What is ketuanan Melayu?


When we talk about Malay culture, it is perceived as Muslim culture. When we say we should integrate Malay culture, it is perceived as having a Muslim agenda. People feel the need to defend their race and religion from being compromised. 

Anas Zubedy

The notion of ketuanan Melayu did not just appear in recent years. It has historical basis, existing in Tanah Melayu since hundreds of years ago. In Malay historical culture and language, the term ketuanan Melayu originates from the word ‘Tuanku’ – a title reserved for Malay rulers since the early days of our society. Ketuanan Melayu thus can be seen as a contraction of the phrase ‘ketuanan raja-raja Melayu’, the sovereignty of the Malay rulers.

To get a clearer sense of ketuanan Melayu, it is more helpful to use the phrase kedaulatan Melayu – sovereignty of the Malay nation-state symbolised by our supreme institutions. Ketuanan Melayu, ‘Malay supremacy’ or ‘Malay preeminence’ – the core notion is the same; it is not about the supremacy of the Malays, but it is historically about the ‘kedaulatan’, the sovereignty of the Malay homeland. It will be more accurate to translate it as ‘Malay sovereignty’ – kedaulatan Melayu.

It encapsulates the place of honour for the unique characteristics that form the identity of our nation – the traditions, culture and symbols that identify Tanah Melayu as a unique, sovereign entity. This includes our supreme royal and social institutions and the traditional customs of budaya Melayu and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak.

Why has there been a sense of Malay dominance about ketuanan Melayu?

There could be many possible reasons. At the level of the general masses, I see ignorance and lack of understanding as the main reason for this misinterpretation. Presently, not many Malaysians are actually aware of the evolution of Malaysian history. So when a phrase like ‘ketuanan Melayu’ is used, especially in a political context, it is simply misunderstood by the mass public. The word ‘tuan’ is equalised with ‘master’; and sentiments affect how we react. Some respond defensively because they see it as a statement that the Malays are superior and non-Malays are subsidiary. On the other end, some Malays perceive this question as an attack to their position in society. At the same time, this lack of understanding by the general public makes it easy for some to use it politically for selfish purposes.

Do the Malays see themselves as dominant?

Not at all! I have strong convictions that the Malays do not see themselves as dominant. To begin with, the notion of any superior community is totally against Islamic teaching. In Islam there is a tradition about the first bilal, the one who calls believers to prayer. Bilal Ibn Rabah was an Ethiopian slave. When he went up to make the first call to prayer, some of those in the community asked that the honour be given to someone else. But Prophet Muhammad reminded them that God does not see the physical manifestation, but judges the purity of the heart. In Islam, there is no preference between Arab and non-Arab, slave or no slave, black or white. Later, a Quranic verse confirms Prophet Muhammad’s position in Quran 49:13. Most Muslims, if not all, are familiar with this story. And to this date, the person who calls for azan is known as bilal, an honour given to him.

I see that what is important to the Malays is kedaulatan Melayu. This devotion to the sovereignty of the homeland is deeply rooted in the Malay psyche. We can see this clearly in the historical development of our society. It was the main crux of nationalism in the early days of Malaya. The 1930s nationalist movements, the 1946 movement against the Malayan Union and the nationalists who worked towards Merdeka between 1946 and 1957 all had kedaulatan Melayu – the sovereignty of the Malayan nation-state – as their cause.

What does kedaulatan Melayu mean for us today?

For us today, kedaulatan Melayu still plays a huge part in our identity as a nation. The royal and social institutions, cultures and traditions that characterise our land must still be held supreme. It is core to what makes us unique as a nation, and to disregard it would be unwise. Since Independence, our social composition has changed and we have been finding ways to adjust to how we all relate to our national identity. While the nation is now made up of several communities practicing different customs and traditions, kedaulatan Melayu today means that as people of this land, we are all bound together by the supreme traditions which have characterised this land from the very beginning.

In today’s terms, it means that Chinese and Indian Malaysians integrate Malayan language, culture and traditions along with their own. For example, while we speak a myriad of languages and dialects, we all should also know how to speak, read and write Bahasa Malaysia adequately as a common language. Though every group has their own colourful, beautiful costumes, all Malaysians should own and wear traditional Malay costumes; for example, now it is quite common for women of all races to own at least one baju kurung or kebaya.

During official ceremonies, supremacy of Malay culture means that the ceremony follows Malay customs, using traditional Malay arts and symbolic objects, and those present wear Malay traditional attire as official garb. This is applicable for example in ceremonies like the opening of Parliament or Dewan Undangan Negeri.

This does not mean that the local culture overrules any other culture, but as ethnic cultures and ethnic identity are held intact, they are integrated along with Malaysian culture in practice while we belong in this nation.

Why budaya Melayu?

Budaya Melayu is a good unifying culture. As earlier discussed, it is entrenched in the historical basis of the land, not just here in Malaya but in the whole of South East Asia which was known as the Malay Archipelago. The Malay civilisation has been around for more than 2000 years – not many are aware that it is one of the oldest civilisations in the world. It is a rich, vibrant tradition with influences from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.

As mentioned earlier, we cannot and should not disregard this indigenous culture which has shaped our people from the start. At Independence, we did not emerge from nothing – Independence marks a momentous point when three major communities came together to form one nation, but this development follows a long history of social evolution of the Malay civilisation.

In other words, while as Malaysian citizens we are the same, in terms of culture the Malay and indigenous cultures are preeminent. We can say that as each ethnic community practices our distinct cultures and we accommodate and value each other’s customs and traditions, the banner that unites us is the Malay and indigenous cultures. We embrace the different ethnic identities, but take our indigenous cultures, budaya Melayu, plus our ethnic culture as the unique brand of our national identity as Malaysians. At a more micro level, in Sabah the Kadazan culture historically has cultural preeminence. Similarly in Sabah, we should not equalise any other culture – not even the Peninsular Malay culture – with Kadazan culture. The uniting culture and identity in Sabah is the Kadazan culture.

Why does the notion of one culture being preeminent bring out wariness in many Malaysians?

One of the main reasons why people respond defensively – or at the very least – cautiously, is because in this country, the Malay culture is tied so closely with religion. When we talk about Malay culture, it is perceived as Muslim culture. When we say we should integrate Malay culture, it is perceived as having a Muslim agenda. People feel the need to defend their race and religion from being compromised.

In other words, we have not brought enough awareness to the universal, non-religious aspects of Malay culture. One can practice Malay culture without having to adopt Islamic practices as they are two separate things. There are many universal elements in budaya Melayu, such as language, attire, traditional games, crafts, music and arts that all Malaysians can integrate regardless of ethnicity, religion, locality or background. These are the elements that if adopted, will not take away anything but be an added value to one’s own ethnic culture.

What are some universal elements from the Malay culture?

In terms of traditional wear, the baju kurung is a great example of an inclusive cultural symbol for Malaysians. Most women have a pair or two, and it is an added value to them alongside their cheongsams or saris. However, the tudung is not necessary, because its connotations are more Islamic – or to be more precise – Arabic. Similarly, one may wear baju Melayu but choose not to wear a songkok. The baju Melayu is cultural, it is not religious – the Hindus in Bali commonly wear it, as well as in Myanmar.

We have Malay literature – sajaks, syairs and pantuns; we have arts like wayang kulit, dikir barat, dikir laba; traditional dances like ngajat, sumazau, mak yong, zapin, joget; crafts like keris making, batik printing, wau and gasing making. We have traditional instruments like gamelan, angklung and sape. These are amazing, unique elements of Malay culture we all can know and share.

Let’s share the elements of Malay culture that are universal, not exclusive. We cannot say we want a banner culture and brand to unite us, but push elements that exclude others. For example, we can promote and share Malay cultural traditions, crafts, literature – but we should not make it compulsory that Christians, Buddhists or Hindus must learn about Tamadun Islam to pass their first year of university. Understandably, this puts them off.

How can we get people to value and integrate the Malay and indigenous cultures as our shared national identity?

We must start from the ground level, at our kindergartens and schools. For a start, once a week we can get students to wear a traditional Malay costume. During my school days, it was compulsory for students to wear ties as our education was British-based at that point. Now that we want to promote a shared Malaysian culture, let’s get our students – including those in Tamil and Chinese vernacular schools – to wear baju Melayu or baju kurung once a week in the Peninsular, and the indigenous cultural costumes in Sabah and Sarawak. 

Secondly, we need to incorporate our cultural traditions into our school syllabus, from kindergarten right up to the older stages of our children’s development. The Balinese have a good model of this – by the time Balinese children are eight or nine years old, they know how to sing, dance or perform something from the culture because they learn it in school. We need to do the same here with the Malay and native cultures. For arts lessons, instead of teaching them generic arts, we should incorporate our traditional arts into it. Let’s teach them things like how to make a wau, making a gasing, or batik printing. We can incorporate arts and dances into lessons, for example, learn the wayang kulit, mak yong, dikir barat, dikir laba, zapin, joget, ngajat or sumazau. In music lessons instead of learning the recorder, let’s teach them gamelan or angklung, kompang, rebana or gambus.

We should ensure that by twelve years old our children should be able to at least know how to do something from the culture. And not to forget, as we incorporate cultural traditions into our classroom lessons, we should also include universal elements from the Chinese and Indian culture. When we incorporate traditional values into our schools, it will not only build a sense of national identity and pride; it will add value to the personal and social development of our children. Learning culture has the effect of enriching a person’s sense of self and values. I think that the more culture we embody, the more patient, accepting and adaptable we are

Another great element that can forge Unity is the peribahasa. It is open, practical, and encompasses universal values. There are similar types of sayings in Indian and Chinese traditions as well. We should incorporate peribahasa into language or civic lessons, and when we do so we can integrate it with Chinese and Indian sayings – something to get our children to see how we relate to each other. The beautiful thing about peribahasa is that we can also easily incorporate it in our day to day speech, whether at home, with our neighbours, at our workplaces, in official and public events. It is appropriate whether in formal or informal events, whether we are young or old.

When we start practicing universal aspects of Malay culture in schools, homes and workplaces, we will start to see how it can add value to us, individually and as a society. We will see each others’ culture as an added value to our identity whether as Indian, Chinese, Kadazan, Iban, or Malay. Then we will learn to understand that the history of our land, the beauty of our indigenous and Malay institutions and cultures belong to all of us as our banner identity and collective brand.