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Ketuanan Melayu: A Barrier To The Spirit Of Nationhood – Analysis


Ketaunan Melayu, sometimes translated as Malay supremacy has dominated Malaysian social and political narratives for the last 50 years. To some extent, Ketuanan Melayu can be considered a homegrown political ideology akin to Venezuelan’s Chavismo, and Libya’s Green Book ideology.


Ketuanan Melayu has been examined in many different lights. It has been linked with Malay nationalism, and affirmative action, on the positive side, and racism and apartheid on the negative side. Ketuanan Melayu is very much part of the history of Tanah Melayu, or the Malay peninsula, and the country’s evolution into Malay and finally Malaysia. 

The early origins 

Ketuanan Melayu originated from the Malay Sultanates on the Malay peninsula in pre-colonial times. At that time, the Malay states were river and coastal based kingdoms, where influence was measured by pledges of loyalty from kampongs or villages to their local sultans. These were very patriarchal and feudal based societies, where a social contract between sultan and subjects gave the sultan legitimacy. Villages pledged loyalty to the sultan and the sultan would rule them. New comers to these kingdoms would usually integrate, with some assimilating into Malay culture. 

Malay culture was a bonding agent, a sense of identity, connected to the Raja and land. 

Towards Malaysia

Dato Onn Ja’afar formed the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to oppose the Malayan Union on the belief that Malaya should be for the Malays. UMNO was strongly supported by the Royal households which were not happy with the erosion of their authority within the Union. In 1948, the brief Malayan Union was replaced with the Federation of Malaya which returned sovereignty to the Malay rulers, set up stricter immigration rules, and gave the Malays special privileges. 

Prior to independence, a Communities Liaison Committee (CLC) was set up to discuss sensitive issues related to race, citizenship, education, democracy, and Malay privileges. This social contract between the Malays and non-Malays in the community at that time was in return for giving up the ideology of Ketuanan Melayu. 


Some Malay politicians were suspicious of the lack of loyalty of non-Malays to Malaya and still had some underpinning belief in Ketuanan Malayu. Even Tunku Abdul Rahman who took over UMNO from Onn Ja’afar was initially sympathetic to the ideology. This continued attachment to Ketuanan Melayu brought some resistance from Straits Chinese to joining the Malayan Federation. 

Then in 1961, the concept of Malaya merging with the then British colony Singapore to form Malaysia was mooted. Initially, then Malayan prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was hesitant over the entry into Malaysia of more Chinese who would potentially dominate the economy over the Malays, who were mostly living a rural existence. Singapore politicians at the time also feared a government dominated by Malays with control over their destiny. This was compromised by bringing in the North Borneo states of Brunei, Sabah, and Sarawak into discussions to merge into the new Malaysian entity.  

With large indigenous populations the North Borneo states would balance Malaysia’s population base. However, there was some hesitancy entering a Malay state with a different culture and religion to the majority of natives from north Borneo. This was compromised with the twenty point agreement where Sabah and Sarawak entered into the MA 63 agreement, that guaranteed a certain degree of independence, to form the country of Malaysia. 

Ketuanan Melayu was a Tanah Melayu ideology, very much strange and foreign to peoples outside the formally federated and unfederated Malay states. 

The New Economic Policy (NEP) 

The May 13 race riots created an opportunity for a coup within UMNO, which eventually ousted Tunku Abdul Rahman, replacing him with Tun Abdul Razak as prime minister. Tun Razak along with some of his key ministers and British economic advisors developed an affirmative action plan called the New Economic Policy (NEP). The objective of the NEP was to eliminate the root causes of inter-community frictions of economic inequality. 

The NEP had post-colonial socialist undertones, seeing the government as the prime vehicle to drive economic growth and development, and redistribute wealth towards Bumiputeras, of which, the Malays were a sizable proportion. The objective of the affirmative action program was to achieve a 30 percent Bumiputera equity within the economy. 

At the time, this was accepted as an enlightened and sensible policy by many economists, as the policy had a clear sunset clause. 

The ideas of Ketuanan Melayu were extrapolated by a group within UMNO. This was based upon premises constructed from their view of history published in a manifesto in 1971 called Revolusi Mental.   

Revolusi Mental portrayed Malays as weak and backward. The narrative claimed Malays were exploited by other ethnic communities, their colonial masters, and the capitalist system. The authors of Revolusi Mental claimed that Malay fatalism allowed acceptance of these injustices, as Malays lacked the courage to fight back. 

Revolusi Mental ran down the Malay character, describing the Malay psych as being based on sentiment and emotion, rather than rationality. Malays made little effort to acquire wealth, and lacked the trait of frugalness, not thinking of the future. There was little interest in science and technology. Malays were described as being subjected to poverty of the soul, lacking originality of thought, imagination, and any sense of inquiry. 

Ketuanan Melayu unlike other nationalist ideologies wasn’t based on ethnic pride. It was based upon degrading Malay culture, heritage, and history, by pointing out ethnic faults. Ketuanan Melayu promoted a culture of dependence where a ruling elite would protect the Malays from projected enemies that were out to destroy them and their religion Islam. 

Ketuanan Melayu became a pessimistic political ideology of a conservative Malay establishment, which kept the Malay citizenry trapped in dependence and eternal gratitude. Ketuanan Melayu was primarily concerned about keeping the Malay establishment in power and protecting their own.    

Syed Hussein Alatas in his book, The Myth of the Lazy Malay postulated that this ideology is ignorant and colonizing, with many historical facts and assumptions about Malay culture and psych deeply flawed. Ketuanan Melayu was just the legitimization of Malay hegemony and the right of the Malay establishment to monopolize all forms of wealth and capital. Through the NEP a neo-feudal social hierarchy has been created, with political patronage being the cement to maintain power, authority, and maintain a culture of dependence.

At the same time, Mahathir Mohamed published his own book, The Malay Dilemma where he argued Malays are the original people of Malaya and the only people who can claim Malaya as their own. 

Upon becoming prime minister in 1981, Mahathir increased quotas in the civil service, armed forces, and education system, along with providing special high yielding savings schemes like Amanah Saham Nasional (ASN) and Amanah Saham Bumiputera (ASB). Bumiputeras received discounts on property purchases, easy credit, special business grants, and loans, giving rise to Malay privilege. 

Successive generations of Malays felt they were entitled over other races, including the Orang Asli, who were basically neglected by the government over this period. Malays were told by UMNO politicians that there were enemies wanting to destroy their race and religion which needed to be defended. 

This brought in the ‘race card’ into politics based on the Ketuanan Melayu ideology. 

During the strong economic growth of the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a rapid rise in the Malay middle class, and the creation of an entitled wealthy Malay upper class. Civil service and GLC employment was primarily exclusive to Malays, creating a professional class, while employment prospects for non-Malays was much more limited. The plight of non-Malays was largely suppressed by the media.

The Islamization of Ketuanan Melayu

Ketuanan Melayu underwent a dramatic change in the 1980s. Inspired by the Iranian revolution in 1979, and a generation of Islamic education within Malaysi. Malay culture adopted a very different Islamic persona to the Nusantara form of Islam, practiced for centuries. This distinctly changed Malay culture, some claiming this change to be Arabization. Outward appearance became a major aspect of Islam for Malay identity. Freedom of lifestyle became much more restrictive, where some aspects of Malay culture have actually been banned by some state religious authorities. 

The Islamization of Ketuanan Melayu became destructive upon multi-culturalism which had existed without any major friction for many years. Malaysia has become an Islamic compliant society, where non-Muslims are also expected to comply more and more. Malays are subject to the moral views of hidden religious bureaucrats about how they should think and behave in Malaysian society.

The view by some hardliners within the Islamic bureaucracy, which has taken on the characteristics of a quasi-government is than anything secular is deemed un-Islamic and a threat to Malay society. The word ‘Allah’ was banned for use by non-Muslims, ignoring prior use by Sabah and Sarawak Christian communities. Unilateral conversions to Islam allowed by children without both parents’ consent, and Orang Asli groups being enticed to become Muslims through their villages being provided with infrastructure, or being given jobs in the civil service. 

Ketuanan Melayu today 

Ketuanan Melayu can be clearly seen as a guiding hand inside the Ismail Sabri administration. The 12th Malaysian Plan and latest federal budget clearly expose the preference given to Bumiputeras, and Malays. New equity policies on local freight forwarding companies, indicate a bias towards Malay business. 

The Ismail Sabri government is denying Malaysian citizens of any equality of opportunity.

One of the greatest inequitable aspects of the Ketuanan Melayu philosophy is the advocation of a feudal-based social and economic strata in society. Ketuanan Melayu has defined the class structure of Malaysian society, Royalty at the top, followed by the privileged elite, the professional class, the middle class, and the poor rural and urban Malays struggling to make a living. This is reinforced through the Royal title system, special privileges for the elite, and VVIP service rooms in government offices. 

Crony rent-seeking capitalists are heavily favored through the provision of import licenses, monopoly concessions, sole access to government contracts, and the provision of special grants. This began in the 1990s with the Mahathir-Anwar administration’s attempts to create Malay millionaire businesspeople through assistance and favoritism. 

Ketuanan Melayu has also encouraged the development of distain towards other indigenous groups. The Orang Asli have been neglected, once traded as slaves. Indigenous groups in Sabah and Sarawak regularly claim discrimination against them within the civil services. 

Ketuanan Melayu is a very divisive ideology, that has been accepted as an entitlement within today’s younger Malay generation. This has occurred because of 50 years of indoctrination and social engineering. The younger generation see themselves as a Muslim first, Malay second, and Malaysian third. 

Many political pundits see the voting age being lowered from 21 to 18 being a major game changer in Malaysian politics. They may be greatly disappointed when these expectations fail to materialize.

Malaysia today is made up of the Malay peninsula, Sabah, and Sarawak. However, the ideology of Ketuanan Melayu is only relevant to the Malay peninsula. For this reason, the ideology has been divisive for many groups within Sabah and Sarawak, which doesn’t share the same history of ethnic demographics to the Malay peninsula. 

Ketuanan Melayu from this point of view is an old relic from Malaya’s past and should have disappeared back in 1963, when Malaysia was born. It has only been developed into what it is today because of political opportunists, who see this as the best strategy to maintain wealth and power. 

The Malay political block has fragmented, where UMNO, PAS, Bersatu, and Mahathir’s new political vehicle Pejuang. Even through observing what PKR practices, rather than espouses, the party also has some Ketuanan Melayu leanings. 

The Malay peninsula, where the old Malaya once existed has through a mass psychosis become a country within a country. For as long as Ketuanan Melayu exists, Malaysia will continue to exhibit the manifestation of being three countries within one. 

That’s not a problem as long as all recognize the reality of this. 

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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