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Revisiting “Ketuanan Melayu”

“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.

This socio-political construction of language is by no means confined to the issue of race. It happens in relation to gender as well. Apart from overt sexist language, the larger social and political environment also creates language that perpetuates gender stereotypes and, worse, inequality.

Feminist writer Ng Tze Yeng says gendered language often has the effect of limiting the potential of groups of people. She tells The Nut Graph via e-mail, “For example, a young girl could grow up with the idea that opportunities to be in the state legislative assembly belong only to men because of the term ‘assemblyman’.”

Similarly, would a non-Malay Malaysian be able to imagine becoming prime minister one day if “ketuanan Melayu” is promoted by politicians and the media?

A coordinator of the All Women’s Action Society’s Writers for Women’s Rights Programme, Ng says, “[Language] is a site of contestation of power, and language is power.”

Conscious manipulation

Nevertheless, language only has as much power as its users assign to it. According to veteran journalist Said Zahari, “Umno’s [ketuanan Melayu] rhetoric is outdated.” He tells The Nut Graph, “The Malays don’t buy it anymore, and non-Malays are not so frightened [to question it] now as they were in the past.”

Said acknowledges that journalists, many of whom work with language every day, have a role to play when phrases like “ketuanan Melayu” are politicised. “The situation is not so bad, but it is the reporting in the press that makes it seem dangerous.”

Zawawi agrees, and feels that political leaders need to be held accountable.

“Politicians manipulate cultural symbols, specifically ethnic symbols, consciously,” he tells The Nut Graph. “These are their rituals of solidarity-making.” In Malaysia’s larger political environment, where race-based political parties are entrenched, it is inevitable that ethnic symbols get politicised. Hence, language — even basic words — is racialised.

Thus, it is not only the term “ketuanan Melayu” which contains subtext that ignites racial passions. Racial passions on all sides are also ignited in the waving of the keris and discussions on Islam, which have been incorporated as part of Malay identity. And with the BN convention in February and Umno polls in March, it will be noteworthy to see if and how racial and religious symbols get further manipulated.

Zawawi suggests going back to the spirit and letter of the constitution on issues related to race. He recommends not using terms that homogenise groups of people and diminish appreciation of diversity.

Orwell also recommended the same. Giving an example of vagueness, euphemism and question-begging in political language, he wrote, “People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.” This, according to Orwell, is a prime example of insincerity, which is the ultimate enemy of clear language.

He warned that thought corrupts language, and that language also corrupts thought. When politicised language is not interrogated, language itself will deteriorate, as will our collective intellect and how we relate to one another.

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9 Responses to “Revisiting “Ketuanan Melayu””

  1. The Spirit of Freedom says:

    “Ketuanan Melayu” has transformed into “Ketuhanan Melayu” –> Allah only for Malay-Muslims.

  2. vsp says:

    Those in Umno not only eat up what belongs to others but they also gore their own kind.

    They are akin to dinosaurs that attack because they think they are enormous in size; but they will ultimately die out because their vital source of life, i.e. corruption, can choke them up quite badly.

  3. sans says:

    Frankly it is only after the March 08 elections did I hear this term “Ketuanan Melayu”. Where was it before? Or was it not mentioned in the press before March 08? Or have I not been reading the right newspapers or simply missed previous times when the word coupling “Ketuanan Melayu” has appeared?

  4. amir says:

    Nama dia Wan Zawawi, kan? Bukan Zawawi jer. Janganlah menidakkan keturunan Cik Siti Wan Kembang!

    Editor’s note: Dr Wan Zawawi was asked how he would like to be quoted, as his name has appeared differently in different publications. For example, for the book “Blogging and Democratization in Malaysia”, he is published as Zawawi Ibrahim. Dr Wan told The Nut Graph he did not mind either way, notwithstanding his Siti Wan Kembang lineage.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  5. la femme says:

    In my humble opinion;

    The word “assemblyman” does not have the same detrimental effect as “ketuanan melayu.”

    The term “assemblyman” does not cause “A young girl could grow up with the idea that opportunities to be in the state legislative assembly belong only to men”. I surely didn’t.

    A girl could think that the state legislative assembly belongs only to men if she is taught that society dictates that women should stay at home, or work only until they have children and that women in positions of power are usually thought of as malicious “ice queens” or referred to with some other derogatory terms (women who are stripped of their feminity and demureness).

    And she could LEAVE the state legislative assembly to the men when we have politicians talking about AirAsia flight attendants’ skirt “tunnels”.

    So I don’t think we should point fingers at supposed “gendered language”. Arguing semantically about gender issues won’t solve gender issues. It’s like picking lice, when we could stop a gaping wound from bleeding.

    Just playing devil’s advocate here. Thanks.

  6. Fikri Roslan says:

    I think the concept of Ketuanan Melayu is well understood even back in 60s and 70s. Yes, the PAP and later DAP promoted the concept of ‘Bangsa Malaysia’. It seems funny that Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek translated it as master-slave relationship. I sincerely think he understands the real meaning of Ketuanan Melayu.
    We should retain the spirit of Ketuanan Melayu, otherwise the Malay Malaysians will really become the slave in their ancestor’s land. Then these two magical words call for Malay Malaysians to be successful in education and economy so that they could continue getting the confidence of the people to manage this country.

    Of course, they will continue to protect the Malay institutions including the supremacy of rulers.

  7. Eric says:

    @Fikri Roslan
    I do not know about in the 60s and 70s or Dr Chua, but I still do not understand the “Ketuanan Melayu” concept. Would you mind explaining it?

    Please also explain how the “Malay Malaysians will really become the slaves in their ancestor’s land”? I really fail to see this.

  8. akee says:

    Adakah ketuanan Melayu boleh di ibaratkan adalah seperti perlawanan bolasepak di padang yang curam; tuan rumah ambil sebelah tanah yang tinggi manakala pihak undangan di beri sebelah tanah yang rendah.

    So ‘preettttt!. mainlah

    Masih ketinggalan juga, negara nak maju lebih jauh pun susah, pasal kena tunggu tuan.

  9. Senior Citizen says:

    I do not recall any mention of Ketuanan Melayu in the 60s or 70s or even 80s. I was only made aware of it right after the March 08 elections during the Umno demonstrations.

    Words like ‘special rights’, ‘special privileges’ are still tolerable. But ‘ketuanan Melayu’ is just impossible to choke down. I do not believe there is a single soul in this world that would willingly submit to any form of dominance or be deemed inferior. However else you might explain it, that is the connotations implied by the two words.

    Simply declaring yourselves the superior race will not get you any respect. And it does not help promote harmony. Better to get off your high horse and work together as equals. That I feel is the only way forward. Unfortunately that is just my personal opinion.

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