Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why I Support Anwar and Pakatan Rakyat: Ketuanan Rakyat!

Written by johnleemk on 5:38:45 am Apr 28, 2008.

In spite of the simple fact that ketuanan Melayu contravenes the Constitution, hardly anyone has dared speak out against this notion of Malay supremacy until very recently. It has always been implicitly understood by almost everyone, except those in the Democratic Action Party (which until recently was virtually a fringe party), that the Malays are politically dominant, and that everyone else should sit down and shut up unless the Malays in power tell them otherwise. For a Malay politician to suggest otherwise — to say that the Malays are not the ones in power, but the people of Malaysia, Malay and non-Malay, are — would be political suicide. Likewise, no non-Malay politician could risk doing the same without being labeled an extremist stirring up racial sentiments — which is why I tip my hat to Anwar Ibrahim and the leaders of Parti Keadilan Rakyat for not merely advocating ketuanan rakyat — a phrase I shall loosely translate as power to the people — but explicitly rejecting and denouncing ketuanan Melayu.

The simple fact is, no Malay leader has ever been able to denounce this blatantly racist belief that Malays are by birthright innately superior to other Malaysians. Sure, there are those who have tried it — Dato Onn Ja'afar being the most famous — but none have succeeded. Dato Onn Ja'afar's Independence of Malaya Party was a tremendous failure, and he went on to found Parti Negara, an ostensibly multiracial party, but in reality one that was virulently pro-Malay supremacy — so blatant that a few historians blame it for driving UMNO down the road of racism and apartheid. After him, no Malay politician appears to have grappled with the problem of ketuanan Melayu directly.

There have of course been those who condemn it indirectly. Vague nods to the need to respect the interests of all Malaysians, however, don't cut it. Respecting everyone's interests means nothing when you don't outline what those interests are. After all, that could equally mean we're little more than permanent residents or temporary resident aliens with some additional special rights. "Respecting everyone's interests" is completely consonant with ketuanan Melayu depending on how you define "interests", and yet no politician has had to guts to go further and say outright "Look, we want straight-up equality for everyone — affirmative action is fine as long as you do it properly, but don't treat the non-Malays like dirt, and don't tell them to leave the country if they don't like things here. They have as much a right to be here as we do."

Non-Malay politicians have had no real choice but to be more vocal in condemning the sentiments underlying ketuanan Melayu, but they themselves have been straitjacketed because there is no point in them condemning it — for something to change, for push to come to shove, Malays must themselves acknowledge that this is no way to run a country. The opposition, especially the DAP, have had a field day with this issue, but they could never really confront it directly because of this; the DAP is simply a mostly non-Malay party. The parties ostensibly representing the non-Malays in the Barisan Nasional coalition government have been even worse, backing down from challenging unMalaysian sentiments amongst their UMNO colleagues at all.

So if it's political suicide to condemn ketuanan Melayu for a Malay politician, it seems like Anwar Ibrahim and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail have made a suicide pact. To celebrate his return to active politics, Anwar basically made history by becoming the first Malay politician to take ketuanan Melayu by the horns, and tell its supporters to go take a hike. Instead, Anwar proposed ketuanan rakyat — sovereignty of the people — as a replacement ideology, emphasising that Malaysia belongs to all of us, not one race or one community.

If Anwar had just stuck with ketuanan rakyat while avoiding ketuanan Melayu, he would already be breaking new ground for Malay and Malaysian politics. But he chose to go one step further — he explicitly condemned and denounced ketuanan Melayu as harmful to the nation for rejecting certain communities in favour of certain others. We don't need ketuanan Melayu to protect our rights as Malaysians, he pointed out — what we need is ketuanan rakyat. For a Malay politician to take on a concept so deeply entrenched in the collective psyche of Malaysian politics is extremely daring, and Anwar I think has not gotten his due here.

A few days ago, his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is now not just president of PKR but leader of the opposition in Parliament, did the same in an interview with Sin Chew Jit Poh. Once more emphasising that ketuanan Melayu is not at variance with protecting the rights of all Malaysians, she put forth ketuanan rakyat as an appropriate replacement. Like Anwar, she rejected the notion of ketuanan Melayu completely. That takes guts.

Now, I don't believe that these moves are completely altruistic, although I hope they are. The fact is, Anwar and Wan Azizah have made a calculated political judgement that this is the right move to make, that the time has come for Malaysia to move forward from the abyss of communal politics. They believe that the electorate will reward them for defending the rights of all Malaysians, regardless of race, rather than defending the "rights" of one race by oppressing and denigrating other communities as lesser Malaysians. That's a fair judgement, and it does not detract from the fact that they have made the morally, ethically right decision to fight for true equality in Malaysia.

It falls upon us to thus support them in this struggle. We owe our loyalty not to any individual politician, but to our country, and this is what makes the ketuanan rakyat ideology so potent. I've always been suspicious of personality politics, which is why one of my first articles on this site was one criticising the apparent "Anwar worship" I saw in the opposition. At the time, I didn't see much of a reason to get behind Anwar except the cult of his personality. A lot has changed since then.

Today, Anwar doesn't just stand for himself; the opposition is not just a front for him and some other old opposition fogeys to get the power they crave. Today, the opposition parties stand for an ideology, a promise to fight for the rights of all Malaysians, and a promise to put the interests of our country and her people ahead of those of any individual. This is the essence of Anwar's ketuanan rakyat, and the antithesis of ketuanan Melayu; this is why I ask you to put your support behind Anwar and the Pakatan Rakyat. We fight, not for a politician or for a political party, but for the country.

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