Malaysia: No hard and fast rule on racial supremacy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun May 11 21:19:35 UTC 2008

No hard and fast rule on supremacy

In battling for Malay supremacy, are its champions defending a concept
whose origins are blurred in the annals of history? As for those
pushing for a Malaysian identity, did the country only begin

KETUANAN Melayu (Malay supremacy) is a delicate subject, bringing with
it connotations of supremacy of one race over another. Historically,
the more confident the Malays are, the more generous they will be. But
after the March 8 election they feel threatened, and so are not in a
giving mood to their Chinese and Indian fellow countrymen. »We cannot
build this nation overnight. What we are asking for is a willingness
to contribute, a willingness to sacrifice.

 Thus talk of Malay unity and nationalism has cropped up with
increasing frequency over the past two months, the latest being the
three-day Congress on Malay Solidarity in Johor Baru last weekend.
There, 2,000 representatives from 180 Malay non-governmental
organisations got together to discuss the need to form a lobby group
to protect Malay interests, due to the failure of Malay political
parties to champion the Malay agenda. Congress co-organiser Federation
of Malaysian Writers Associations (Gapena) president Tan Sri Ismail
Hussein noted the increasing prominence of such ideologies as a
Malaysian Malaysia, multi-lingualism, multiculturism and religious

"We are against these as our stand is that Malaysia's existence is
founded on the principle of Kedaulatan Melayu (Malay sovereignty)," he
said. At the same time, he noted that the Congress and its resolutions
were not meant to be against non-Malays. For non-Malays, as well as
some Malays who espouse a Malaysian Malaysia, this line of argument
goes against the grain. Their argument is: how can you advocate
supremacy, which by definition places one above another entity, and
then claim that you are not against non-Malays? There seems to be no
conciliatory ground of understanding between the two. Each group wants
concessions that the other is not ready, or willing, to give.
Nationalist Malays want Malaysian Chinese and Indians to absorb and
demonstrate more Malay traits. The latter do not want to be Malays;
they want to be Malaysians.

Bukit Bintang MP Fong Kui Lun criticised the Congress "50 years after
Merdeka" as a regressive step. "Today we are living in a globalised
world, with an open policy. "If you want to hold a convention for
uniting Malaysians, then that would be suitable. But if you go for
racialism, it's a step back." The debate shifted up a gear on May 8
when MCA vice-president Datuk Ong Tee Keat objected to the term
ketuanan Melayu as it implied the relationship between tuan, or
master, and slave. Inter-linked: The debate over Malay supremacy is
ironic in that as a people, the Malays are very much linked to the
Chinese and Indian civilisations of old. Without missing a beat,
Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek responded that the
ketuanan referred to the raja raja Melayu of whom all races were

When Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) spilt into the streets last
Nov 25, many indignant Malays threatened only half in jest that they
should be sent back to India. Ethnic relations had receded to its
lowest ebb. Two or three generations along, there were still Malays
who thought that they had more rights to this country than anyone
else. It is a question that harkens back to 1957 and that
non-negotiable trade-off of Malay special privileges for citizenship
rights for non-Malays. The die-hard Malay nationalists insist that the
non-Malays must first understand the country's history. "The younger
generation Chinese and Indians have to stand tall and appreciate that
the country called Malaysia was founded on the Malacca sultanate,"
said Muar MP Razali Ibrahim.  All who are Malaysians must accept this
as the country that we have built together.

"Is it enough to sing the Negara Ku and be able to recite the Rukun
Negara by heart to call yourself a citizen?" "We cannot build this
nation overnight. What we are asking for (from the non-Malays) is a
willingness to contribute, a willingness to sacrifice." This includes
a willingness to wear the songkok, not fighting for mother-tongue
classes, and thinking of oneself as Malaysian (first and only) without
any reference to China or India, explained the Johor Umno Youth chief.
"Without this, it's too much for the Malays to sacrifice that (element
of) language," he said, adding that he was not trying to promote
racial tension but nation building. But the current debate does have
race as its political genesis. Umno, by its failure to protect Malay
supremacy in politics, has disappointed, even frightened, the Malays.

Malay polity is now trying hard to separate religion from culture from
their envisioned ideals of "bangsa Melayu" and, of course, from

Umno is caught in the middle. It has to placate the intellectuals and
cultural activists who still form the opinion leaders among its
grassroots. At the same time, it has to evolve into a Malaysian party
because that is its only option in the face of Pakatan Rakyat's
multi-racial appeal.

Meanwhile, MCA has won admiration even among a segment of Malays, for
having been pragmatic enough to evolve into a party that looked beyond
the narrow confines of Chinese interests. Its president Datuk Seri Ong
Ka Ting said: "We are still a Chinese-based political party but our
ways, direction and approach are for all races."

Conversely, the MIC is still looking inward, to protecting Indian
interests, especially after makkal sakti (people's power) swept the
nation, leaving its president and a few leaders without a seat.

On May 7, Razali took on DAP chairman Karpal Singh for asking who had
prepared the text of the King's speech to Parliament. In the near
free-for-all that ensued, Razali challenged Karpal Singh, saying that
he was on the verge of being derhaka (an act of treason against a
sultan or King). It was telling that all those who later congratulated
Razali on a well-delivered speech were Malays from Umno.

Malays would probably feel more comfortable if Malaysia comprised
ethnic Chinese of say 12% of the population, and Indians another 6%.
So far, their brethren from Sabah and Sarawak are no threat to
peninsula Malays because of their small numbers.

At a relatively youthful 38, Razali would like to inherit a united
country. To him, integration was a misnomer for this country's
socio-political evolution.

"We have adaptation, accommodation. We respect your culture and needs."

A language belongs to the race as denoted by the people, not the
country as defined by a land mass, reasoned Razali.

"It does not have to be so taboo to say it belongs to the Melayu
because the language belongs to the bangsa of the country – in this
case, the Malays.

He pointed to Indonesians and Thais as examples, whose Chinese were
not ethnically identifiable by their names and who spoke Bahasa
Indonesia or Thai as their language of first choice.

But before we can reach that point, the Chinese and Indians already
fear they have to compromise their roots, he said. "There is no sense
of pride in being Malaysian."

"Nation building will not work if only the Malays work towards it. Our
future is intertwined."

Razali's views were typical of a Johorean Malay "cocooned in his Malay
milieu," said the former Speaker of the Kelantan Legislative Assembly
Datuk Wan Rahim Wan Abdullah, now the PAS MP for Kota Baru.

"The first 50 years are over. Umno must have the courage to admit that
the playing field has changed," he said.

"People are educated. In another 10 years, the pre-Merdeka generation
will all be over 60 years old."

They will not be showing respect to Umno en masse, he pointed out.

It was in that light that at the Congress, Prof Datuk Dr Zainal Kling
of the Sultan Idris Teachers' Training University warned Malays not to
be complacent about ketuanan Melayu just because the Prime Minister
and most mentris besar were Malay.

"Our culture is to surrender leadership to one person, and if he turns
out to be weak, all would fall with him."

What in fact constitutes a Melayu?

Genetically, it would be almost impossible to define one as the Malays
are such a mixed lot.

The late National Laureate Datuk Usman Awang described the origins of
Malays as covering the swathe of Indonesian islands from Sulawesi to
Aceh, on the peninsula from Jakun to Sakai, and eastwards to Pakistan
and Arab.

The Constitution distils the definition to one who is born to a
Malaysian citizen who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the
Malay language, adheres to Malay customs and is domiciled in Malaysia
or Singapore.

All of Malaysia's first four prime ministers were not of 100% Malay
stock: Tunku Abdul Rahman's mother was a Thai princess; Tun Abdul
Razak traced his lineage to Bugis seafarers of Sulawesi; Tun Hussein
Onn was of Turkish descent; and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad admitted to
"having Indian blood flowing through my veins".

Yet they were all Malay and as leaders of the country's largest Malay
political party, Umno, also represented the Malay polity. As Mahathir
added: "No Malay is pure."

In fact, in social studies classes, children are taught that the
Malays who settled in the coastal areas, pushing the orang asli inland
and uphill, descended from Yunnan, in south China.

The values Malays hold most dear are, in no particular order: Islam,
sultans, land, customs and language.

But it is a language that has borrowed heavily from Sanskrit and
Arabic, with a smattering of everyday words from the rest of the
South-East Asian archipelago.

This debate over Malay supremacy is then ironic in that as a people,
the Malays are very much linked to the Chinese and Indian
civilisations of old, as former deputy prime minister Tun Musa Hitam
himself once observed.

So in battling for Malay supremacy, are its champions defending a
concept whose origins are blurred in the annals of history? And are
those pushing for a Malaysian identity also mired in the same
misconception that the country only began post-Merdeka? Perhaps there
is no big deal to the debate after all – as long as one is comfortable
in one's own skin.

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