Rehabilitating Ketuanan Melayu: A Bad Attempt at a Discredited Concept

Chandra Muzaffar 1986: “Datuk Abdullah’s argument that Malay political dominance should be preserved and perpetuated in order to ensure stability and harmony defies logic and denies justice.

Chandra Muzaffar 2011: “Ketuanan Melayu is not — as erroneously interpreted by the English language media — ‘Malay Supremacy’. It is more accurately described as ‘Malay Sovereignty’.

By Dr Kua Kia Soong, Director of SUARAM

No matter how hard we try, we will not find the term “Ketuanan Melayu” in the 1957 Federal Constitution. Nor will we find it in the post-May 13 amendments to the constitution. The fact remains that the term “Malay dominance” came into prominence after Abdullah Ahmad made his infamous assertions at the Institute of International Affairs in Singapore on 30 August 1986.

Just as the May 13 incident was the precursor to the New Economic Policy and the slew of new discriminatory policies, so Operation Lalang in 1987 provided the fait accompli for such unacceptable concepts such as “Ketuanan Melayu” to be part of the UMNO lexicon.

Abdullah Ahmad made his assertions on behalf of his UMNO bosses at a time during the 1986 general elections when even the MCA could not justify the “deviations” of the NEP. The mid-Eighties were a time of economic recession when the Malaysian masses in all the communities were trying to make ends meet. To remind young Malaysians today, this is what Abdullah Ahmad asserted:

“Let us make no mistake – the political system in Malaysia is founded on Malay dominance. That is the premise from which we should start. The Malays must be politically dominant in Malaysia as the Chinese are politically dominant in Singapore…

“I call for acceptance of the Malaysian political system as I have described it. Let not Singapore be the harbinger of Chinese irredentist tendencies. I say to all – the Chinese in Malaysia and to Singaporeans – don’t play with fire.”

This speech was castigated by many including myself, Dr Tan Chee Khoon, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, Lim Kit Siang, and even Dr Ling Liong Sik, then MCA president. My good friend, the late K. Das compiled these writings into a publication: “Malay Dominance?” in 1987.

Defies Logic and Denies Justice

Then Aliran president, Dr Chandra Muzaffar wrote in no uncertain terms:

“Datuk Abdullah’s argument that Malay political dominance should be preserved and perpetuated in order to ensure stability and harmony defies logic and denies justice.

“No rational person will accept a political system which legitimizes the perpetual dominance of one community and compels the other communities to acquiesce with their subordinate roles. Such a system would be a betrayal of the right of every human being to political equality, as enshrined in any modern constitution. More than that, it is demeaning to human dignity to preserve and perpetuate a system which dichotomises power on the basis of dominant and subordinate communities.

“In truth, the Malays should also be concerned about their future. For the “Malay political dominance” which Datuk Abdullah has chosen to defend has, in a sense, camouflaged the truth about the real political power of the vast majority of Malays.

“What does ‘Malay political dominance’ mean to the Malay padi farmer with a dwindling income, or a Malay rubber smallholder with meagre means, or to a Malay in-shore fisherman who can hardly keep body and soul together?

“Or is it because of this political dominance that these disparities have become more pronounced? The truth about Malay political dominance is that, it enabled the elite to protect the interests of a few. This is the ‘stark reality’ of the ‘power equation’ which Datuk Abdullah has conveniently forgotten…”

                                   (“Malay Dominance?” K.Das Ink, 1987:89)

Ever since the strong response to Abdullah Ahmad’s racist views in 1986, UMNO’s apologists and spin doctors have been on the defensive. The crude far-right racists have, however, been given free rein.

Attempt to Rehabilitate Ketuanan Melayu

It was thus with mixed amazement and amusement that I read this latest attempt to rehabilitate “Ketuanan Melayu” by – of all people! – Dr Chandra Muzaffar in his new capacity as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia:

“Ketuanan Melayu is not — as erroneously interpreted by the English language media — ‘Malay Supremacy’. It is more accurately described as ‘Malay Sovereignty’. The fight against the Malayan Union in 1946 was an attempt to restore Malay sovereignty, crucial elements of which were later incorporated into the Malayan and Malaysian Constitution in the form of the position of the Malay Rulers, the status of Malay and Islam, and the Special Position of the Malays. Suffice to emphasize loyalty to the Constitution today, without harping upon ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ which from a 1Malaysia perspective is divisive and detracts from our noble endeavour to strengthen inter-ethnic unity and harmony through common Malaysian citizenship.” (Malaysian Sentinel, 3 January 2011)

Dr Chandra’s latest rendition of Ketuanan Melayu is inconsistent on at least two fronts.

Firstly, if as he says, we have interpreted Ketuanan Melayu erroneously, then why does he still say “from a 1Malaysia perspective (it) is divisive…?”

He seems to imply that “Malay sovereignty” is preferable to “Malay supremacy”. But what does “Malay sovereignty” mean to us Non-Malays except to justify continued racial discrimination? Is Dr Chandra saying these discriminatory policies no longer exist?

These discriminatory policies exist and are periodically justified by UMNO leaders’ reference to Ketuanan Melayu. Therefore they must be addressed and not covered over by feel-good slogans like “1Malaysia”.

If spin doctor slogans are to mean anything, the DAP’s “Malaysian Malaysia” has been around far longer than ‘1Malaysia’!

There are also historical facts that have to be put right. Dr Chandra says the UMNO-led fight against the Malay Union in 1946 was “an attempt to restore Malay sovereignty.”

Is There ‘English Sovereignty’ in Britain?

This is a strange convolution of the concept of sovereignty – meaning “independence of the political control of other states; power of self-government” (Collier’s Dictionary) – with a racial bastardisation of the concept.

Is there such a thing as “English sovereignty” in Britain? What does it mean for the Scots and Welsh and Irish and Pakistanis and others?

Sure, the demonstrators in Malaya in 1946 were carrying slogans such as: ‘Malaya belongs to the Malays. We don’t want other races to be given the rights and privileges of the Malays.’ (Utusan Melayu, 22.12.1945) But these protests were “not so much against British rule as for the reinstatement of British justice”. (Khong, KH, ‘British rule and the struggle for Independence in Malaya, 1945-57’, PhD Pittsburgh 1975:179) Some placards even read: “Father protect us till we grow up.”(ibid, p.180)

It is disappointing that while ex-UMNO leaders such as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim are prepared to jettison such a concept of Ketuanan Melayu for “Ketuanan Rakyat”, former Aliran President Dr Chandra Muzaffar sees fit to try to rehabilitate this discredited term.

Wish List for Yayasan 1Malaysia

Yayasan 1Malaysia can do a useful service for all Malaysians by calling on the Malaysian government to implement these basic reforms which are essential for inter-ethnic unity and harmony:

–         ratify the International Convention on the eradication of all forms of racial discrimination;
–         ban racially-defined political parties;
–         enact a Race Relations Act and institute an Equal Opportunities Commission to combat racism and racial discrimination in Malaysia;
–         ensure the government services are fairly represented by all Malaysian ethnic groups;
–         ensure that all schools are treated equally in terms of hardware and financial allocation…