Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

British Ketuanan Melayu

Written by johnleemk on 10:55:00 am Mar 20, 2007.
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With all the keris-waving antics of modern day "Malay nationalists", it is often easy to forget that this ideology of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy/dominance/lordship) is nothing new. Indeed, it is an ideology that can be traced back to the days of British colonialism.

One of the most prominent colonial administrators, Hugh Clifford, summed up his thoughts as such:

this is a Malay country, and we British came here at the invitation of Their Highnesses the Malay Rulers, and it is our duty to help the Malays to rule their own country.

Clifford's thinking left no room for the non-Malays in Malaya, and at the time he said it, there was probably no reason for him to have any consideration for the non-Malays. Most non-Malays were transient Chinese, who came to work in the tin mines for a few years, and then returned to China. Many Indians were rubber tappers brought in under a similar system.

Without a permanent non-Malay population, it's not surprising that the British crafted policies specifically geared with ketuanan Melayu in mind — who else was there who could have dominion over Malaya, the Tanah Melayu (lit. Land of the Malays)?

When the non-Malays began to actually settle in Malaya, the British had a problem on their hands. This was a problem they refused to acknowledge. When local-born non-Malays demanded representation in the colonial government, and asked to be considered in the domestic policies of the administration, the British steadfastly rebuffed them.

How ever expedient this may have been for the British at the time, this blind short-term approach would come back to bite them in the behind. Only after the non-Malay population exceeded the Malay population did the British recognise they had a problem, and even then their solution was simply to ban immigration into the country. Emigration of the remaining transient workers reduced the non-Malay population to manageable but still sizeable numbers.

Despite the numbers of non-Malays who, for all intents and purposes, meant to remain in the country for the indefinite future, the British continued to ignore them. No efforts were made to integrate Malayan society or bring the different ethnic communities together. If anything, segregation was encouraged by the establishment of different schools for different races, with the only true integrated ones being missionary schools established for the elite of all races.

Thanks to these terrible short-sighted policies, the Malays and their leaders continued to conceive of the country as an essentially Malay country. Malaya was not a homeland for Malayans; it was a homeland for only the Malays. The Malays were forced to include non-Malays in political activities simply at the behest of the British, once they had realised their mistake.

After World War II, the British tried to right things by establishing the Malayan Union, which promised political equality for all Malayans. The proposal had some bad aspects, such as its establishment of a unitary instead of federal polity, but otherwise, was sound in its principles.

Unfortunately, a whole generation of Malay leaders had been brought up being fed the official British line that this was a Malay country, not a Malayan country. Although the British realised they had erred, it was too late to turn things around. The new generation of leaders, led by Dato Onn Ja'afar, successfully campaigned to end the Malayan Union and establish the Federation of Malaya, which enshrined a "special position" for the Malays.

From the facts, it is clear to the objective observer that the conception of Malaya as a Malay country alone was a mere fiction from the 1930s, at the very latest. This country became a country for all Malayans, not just Malays, once there was a substantial population who intended to make this country their home.

When the Malay nationalist United Malays National Organization joined forces with the Malaysian Chinese Association, many dismissed the Alliance as a marriage of convenience. In a sense, they were right — this coalition was one of uneasy bedfellows. UMNO did not see the MCA as equals — they saw them as inferiors to be tolerated in order to secure the support of non-Malay Malayans for UMNO's political struggle.

The MCA saw itself, however, as UMNO's equal. Thus, a struggle for power ensued from the early 1950s right until the 1970s, when Tan Siew Sin's attempt to become Deputy Prime Minister failed, and firmly enshrined UMNO as the leading political force in the country.

A whole generation of leaders — Dato Onn's generation — were brought up on the lie that Malaya was only a Malay country. If this had been nipped in the bud, our country would be far better off (the New Economic Policy, being race-blind, could still have been implemented under a government without any reference to a "special position" for the Malays — and this implementation probably would have been a lot better than that of the present government).

Unfortunately, this generation took power, and perpetuated the same lies. Indeed, these lies were probably enlarged by "ultras" such as one Mahathir bin Mohamad, who took these ideas so far that Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr. Ismail himself stated:

These ultras believe in the wild and fantastic theory of absolute dominion by one race over the other communities, regardless of the Constitution.

And since as Mark Twain purportedly said, a lie goes around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on, we have been saddled with the discriminatory apartheid-like system of ketuanan Melayu. Although in theory all Malaysians are equal, over half the country continues to suffer thanks to the shortsighted mistakes of British colonialists from over a century ago.

Last year, several of my non-Malay classmates applied for government scholarships. Practically all of them were rejected. After hearing almost endless complaints from them, I muttered, "We're all second-class citizens lah. Just get used to it."

One of them responded along the lines of "Yeah lah, that's how it is." Such alienation among the youth of any nation is dangerous to its future. If you cannot even secure a common sense of identity and fraternity amongst your future leaders, what hope do you have for the rest of your country and society?

There is one bright spot to the story — a couple of my friends appealed, and were successful. They are presently studying in the Universiti Teknologi Mara under government scholarships — the same university that a former Higher Education Minister once promised that no non-Bumiputra student would ever set foot in.

But unless such happy endings become the norm, and we dismantle this nonsense of racial supremacy, we can forget about ever having a truly united and loyal nation of Malaysians. Who wants to die for a country where you're nothing but second class cannon fodder?


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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