Malaysia: How Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) Became An Ideology Of Greed – Analysis


Challenges to legitimacy 

Malaysia, as a federation is based upon nine Malay Sultanates in the peninsula, with two of the old Straits Settlements, Penang and Melaka, along with Sabah and Sarawak. The royal families had a major say in the construction of the constitution, creating a modified Westminster democracy with some special powers given to the Sultans, via a five year rotational position of supreme monarch among the sultans, known as the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong. The civilian political leaders, then led by Tunku Abdul Rahman ran a multi-cultural democratic coalition after Malaya gained independence in 1957. 

After the race riots in May 1969, a group of Malay-centric Young Turks in the dominant Malay-based coalition party UMNO, created a political crisis where Tunku Abdul Rahman was forced to resign in 1970, and replaced with Tun Abdul Razak Hussein. This new administration oversaw the enactment of a racially affirmative economic policy aimed to create positive discrimination towards the nation’s Bumiputera’s, or defined indigenous peoples under the constitution. Along with this New Economic Policy (NEP), a less talked about National Cultural Policy or Dasar Kebangsaan Nasional was also introduced. This policy had the objective of developing a dominant national identity. 

The aim of the governing establishment was to make Malay culture the national culture. Thus, the persona of the dominant national identity was articulated as Malayness within a vista of Islam, thus marginalizing non-Muslim Bumiputeras. Cultural norms, practices, artefacts, and the character of the state were ethnized.

Malayness then began to erode multiculturalism. In parallel, Malaysia’s economic development efforts were skewed towards positive discrimination towards Malays, that excluded both non-Malays and other non-Muslim Bumiputeras. The myth of Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy was created as a political tool by the dominant ruling party at the time, UMNO to keep power in the hands of the Malay establishment, which they saw themselves as representing. This was based upon premises constructed from a flawed view of history by a group of UMNO stalwarts, who published 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.

This massive 50 year social engineering project has created a divided society with two sets of laws, one for the Malay establishment and another for the rest. The civil service has become the custodian of the Malay agenda, and created a class of bureaucrat capitalists. This has become embedded within the psych of Malays through three generations of education and indoctrination. A sense of both entitlement and dependence has been developed through the liberal use of credit to the Malays to create a massive middle-class debt trap to silence dissent. 

The reality of Ketuanan Melayu is that it has contributed to greater inequities among the Malays, marginalized all other ethnic groups, and led to intra-Malay feuding and political competition to gain the spoils of power, where the winning group takes all.

Today, Malays live in fear of voicing dissenting opinions or criticizing the establishment within the cultural, political, social, economic, and religious domains. Non-agreeance with the Malay establishment is projected as an attack on mythical Malay unity. Imagined enemies are projected into society to create a sense of unity, dependence, and hate for anyone different. This keeps the focus away from tyranny, oppression, and exploitation by the Malay establishment. Ketuanan Melayu is an ideology promoting the domination of a small elite upon their own, and other communities that make up what was once a multi-cultural Malaysia. 

Challenges to the Ketuanan Melayu ideology

Although Ketuanan Melayu is institutionally deep rooted and dominates Malaysian society, the ideology is not without challenges. 

In the recent Melaka state election, Pakatan Harapan was decimated, winning only 5 seats. This was a loss of 10 seats from the 2018 election. However, Pakatan received 35.8 percent of the popular vote against the Barisan Nasional which garnered 38.39 percent in three cornered contests with Perikatan Nasional. This is a difference of only 8,284 votes. In the 2018 state election Pakatan won 51.1 percent of the popular vote. 

In the 2018 national general election, Pakatan with its ally Warisan from Sabah, obtained 49.5 percent of the popular vote. If the votes of Barisan Nasional and PAS were added together, the Malay forces aggregated 50.5 percent of the popular vote. Going back to the 2008 general election, Pakatan received 47.43 percent to BN’s 51.39 percent. Then in 2013 Pakatan received 50.87 percent to BN’s 47.38 percent of the popular vote. 

While allowing for some of the minor parties switching allegiances over the years, popular voting figures indicate a strongly polarized electorate. If one reads ideology into these figures, then roughly half of the country prefers a multi-cultural Malaysia to what exists today. 

Based on the popular vote, the future of the Ketuanan Melayu ideology hinges upon the ballot box. 

For many Malaysians the unexpected election win of Pakatan in the 2018 general election led to celebration. Many hoped that the win was the opportunity for Malaysia to go through a rebirth – a second Merdeka. There was hope that in this new Malaysia there would no longer be second class citizens and the country would undergo massive economic, political, and social reforms. 

However, nothing could have been further from the truth. With one of the former architects of Ketuanan Melayu, Mahathir Mohamed as prime minister, a self-declared “Malay first” Muhyiddin Yassin as minister of home affairs, and a Salafi-leaning education minister, Maszlee Malik further Islamizing the nation’s education system, reform was doomed. Even the then so-called prime minister in waiting Anwar Ibrahim had drifted away from the old spirit of the Reformasi days. 

Pakatan was the hope of many to end the tyranny of Ketuanan Melayu. The poor performance of Pakatan in the recent Melaka state election casts grave doubts about whether Pakatan is up to the job of winning government in the next general election, which may be held as early as next year. Some have spiritually abandoned Pakatan, prepared to vote for the Perikatan alternative, as the Melaka state election indicated, or aspire to support a new political movement led by a younger generation, like Syed Saddiq’s MUDA movement. 

Has the Malay establishment created their own Nemesis? 

Another threat to Ketuanan Melayu ideology is radical Islam. The Islamic State objective to create an Islamic Caliphate led by a theocracy appeals to some Malays. According to a 2015 Pew Research Centre Global Attitudes study, 12 percent of Muslim Malaysians hold favourable views of ISIS. 

There have been many reports of Malaysians fighting alongside ISIS militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. Malaysia has not been immune from ISIS attacks, with the Movida Restaurant and Bar bombing at Puchong, Selangor in 2016. 

With a youth unemployment rate of 12 percent and unemployed graduates running at 22.5 percent, the environment to recruit activists is fertile. Malay society is not living up to the expectations that state promoted Islam has created. The authoritarian, feudalistic, corrupt, gangsterism, and establishment’s hypocrisy towards Islam has disenchanted a section of Malay youth, who have been grounded in Islam and are looking for other alternatives. 

ISIS messages through social media are powerful. They show starving children as victims of war, and the results of US drone strikes, which are designed to create outrage and anger with impressionable young people. The Taliban retaking of Kabul in August is seen as an inspiring event. Last year an e-hailing driver Mohamed Ayub Musa was sentenced to three years prison for possessing videos related to ISIS. 

Islam in Malaysia no longer carries the moderation and tolerance it once had. The tweet by the PAS information director congratulating the Taliban on retacking Kabul, and the government’s support for Hamas, rather than the Palestinian government is virtue signalling to the youth tacit approval of jihad methodology. To many Malays, supporting the Taliban and Hamas is no different to supporting ISIS. 

The promotion of stricter interpretations of Islam is not helping. The push towards Arabism and the Salafi doctrines behind this has been putting Malays into an identity crisis. Should they emulate a Malay or Muslim identity? Ketuanan Melayu has encouraged Malays to exclude other non-Muslim communities, where they have been portrayed as enemies of Islam. Democracy and party politics is seen as a way, certain groups carrying an agenda to destroy the Islamic society in Malaysia. 

ISIS has both the utopian appeal to Muslims and a deranged Jihadist appeal to those who want to achieve martyrdom in a Holy war. It is radical and revolutionary wanting to rid the Islamic world of tyrants who don’t strictly follow Islam. This creates a fertile recruiting ground. ISIS messaging is extremely powerful for the vulnerable. 

The Special Branch has allocated massive resources to detect and conduct surveillance on these groups. Domestic terrorism is now perhaps the major concern of the Special Branch, as in the long term it directly threatens the authority of the monarchy. 

The Ketuanan Melayu ideology influences everything in Malaysia. It defines position in society, has dispensed away with the concept of meritocracy in government, education, and the armed forces. It has defined the nature of the Malaysian economy, a highly regulated market-scape, with rules that favour the privileged. It has defined the Malay identity, creating a powerful elite, a trapped middle-class, and a disposed poor. 

Ketuanan Melayu is under threat, but stanchly protected by vested interests. An election win by a coalition committed to multi-culturalism will have to negotiate and navigate through the ideology rather than dispense with it. However, looking at Pakatan’s electoral performance, the electoral landscape is more likely to be dominated by the Malay-centric parties in the future. 

Radical Islam is a long-term threat. This is why the Special Branch takes the infiltration and influence of ISIS very seriously. ISIS operatives have on a few occasions been detected within the armed forces. Social media and Islamic organizations are all on the watchlist. However, it’s the materialism Ketuanan Melayu has created within the debt ridden middleclass that will act as the best buffer against radical Islam. In the future the biggest threat to Ketuanan Melayu may not be multi-culturalism, but the ideology of an Islamic Caliphate.  

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.

2 thoughts on “Malaysia: How Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) Became An Ideology Of Greed – Analysis

  • December 5, 2021 at 3:29 pm

    Aargh, you are saying “Malayness then began to erode multiculturalism” (your para. 4) in Malaysia. You do not understand, I suppose that it is multiculturalism that is seeking to impose itself in Malaysia, to erode tha natural and historical Malayness of the land. Just like White settlers in Australia successfully did – completely eroding the indigenousness of Australia. Of course, 200 years later White Australians apologised to the Aborigines for having done what they did. That did not bring atonement at all though, as I do not think the aborigines now have the right to reclaim at least half of Australia …

    I would not comment on the rest of your paper.

    • August 8, 2022 at 10:49 am

      Would your assertion that “multi-culturalism seeking to impose itself in Malaysia” suggest that your ancestors chose not to adapt to the influx of foreigners, not to accept them, to assert ethnocentrism in the pursuit of ketuanan melayu?


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