Attention to the link between Buddhism and politics has re-emerged with the shocking images of the persecution of the monks who led the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar. At the same time, terrorism, which has been associated with religion since the attacks of 9 November, has attracted intense academic research into the political roles played by various world religions. The study of political Buddhism is already a major focus in South and Southeast Asian studies. However, the study of political Buddhism has mostly centred on Buddhist majority states, such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indochina. Undoubtedly, this broader context has created intense political activism and hence sparked vigorous theoretical conversations about Buddhism and politics. In Malaysia, the Buddhist minority faces the domination of another religious community — the Muslim majority. This chapter explores the Buddhist minority context in Malaysia to help fill the gap in political Buddhism studies of Buddhist minority states.
Islam is the most widely practised religion in Malaysia, and Malay Muslims are the dominant ethno-religious group in the country. In 2010, Muslims comprised 61.3 per cent of the total population. Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus comprised 19.8 per cent, 9.2 per cent, and 6.3 per cent of the total population, respectively. As of August 2007, there were 41,528 organizations registered with the Registry of Societies Malaysia. Amongst the thirteen categories of organizations, the category of religion has the highest number of organizations: 7,228. According to the Registry of Societies’ categorization system, the organizations in the religion category include Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Chinese Temple, among others. The registrar does not provide further breakdowns for these numbers by religion; however, according to estimations by the Malaysian Buddhist Association (MBA), the Buddhist group consists of 878 organizations, with 496 temples and 382 organizations.
In 2010, nearly 83.6 per cent of Malaysian Chinese were listed as Buddhists, who are the largest minority religious group in the country. Malaysian Buddhists reflect the diversity present at the beginning of community formation. Various immigrant communities of Chinese, Thais, Burmese, and Sinhalese brought different Buddhist traditions, doctrines, and practices to Malaysia, and the current organizations that have evolved since the early years reflect this diversity of the Buddhist community. Buddhist groups are less centralized than Christian groups but more organized than Hindu groups.