Revisiting “Ketuanan Melayu”

By Shanon Shah
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"PEOPLE have secrets, and sometimes don't say what they mean," says Zalfian Fuzi, Instant Café Theatre Company associate director. "But at some point, your hidden meaning and feelings will come out no matter how hard you try to suppress them. It's inevitable."

Some words, Zalfian adds, are loaded. Although he is referring to the art of dramatic writing, he could also well be referring to the debates surrounding "ketuanan Melayu". Ever since former Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, said in November 2008 that ketuanan Melayu has failed, the debate has detoured into different tangents.

The initial responses were meant to silence Zaid and any attempts to question ketuanan Melayu. Umno leaders generally characterised Zaid's statements as offensive, and said that he should shut up and apologise.

Later the same month, newly-elected MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek went one step further than Zaid. Chua said ketuanan Melayu was no longer relevant, and that the phrase suggested a master-servant relationship. He suggested new ways of power-sharing within the Barisan Nasional (BN). He, too, was soundly attacked by Umno leaders.

George Orwell warns that language corrupts thought, and vice versa (© Bloopiers / dreamstime)

That one word — "ketuanan" — could cause such distress among so many national leaders, is a testament to the power of language. And often, that power does not only reside in the literal meaning of the words used.

Zalfian explains to The Nut Graph an important element of good scriptwriting — subtext. "It's the text beneath the words," he explains. Subtext points towards meanings beyond the words used, or meanings that are conveyed non-verbally altogether."

Therefore, it is interesting that in the government-linked Malay language press, the debate around ketuanan Melayu started developing different nuances. The calls to silence all questions and dissent were still prominent, and yet new negotiations around the meaning of "ketuanan" emerged.

Ketuanan Melayu, the public was told, was not intended to be supremacist. Instead, ketuanan Melayu finds its legitimacy in the special position held by the Malay rulers, and it is a response to various historical, cultural and political circumstances. In this line of argument, the text — "ketuanan" — remains. But the meaning ascribed keeps getting re-defined by its proponents like a shifting goalpost meant to frustrate opponents.

The politics of language

(image source: public domain /

In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote, "[It] is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of this or that individual writer."

Although Orwell wrote this in a different social and historical context — the essay was published in April 1946, one month before Umno was formed — his core argument remains relevant. Professor Dr Zawawi Ibrahim of Universiti Malaya's Anthropology and Sociology Department elaborates.

"Language relates to political power, and political power works upon language," he tells The Nut Graph.

Thus, while the Federal Constitution safeguards "the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities", the term "ketuanan Melayu" does not exist in the constitution. Ketuanan Melayu is, in fact, a political construct which is reinforced by the media.

The media thus creates another layer of interpretation which is then consumed by citizens. "Ketuanan Melayu" then accumulates many added layers of meaning, and gains a momentum of its own when used by political leaders and ordinary citizens.

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