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What’s Social Justice In Malaysia? The History, Challenges, And How To Get Involved

There is no shortage of keyboard warriors on the internet. Abusive, snarky and derogatory online comments are abundant and they are usually centred on issues of race, religion, gender, inequality, LGBTQIA+ and refugee communities. 

Question is – when was the last time you stood up against one of these remarks? If you have, you may not have realised it, but you have just fought for social justice.

Source: Unsplash

In recent years, instances of injustice are increasingly prominent thanks to social media platforms making them more accessible. Heated arguments and discourses have taken place on online messaging threads over various viral videos and posts. 

However, what is social justice and how has it evolved over the years in Malaysia? 

The Road Towards Social Justice In Malaysia

Fairness is at the heart of social justice, in which every human being deserves equal rights in political, economic, social and access to opportunities. Withholding the rights or pushing aside individuals from receiving equal opportunities is a form of discrimination, especially based on[1]:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Ability or disability 
  • Economic status
  • Age
  • Geographical location (urban, rural)

However, social justice hasn’t just been coined recently. Throughout history, there have been instances of heroism and the fight against injustices in society. Ordinary people like you and I have changed the course of history by forming or joining a movement. 

In Malaysia, the road to Merdeka in 1957 was paved by the collective effort of various individuals. This was aided by the strong desire of Malayans at the time to escape the clutches of the colonisers. The delegation that set off to London in 1956 seeking independence was funded by citizens who wanted change. One such village visited was Permatang Buluh, Pulau Pinang[2]

Tunku came to tell my grandfather of his plans to go to London and gain independence. We didn’t want to be ruled by Britain anymore. We wanted to be free to make our own decisions, choose our own leaders, and face challenges by ourselves –  Ku Bhadur Ku Abdullah, Tunku and his delegates visited his grandfather’s home[2]

The seeds of social justice were planted early in this nation. The fight for the nation’s freedom encompasses the pillars of participation in social justice. Under British rule, there was a lack of autonomy in running the country. 

Source: JohorKini

It gathered common folk putting aside differences to promote the common good – and the reward was the resounding 7 shouts of “Merdeka” at Stadium Merdeka.

The Vision Of An Inclusive Nation

Malaysia has always prided itself on being a multiracial nation, and when independence was achieved the foundations were laid to ensure national harmony and unity.

Every one of us must respect each other’s rights and feelings, and be tolerant of each other’s religions, customs and habits, for in diversity we can truly find real unity. – Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia[3]

While Islam was announced as the official religion of the newly formed nation, other religious practices and customs remain free to flourish. This is an example of one of the pillars of social justice which is inclusivity, where all individuals regardless of their background are welcomed and valued. 

Source: Iluminasi

Among other things, it was agreed that Islam would be the official religion but that there would be freedom of worship and that everyone could live in dignity as and how they pleased. Everyone must respect these promises and the agreement arrived at. No one must assume that they were greater or could ignore these promises. If the promises are kept, I am sure Malaysia will continue to be a peaceful land… – Tunku Abdul Rahman, first Prime Minister of Malaysia[3]

However, the vision of a society without discord was tainted by the May 1969 riot, leading to a prolonged violation of social justice pillars. 

Tilting The Scale

This massive riot on May 13 1969 is a blot on Malaysia’s otherwise seemingly harmonious journey. When the governing Alliance of that time, led by PM Tunku Abdul Rahman lost its two-thirds majority in the parliament for the first time what ensued was racial riots, bloodbaths and eighteen months of emergency rule.


It also gave way to a social contract (or a bargain in political society between the citizens and the state) that emphasised the ketuanan Melayu or Malay dominance[4]. The final nail in the coffin was the government’s introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, an affirmative measure, favouring the majority of dwellers in Malaysia[4].

As we all know, the premises of the policies have only created numerous inequities in our society despite officially ending in 1990. The repercussions of the policies, however, have reverberated and continue to violate many pillars of social justice, such as access, equity, participation as well as inclusivity. 

A Quick Look At Malaysia’s Struggle For Social Justice

There are milestones that have helped to shape Malaysia and minimise inequalities in society. However, there is more to be done. As the fight for social justice is an ongoing, long-drawn one, we continue to strive for a more equitable and inclusive Malaysia.

Here are some of the pervasive issues in Malaysia based on the principles of social justice:


One of the foundational principles of social justice is that the nation’s resources should be available to everyone, regardless of race, gender, location, sexuality or religion. 

  • Currently, access to affordable healthcare is limited for refugee, stateless and rural communities. Rural communities live in dilapidated conditions and lack access to clean water. Due to the racial quota in higher education, many capable individuals weren’t able to access public universities in Malaysia.


An equitable society promotes a society that has equal opportunities to succeed. All resources should be distributed in a way that addresses the specific needs of underprivileged communities. 

Source: Unsplash
  • Persons With Disabilities (PWD) currently have limited job opportunities due to workplaces that do not take into account their needs. It is the same for working mothers, who are rarely provided with the support needed to return to the workforce. In the education sector, rural children often drop out of school due to the hidden costs of attending school such as transportation fees. 


The particular principle refers to the administration of the country and corporate business leaders are representative of the communities they serve. Representation matters to ensure the needs, rights and issues pertaining to communities in the nations are brought forth in policymaking.

  • Thus far, the involvement of female politicians has been dismaying. With the lack of voices from indigenous communities and PwDs, the policies for creating a more inclusive society in Malaysia have been slow. 


An inclusive nation ensures that each individual is welcomed and valued, regardless of their background or identity. Diversity is at the core of the nation with prejudices and hate crimes being countered effectively.

Source: World of Buzz
  • Individuals of different racial backgrounds face discrimination while looking for a place to rent. At the same time, the refugee and stateless communities have often received backlash from locals that believe they are the roots of social issues in Malaysia. 

The recent COVID-19 pandemic however only worsened economic, racial and gender inequalities. At the same time, it has also highlighted the necessity of a sound government. With the number of deaths and missteps taken by the ruling administration, we saw a more vocal Malaysian who had often been silent. 

Shifting Sentiments

A socially just society is one that exercises democracy. The ruling parties must be held accountable and the people have the ability to remove their political leaders and elected officials. One of the examples that remains relevant to this day and age is the series of BERSIH rallies.

Source: Free Malaysia Today

The first rally held on the 10th of November 2007 was organised by several non-governmental organisations and opposing political parties demanding electoral reform in Malaysia. On that day, 50,000 people took to the streets.

In recent years, more and more Malaysians have stood up to rally for causes they believe in such as the climate strike in 2019 or the Hartal Kontrak Doktor. 

At the same time, it has uncovered a rising vanguard of social justice – the youth.

I think it’s in part of the young…we see a youth vanguard for social justice issues, and they’re coming to the fore and speaking out, whether it’s the contract doctors or #Lawanprotestors. – Dr Bridget Welsh, Honorary Research Associate with the Asia Research Institute at the University of Nottingham-Malaysia [5]

Experts in Malaysia have shared that the advent of the Internet has played a massive role in changing the way younger generations express their views on issues of social justice. 

The youth learn about social justice issues from social media and they are more concerned and vocal about it. The younger generation is more open to discussing such matters, especially on social media, Twitter in particular, even though some of the issues have not been discussed publicly before. These include issues involving gender and sexuality, perhaps because they can remain anonymous online. – Dr Nur Hafeeza Ahmad Pazil, Universiti Sains Malaysia sociologist [6]

With the increasing visibility of injustices on social media platforms, the tide is changing, and conversations on inequalities are no longer hidden. 

News also reaches us in real-time instead of from a newspaper. Videos have also allowed us to connect with issues at an emotional level. War, social injustices, climate change, and disasters are made known without censorship to people of all ages globally. – Benny Kong, Focus on the Family Malaysia executive director[6]

Today’s Social Justice Fighters. You Can Be One Too!

The fight for a more just society is not exclusive to activists, youth advocates, or non-governmental organisations. Social justice is a call to action for everyone in our nation to have access to wealth, health, justice, and opportunity. It is for the betterment of your underserved neighbours or friends and a brighter future for your children or grandchildren or even the environment.

Source: Malay Mail

Like the fight for Merdeka, each one of us has something to contribute to building bridges to allow others to lead a better life, especially if we are viewing from a privileged side of the coin. 

If you have stood at the corner when you saw someone being bullied for their differences, and you have felt it was wrong without stepping in to mediate. If you feel the same way today when seeing videos or posts of people enduring discrimination, it is a sign to amplify your voice or to wield your sword. 

Malaysians have done it before through the efforts put into the Bendera Putih initiative at the height of the pandemic and we could do it again through[1]

  • Discover your cause or calling: Each of us is drawn to a particular cause or issue that evokes anger or frustration. In the past, we may have stood as a spectator, perhaps, it is time to contribute and be part of the solution. 
  • Get involved: Start small by putting your ears on the ground, learn about the issues others face and get involved with your community locally, nationally or globally
  • Fight for social justice that matters: words can wage a war and they can also provide a solution, so use your keyboard warrior skills for good.
  • Identify your privileges and biases: privilege isn’t just having more money than the rest of the community, it is also being heterosexual, able to finish schooling or living without a disability. These are some of the overlooked privileges and it is important to recognise whether it has structured how you see or treat others that fare less than you do.
  • Be part of the conversation: step out of your comfort zone, learn from others who have different racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds as you do and diversify your circle.
  • Work for a cause: get involved in an organisation you believe in, learn about the injustices they are working to change, sign up as a volunteer and spread the word.

Explore our sources:

  1. World Vision Youth. (2021). The Beginner’s Guide to Social Justice. Link 
  2. Imran. (2022). When villagers paid for a nation. The Star. Link
  3. R.Nadeswaran. (2014). In the words of our nation’s founder. The Sun Daily. Link
  4. B.Welsh. (2020) Malaysia’s Political Polarization: Race, Religion, and Reform. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. Link
  5. BFM Radio Facebook post. (2021). Link
  6. M.Yusry. (2022). Youths learning about social justice issues via online exposure. The Sun Daily. Link

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