Ketuanan Melayu: Power and the Deep State in Malaysia
(Fourth of a series)
The Ketuanan Melayu narrative – Malaysia’s Malays-first policy – has enabled an embedded deep state to become the dominant political, social, and economic force in the country. It is the primary tool the power elite have used to justify and cover their actions in pursuing their covert objectives over national policy.
The deep state is a guileful legacy of colonial times. The British built up the persona of the sultans – most of them local warlords -- as a buffer to thwart any potential revolt. Any political movement against the British would be construed as a revolt against them. Further, the British knew that Malays would not challenge a ruler due to strong respect for their sovereign (Daulat) and the mystical aura the monarchs were perceived to possess.
Twentieth-Century communist infiltration of the union movement, and the beginning of the communist insurgency after WWII gave rise to the formation of Special Branch within the Malayan Union police force. Special Branch was Malayanized after independence and has ever since carried out a strong political agenda.
In 1969 the Alliance Government, the forerunner to the Barisan Nasional, was returned to power with a greatly reduced majority. In a boiling political environment, race riots soon erupted in what is known as the May 13 incident. After the riots, Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman disappeared from day-to-day running of the country and eventually formally handed over power to Tun Abdul Razak.
Contradicting the official line that the May 13 incident was started by Chinese opposition and the Malaysian Communist Party, declassified British Embassy dispatches indicate that Malay political leaders from within UMNO organized along with police and the army to deliver what amounted to a coup d’état against the Tunku for his perceived pro-Chinese stance.
Not all documents relating to the May 13 riots have been, or are likely to be released by the Pakatan Harapan Government in the near future.
Tun Abdul Razak developed a New Economic Policy (NEP) which was purportedly designed to enhance the economic position of Malays without disadvantaging other races. Rukunegara, similar to Indonesia’s Pancasila, was promoted to encourage national unity among Malaysians, and the Barisan Nasional government was formed with a spectrum of parties representing the major races in Malaysia.
Mahathir Mohamed, a Malay extremist politician who lost his parliamentary seat in 1969 to PMIP (the forerunner to PAS) wrote a provocative book The Malay Dilemma. Mahathir took up the old British narratives about the “lazy natives” and argued the Malays’ non-confrontational approach to other races was dispossessing them of their own land. Thus, affirmative action was needed to keep the economy from being dominated by the Chinese.
Mahathir returned to UMNO politics in 1973. PAS became a fierce competitor for UMNO in the Malay heartlands. Article 153 of the Constitution guaranteeing special rights for the Malays (and other indigenous peoples) fueled a much stronger pro-Malay narrative, which became known as Ketuanan Melayu.
The NEP drastically changed the nature of government policy and structure of the economy. State intervention to correct economic inequalities, regulation, license and permit restrictions, were introduced. State mercantilism on a massive scale was developed and the government became embedded within most aspects of the economy. Banks and agencies were utilized to dispense easy loans to Malays.
Although the NEP helped create a Malay middle class, it also created a super-rich Malay elite. There were many other undesirable side effects. An apartheid system was introduced into the civil service, eventually bloating it and making parts of it inefficient. With easy access to loans, Malays became risk adverse, leading to many business failures and bankruptcies.
Some industries became monopolies or duopolies yielding bumper profits. State enterprises in many cases were corrupt and inefficient and often competed directly with entrepreneurs and SMEs. Equity accumulation became more important than raising incomes, leaving many still in poverty. Licenses and permits fell into the hands of political cronies who rented them out to others for profit.
Cronyism and corruption became the norm. The NEP ended up dividing the country even more and created a deep-seated resentment towards the Malays by other races.
After nearly 50 years of the NEP and its hybrids, distinct covert objectives can be observed.
The NEP has created a class-based neo-feudal society headed by a small elite group. Even though there was a change in government last year, the elite still holds the reigns of power. A kleptocracy has been created, primarily based on rent-seeking rather than innovation. This has maximized the return to monopolists but left a narrowly diverse, inefficient economy that needs urgent overhaul. It has also amassed great wealth to the elite, with UMNO reported to have over RM 100 Billion in assets alone.
To achieve the above objectives, society has been engineered, the politics of division played out, and a culture of dependence created.
The symbols within Malaysian society today reflect class and feudalism. Royal titles and VVIP rooms in government offices depict feudalistic class distinctions.
National narratives are shepherded by Malay ultra-nationalist groups to continually force capitulation of non-Malay groups in society. This is reinforced by nonsensical attacks on architecture that may resemble a cross on a building, the banning of non-alcoholic beer, the exclusive use of the word Allah for Muslims, and the banning of forums and books.
The Islamic renaissance in Malaysia has been associated with Arabism, so many Malays today appear so visually different than their non-Muslim peers in society.
Hantus or bogeymen have been created to unite Malays against others in what can be professed as hate politics. The narratives of pendatang, attacks on Jews, the reaction against the Rome Statute and ICERD, all serve the purpose to create an aura that Malays are under attack.
A culture of dependency has been manufactured. This is based on the assumption that bumiputeras should be given continuing help because Malaysia is their land alone and that other races are interlopers. At election time politicians use this as leverage for votes in the Malay heartlands, where electoral malapportionment makes it the primary electoral battleground.
This has been soul-destroying on Malay confidence to the benefit of the elite. Malays have been taught to fear, be dependent, and metaphorically to wait for their savior. Politicians want to project themselves as saviors rather than enablers of society. This will be the psychic battleground for the hearts and minds of voters next election.
The Malay persona of a peaceful village life, cooperation, self-sufficiency, living a within a rich Nusantara culture, where there is amity towards others, once an integral part of self-identity, has been trampled on in favor of unemployment, lack of opportunity, drug abuse and subservience. The middle-class is locked into debt and a conformity-ridden lifestyle. A large numbers of Malays still live on bare means, totally ignored by the governing elite in Malaysia’s neo-feudal society once their votes have been extracted.
The mythical concept of Malay unity has been reframed to mean that any diverging opinions against the Malay agenda are a threat to unity. Arguing against Malay unity is viewed as disloyalty and even treason to one’s race. The mythology of Malay unity is keeping Malays within a psychic prison, stifling self-expression, self-confidence, and self-respect. Society has become super-sensitive to criticism where it’s now taboo to discuss many issues, even with a new government in power.
Ketuanan Melayu is still the philosophical basis of all policy making within government today. Members of the prominent elite like Tun Daim Zainuddin stand up from time to time to defend the need for maintaining the NEP, be it in some modified form. The narrative is a fiction designed to keep its perpetrators in power. Those who benefit the most are the ones who shout out about the need for the NEP.
The history of Malaysia has been completely rewritten to suit the elite and preserve the feudal status quo. The British negotiated the Merdeka Constitution from Malaya with the royals and elite of Malay society, while the voices of the rakyat, the people, were glossed over. Massive national protests and a civil disobedience movement fought against the Merdeka Constitution. Opposition movements proposed a more egalitarian constitution, which was totally ignored by the elite and the British. On 18th June 1948, the British rounded up protest leaders and held them without trial.
Declassification of the May 13 documents would destroy the mythology the government created as the foundation of Ketuanan Melayu. There is a distinct possibility, if the British Embassy dispatches at the time are correct, that many of the elite, some still alive today, would be incriminated in instigating the incident. This is perhaps the real reason the Rome Statute ratification was sabotaged.
Today, Malaysia is chained to this feudal-like society. The last election didn’t change that. Ignorance is the key to perpetuating the myths that are keeping Ketuanan Melayu in place, allowing the continuing plundering of the nation that has been going on since British times.
Malaysia is still colonized, just by a different group. The different races making up Malaysia are kept divided to prevent true nationhood. This is the country’s tragedy.
Other stories in this series: