Malaysiaku: Ketuanan Melayu

Thanks to everybody who came along to our first meeting of the year on Ketuanan Melayu. We’ve prepared this summary for those of you who couldn’t make it.


We started with a brief background on the meaning of ketuanan Melayu. Ketuanan Melayu as a term only came into vogue in the early 2000s, but conceptually the idea that Malays have dominance over the land (with Ketuanan Melayu literally translating to Malay Dominance/Ownership) far predates our Independence, having its roots in British colonial policy of appeasing the Malay feudal class.

The idea is grounded on a so-called ‘social contract’, the basic premise being that the Non-Malay communities are granted citizenship whereas the Malays have unquestionable rights, as outlined in Article 153 of the Constitution.

Then we moved on to the structural grounding of Malay identity in Malaysia:
1) A Malay is somebody who speaks the Malay language and professes the faith of Islam
2) Malaysian society is based on a social construct in which Malays, the ‘bumiputera’, permit non-Malays to stay in the country
3) The Yang di-Pertuan Agong is responsible for safeguarding bumi rights

We then looked at how the idea of ketuanan Melayu evolved into the form we know today, and we discussed the effects of the ketuanan Melayu concept on modern Malaysia.

Colonial Era

In colonial times, political power in Malaya was based on the rakyat’s allegiance to the King and the “sultans” of the different territories adhered to the British colonials instead of fighting for independence. In return, the sultans are protected by the British colonial powers from other competing sultans and enjoyed the wealth that comes from British colonial administration along with other advantages.

Malay organisations during this time were mainly state based with the exception being a small left movement, generally termed as the Malay Left, which argued for independence and integration with Indonesia as part of the broader idea of Nusantara or “Melayu Raya”. Generally speaking however, there was no conception of a national identity amongst the Malay population that encompassed Malaya as a whole.


In 1946, the British proposed a decolonisation plan called the Malayan Union. Under this agreement, which the British would have forced the Sultans to sign, citizenship was offered to all residents of Malaya of any race who were born in Malaya. The Malay community saw its bumiputera rights to be under threat from imported Chinese and Indian labour, thus they campaigned against the proposal, led by the Sultans and UMNO.

During this period, debates surrounding what constitutes a “bangsa” took place between the Malay Left and UMNO factions, with the former arguing for a more inclusive conception of “bangsa” that includes anyone that pledges loyalty to the nation, which is more akin to a modern nation state (e.g Indonesia) and the latter considering this as something that taints the purity of the Malay “bangsa”. It was under this backlight that ideas surrounding what constitutes a Malayan national identity took form.

Under pressure from UMNO and Malay leaders, the Malayan Union plan was dropped and replaced with the Federation of Malaya proposal. This was implemented in 1948, despite the protests of the non-Malay community. The Federation of Malaya proposal significantly tightened restrictions on citizenship for non-Malays, among other things, and so greatly restricted their ability to participate in local politics during the 1950s and 60s.

In light of the rapid rise of labour activity and public protest against the Federation plan, the British declared a state of emergency in 1948, and spent the next 12 years banning left political parties such as Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) and the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Activists were jailed, exiled or hunted down and killed. The Darurat crippled public opposition to the Federation plan, along with any alternative conceptions of a national identity that came along with them.


Political opposition recovered after the emergency was lifted in 1960, and by the 1969 elections discontent at economic inequality and racial prejudice had cost the ruling Alliance coalition (Barisan Nasional’s predecessor), their 2/3 majority in Parliament.

The May 13 riots which occured the week aftergave the government reason to declare another state of emergency lasting 6 months, and over the next 2 years significant changes to the law were made to solidify what would eventually be called Ketuanan Melayu.

Chief among these changes was the New Economic Policy (NEP), which instituted quotas and protections for Malays in various sectors of the economy. Without going into specifics, the true purpose of this policy can now be seen to be the creation of a new Malay middle class, as the basis of Malaysia’s economy moving foward.

The NEP oversaw a massive distribution of wealth to Malay business owners and some sections of Malay workers. However, presently large portions of the Malay poor have been ignored, and were only given token handouts on which to survive. The effect has been that while the NEP did lift hundreds of thousands of Malays out of abject poverty, large inequality between rich and poor Malays remains, and poverty in the latter remains largely unaddressed.

Also on this basis, UMNO used the NEP to solidify its position as “protector of Malay interests”, a claim which remains difficult to challenge today. UMNO has spent the past half century tying its rule to the economic survival of poor Malays, encouraging them to think that any threat to UMNO is a threat to handouts and quotas which many poor Malays depend on. This has also resulted in the lack of accountability towards UMNO even when they fall short of promises due to the danger of losing these handouts, of which many of these poor Malays depend on.

In turn, UMNO has enjoyed stable support from many non-urban Malay voters and significant financial benefits from the Malay business owner the NEP has helped. During the Mahathir era, privatisation of government services and centralisation of economic control in the government began to occur. These close links between big business and government provided ample opportunities for corruption and lack of accountability that have only gotten worse under the current government.


Discussion surrounded how Malaysians as a society can challenge ketuanan Melayu as the dominant socio-political narrative amongst the Malays, rural and urban, with one attendee pointing out how many of the urban Malays feel that they are indebted to UMNO for the status they have in society today.

The audience as a whole agreed that the first step in challenging these ideology is to first and foremost acknowledge its detrimental affect towards Malaysian society, and especially to Non-Malay communities.

One guest also pointed out how despite being a pro-‘bumiputra’ policy, we don’t see the same advantages being handed out to Non-Malay Bumiputra communities such as the Orang Asli (who have no bumiputra status despite being the original indigenous people of the Peninsula) and indigenous residents of Sabah and Sarawak, with both communities still lagging behind in progress and lacking in vital infrastructure. It becomes evident that these “bumiputra” schemes are only present to benefit and protect the Malays.

The session concluded that ketuanan Melayu is an outdated policy that only benefits middle-class Malays and disregards poor Malays as well as non-Malays of Malaysia. Public policy should prioritise needs-based incentives to improve livelihood of all Malaysians regardless of race and religion.


Ultimately the use of race as a divide-and-conquer strategy is not unique to Malaysia. Many other countries use this strategy, but few have proven quite as successful as Malaysia has in physically and ideologically segregrating the dominant and non-dominant races. Today, ketuanan Melayu is still considered too hard to challenge by the political mainstream, as can be seen by the inclusion of Bersatu in the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition.

We believe that ketuanan Melayu can only be removed when UMNO’s working Malay base is wedged away from UMNO itself. The wealth distribution on which these poor Malays depend at the moment must be guaranteed. In situations where UMNO ignores the interests of these working Malays (e.g. FELDA payouts, land disputes), non-Malay activists should support their cause.

In so doing they can demonstrate that the interests of working Malays are closer to those of non-Malays than they are to interests of UMNO, and successfully argue against that racism inherent within ketuanan Melayu. It will position us to explain that the creation of a Malay middle class was not done out of the government’s generosity. Rather it was to ensure that businesses have a steady supply of increasingly educated labour to work and consume as the economy develops.

As long as politicians continue to appeal uncritically to ketuanan Melayu to win Malay votes, rather than challenging the economic basis on which UMNO has held poor Malays hostage, it will be difficult to uproot the ideology. But this must be acheived if we are ever to live in a Malaysia where the races are truly equal and society supports those members who need help most.

If you found this summary useful, you should consider joining us for future Malaysiaku sessions. We’d also love to discuss this topic or just meet up at any MPOZ activities! You can always find our upcoming events on Facebook.


  • Well done on tackling a difficult subject, there’s so little written about this topic it is hard to research, so full kudos to Jason and the team for this contribution.

    I’d like, however, to challenge a few of the assertions here.

    First, on the usage of Ketuanan Melayu, the 2000s were far from the first time the term came into vogue – the term was important, for instance, in Operasi Lallang in 1987. The Umno Youth congress of 1987 specifically had as one of its aims upholding Ketuanan Melayu. In terms of patterns of use, it seems to be brought out whenever Umno is under threat – so it was resurrected in 2000, but it had never really been laid to rest.

    In colonial times, the governance of those identified as being Malay (by the British) were primarily subjects of the Sultan – though histories show us that subjects of the Sultan could be of any race, as long as they had sworn loyalty. However, there were other communities that were just as much a part of colonial Malaya that either had ambiguous (clan or communal) loyalties or who were loyal to the British crown. Sybil Kathigesu, for example, clearly identified as a British subject. The story of the Malay peninsula is NOT the story of one clear ethnic group, but of the formation of multiple identities on multiple levels, including the identity of “the Malay”. We need to be very careful not to fall into the communal trap of telling partial stories.

    I think the role of the Sultans in the Malayan Union proposals are interesting, because they DID sign the proposals. Part of what became the Umno movement was a movement AGAINST the Sultans who were seen to have committed treachery (these are the terms used) against “the Malays” by signing the proposals. So the origins of the Malayan Union movement, and Umno, included an anti-royalist element, and became demands upon the Sultans to live up to what were to some extent new obligations that royalty had to the rakyat.

    Lastly, in terms of recommendations, I would argue that we do not need to acknowledge the adverse impact of ketuanan Melayu on ALL Malaysians, whether they identify as Malay or as non-Malay: we do NOT need to focus on how non-Malays have been adversely affected, and this would be counter-productive. Why? First, the ROOT of the policy is one that discriminates AGAINST Malays: Malays were portrayed as being not capable of educational or economic achievements, thus the need for indefinite assistance. Second, it obscures, as you point out, the ways in which the elite fail to put the interests of the poor, who are primarily identified as Bumi, at the heart of public policy, as well as obscuring how the elite themselves (think Jho Low) are blind to race, though they can see money and power quite clearly. Third, as long as non-Malays think they are the only ones to have been defrauded by these policies, the longer the racial divides will subsume our real common interests as Malaysians, all being defrauded by the current political system.

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