“PEOPLE have secrets, and sometimes don’t say what they mean,” says Zalfian Fuzi, Instant Café Theatre Company associate director. “But at some point, your hidden meaning and feelings will come out no matter how hard you try to suppress them. It’s inevitable.”
Some words, Zalfian adds, are loaded. Although he is referring to the art of dramatic writing, he could also well be referring to the debates surrounding “ketuanan Melayu”. Ever since former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, said in November 2008 that ketuanan Melayu has failed, the debate has detoured into different tangents.
The initial responses were meant to silence Zaid and any attempts to question ketuanan Melayu. Umno leaders generally characterised Zaid’s statements as offensive, and said that he should shut up and apologise.
Later the same month, newly-elected MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek went one step further than Zaid. Chua said ketuanan Melayu was no longer relevant, and that the phrase suggested a master-servant relationship. He suggested new ways of power-sharing within the Barisan Nasional (BN). He, too, was soundly attacked by Umno leaders.
George Orwell warns that language corrupts thought, and vice versa (© Bloopiers / dreamstime)
That one word — “ketuanan” — could cause such distress among so many national leaders, is a testament to the power of language. And often, that power does not only reside in the literal meaning of the words used.
Zalfian explains to The Nut Graph an important element of good scriptwriting — subtext. “It’s the text beneath the words,” he explains. Subtext points towards meanings beyond the words used, or meanings that are conveyed non-verbally altogether.”
Therefore, it is interesting that in the government-linked Malay language press, the debate around ketuanan Melayu started developing different nuances. The calls to silence all questions and dissent were still prominent, and yet new negotiations around the meaning of “ketuanan” emerged.
Ketuanan Melayu, the public was told, was not intended to be supremacist. Instead, ketuanan Melayu finds its legitimacy in the special position held by the Malay rulers, and it is a response to various historical, cultural and political circumstances. In this line of argument, the text — “ketuanan” — remains. But the meaning ascribed keeps getting re-defined by its proponents like a shifting goalpost meant to frustrate opponents.
The politics of language
(image source: public domain / wikipedia.org)
In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote, “[It] is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of this or that individual writer.”
Although Orwell wrote this in a different social and historical context — the essay was published in April 1946, one month before Umno was formed — his core argument remains relevant. Professor Dr Zawawi Ibrahim of Universiti Malaya’s Anthropology and Sociology Department elaborates.
“Language relates to political power, and political power works upon language,” he tells The Nut Graph.
Thus, while the Federal Constitution safeguards “the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities”, the term “ketuanan Melayu” does not exist in the constitution. Ketuanan Melayu is, in fact, a political construct which is reinforced by the media.
The media thus creates another layer of interpretation which is then consumed by citizens. “Ketuanan Melayu” then accumulates many added layers of meaning, and gains a momentum of its own when used by political leaders and ordinary citizens.
This socio-political construction of language is by no means confined to the issue of race. It happens in relation to gender as well. Apart from overt sexist language, the larger social and political environment also creates language that perpetuates gender stereotypes and, worse, inequality.
Feminist writer Ng Tze Yeng says gendered language often has the effect of limiting the potential of groups of people. She tells The Nut Graph via e-mail, “For example, a young girl could grow up with the idea that opportunities to be in the state legislative assembly belong only to men because of the term ‘assemblyman’.”
Similarly, would a non-Malay Malaysian be able to imagine becoming prime minister one day if “ketuanan Melayu” is promoted by politicians and the media?
A coordinator of the All Women’s Action Society’s Writers for Women’s Rights Programme, Ng says, “[Language] is a site of contestation of power, and language is power.”
Nevertheless, language only has as much power as its users assign to it. According to veteran journalist Said Zahari, “Umno’s [ketuanan Melayu] rhetoric is outdated.” He tells The Nut Graph, “The Malays don’t buy it anymore, and non-Malays are not so frightened [to question it] now as they were in the past.”
Said acknowledges that journalists, many of whom work with language every day, have a role to play when phrases like “ketuanan Melayu” are politicised. “The situation is not so bad, but it is the reporting in the press that makes it seem dangerous.”
Zawawi agrees, and feels that political leaders need to be held accountable.
“Politicians manipulate cultural symbols, specifically ethnic symbols, consciously,” he tells The Nut Graph. “These are their rituals of solidarity-making.” In Malaysia’s larger political environment, where race-based political parties are entrenched, it is inevitable that ethnic symbols get politicised. Hence, language — even basic words — is racialised.
Thus, it is not only the term “ketuanan Melayu” which contains subtext that ignites racial passions. Racial passions on all sides are also ignited in the waving of the keris and discussions on Islam, which have been incorporated as part of Malay identity. And with the BN convention in February and Umno polls in March, it will be noteworthy to see if and how racial and religious symbols get further manipulated.
Zawawi suggests going back to the spirit and letter of the constitution on issues related to race. He recommends not using terms that homogenise groups of people and diminish appreciation of diversity.
Orwell also recommended the same. Giving an example of vagueness, euphemism and question-begging in political language, he wrote, “People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.” This, according to Orwell, is a prime example of insincerity, which is the ultimate enemy of clear language.
He warned that thought corrupts language, and that language also corrupts thought. When politicised language is not interrogated, language itself will deteriorate, as will our collective intellect and how we relate to one another.