Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Ketuanan Melayu is Unconstitutional

Written by johnleemk on 11:48:44 am May 13, 2007.
Categories: ,

Malaysians are particularly used to accepting apartheid as business as usual. Most people take it for granted that the Malays are tuan — masters of the land — despite the only basis for this lying in government propaganda.

Over the years, I have been continually surprised at the incredible number of misconceptions about our Federal Constitution. It is one thing for an uneducated working class labourer or farmer not to know about the Constitution; it is a completely different thing for educated middle class bourgeouisie with internet access to be ignorant of what the Constitution says.

Yet, some of the oddest misunderstandings about the Constitution can be found lying around on the internet. Some, like the extremely illogical interpretation of Article 11 which suggests that Muslims cannot convert out of Islam are at least based on a brief reading of the Constitution.

But other misconceptions are intolerably based solely on ignorance of what the Constitution actually says. One such misconception is that the Prime Minister must be Malay, Bumiputra or Muslim — in reality, the Constitution is silent on what community the Prime Minister should be from, allowing almost any adult Malaysian citizen to become Prime Minister.

One of the most insidious misunderstandings of the Constitution actually stems from lies and propaganda. Contrary to what the Barisan Nasional regime would have you think, there is no reference to a "social contract" in the Constitution.

Indeed, not a single time in the Constitution is the phrase used, nor at any time is there an implication that certain bargains were made between different ethnic communities prior to independence, and that these bargains are enshrined in the Constitution. Peruse the whole document; you won't find any such thing there.

The closest thing you will get to such a thing is the entrenchment of certain provisions normally considered part of the social contract, e.g. the status of Malay as the national language, Islam as the official religion, the status of the Malay rulers, the "special position" of the Bumiputra, and the citizenship of all Malaysians. (And this entrenchment is not even part of the original social contract, having been inserted after the 13 May 1969 racial riots.)

But nowhere is it said that the enforcement of one of these things relies on the enforcement of another. It would be as possible for the government to revoke the citizenship of all non-Bumiputra as it is for the government to make Taoism the official religion, Swahili the official language, or convert the country into a republic — the process for amending any of these provisions is exactly the same. If there was a bargain at all, the terms of the bargain don't seem to be in force now — and that is why the social contract is a lie.

But one of the truly most perfidious falsehoods ever inflicted on the Malaysian people is the idea that one race is supreme over the other — ketuanan Melayu — and that this is upheld by the Constitution. Nothing is further from the truth.

Examine the citizenship provisions carefully. Nowhere is it stated that the Malays or Bumiputra are to hold one class of citizenship, and the non-Malays or non-Bumiputra to be given second-class treatment. The implication is that all Malaysian citizens are equal.

Any unequal treatment must be in line with existing provisions in the Constitution, the most notorious being Article 153. But as was noted when UMNO leaders threatened to abrogate the Constitution in 2006 by Azmi Sharom, this says nothing about "special rights" for the Malays or Bumiputra. It only refers to a "special position" — and what this "special position" is is left unsaid.

Is it reasonable to interpret this as establishing the Bumiputra as the tuan of the country? Unless you're a deranged ethnic chauvinist, I don't think so — this can hardly be so when Article 153 states that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is supposed to protect the Bumiputra because of their "special position", and look after the legitimate interests of the non-Bumiputra communities.

To find out what this means exactly, we need look no further than the report of the Reid Commission, which found that Article 153 was necessary not to establish Malay supremacy or ketuanan Melayu but to uplift the economically disadvantaged Malay community, without harming the interests of other Malaysians. (This is why the universities were forced to open their matriculation programmes to non-Bumiputras — Article 153 explicitly bans such blatant apartheid.)

Depending on how you read it, the "special position" of the Bumiputra can be their economically fragile status, which makes them especially worthwhile of attention and protection so they can be uplifted to a point where they are able to compete with other Malaysians on a level playing field.

Alternatively, you can read it as insisting that because the Bumiputra are the indigenous peoples of Malaysia (please, let's just take this as a given for now, since hashing out a debate about the migration of Malays from Sumatera would take us on a severely long tangent) and that because of this "special position", they should be given special attention as regards to their economic status — it is not good, after all, to see the original inhabitants of the country suffer economically while the rest of the country leaves them behind.

In the end, it does not matter what interpretation you take. The important thing is, Article 153 does not establish any form of Malay supremacy or ketuanan Melayu. It specifically gives the Yang di-Pertuan Agong the responsibility of protecting the interests of the Bumiputra community due to their "special position", but it also holds him responsible for protecting the legitimate interests of the non-Bumiputra communities.

(And as a side-note, the word "Bumiputra" is not found at all in the Constitution. I am merely using it as shorthand for "Malays and indigenous people of East Malaysia", which is roughly what the real text of the Constitution says.)

The whole point of the Constitution, including (especially?) Article 153, is to ensure all Malaysians have an equal chance and opportunity to be the best they can be. There is no ketuanan, no supremacy. Only justice and equality — which unfortunately is a far cry from what we have today, thanks to our wonderful lying Barisan Nasional government.

(Wikisource hosts slightly out of date text of the Constitution. Any claims about the actual text of the Constitution should be cross-checked with what the Constitution really says.)

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