COMMENT | Dr M’s ‘Malay Dilemma’ misshaping race discourse
Lim Teck Ghee
Published 8:20 amModified 10:31 am
COMMENT | In Malaysia, the claim of victimhood and adoption of a victim mentality in the race discourse has long been a lucrative industry. This phenomenon is most pronounced among some leaders of the “oppressed” community including the more educated and those who have achieved greater socioeconomic and political mobility by taking advantage of their so-called victim status.
The major work influencing Malaysia’s racial stereotyping and feeding into the country’s culture of victimhood and racism has been the book by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, “The Malay Dilemma”. Published in 1970, the political tract was aimed at reshaping Malay and Malayan politics as well as the wider society in the aftermath of the racial violence of May 13, 1969.
Initially banned for its alleged seditious content and potential to destabilise a society reeling from the trauma of May 13, the ban was lifted in 1981 when Mahathir became prime minister.
The book, though prohibited, was successful in reshaping the debate on the country’s future in several ways. For one, it has been one of the main factors for the political rise of Mahathir. It has also ensured his ascendency and durability in Malay politics; and spawned a generation of similar ethnic champions.
More critically, it has been the basis for a wide range of racially-skewed political, socio-economic and educational public policies under the New Economic Policy and various successor national policies during the last 50 years and continuing until today.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the book is its role in shaping and nurturing the toxic racial and victimhood discourse in the country. This has been a legacy that few public figures want to discuss or bring out into the open but its propositions define the agenda in the nation’s politics and governance.
The recent soul searching over race relations in the United States and elsewhere in the world gives us an opportunity to reassess the arguments contained in the “The Malay Dilemma” and its applicability to the current situation in 2020.
Many readers and reviewers, from within and outside the country, have noted that the central argument underpinning the objective of the book – to ensure that the indigenous community would be accorded “a place in the Malayan sun” – stems from a social Darwinist understanding of Malayan society gleaned by Mahathir and his peer group during the era of British colonialism.
Social Darwinism and other related theories of society seeking to apply biological or environmental concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to social development and politics were first propounded in the 1870s in Britain, the United States and Western Europe. Besides its application to the home constituency, the doctrine and its accompanying ideologies were used to justify colonialism, imperialism, eugenics, racism and social differentiation policies that were introduced at various points in time.
More recently, the application of social Darwinism and eugenics is found in the ideas and practices that informed and motivated German doctors and administrators in the operation of the Nazi state. It resulted in Hitler’s efforts to breed a superior Aryan race and the Nazi regime’s determination to exterminate the non-Aryan Jews and gypsies.
At the time of the book’s writing by Mahathir, despite the horrendous lessons of the Holocaust, a social Darwinist view adhering to the belief that there are genetic differences in the human population based on race and the notion of superior and inferior races was still prevalent in some circles.
But its relevance today 50 years later needs to be reassessed by our new generation of policymakers and politicians.
‘Malays can change’
One recent reader described his response to the book on the internet this way:
“I disagreed with this book in every possible way. It rambles on and on about the same points, which are steeply based in the author’s own interpretations of history and society. Crude, broad generalisations and overall a terrible attempt at justifying institutionalised racism.”
Another reader provides the following comment:
“I would like to elaborate more but I think this should be enough. What I can conclude is, me as a Malay can stand by ourselves. We don’t need any protection. Psychologically, man has the potential to develop themselves. Technically, we can compete with others in many things.
“Personally, I don’t appreciate the way he despises Malay. And to be frank, I don’t know what is the hidden message, if there is any. For me, this book somehow encourages me to keep fighting for reaching my own target. I believe everyone can change. Melayu tak malas. Malays can change.”
Finally, a Malay colleague had this to say:
“One of the most devastating impacts of ‘The Malay Dilemma’ and Mahathir’s subsequent actions was the implementation of equality of outcome in education and in governance.
“Instead of providing the means and ability for Malays to solely compete on merit, it imposes a quota of results without regard to merit. This allowed massive numbers of non-qualified persons to attain entry and maintain positions they are wholly incapable of performing in the civil service and GLCs. We basically instituted the Peter principle in education and governance for the last 30 to 40 years. That was our recipe for the disaster that we have today.”
How the claims of victimhood replete in “The Malay Dilemma”, and never repudiated by the author, have morphed into a supremacist ideology explains the racial journey and metamorphosis that the nation has undertaken.
“The Malay Dilemma”, with its contentious and misleading assumptions and conclusions that are not limited to the doctrine of social Darwinism but covers the spectrum of race relations, has cast the longest and darkest shadow on the country’s racial discourse.
Now is the time for our leaders to take the book out for fumigation.
LIM TECK GHEE is a public policy analyst and author of the book ‘Challenging Malaysia’s Status Quo’. He is editor-in-chief of the Myhometown website.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.