Malaysia has its own debate about “Malayness”, actually none of its six PMs were fully Malay

Yes, this definitely sounds familiar.

By Sulaiman Daud | August 5, 2017

While Singapore gears up for a reserved Presidential election for minorities later this year and learn more about Malayness, our neighbours over the Causeway have a general election of their own in the works.  Although it is due only in Aug 2018, campaign season is already in full swing amid speculations of the election being called before the end of the year.

Incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the Barisan Nasional coalition, Najib Razak, is seeking to win a third term.

From PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page

Here comes a new challenger

In the other corner, well there are several other contenders. But the one who’s been making headlines is the 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad. The former Prime Minister has formed a new political party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia).

From Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Facebook page

While most people his age would more likely take a nap or bore their grandchildren with stories of a time before the Internet, Mahathir intends to contest the next general election.

Mahathir’s entry into the fray has shaken things up. In a strangely familiar development, the issue of racial identity has flared up as the politicians traded verbal jabs. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi caused a stir when he supposedly revealed that Mahathir’s father was of Indian descent on Jul 30.

In the video, Zahid claims that the Director of the National Registration Department sent him details of Mahathir’s identity card.

“Dr Mahathir had likely forgotten about this fact – that he is the son of Iskandar Kutty.

On his blue IC, his name is listed as Mahathir ‘anak lelaki’ Iskandar Kutty.”

The “anak lelaki” or “son of” designation on the Malaysian identity card is used for citizens of Indian descent. Malay men would have the designation “bin” instead on their IC, which means the same thing.

This led to an impassioned response from Mahathir, who denied ever having such an IC and challenged Zahid to release whatever information he had to the public for their inspection.

From ShuffleOnline

Mahathir’s family tree

Mahathir’s daughter Marina also pointed out that Iskandar Kutty was actually Mahathir’s grandfather, not his father. Iskandar was indeed of Indian descent and Mahathir had never concealed the fact.

Iskandar married into a prominent Malay family and had a son named Mohamad, who was Mahathir’s real father.

Amidst the controversy, veteran Malaysian journalist Subky Abdul Latif raised an interesting point. Writing for the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)-owned newspaper HarakahDaily, he contended that the entire argument is pointless.

By Zahid’s strict interpretation of racial identity, none of Malaysia’s six Prime Ministers in its modern history could accurately be described as 100% Malay.

Meet the Prime Ministers of Malaysia

1. Tunku Abdul Rahman (1957 – 1970)

From the National Archives of Singapore

Tunku Abdul Rahman, known as the Father of Malaysia and noted contemporary of Lee Kuan Yew, had a mother of Siamese descent.

Che Manjalara was her name, the fourth wife of Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah. She was the daughter of a District Officer in what is now modern day Thailand.

2. Abdul Razak Hussein (1970 – 1976)

From the National Archives of Singapore

Tun Abdul Razak came from a long line of Pahang chieftains of Bugis descent.

The Bugis are an ethnic group hailing from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Although they would later lend their name to a cool shopping district, Subky contends that by Ahmad’s standards, they could not be considered real Malays.

3. Hussein Onn (1976 – 1981)

From National Archives of Singapore

The third Prime Minister Hussein Onn was the brother-in-law of his predecessor. He was granted the title of Bapa Perpaduan or Father of Unity for his efforts to relieve the economic imbalance among the Malaysian communities.

However, his grandmother Hanim Rogayah hailed from Turkey. This would make Hussein Onn (you guessed it) not 100% Malay.

4. Mahathir Mohamad (1981 – 2003)

From National Archives of Singapore

Mahathir led his country for 22 years, winning five consecutive general elections. During this time, Malaysia experienced rapid modernisation and economic growth, contributing to his popularity.

Depending on how Malaysians vote next year, he could be PM again. But as already mentioned, his grandfather was of Indian descent, making him not fully Malay.

5. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (2003 – 2009)

From National Archives of Singapore

Abdullah Badawi, had a paternal grandfather of Hadhrami descent. The Hadhramis were a notable seafaring Arab group with significant presence around the African Horn region and Hyderabad in India. They originally hailed from Yemen in the Middle East.

This would make Abdullah Badawi one-quarter Arab and again not 100% Malay.

6. Najib Razak (2009 – Present)

From National Archives of Singapore

The incumbent. As the eldest son of the second Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein and the nephew of the third Prime Minister Hussein Onn, Najib would also not qualify as fully Malay for the reasons Subky mentions above.

Ownself say ownself

The supreme irony lies in the fact that Zahid himself is of Javanese descent. In 2013, he revealed to the Indonesian media that his father was a native of Kulon Progo Regency in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

From Tenor

If he were to succeed Najib as Malaysia’s 7th Prime Minister, there would still not be a PM of 100% confirm stamp chop pure Malay blood – by his own strict definition of the term.

One wonders if he would have a problem with the concept then.

The politics of race and the use of racial rhetoric is not new in Malaysia, but it’s still surprising to see it being used as a political tool within the largest race in the country. It also came less than a fortnight after Najib said that the government will study plans to recognise Indian Muslims as bumiputeras, a term used by the government to identify the Malay majority and indigenous tribes for special privileges.

While our Malaysian friends debate whether or not to care about the essential “Malayness” of their leaders, it is perhaps also a chance for us to think about the same question in our social context.

May the best leader win.

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Top image courtesy of Britannica, Wikipedia, Asia Observer, Intellectual Conservative, Green Beverly Hills, and


About Sulaiman Daud

Sulaiman of House Daud believes that we stand today on the edge of a new frontier, that every Pam will find her Jim, and that there are Starmen waiting in the sky. His favourite Doctor is Peter Capaldi's Twelve. In his spare time he writes about pop culture (mostly Batman related), which you are very welcome to read here.

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