Strong Support for Religion in National Identity, Law, and Politics Among Southeast Asians: Poll

A September 12 public opinion poll by Pew Research Center shows that robust majorities of respondents in South and Southeast Asian societies support a strong role for religion in their country’s institutions and national identities.

The poll by the U.S.-based think-tank includes three countries where the majority of citizens identify as Buddhist – Cambodia (97%), Sri Lanka (70%), and Thailand (95%); two where the majority identifies as Muslim – Indonesia (87%) and Malaysia (61%); and one country, Singapore, that is more religiously diverse.


Among Buddhists, close linkage between religion, national identity

In all three Buddhist-majority countries, more than 90 per cent of Buddhists polled say that religion is closely intertwined with national identity. In Sri Lanka, which fought a 26-year civil war (1983–2009) along geographic, ethnic, and religious lines, 87 per cent of Buddhists say Buddhist identity is very important to being a “true Sri Lankan.”

Majorities in all three countries also support basing national law on the “knowledge, doctrines and practices” emerging from Buddha’s teachings, but the level of support diverges significantly: in Cambodia, it is 96 per cent; among Sri Lankan Buddhists, 80 per cent; and in Thailand, only 56 per cent.


Among Muslims, support for Sharia lower in Indonesia than Malaysia

While majorities of Muslims surveyed in Indonesia and Malaysia also feel that Islam is important to national identity, support varies for making Sharia law, a body of religious law that forms a part of the Islamic tradition, the law of the land. Eighty-six per cent of Malaysian Muslims support Sharia in their country, although 67 per cent also say that Buddhism, the preferred religion for 19 per cent of Malaysians, is “compatible with Malaysian culture and values.”

In Indonesia, support for Sharia is at 64 per cent. As the Pew report notes, the country’s 1945 constitution “ultimately rejected proposed language that would have explicitly favored Islam,” resulting in something often described as “mild secularism.”