Saturday, January 31, 2004

Mahathir's Malay Dilemma
After a million procrastinations, I have finally found the time to read Mahathir's controversial Malay Dilemma. First things first: The book is politically incorrect, arguably racist, contemptously prescriptive--and totally wonderful.

Malay Dilemma belongs to that genre of books written during the author's political nadir, like Machiavelli's Prince and Hitler's Mein Kampf. Mahathir wrote the book after he was expelled from UMNO because of an open letter he wrote attacking then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman for neglecting the Malay community. What is so interesting about reading books of this genre is their extremely reflective--almost meditative--reflection on human nature. For example, Hitler's analysis of the psychology of the poor Germans is so cogent that even a reader fifty years removed from the book's original publication, almost instinctively understands how Hitler enraptured the German public using that knowledge.

Of course, books of this genre are flailed in graduate seminars. In fact, according to Mahathir his motivation for writing the book was the dressing down he got in a graduate seminar when he suggested that the Malays as a race lagged behind the Chinese because of certain race characteristics.

Mahathir thinks that the Malays in Malaysian history had it so good--nice weather, food readily available from the fields, no political upheavals--that they have incorporated a certain economic languor into the Malay culture. The Chinese, on the other hand, are a hardy migrant people who faced famine, political revolutions, and economic displacements in China. So when the Chinese came, their memories of crushing hardships in their own land provided the driving force for their economic enterprises in Malaysia. The Malays, the Bumiputras (sons of the soil), according to Mahathir, were too polite, non-confrontational and socially courteous that they allowed the foreign Chinese to slowly usurp the economic life of Malaysia. And that politeness the Chinese interpreted as timidity. Mahathir also mentioned about the Malays' calling foreigners tuan (master). He said that the foreigners came to believe that, in fact, they were masters of the Malay people.

The Malays are faced therefore with a dilemma. If they allow the Chinese total control of the economy, Malaysia will prosper fast, but doing so would reduce them, the original sons of Malaysia, to second-class citizenship, which, according to Mahathir, is patently not right. The Chinese are foreigners; Malaysia belongs to Malays. If the Chinese want to live in Malaysia, they must follow the rules of Malays.

Mahathir said that the Malays, through a policy of preferential treatment for Malays in business, are only getting back what was taken from them because of their politeness.

What I find amusing is Mahathir's dissection of the Chinese business practices. He observed, for example, that the Chinese are extremely frugal so capital is always boosted by savings. The Chinese also do not pay for labor because family members are employed. Mahathir also talked about the Chinese way of extending credit so as to attract Malay customers. This extension of credit, according to Mahathir, is so successful that Malays invariably abandon their own cooperatives to patronize Chinese stores.

Mahathir wrote the book in 1970. After some years in the political wilderness, he was invited back to UMNO and later became prime minister of Malaysia.

Reading the book I got to thinking about the Philippines' deficiency of books written by politicians (or perhaps I just do not know of them). Certainly, there is no Philippine equivalent of Malay Dilemma. Marcos wrote one about his revolution from the center but it does not have a personal touch (it was allegedly ghostwritten) and reads like a political science paper.

Former Senate President Salonga is writing some, but still nothing beats a book written by an ambitious young man-- like Mahathir-- confronting political ignominy. (If Erap were more intelellectually inclined, he probably would make waves writing a critique on people power and the Philippines' elite democracy.)

There is simply no intensity in Salonga's books, written as they were in the twilight of his career. Salonga's readers do not get a feeling of political immediacy. There is perhaps enlightenment but no sting. Mahatfirs book has plenty of the latter.

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