If you do a quick Google search on the term ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, you would be conveniently directed towards the Wikipedia page on the subject, where you would be delightfully enlightened to the fact that the literal English translation to the term is ‘Malay supremacy’. Even Google Translate would tell you that the Malay translation for the word ‘supremacy’ is ‘ketuanan’.
Actually, it isn’t.
The Oxford dictionary defines supremacy as ‘the state or condition of being superior to all others in authority, power and status’. It can be traced back to the root word ‘supreme’, meaning ‘highest in rank’.
It is a word that speaks of unquestionable authority, overarching power, and elevated status that reminds one of the ages of Imperialism when certain nations impose their idea of system, growth and progress to other poor uncivilized barbarians across the globe. It is a word that, in our age of freedom of choice and innate rights, instill negative perceptions of slavery, domination over the lower classes and leaves behind a bitter taste of repulsion.
However, the Malay word for ‘ketuanan’ is derived from the root word ‘tuan’ or owner. The official Malay dictionary, DBP’s Kamus Dewan, defines the word ‘ketuanan’ as ‘hak menguasai dan memerintah sebuah (negeri, daerah, dll)’ or ‘the right to dominate and rule a (state, district, etc)’.
It is a word that reminds many people of the time when our lives and culture were tainted by the supreme nations who found it wise to teach us that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, and not civilised enough to rule our own lands without their advice or direct interference. It is a word that suggests ownership, sovereignty and independence from foreign indoctrination. It is a word that, in our age of post-colonisation rule, reminds us of our loss of autonomy and what, if we are not careful, we will once again lose.
In making sense of the words we use, two factors would come into play. The first is the definition of the word, or the actual meaning of the word as written in the dictionary. The second is the connotation, which is the unsaid ideas and thoughts we relate to the word, often without a conscious thought.
For instance, when reading the tale of Snow White where she was described to have skin as white as snow, the intensity of her white skin suggests purity which alludes to her pure and innocent nature. It is an implied meaning that does not have to be spoken outright but still has an effect onto how you read the words and perceive the story.
Similarly, when talking about racial supremacy, the thoughts that usually come to mind are those related to xenophobia like those adopted by the White supremacists such as the Klu Klux Klan who committed crimes such as the mob lynching of innocent people, or that hailed by the Nazis in their Holocaust that targeted particular members of the society solely due to their genetic makeup.
Even in the world of today, white supremacy is still a problem in the United States which is a status quo brought by the age of colonization when they brought in African slaves into the country, establishing their ranks as the lower class. After decades of problematic policies like redlining, where both government and private agencies systematically denied various services to the racial minorities through direct intervention or selective raising of prices, it has lead to the blacks receiving huge disadvantages, especially in wealth and education.
This correlation between racial minorities and lack of wealth and poorer education quality is comparatively non existent, here in Malaysia. In fact, the policies enacted by the British empire systematically sidelined the majority Malays, for example, by restricting their usage of land to infertile areas or those unsuitable for agriculture. At the same time, the Chinese and Indian dominated areas were encouraged for commercial and economical growth, establishing a disproportionate number of Chinese dominated areas to becoming commercial centres during this time.
Both of these actions were taken by the British in a selfish attempt to gain a stronger foothold in their colony by oppressing the existing Malay rulers and undermining the power and authority of the preexisting Bumiputra people. By destabilising the established social hierarchy, they have a better chance at gaining control either as a direct ruler or indirectly as a protector of a party that is willing to bend the knee. And much like the redlining in the United States, this systematic encouragement to certain parties while declining services to others, had left high racial inequality. At the time of the formation of the Federated Malay States, the Bumiputras, the ethnicity of the majority, were also the poorest in Malaysia, which bred discontent and animosity between largely the Malays and the Chinese, and were one of the factors that caused the May 13 riots in 1969.
While the concept itself predates the formation of the Federated Malay States, in the decades following it, the idea of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ has been hailed as the reclaiming of ownership of a right which had been denied by selfish Imperial colonization, what is often championed as ‘Hak Bumiputra’ or the rights of the Bumiputras, the sons of the land. To many of the Malays who fight for it, it is intertwined with the notions of the freedom to act, to live and to rule of their own accord, to proudly uphold their culture and receive the opportunities they would have received had their history not been tarnished by colonization.
The struggle and the fight for Hak Bumiputra or Ketuanan Melayu has nothing to do with the minimizing of other races or denying their own rights as one would have deducted from the inaccurate and misleading term of ‘Malay Supremacy’. It is all about reestablishing what they have lost and what was stolen from them similar as to how the rights of the blacks were snatched from them when they were shipped away into the slave trade. They wish to really feel it when they say ‘Tanah Melayu’ or ‘Malay Homeland’ and to really know that nobody else would rob them of their customs, their cultures and their heritage when they call out ‘Daulat Tuanku’.
While I myself am unabashedly a staunch supporter of the ‘Hak Bumiputra’ and ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, I understand that it is the many people and their various opposing opinions is what makes the reality of the world that we live in. It is why debates and discussions and prevalent throughout all levels of society, from the social media, to the kedai mamaks to the Parliament. However, inaccuracy and false negative perceptions would do little to help move the discussions forward and I believe it is imperative that we clear up this misunderstanding once and for all.