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A Malay View Of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Sense Of Ethnic -Malay Supremacy) In Malaysia – OpEd

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O people! Your God is one and your forefather (Adam) is one. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab, and a red (i.e. white tinged with red) person is not better than a black person and a black person is not better than a red person, except in piety. Indeed the noblest among you is the one who is deeply conscious of God.’ – a saying of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him)

‘Malaysia – to whom does it belong? To Malaysians. But who are Malaysians? I hope I am, Mr Speaker, Sir. But sometimes, sitting in this chamber, I doubt whether I am allowed to be a Malaysian. This is the doubt that hangs over many minds, and … [once] emotions are set in motion, and men pitted against men along these unspoken lines, you will have the kind of warfare that will split the nation from top to bottom and undo Malaysia.’ – Lee Kuan Yew, now Senior Minister, Republic of Singapore

Instead of defining Ketuanan Melayu as ‘Malay superiority’ which is quite meaningless, philologically inaccurate, and philosophically arrogant, I think the word ‘dictatorship’ is closer in meaning. As you read this piece, please refrain from value judgment and from bring trapped in the prison-house of language pertaining to the word ‘dictatorship’.

To dictate connotes to tell, which connotes to narrate. To narrate means to weave a story based on an ideology. To ideologise means to encapsulate. To encapsulate means to be trap. Dictatorship, here might also mean an entrapment. Instead of acknowledging one’s freedom to rule, one is acknowledging being in an entrapment – and to rule out of that condition. This is a form of false consciousness.

Words, as a literary theorist Raymond Williams might say, must also be contextualised/situated within the economic condition they emerge in. Marx’s famous dictum that human beings’ existence is defined by the economic condition they are in and that this condition is already predetermined. This is a deterministic view of human history.

I first read heard the phrase Ketuanan Melayu in the mid-1980s from a book by one Malik Munip. I was reading his work, at the same time reading Lim Kit Siang’s ‘Malaysia in the dangerous 80s’, to get a sense of the argument. I was an undergraduate reading Literature, Education and International Politics.

I also heard that Malay students were discouraged from reading Kit Siang’s work and encouraged to read ‘Ketuanan Melayu’. I love banned books and books that others tell me not to read. There is a sense of intellectual challenge to be able to read banned books.

I read Mahathir Mohamad’s ‘The Malay Dilemma’ and Syed Husin Ali’s ‘Malays: Their Problems and their Future’ and Syed Hussein Alatas’ ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native’ at the same time. Again, to get a sense of balance.

I read Malaysian official publications on economic outlook, juxtaposing them with a close reading of analyses on the political-economy of the Malaysian capitalist state.

I read the work of Freud and Marx to see where some of the major authors of the Frankfurt School of Social Research are going with their arguments on totalitarianism. I read the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata to see where the arguments on race superiority lie and what the fate of humankind will be.

The idea of social dominance and racial superiority might all be primarily about economics, if we are to read the history of the development of ideologies of superiority. But my question is – who has the right to claim that this or that land belongs to this or that group of people. At what point does culture and citizenship meet and negotiate the issue of egalitarianism? When does ‘the truth of one’s culture’ reach its limit and the question of ‘the truth of citizenship’ dominate?

This is a very complex question Malaysians must answer after 50 years of Independence. We must open up the dialogue on this issue.

Lyrical propaganda

Let us look at how the idea of ketuanan Melayu is disseminated to the young. One way is through indoctrination camps in which songs are used.

Over the decades, perhaps millions of Malay students like me were taught the dangerous propaganda song, ‘Anak Kecil Main Api'(A Child Plays with Fire). One verse concerns the power of the Malays::

… kini kita cuma tinggal kuasa
yang akan menentukan bangsa
hasil mengalir, ke tangan yang lain
pribumi merintih sendiri…

My loose translation of this 1980s propaganda song by the Biro Tata Negara reads:

… political power is what we are only left with
one that will determine the fate of our nation
wealth of this nation flows into the hands of others
sons and daughters of the soil suffer in solace…

I do not think we have a clear understanding of what the lyrics mean. I doubt if the songwriter even understand what a ‘people’s history of Malaya’ means. It is a song based on racist intents; its lyrics penned by one who does not have a good grasp of the political-economy of Malaysian history, let alone the latest advances in the field of psychology of consciousness.

The training programes that encapsulate the theme of this song are meant to instill fear of the Malays, not of others but of themselves, and to project hatred onto other ethnic groups without realising who the enemy of the Malays really are.

Using relaxation techniques to bring the brain waves in the alpha and state (conducive for suggestive and subliminal messages), trainees were put under ‘half-asleep’ conditions to get the ketuanan Melayu message to colonise the consciousness. The technique pioneered by Russian brain scientists Barzakov and Lozanov in the1970s, called ‘suggestopedia’, is used to instill the deep sense of fear for oneself and hatred of others.

History is a complex syntagmatic pattern of interplay between technology, ideology, culture, inscription and institutionalisation not easily reduced to simplistic lyrics as such sung to the tune of pre-war German-nationalistic-sounding compositions.

History is about the complex evolution of the ruling class which owns the technologies of control. As Marx would say, at every epoch it is the history of those who own the means of production that will be written and rewritten. The winners write history, the losers write poetry or study anthropology, some would lament.

Back to the lyrics. After 60 years of independence, who is suffering in Malaysia? Who has become wealthy? Who has evolved into robber barons? What has become of our judiciary system, our universities, our city streets, our sense of public safety and security, our schools, our youth, and our entire socio-economic arrangements at the eve of the 15th general election. How has the idea of ketuanan Melayu contributed to this state of affairs?

Language of power and ideology is at play in those lyrics. The definition of ‘bumiputera’ is at play. It has become a problematic word in this age of deconstructionism; an age wherein as the poet WB Yeats said, “the centre cannot hold”.

Rock musicians will recall the Scorpions’ famous song ‘Winds of Change’ to serenade the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the breakdown of the Soviet Empire. We have to face the ‘wrath’ of the word.

Put an end to Ketuanan Melayu

For Muslims in Malaysia, this saying by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is familiar: 

‘Your descent is nothing to be proud of. Nor does it bring you superiority. O people! All of you are the children of Adam. You are like equal wheat grains in a bowl … No one has any superiority over anyone else, except in religion and heedfulness. In order to consider someone a wicked person, it suffices that he humiliates other people, is mean with money, bad-tempered, and exceeds the limits…’

I would say that ketuanan Melayu is a dangerous concept that is threatening race relations. It is an arrogant interpretation of selective history; of a history that is largely benefiting those who profits from the ideology.

Those promoting this concept are not well-versed in the matters of philosophy of history. I do not think thinking Malays these days subscribe to the idea of ‘Malay dominance and dictatorship’. If there is a ketuanan of one race, then the rest are ‘slaves’ and ‘serfs’ and ‘sub-citizens’, if we are to analyse it from the point of view of ‘Master-Slave’ narrative?

As a Malay wishing to see the withering of and an end to the concept of ketuanan Melayu and the birth of a new consciousness that will respect the dignity of all races and the humility of all ethnic groups, I call upon Malaysians to continue to be critical of any attempt by any race to project their own sense of false superiority that would only breed dangerous ethnocentrism bordering on xenophobia.

We should work together to deconstruct all forms of race-based political arrangement and work towards establishing a new order based on a more egalitarian economic design that takes into consideration the basic needs and dignity of all races.

We should teach our schoolchildren how to deconstruct such sense of racial superiority, through the teaching of not only tolerance but social egalitarianism – via peace education strategies. We will have a lot to gain for generations to come.  

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman grew up in a Malay village in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six areas: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, CNF/Memoir Writing, and Fiction. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He has edited and authored eight books; Multiethnic Malaysia: Past, Present, Future (2009), Thesis on Cyberjaya: Hegemony and Utopianism in a Southeast Asian State (2012), The Allah Controversy and Other Essays on Malaysian Hypermodernity (2013), Dark Spring: Essays on the Ideological Roots of Malaysia's General Elections-13 (2013), a first Malay publication Kalimah Allah Milik Siapa?: Renungan dan Nukilan Tentang Malaysia di Era Pancaroba (2014), and Controlled Chaos: Essays on Mahathirism, Multimedia Super Corridor and Malaysia's 'New Politics' (2014), One Nation Under God, Bipolar (2015), and High Hopes to Shattered Dreams: Second Mahathirist Revolution (2020). He currently resides in the United States where he teaches courses in Education, Philosophy, Psychology, Cultural Studies, Political Science, Economics, and American Studies. He is currently completing his ninth and tenth books, remembering a Gift, (on Gifted and Talented Education in Malaysia,) honoring a prominent educator, and a memoir of growing up in a Malay village in Johor Bahru of the sixties. More writings here:https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5751844.Azly_Rahman and here: https://www.facebook.com/azly.rahman. He tweets at https://twitter.com/azlyrahman?lang=en

5 thoughts on “A Malay View Of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Sense Of Ethnic -Malay Supremacy) In Malaysia – OpEd

  • Avatar
    January 6, 2021 at 4:51 am
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    Well done Doctor.
    However, there are too many hands in the cookie jar already. Deconstruction means they and their cronies will be “impoverished”. Will they?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    January 7, 2021 at 3:04 am
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    For a sense of superiority one surely must be able to point to achievements of some kind or a glorious forgotten unappreciated past-for the Malays where is that? Where are the glorious empires and achievements in stone monuments , a vast library of knowledge and learning and myths . None excepting perhaps Melaka and even there it was unable to sustain itself.
    It lacks simple credibility and this just underlines a feeling of inferiority.Mixing it up with the history of Islam renders even more indefensible

    Reply
  • Avatar
    January 8, 2021 at 10:12 am
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    Nicely written. Curious why the author referred to this as “Dictatorship”. Isn’t fascism a better term? It fits nicely with the criteria you brought up. Just a thought

    The author also mentioned how thinking Malays do not subscribe to this anymore. But there are academics who to spread “Ketuanan” among students at local universities. There are still books and articles written by these academics that are freely available to Malay youth.

    Things would be better if the counter-narrative to Ketuanan is also allowed to be propagated but it isn’t. We have books being banned and some authors hauled to court just for speaking up against religious or racial intolerance.

    The author rightfully mentioned that education is the key. Yet this is well known among the “Ketuanans” too. They concentrate spreading their propaganda using our educations system. How do we fight back? How do we remove racists teachers and administrators from their positions?

    I guess the answer is as the author suggested. We keep analyzing, dissecting and discussing it. That is all we can do.

    I am so tired of this but the fight must go on.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    January 9, 2021 at 3:43 am
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    a very interesting article. I am much better informed now than 30 minutes ago. I hope to read more articles and essays on this theme. I am an outsider living in the UK, a former British soldier who had the good fortune to be stationed at Terendak Commonwealth Forces Garrison near the Town of malacca back in the mid-1960’s. My too-short three year stay was a highlight of my life. I developed a love of Malaysia and all things Malaysian, culture, peoples, food environment, and wildlife, particularly the wonderful array of reptiles to be found there.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    January 9, 2021 at 5:56 pm
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    As far as I am concerned, NEP is a financial transaction borne by minorities to support the Malay muslim. And as far as this transaction goes, it cannot be halal to appropriate what is not yours.

    In Malay shops of old you will find a sign saying “Harap Halal”. This does not mean that you eat the food hoping it is halal. It means that for a transaction to be halal in Islam, the buyer and seller are satisfied with the price and the product/service.

    I am not. I do not declare this NEP halal for the Malay Muslim. And I certainly do not think the endless narrative about non muslims in this county is just. In fact, it is fitnah.

    Reply

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