Malaysia's population comprises many ethnic groups, with the politically dominant Malays comprising a plurality. By Constitutional definition, all Malays are Muslim. More than a quarter of the population is Chinese. They have historically played an important role in trade and business.
Malaysians of Indian descent comprise about 7% of the population and include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. About 85% of the Indian community is Tamil.
Non-Malay indigenous groups make up more than half of Sarawak's population and about 66% of Sabah's. They are divided into dozens of ethnic groups but they share some general patterns of living and culture. Until the 20th century, most practiced traditional beliefs, but many have become Christian or Muslim.
The "other" category includes Malaysians of, inter alia, European and Middle Eastern descent.
The country’s age structure has changed significantly since the 1960s, as fertility and mortality rates have declined. Malaysia’s total fertility rate (TFR) has dropped from 5 children per woman in 1970, to 3 in 1998, to 2.1 in 2015 as a result of increased educational attainment and labor participation among women, later marriages, increased use of contraception, and changes in family size preference related to urbanization. The TFR is higher among Malays, rural residents (who are mainly Malay), the poor, and the less-educated. Despite the reduced fertility rate, Malaysia’s population will continue to grow, albeit at a decreasing rate, for the next few decades because of its large number of reproductive-age women. The youth population has been shrinking, and the working-age population (15-64 year olds) has been growing steadily. Malaysia’s labor market has successfully absorbed the increasing number of job seekers, leading to sustained economic growth. However, the favorable age structure is changing, and around 2020, Malaysia will start to become a rapidly aging society. As the population ages, Malaysia will need to better educate and train its labor force, raise productivity, and continue to increase the number of women workers in order to further develop its economy.
More than 1.8 million Malaysians lived abroad as of 2015, including anywhere from 350,000 to 785,000 workers, more than half of whom have an advanced level of education. The vast majority of emigrants are ethnic Chinese, seeking better educational and job opportunities abroad because of institutionalized ethnic discrimination favoring the Malays. The primary destination country is nearby Singapore, followed by Bangladesh and Australia. Hundreds of thousands of Malaysians also commute across the causeway to Singapore daily for work.
Brain drain is an impediment to Malaysia’s goal of becoming a high-income country. The situation is compounded by a migrant inflow that is composed almost entirely of low-skilled laborers who work mainly in manufacturing, agriculture, and construction. Officially, Malaysia had about 1.8 million legal foreign workers as of mid-year 2017 – largely from Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Bangladesh – but as many as 3 to 4 million are estimated to be in the country illegally. Immigrants outnumber ethnic Indians and could supplant the ethnic Chinese as Malaysia’s second largest population group around 2035.