Politicisation of Ethnicity and Religion

Context and rationale

Ethnicity and religion are two important identity markers in Malaysia. This is one of the outcomes of the colonial divide-and-rule legacy, as well as the policies of the post-independent Malaysian state.

Today, various political parties and social organisations continue to use ethnicity and religion to champion their individual agendas. The emergence of a state-supported discourse and framing of issues in binary terms (e.g. Muslim versus non-Muslim, Malay versus non-Malay) is especially worrying given that this has exacerbated further divisions and tensions in society. While there is some awareness of the need to move beyond ethnic and religious lines, Malaysia remains, at various levels, segregated along such lines. This raises questions about our future as a nation.

What is the nation we see for ourselves and for generations to come? Is it one that is fractured by communities pitted against each other by, among others, differences based on ethnicity and religion? Or one where we are united in our aspirations for a better Malaysia – one that is free from violence, discrimination, hatred and intolerance of difference?

Women, who often are portrayed as the boundary markers of their communities, are affected differently by politicised ethnicity and religion. In Malaysia, for example, the existence of a dual legal system – where one set of family laws apply to Muslim women and another to non-Muslims – means that women are granted (or denied) different rights, purely on the basis of their religion.

AWAM comprises women from all walks of life, and of different ethnicities and religions. We believe that all women, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, have equal rights. We therefore work to reach out and address the needs of all women regardless of their backgrounds. AWAM’s vision is to create a just, democratic and equal society, one where women are treated with respect and are free from all forms of violence and discrimination.


The objective of the PER programme is to promote a better understanding of how the politicisation of ethnicity and religion impacts on society, particularly women, and how AWAM can address concerns around this. AWAM hopes to create safe spaces where we can dialogue with each other in a constructive manner. Through PER’s work, we hope to create alternative understandings and narratives on ethnicity and religion in Malaysia, one that embraces and celebrates diversity and adheres to human rights principles, rather than seeking to punish or persecute difference.

Phase 1: 2009 – 2011

The first phase of our Ethnicity and Religion work from 2009 – 2011, focused on building solidarity and developing space for dialogue, as the topic of race and religion has been made such a ‘sensitive’ issue that the space for rational and meaningful discussion is extremely limited.

Phase 2: 2012 – 2014

In the second phase of our work (2012 – 2014), we are focussing our work on how the politicisation of ethnicity and religion impacts society, and women in particular. We want to create an alternative discourse on the issue, with AWAM’s ‘feminist’ lens.

In May 2014, AWAM in collaboration with interpr8 Art Space held a week-long art exhibition entitled, The Good Malaysian Woman, exploring ethnicity, religion, politics under the lens of feminism. Click here to learn more

A list of AWAM’s activities under PER can be found on the Events Calendar.