Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

Law in a Plural Society: Malaysian Experience

Academic journal article Brigham Young University Law Review

Law in a Plural Society: Malaysian Experience

Article excerpt


This paper concentrates mainly on how Malaysia, a country composed of many races and religions, creates and enforces its laws in order to sustain the peace that has lasted more than half a century. I have recendy retired as a judge, so my view on this subject is from a judge's perspective.

Malaysia is located just north of the equator, about halfway around the world from Utah. It is geographically divided into two main regions by the South China Sea. These two regions are the Peninsula Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak. Peninsula Malaysia was known as Malaya, but in 1963, the British colonies of Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak joined Malaya to form the nation known as Malaysia.1 Singapore also became part of Malaysia but left it in 1965.2

Malaysia's is divided as follows: Malays (50.4%), Chinese (23.7%), Indians (7.1%), and other races (18.8%).3 In terms of religion, about 60.4% of the population is Muslim, and the rest is comprised of Buddhists (19.2%), Christians (9.1%), Hindus (6.3%), and a small minority who still believe in animism and ancestral worship.4 All the religions, except those believing in animisms, were actually imported. Islam was introduced in Malaysia by traders and missionaries before the fourteenth century. Christianity was introduced by Christian missionaries and conquerors, and Buddhism and Hinduism by those brought in by the British as workers.

Consequently, today, Malaysia is a melting pot of religions, lineages, and languages.5 However, Malay was chosen as the national language when Malaysia gained independence in 1957.6 Generally, citizens ôf Malaysia have varying complexions because the Chinese have fair skin, the Indians have darker skin, and the Malay's skin color is somewhere in between the two. Even when one is aware of the varied complexions of Malaysian residents from different lineages, it can still be difficult to determine the lineage of individuals from East Malaysia (i.e., Sabah or Sarawak) strictly by their appearance because they often have fair skin similar to individuals of Chinese descent, but are in fact of Malay descent. However, the languages spoken at home are usually different for people of different lineage. Consequently, it is generally easy for the people of Malaysian descent to identify the different accents of individuals when they speak Malay (the national language) or English. The types of food and cooking style, as well as the style of dress, also distinguish the different lineages present in Malaysia. The Chinese food is bland, the Indian food is spicy, and the food of the Malays is hot.

In short, Malaysia is the ultimate melting pot. However, despite our differences, the majority of Malaysians agree that we live as one community and benefit from our cultural diversity. We live peacefully together as we respect each other's beliefs and religion and even celebrate each other's cultural festivals.7 It is not unusual to find a Mosque, a Church, and both Buddhist and Hindu Temples within the same locality.


From the ninth to the thirteenth century, the Buddhist Malay sultanate8 of Srivijaya ruled most of the Malay Peninsula. The Srivijava sultanate was based at the present location of Palembang, Sumatra. The Malays began converting to Islam in the fourteenth century, during the reign of the Hindu sultanate of Majapahit. The conversion to Islam spread more rapidly when the Malacca sultanate rose to power under the leadership of a Muslim prince in the fifteendi century.

Malacca is a port located in the Straits of Malacca, which separates Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra, Indonesia. The Malacca sultanate originated from Palembang, Sumatra. The Malacca sultanate became an international trading port because it was strategically located in the Straits of Malacca, where traders from China, die Middle East, Malaysia, and India passed. As trade increased, more Malays were exposed to Islam, in large part due to their contact with Arab traders. …

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