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Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy): power and the deep state in Malaysia

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 21 August 2019


The three major components that make up what could be called a Malay deep state, the Islamic institutions, the Special Branch, and the monarchy were all discussed individually in previous articles. This article looks at the source of power for the so-called deep state; Ketuanan Melayu (or Malay supremacy). The Ketuanan Melayu narrative has enabled the embedded deep state to become the dominant political, social, and economic force in the country. This strong narrative is the primary tool the power elite has used to justify and cover their actions in pursing their covert objectives over national policy.

The deep state is a guileful legacy of colonial times. Prudently, the British built up the persona of the sultans as a buffer to thwart any potential revolt. Any political movement against the British would be construed as a revolt against the sultan. Further, the British knew that Malays would not challenge a ruler due to strong respect for their sovereign (Daulat) and the deific mystical aura the monarch was perceived to possess.

Moving into the 20th Century, communist infiltration into the union movement, and the beginning of 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.

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In 1969 the Alliance Government (forerunner to the Barisan Nasional) was returned to power with a greatly reduced majority. In a boiling political environment, racial 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 indicated that Malay political leaders from within UMNO had organized along with police and the army the May 13 incident as a coup d’état against Tunku Abdul Rahman 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 coalition 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 is needed so the economy won’t be 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.

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Although the NEP helped create a Malay middleclass, 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 with cronies 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 throughout the country. The NEP ended up dividing the country even more and created a deep-seated resentment towards the Malays by other races.

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This article was first published in the Asia Sentinel.



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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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All articles by Murray Hunter

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