the same personalities. There is a similar focus on claims of displacement, tied to insecurity, vulnerability and fear. 

The world is seen through tinted ethnic lenses of threat, and, at times, conspiracy and bigotry.

The older Malay ethnonationalist narrative continues from a place where the Malay community is projected as behind, in need of assistance and support, thus, underlying the justification of the need for political control and greater dominance in the economy.

At the same time, there is little appreciation of differences within the Malay community, the significant gains and successes of many in the community, and, importantly, recognition that decades of ethnonationalist-dominant politics have fallen far short of the goals of empowering the Malay community as a whole. 

There is even less acknowledgement of the failures of key Malay leaders, those jailed, others facing charges and yet others who should be held more accountable. Few appreciate the destructive narcissistic pattern of competition and greed for the spoils of power that has emerged in national politics.

First month free!

Get our newsletter to receive summaries on main Malaysian news, straight to your inbox!

What’s New and Evolving

If there has been any reckoning at all, it is with Umno. The party — now 77 years old — has become tied to shortcomings in Malay achievements and progress for the community. It is now seen to be focused on itself rather than the community. This, ironically, has spurred the search for political alternatives, who are gaining political support and adapting new ideas, labelled here as neo-Malay ethnonationalism. Combining the past with the present, this is a new evolving political narrative. 

Foremost, is a new balance in the melding of conservative Islam and nationalism, in which Islamist ideas play a more dominant role. Traditionally, Umno was seen to embody Malay nationalism. As the party has lost legitimacy, so has its brand of ethnonationalism. Meanwhile, PAS’s conservative Islamist ideology is taking on a greater role in shaping Malay neo-ethnonationalism. 

The Islamist party adopted a nationalist/nation-building approach through the 1970s, but changed its orientation empowering conservative religious leaders and ideas in the 1980s. Now, 40 years later, the party has joined forces with non-Umno nationalist leaders in the form of Bersatu. This alliance is not just one of political expedience. It is founded on a shared set of ideas; a shared outlook that extends beyond political advocates to many social influencers and leaders in society.

Current neo-Malay ethnonationalism places a premium on its religious credentials, as its struggle for power places less emphasis on building Malaysia as a nation but rather on empowering conservative religious ideas and practices. Neo-Malay ethnonationalism draws its legitimacy from being the protector of the faithful as opposed to that of the Malays or the nation. 

In this focus, there is an implicit challenge to royal power; those have been traditional leaders and guardians of religion nationally and in different states. Not surprisingly royal rulings are being defied openly. 

Closely connected to neo-Malay ethnonationalism is a very different notion of nation and belonging. At the core, there is no meaningful place for non-Malays and non-Muslims in this neo-Malay ethnonationalism, in government or in the practices of their faiths. Gone are the substantive notions of sharing power or respecting alternative practices.

It is, thus, not surprising to see more open racism advocated against (and in response to) other communities in political rhetoric and in rising cases of interethnic incidents, heightened by social media. From clothing worn to government buildings to targeting blame for accidents and as “plunderers”, there is an increasing loss of rationality in everyday interactions. There are also worrying levels of Islamophobia and dehumanisation across communities.   

Concurrently, leaders adopting neo-Malay ethnonationalism are more vigorously using a racialised lens to interpret current social problems, from housing shortages to poverty. This reverses the trend toward more concrete policy discussions. It also feeds resentment, by reigniting old traumas and creating new ones which cut into the social fabric.

Rather than discuss policies critically, to debate solutions, the modus is to focus only on the problem and frame it in such a manner that hampers resolution. 

Pakatan Harapan leader and Malaysia's 10th Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim

Sadly, problems rather than solutions take centre stage as neo-Malay ethnonationalist advocates have yet to lay out substantive programmes to address ethnic inequalities. As such, neo-Malay nationalism is a vehicle to get into power (and access to the economic spoils of power) rather than one that clearly details what will be done in power to address the (still significant) challenges faced by the Malay community.

All that being said, proclamations are being made, with tensions raised. Inevitably, these will provoke alternative responses, including ethnonationalist responses from other communities. This is the intention, to divide, to stoke anger, to destabilise, to pressure to choose sides, and to build up the pole to topple the other side.

Now almost 6 months on from GE15, Malaysia remains politically polarised. The politics of the right shaped by neo-Malay ethnonationalist ideas remain strong. Little has been done to genuinely promote national unity.

News reports focus on the efforts to destabilise the Anwar government. Arguably, though, the more serious issue is the forces that are destabilising Malaysian society and undercutting her economy, holding her back from being able to address the challenges she faces to strengthen her competitiveness and harness her resources collectively in the face of a more chaotic and less tolerant world.

Picture of Dr Bridget Welsh

Dr Bridget Welsh

DR BRIDGET WELSH is currently an Honorary Research Associate of the University of Nottingham, Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute (Unari), based in Kuala Lumpur. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Hu Fu Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies, and a Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Centre. Her writings can be found at

Follow @dririshsea

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Between The Lines.

Share this post with your friends
Never be out of the loop

Sign up for free to receive special reports and columns like this

Between the Lines

Want more? BTL’s the name, providing context’s the game.

So sign up for free to receive special reports and columns like this one straight to email, plus a 1-month complimentary subscription to our bi-weekly newsletter! Cancel anytime.

Support independent media. Subscribe to our newsletter, where we summarise the daily news with wit and insights » Join here.