CRF Blog

Race and religion in South-East Asia

by David De La Torre

In The plural society and its enemies, The Economist looks at the challenges of “plural societies” in South-East Asia.

Myanmar is just one of several South-East Asian countries recently forced to confront old questions of race and religion. In Malaysia, a prominent Malay Muslim leader, Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, has been charged with sedition for accusing ethnic Chinese, a minority in Malaysia, of being “trespassers”. And in Indonesia the winner of the presidential election, Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, squeaked home after a huge early lead over his rival evaporated, in part because of unfounded rumours that he was a Christian Chinese rather than in fact a good Javanese Muslim.

These events may appear disparate, but they reflect a common thread running through the history of race and religion in South-East Asia. Specifically, they reflect the legacy of those colonial territories which one British academic and colonial administrator, John Furnivall, first characterised as “plural societies”. [more]