Malays are increasingly identifying themselves by religion rather than by ethnicity or nationality, unlike the other races in Malaysia, according to an upcoming survey report.
Asked if they see themselves as Malaysian, Malay or Muslim first, about 60 per cent chose Muslim, up from 54 per cent a decade ago, said Mr Ibrahim Suffian, executive director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre.
Conversely, the percentage of those who saw themselves as Malay fell to 6 per cent from 11 per cent over the same period.
Malays are the only ethnic group where a majority identified themselves with religion, Mr Ibrahim told The Straits Times.
Most Chinese and Indians, on the other hand, identified themselves by nationality.
About 58 per cent of Chinese and 63 per cent of Indians saw themselves as Malaysian first, while only 27 per cent of Malays did so.
"It's not that they have any problems identifying themselves as Malays, but being Muslim connotes a deeper sense of belonging," said Mr Ibrahim.
The divergent figures will likely pose a challenge for Malaysia's government, which in recent years has had to grapple with issues of racial and religious harmony, as well as national unity.
The tensions are already being felt in the call among Malays for stricter and wider implementation of Muslim morality codes and laws.
This has also resulted in Malay- centric parties such as the ruling Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia increasingly playing the religion card to win support, leading to unhappiness among non-Muslims.
Mr Ibrahim pointed out that Malaysia will have to balance the demands of a potentially more assertive majority with the needs of a sizeable minority.
"You can only go so far down that religious path, given that Muslims still make up less than two-thirds of the population here," he said. "How do you harness the cultural diversity here, rather than let it become a problem?"
Rising religiosity among Malays also comes at a time of swirling concern over Islamic extremism and the influence that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group is having on Muslims in Malaysia.
Just last month, police arrested two men, aged 28 and 31, who were planning to obtain weapons and launch attacks on VIPs, interests of Western nations and entertainment outlets in the Klang Valley.
Malaysian police had previously said they were monitoring religious schools across the country for signs that they may have become breeding grounds for Islamist extremists.
The Merdeka Centre survey is part of a project on national unity which polled 4,300 participants from February to June. The full results and analysis will be published next month.