The proponents of ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy contend that Malays are "lords" over other races in Malaysia, and thus have a historically entrenched right to certain privileges.
Often touted in defence of “agama, bangsa dan negara” (religion, race and nation), the concept has been a mainstay in Malaysian politics, rearing its head in Malay rights groups like Perkasa, social movements like the red shirts rallies, and on occasion, even politicians like Umno vice-president Hishammuddin Hussein.
The latter, then the party's Youth chief, infamously brandished the keris as a symbol of defending ketuanan Melayu at the 2005 Umno annual general assembly.
According to former PKR deputy president Syed Husin Ali (photo), however, the concept is less about Malay rights and more a tool wielded by the political elite to hold on to power.
“Ketuanan Melayu is used by groups of people who are enjoying political power and who wish to defend their power. They do this by appealing to a wider group of people.
“It has been abused and promoted especially by the ruling elite to protect their interests, it masks the interests of this class through the use of race... and puts strong constraints and obstructions to development in this country,” he said at the launch of AB Sulaiman’s book “Ketuanan Melayu: A Story of the Thinking Norm of the Malay Political Elite” at the Royal Lake Club in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
Also speaking at the launch was former Nibong Tebal MP Dominic Puthucheary (photo), who concurred that ketuanan Melayu was a facade for power, but added that it is based on a “myth.”
“Ketuanan Melayu is not about the Malay people, but about the status quo of power, it is a mask for the political class. The idea that race itself can give you certain economic benefits is a myth.
“There is no difference between white supremacy and ketuanan Melayu, or between it and Chinese superiority and Indian superiority,” Dominic told a crowd of about 60.
The author of the book, Abu Bakar Sulaiman, argued that ketuanan Melayu has a tendency to render its adherents non-intellectual, conservative and conformist.
“When (the concept is) inserted into policymaking, it encourages social injustice, the tyranny of the majority... and leads to the breakdown of social institutions.
“It is a shaky platform for governing the country,” he said, adding that rational and scientific thinking should be encouraged instead.
Syed Husin, who is also an academic and activist, added that ketuanan Melayu has created ethnic tension in the country and eroded national unity.
“As long as one group feels that they are the tuan (lords) of the country, it will create prejudice and discrimination, causing ethnic tension and conflict.
“We wanted independence (from the British) so as to have a united people and nation, but until now, that agenda has failed,” he said.
“Ketuanan Melayu: A Story of the Thinking Norm of the Malay Political Elite” is now available in selected bookstores.