Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Distinguishing Ketuanan Melayu and the New Economic Policy

Written by johnleemk on 6:26:55 am Apr 7, 2007.
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One of the most interesting and illogical arguments used to defend the racist notion of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) is that ketuanan Melayu is inextricably bound up with affirmative action policies such as the New Economic Policy. Any challenge to Malay supremacy, then, is a challenge to helping the Malays advance economically, under this view.

I once thought that this is not a widespread opinion — one held only by a few fringe zealots unable to tell the difference between the apartheid-like ketuanan and the more just principles of equality of opportunity underlying the NEP. I have had to revise my thoughts, however, after looking at some debates on this issue — it's quite clear that a lot of people labour under the misconception that Malay supremacy and the NEP are the same thing.

In the first place, why is there this misunderstanding? I think it is because the government has always used the same rhetoric to support both ketuanan Melayu and affirmative action policies such as the NEP. It's a brilliant example of Orwellian doublethink. On the one hand, Malaysians are supposed to be given a level playing field through affirmative action; on the other, they are supposed to be given a plainly tilted playing field by explicitly ketuanan-based policies.

The fact is, though, that there is a clear difference between Malay supremacy and the ideals of the NEP. Nobody disputes the need to help the Malays progress economically, except for a few Chinese chauvinists. Who would begrudge helping a fellow Malaysian?

What is disputed is the need to enthrone one race over another in order to help that race progress. If one race has been discriminated against for centuries, is the solution then to totally reverse the situation, and totally discriminate against other races? It's not logical — it just doesn't make sense.

After all, in 1960s America, what was the solution to a century of segregation and before that, a century of slavery? Was it to make the blacks the new masters, the new tuan of the United States? Of course not — the solution was affirmative action, to create an equality of opportunity. Funds were poured into helping the blacks advance, primarily through education — but nobody except black supremacists argued that the blacks deserved to become the new lords of America.

Similarly, in South Africa, they did not solve the problems of apartheid by making the blacks the new tuan of South Africa and disenfranchising the whites. Instead, they leveled the playing field and gave all races equal opportunities. The result is a remarkable egalitarianism when it comes to race, especially at the elite levels — enter any upscale restaurant or social club in Johannesburg, and you'll see a panorama of black and white clientele. The poor blacks have of course not had it anywhere as good, but they are also advancing in their own way.

The solution to discrimination is not and never will be more discrimination. If we want to progress, the last thing we want is more ketuanan. Before ketuanan Melayu, we had ketuanan mat salleh. We've had more than enough ketuanan in Malaysia — we don't need a single pinch more, thank you.

What we want for this country is true equality of opportunity for all Malaysians. The NEP served to advance this goal, although its lousy implementation has actually worsened the inequities in this country (especially intraethnic ones).

No Malaysian begrudges another Malaysian the opportunities to make themselves a better person. What we begrudge is being denied similar opportunities, and being told that we are just second-class citizens, pendatang asing. This is completely unnecessary for the disadvantaged Malay community to advance. Malaysia can, and should, move forward as a nation unencumbered by this antiquated notion of ketuanan. In Malaysia, no one race is the tuan — Malaysians are the masters of Malaysia.


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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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