Ethnicity and inequality in Southeast Asia

by Bimo Arianto, Chalisa Chintrakarn and Resya Kania

Photo by Ibadah Mimpi from Pexels

Southeast Asia has incredible diversity in terms of religion, language, ethnicity and culture. All these features provide complex challenges but also opportunities that are the concern of social policy.

As part of the Southeast Asian Social Policy Network (SEASPN), we organised an online lunchtime series of discussion to explore ideas and insights about existing social problems and policy in Southeast Asia.

The first session focused on ethnic inequalities and was held on 29 September 2021. It was attended by 21 students, academics and practitioners from the UK and Southeast Asia. This blog post summarises the discussion.

If you are interested in joining the discussions and receiving more updates, please join We hope the series of discussion provides valuable insights about social problems and social policy in Southeast Asia.

Ethnic diversity among Southeast Asian countries

Countries in Southeast Asia share a broad ethnic diversity. In our session, four participants shared their observations on ethnic diversity in their native countries.

The first was Indonesia, which has the largest ethnic diversity in the region (around 1,300 ethnic groups). The Indonesian participant acknowledged the slight tension of inequalities amongst larger and smaller indigenous groups. Nonetheless, the more prominent issue is the tension between indigenous ethnic and Indonesian Chinese.

In the case of Malaysia, ethnic diversity and tension are often represented by three major ethnic groups, namely Malay, which is indigenous to Malaysia (also known as Bumiputera), Chinese, and Indian.

In Thailand, it is indicated that there are around 70 ethnic groups, but the Thai participant observed that most people are unaware of this diversity because they often only know Tai ethnic.

Meanwhile, Cambodia does not seem to be as diverse as the other three countries. It has around 20 ethnic groups, but one ethnic group, Khmer, accounts for 90% of the total population.

Ethnicity and inequalities in Southeast Asian countries

To some extent, ethics diversity has been translated into inequality in political, economic, and social life.

From the political perspective, ethnicity means privilege. One of the participants in Indonesia showed how being Javanese and Muslim is a privilege in the Indonesian political system. They explained: “non-Muslim ethnic groups are not really represented at high political levels, as we saw that the six Indonesian presidents were Javanese and Muslim.” They suggested that it is less likely that a non-Muslim Indonesian or Chinese individual could hold national political leadership.

Ethnicity also appears in economic and welfare inequality. Contrary to the nature of political access in Indonesia, the Chinese tend to be better off economically. In Indonesia, the difference in economic levels is visible between Indonesian Chinese and non-Chinese. One participant pointed out that the Chinese group makes up the top economic percentile in Indonesia. Similarly, one participant indicated that the non-Indigenous ethnic, especially Chinese, are more prosperous than the Bumiputera in Malaysia.

The difference in economic condition between natives and the Chinese in Southeast Asian countries can also be identified from their economic activities, where most Chinese are entrepreneurs.

Some participants argued that this condition could be traced back historically. One participant suggested that economic activities are passed down from generation to generation, contributing to the accumulation of knowledge and behaviour about managing finances and attitudes towards money. This is also shown in the data from the propensity to save in Malaysia, where the Bumiputra has a significantly lower propensity to save than the Chinese.

Many of the participants also mentioned that colonialism contributes to ethnic inequality. For example in Indonesia, Chinese heritage has a closer relationship to colonialists in terms of contribution in the business sector than indigenous people.

Two participants also argued that colonialism is reproduced through foreign direct investment (FDI) and labour laws. One of the participants provided an example of how China’s FDI in Cambodia has changed the socio-economic system in many ways. They show how the development of casinos in Sihanoukville led to inflation. These changes drove local people out of the area because their incomes could not keep up with the increasing cost of living.

Another participant was concerned about labour law and how it might perpetuate inequality between different ethnicities. They gave an example of how migrant workers in Singapore, who come from surrounding developing countries, are exempt from Singapore’s labour laws. They said: “You know, basically (its) legal to pay them only 300 US dollars a month … One of the interesting things is to think about how that system or civilisation has its own legacy and colonialism. But in another way, and clearly used to create a massive system of cheap Labour based on what is a formal and informal rationalisation system.”

Colonialism might not be the cause for Thailand, the only Southeast Asian country that has not been colonised by the West. Some participants suggested that social media plays an important role in preserving ethnic inequality in Thailand. A participant provided an example of how media contributes to the exclusion of minority ethnic groups in Thailand, such as Karen. They argued that one of the root causes of ethnic exclusion is the lack of awareness of Thai people about ethnic diversity within Thailand itself. In this regard, media plays a salient role in providing information.

Another participant said that media is also responsible for the negative stereotyping of minorities in Thailand. This participant recalled how, when they were younger, the media portrayed a particular ethnicity as violent. Unconsciously, they are reluctant to interact with this ethnicity and hold animosity towards this particular group. Thus, they hoped for more fairness in media representation so that the wider community can realise and appreciate their differences.

Social policy alternatives to explore

This blog has touched on some points concerning ethnic inequality within the context of Southeast Asia. The discussion highlights that ethnic inequalities are at play in Southeast Asia with concerns to political, economic, and sociocultural realms. Based on the discussion, the root cause seems to be intertwined between colonial legacies, financial attitudes, and media representation.

To tackle ethnic inequalities in Southeast Asia, the participants suggested that macro-level social policy focus on structural changes to promote diversity in all domains. This may include assessing the impact of economic development on different ethnic groups and promoting inclusive media representation. As the world is moving towards diversity due to ever-increasing migration, endorsing both diversity and inclusion would be beneficial for boosting social welfare in Southeast Asia.

Bimo AriantoChalisa Chintrakarn, and Resya Kania are Postgraduate Researchers at the School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham.

Blogs share the views of the author(s), not of the Social Policy Association.