Power, Remorse & Redemption Act II: The Malay Dilemma, 1970

I first heard of Dr. Mahathir in 1973 from Malaysian newspapers. He had published a controversial non-fiction book, The Malay Dilemma, which contained racial stereotyping so inflammatory that it was immediately banned. Even when he was a rising political star, the book remained banned in Malaysia. Newspapers, however, were free to quote snippets. Through these I learnt that I, a Malaysian citizen, was merely a ‘guest’ (the word the paper deployed) in Malaysia. I had thought of Malaysia as home; now I found out I was able to live there only because the Malays ‘consent to this’.

I was upset, of course, and confused at the same time. I began reading newspapers avidly, which only cemented my burgeoning sense of exclusion. The newspapers told me that Malaysians were not created equal. There is a breed of Malaysian who deserves ‘special’ rights, not by dint of merit or economic need but because their ancestors supposedly arrived before mine.

The logic is so spurious that a new term had to be invented: bumiputera, a Malay compound word made up of bumi, earth, and putera or prince(s). Taken together, they become ‘prince(s) of the earth’ (or ‘sons of the soil’). The special rights accorded to this superior Malaysian, the bumiputera, span an eye-watering gamut. They include:

  • Reserved universities – and I don’t mean university places, but entire universities;
  • Discounted prices and reserved allocations in new housing developments;
  • Entitlement to 30% of the equity of any publicly listed company in Malaysia.

When you grow up within a system, you become inured to its inequities; it takes leaving Malaysia before many Malaysians realise that a form of apartheid is practised there. The seeds for its rationale were planted by none other than Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in his book, The Malay Dilemma. Full of half-baked social theories and sweeping racial generalisations, the work would have been amusing, had rafts of laws not arisen from its crucible.

Malays, apparently, are ‘tolerant and easy-going’ while non-Malays, especially the Chinese, are ‘materialistic, aggressive and have an appetite for work’. We also have ‘unlimited acquisitiveness’. These differences, according to Mahathir, explained the glaring economic and educational disparities which existed in 1970 between Malaysia’s Malays and ethnic Chinese.

The only solution was a full-throttled boost for Malays. These special Malaysians, with their bumiputera status, would fly first-class, the rest of us second-class. May 13 provided the perfect excuse. We were told that new race-based laws were needed to achieve national harmony. At the same time we were cautioned against speaking about ‘race’ openly.

The new laws had a grand name: the New Economic Policy. Mahathir was still in the political wilderness at the time; the man who actually put the laws in place was Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein.

A grand name needs grandiose ideology. The New Economic Policy was dressed up as positive discrimination. But then, why should its beneficiaries depend on race?

The simple answer is that the New Economic Policy was a smokescreen for racial discrimination in favour of Malays. UMNO knew that it could not say so explicitly, therefore, it pretended that the Policy was needed to ‘prevent another May 13’. Those of us who didn’t like the Policy should leave, since Malays were the ‘rightful owners’ of the land.

The problem with this logic is that Malays are not natives of Malaysia. Even the Malay language recognises this; in Malay the indigenous peoples are called Orang Asli, or original people. In primary school, I was taught that Malays originated from Yunnan in southern China. The American economist, Thomas Sowell, has written:

Some groups in some countries imagine themselves entitled to preferences and quotas just because they are indigenous ‘sons of the soil’, even when they are in fact not indigenous, as the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and the Malays in Malaysia are not.

(Affirmative Action Around the World, Yale University Press 2004)

The term bumiputera has been useful for UMNO. Bumiputera has a whiff of romanticism and at the same time is meaningless, a malleable concept that can absorb many things. UMNO thus also labelled Malaysia’s real indigenous peoples as bumiputera. Problem solved. There weren’t many indigenous peoples, and unlike the Chinese, they were not a threat. In this way, entitlement could be conferred on the real beneficiaries – Malays – under the guise of affirmative action. No one could legitimately object.

Bumiputera has the extra beauty of containing the word ‘soil’, which has been used time and again to remind Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indians that the land we were in was not ours. In The Malay Dilemma, Mahathir even calls ethnic Chinese who arrived in Malaysia in the 15th century ‘newcomers’! Never mind that some of his own ancestors hailed from India.

By the time he ascended to Malaysia’s highest office in 1981, I had already left Malaysia for Britain, where I went to boarding school. My parents packed me off with huge regret. They were patriots. Despite speaking little Malay themselves – they were educated in the colonial era – they wanted their children to learn the Malay language. After May 13, when many of their Chinese friends departed for Singapore, they stayed, insisting that the incident was the result of a few rotten apples.

As the 1970s progressed it became clear that the New Economic Policy would systematically exclude non-Malays. They no longer saw a future in Malaysia. Reluctantly, they made sacrifices to send me away, counselling me to remain abroad.

In 1981 Mahathir gave an interview to the New York Times in which he described The Malay Dilemma as a harmless book. He was being disingenuous.

Mahathir: Friend or Foe?

Democracy is like good cheese: it needs time to mature. Holding elections is not enough. We have seen this in a swathe of Commonwealth countries. Real democracy only happens if citizens are able to speak freely without fear of being arrested or killed, if elections are free and fair and the police cannot be bribed. The above is not achievable without a robust system of checks and balances. Democracy needs an independent judiciary and a free press. It needs constant surveillance. It must have official bodies whose leaders are not beholden to any individuals, political party or coalition and whose processes are transparent. Power corrupts, but safeguards go a long way to ensuring that government is accountable.

Malaysia once had many of the above; otherwise UMNO’s power would not have been curtailed in the 1969 General Elections. Alas, those results taught UMNO an unwelcome lesson. In a real democracy politicians sometimes lose. And UMNO did not like losing.

Over the next five decades Malaysia went from a country with relatively strong democratic institutions to one in which institutions were weakened by political interference. Corruption crept in, inevitably. Malaysia should be a case study for other countries, especially those that are intent on race-based politics.

Mahathir remained in office for twenty-two years. Over that period Malaysia’s wealth increased many-fold, especially the wealth of that special breed of Malaysian, the bumiputera. He must be given credit for these achievements.

At the same time there’s little question that he displayed ruthless and authoritarian tendencies. A few years into office Mahathir found himself embroiled in an internal power struggle within UMNO. In the midst of battle his opponents initiated litigation. To ensure that judgments would not go against him, Mahathir tampered with Malaysia’s judiciary, first diluting the powers of Malaysia’s High Courts and then sacking the head of the Supreme Court who dared to protest. For good measure, Mahathir also booted out the judges who sided with their Supreme Court head.

In so doing, he set a precedent. A precedent, once set, is hard to undo. This is how rot starts. Along with judicial interference came the muffling of dissent. Mahathir stifled dissent in two ways: first, by wielding an iron fist over the media (which at the time did not include the Internet), and secondly by clamping down on opponents. In 1987 he presided over the biggest crackdown Malaysia had ever seen, when 119 opposition activists and Members of Parliament were arrested and detained. Those held included Lim Kit Siang, who was then leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and his son Lim Guan Eng, at the time a Member of Parliament.

Mahathir and UMNO held a special aversion towards the DAP, which had long been a thorn in their side. Unlike UMNO, the DAP has always been multi-racial and was one of the parties to field winning Malay candidates in Malaysia’s 1969 General Elections. As noted in my previous blog-post (Act I), those election results showed that another Malaysia was possible. In that other Malaysia, people would not vote according to race but on political merit. In such a Malaysia there would be no call for UMNO.

It was easier for Mahathir and UMNO to invent an imaginary enemy than to change. Over the years, they told Malay voters that unless Malays voted for UMNO, Malaysia would fall into the hands of the Chinese (who, remember, have ‘unlimited acquisitiveness’). Mahathir and UMNO took to branding the DAP a ‘chauvinist’ Chinese party. If Malaysia fell into DAP hands, so they said, the special privileges which Malays enjoyed would be at risk.

This illustrates how democracy can be co-opted. Malays form the majority in Malaysia, which means that special rights are dished out to the majority of the Malaysian electorate. Their political acquiescence is thereby purchased. Why bite the hand that feeds you? The result is a fundamental distortion of the democratic process, as I argued in an article which the UK’s Independent invited me to write.

For many years, not enough Malaysians cared about the rot that was corroding our political system. So long as putrefaction was hidden, most Malaysians preferred not to know. Perhaps they were in a stupor, either from the gains of corruption or the drug of special rights, often both. It would take a brazen man to wake them up. This man was Najib Razak.

(to be continued)

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Politics

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