What is ketuanan Melayu?
Historically, ketuanan Melayu has existed for many decades based on Malaysia’s origins as Tanah Melayu. However, only in recent years, the word ‘ketuanan’ has been laden with so much emotion that to have a decent discussion about the word itself may end up going nowhere.
Is it important for us to talk about ketuanan Melayu?
Yes, now it has become important because the term ketuanan Melayu, if not properly understood, will divide the country. And because of that we need to deal with it.
What do you see is Ketuanan Melayu?
The word tuan from our day to day usage implies ‘master’, or someone who is dominant. And some even use the word ‘supremacy’. This is nonsensical. If we understand the Malay culture, language and history better we will see the word ketuanan Melayu originated from the word Tuanku. Which is how a typical Malay subject will address their ruler. So ketuanan Melayu is the contraction of the word ‘ketuanan raja-raja Melayu’. Based on that, perhaps today it is more appropriate to use ‘kedaulatan Melayu’, or Malay sovereignty. Not mastership, but the sovereign state of the Malay entity. Our constitution attests to this.
Do you think the Malays believe that they are superior?
No way! I have strong convictions that the Malays do not see themselves as the superior race. This is because it is totally against the Islamic teaching professed by them. The Islamic tradition will tell you a story about Bilal. In the story of the first bilal, the one who calls for azan (yes his name is honored with the act of calling for prayer), he was a black African slave. When he went up on the Kaabah to call for prayer, a few people asked him to come down because he was a black Negro slave, but Prophet Muhammad told them that there is no difference between an Arab and a non-Arab, slave or no slave. Most, if not all Muslims, are familiar with this story.
Why then do certain sections of Malaysians equate ketuanan Melayu with Malay supremacy?
There could be many possible reasons - politics being one of them. At the general masses level, I see ignorance as the number one reason. The fact is that not many Malaysians really know and understand the evolution of Malaysian history. Furthermore many are stressing this type of ketuanan as a reaction to what they see as an attack on the Malay position.
If so, perhaps it will be clearer if we talk about kedaulatan Melayu?
Yes. Kedaulatan Melayu speaks of two things: the Malay culture and the sovereignty of Malay rulers. ‘Melayu’ here refers more to culture rather than race. It suggests that budaya Melayu should be the shared brand of Malaysians. And kedaulatan refers to the sovereignty of our rulers as gatekeepers of our cultural identity. So Ketuanan Melayu should be seen from the context of kedaulatan budaya Melayu, which is the Malay culture (including native cultures of Sarawak and Sabah) should play the central and larger role in the Malaysian brand.
Why is this idea of sovereignty so significant to the Malays?
It was the main crux of nationalism in the early days of Malaya. The Malayan nationalists of the 1930s, the Malayan Union of 1946 and the Malay nationalists who marched towards Merdeka between 1946 and 1957 all had kedaulatan Melayu as their motto, battle cry and justification.
How should we approach ketuanan Melayu or kedaulatan Melayu?
I see that first and foremost, we have to explain what ketuanan Melayu is and to do that based on facts, leaving out the emotional sentiments. We need to explain it clearly that it is not that we are saying one race is better than the other. And on all sides, we need to learn to accept what it really means. Again it is crucial that we leave out all emotional sentiments, leave politics out of it too.
What does kedaulatan Melayu mean today?
It means that while we practice our different cultures, we have the Malay flavor in our shared cultural identity. As a nation we need to have our own identity and ours can be budaya Melayu. For example, kedaulatan Melayu today could mean that all Malaysians are able to speak Malay and write basic things in Malay. And all Malaysians may own Malay traditional costumes, for example, almost every lady I know, Malay or non-Malay, has at least one baju kurung.
During official functions with our raja-raja Melayu, we can dress up in Malay traditional baju. If we attend the opening of the parliament of Dewan Undangan Negeri, we can wear baju Melayu. I’m not saying we should allow it to replace our other traditional costumes. In unofficial events, we can wear our own traditional costumes, in fact even better if Malays wear the Chinese costume, Chinese wear the Indian costume, all that. But when we go for official events, we honor the Malay budaya, speak in Malay. Its not about superiority, its about maintaining the Malay flavor as a shared culture.
The Malay culture is a beautiful culture. It has been around for more than 2000 years, from the early days of the Kedah civilization. There must be a lot of gems this culture has to offer. In peribahasa for example, we can find lots of elements which are similar to Chinese and Indian traditions. These are the precious elements of budaya Melayu which all Malaysians should know; we should start introducing it in school and from there it can continue to be cultivated.
Will the same apprehension occur towards cultivating budaya Melayu?
I see the apprehension stemming from when we introduce budaya Islam as a core of budaya Melayu. But kedaulatan Melayu is kedaulatan budaya Melayu, it is not about religion – we can all practice the non-religious elements of budaya Melayu.
In other words, we have not paid due focus on the universal, non-religious aspects of Malay culture. I see it as something we need to bring to focus on at the ground level, in schools, from Standard One right up to Form Six and even to universities. One of it as I suggested earlier is the peribahasa. The Malay culture has really solid peribahasa – beautiful ideas and lessons wrapped in simple words – gems, thoughts and lessons from the past.
What are other non-religious elements of budaya Melayu which all Malaysians can adopt and share?
For example, let’s look at the baju kurung. I think all can wear the baju kurung, but not necessarily the tudung as the basis of the tudung is more Islamic. Similarly, a baju melayu doesn’t have to come with a songkok. If you go to Bali, you’ll see Hindus wear it; we see it in Myanmar as well – it’s Malay culture.
We need to see the distinction between Malay culture and Islamic elements, only then can we have a national culture that is inclusive to all in our nation. If we want to propagate the Malay culture as a favorable environment where all Malaysians can share one national identity, we cannot make the culture exclusive. If we force Christians, Buddhists or Hindus learn Islam 101 in the first year of university, it is understandable that they are apprehensive; the same way Muslims won’t like it if they were made to learn Christianity 101. But budaya Melayu; what’s the problem?
What are some ways we could foster budaya Melayu as the shared cultural brand of our Malay, Chinese and Indian communities?
I see a few things we can do at the ground level. For example at schools, once a week we can get our students to wear baju kurung and baju melayu during school assembly days. When we were young, and in some schools even today, it is compulsory for the guys to wear ties. Let’s wear baju melayu instead, once a week, including those in the Chinese and Tamil schools. And of course in Sabah and Sarawak they can wear their own cultural costumes.
Besides that we can teach traditional arts to our young children starting in primary school, teach them a traditional dance and handicrafts like how to make a kite, for example…just like in Bali, by the time they are ten years old the children know their traditional dances and arts. We must make sure that by 12 our children should be able to at least perform a few traditional activity well; like mak yong dance, dikir barat, dikir laba, zapin, joget, kite making, keris making, batek printing, etc.
And again I see peribahasa as a good way because it is something that can be shared by everyone. It basically encapsulates universal values which everyone can accept and relate to. We should really discuss having classes for peribahasa in schools. For example the peribahasa ‘sediakan payung sebelum hujan’ is applicable from as basic as Standard One students, right up to businesspeople – it’s a fantastic thing, which we have to be well prepared and frugal with what we have. Peribahasa is wonderful - we can use it as a base to introduce budaya Melayu or kedaulatan Melayu.
What about our identities as Malay, Chinese, Indian?
It is all a part of being bangsa Malaysia. We are from different ethnic backgrounds… we have to understand that there is nothing wrong about being racial. A person who is racial is not necessarily racist. Let’s say you are Japanese, obviously you would like your own Japanese race as that’s who you are. Similarly in Malaysia, if you are Chinese and you dress like a Chinese, you eat using chopsticks and you love Chinese classical music, there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re just being racial. It is quite natural.
So you’re saying its okay to be racial?
You can call it being proud of your own race. It is how we grew up, so it is natural that we like being that way and we like hanging out with people who share the common symbols as we do. For example, for those who grew up in Kelantan, in universities they continue to like hanging out together. When it becomes racist is when we look at other races in a negative, vicious way. When we start to say, ‘yes I love my race, but your race is stupid’, then it becomes racist.
How can we be united while we are proud of our own races?
As Malaysians, while we each have our own race and culture, we also need a unifying symbol as bangsa Malaysia. It is okay for us to be racial, proud of our own race, yet count ourselves as part of the bigger bangsa Malaysia. The tagline we should all remember is “It’s okay to be racial, it’s not okay to be racist; but its best to be Malaysian first”.
What does it mean to be Malaysian first?
When we go overseas and someone asks us ‘where are you from’ and we say ‘I’m Malaysian’, they might say ‘you don’t look Malaysian’. And you’ll ask ‘what does a Malaysian look like?’ Because we know that we all look different, and yet we’re all Malaysians! We are a gamut, a mosaic of people. So when we look in the mirror, we should see ourselves and recognize that we are Malaysians first, our race comes second.
What is bangsa Malaysia?
I see everyone in the nation as bangsa Malaysia regardless of what we call ourselves. We are really a diverse group of people – it doesn’t mean for example if I’m Kadazan and I behave in a certain way, I’m not bangsa Malaysia. It doesn’t work that way for any community or individual.
One who is bangsa Malaysia is one who actually chooses to stay in this country, who loves this country and who pays taxes here. I can go as far as someone who decided to live here for some time – for example, one’s negara asal could be Indonesia but he’s been in Malaysia for twenty years, dah jadi macam Malaysian. Its like me, for example, I’m from Penang, proud to be Penangite, but I’ve lived in KL for twenty six years… so I guess I’m more KL-ite now.
How can we begin to recognize ourselves as Malaysian first?
By being committed to the concept, by truly wanting it, and by making a public commitment.
How to absorb all that is Malaysian first so we can practice it?
Be open to all Malaysian culture and at the same time absorb the budaya Melayu if you are not a Malay (or if you are a Malay who have live and grew up devoid of the cultural heritage). An easy way is to go make a friend outside your own ethnic group. We are living apart. We need to hang out and chill out more wirth each other. Go live, work and play with them.
I keep saying this because it is so simple yet so important. Find a friend from a different race; find a friend from a different state. Don’t forget, we’re not only talking about between races but between all kinds of polarism – between Peninsular and Sabah and Sarawak, between Penang and Johor, between the poor and the rich, between the modern and the conservative.
The thing we need to understand is that God created this world in diversity. We should enjoy this diversity; love it instead of just seeing each other as different, like the other person is a toad or something.
Go make a friend, go read about another culture; there’s a lot we can have access to even in the internet now, if only we would take the step.