Reading is a private experience that takes place within a personal bubble. It is one between you the reader and the author through his or her text. You can read in a group silently or aloud, but chances are most of the time it is a private experience.

During the time you spend reading, the text is your world and the author exercises an authoritarian control over your mind. He or she tries to convince you of something by explaining an idea, describing a scene real or otherwise, or even ambitiously trying to create another world to take your mind away from the real current life we all live in. You have no say for the bubble is not democratic. You can agree or disagree, politely or violently, but the author will always have the final say. Your immediate protestation would be heard by a deaf inanimate object.

Of course you are free to free yourself from the dictatorship, temporarily or for good. Temporarily because something else more urgent in nature is taking place like the likes on your Facebook, or for good because the author bores or disgusts you, or that you simply do not have the stamina to go through it. I have a book claiming to be a complete collection of Franz Kafka’s published work. Reading it mangled my mind so badly that I felt I was at risk of losing my mind. The private bubble of mine was beginning to detach itself from the real world and I was drowning at the shallow side of the river while watching someone, or something, trying to cross it in the most incomprehensible manner. I had to leave Kafka behind to preserve whatever left of my sanity. I would rather be left alone with Critique of Pure Reason instead of The Metamorphosis. Kant would help preserve your mind intact from rationalist assaults. Kafka would consume you whole.

But outside of the personal bubble, you are not free from the gaze of strangers. They may not know what exactly you are reading or thinking. You can create another bubble to exclude a third-party from observing you by reading at a private space, like in your room or at a carrel in a library. But reading can happen in public space too.

I read at various places to pass my time gainfully. These places include the trains during rush hour. While my mind would focus on the text, I sometimes do notice strangers peeking discreetly trying to identify the book I am reading. If our eyes accidentally met, they would pretend to look elsewhere. I sometimes can see judgment made.

I re-read The Malay Dilemma recently. Mahathir Mohamad the author in 1970 (and well, later the fourth prime minister of Malaysia, and if the stars align spectacularly, also the seventh) argued the Malays as a whole due to their feudal and rural background were too polite to fight for their rights and compete with others in the colonial industrial economy. More specifically, he wrote:

“…[W]hat is important, the Malays are told, is that Malaysia must prosper as a nation, and amateurs like them in business are not likely to contribute to this prosperity. All these arguments are completely true. If no impediment at all is placed in the way of total Chinese domination of the economy of Malaysia, the country would certainly be prosperous. The Malay dilemma is whether they should stop trying to help themselves in order that they should be proud to be the poor citizens of a prosperous country or whether they should try to get at some of the riches that this country boasts of, even if it blurs the economic picture of Malaysia a little. For the Malays it would appear there is not just an economic dilemma, but a Malay dilemma.”

The Malay Dilemma. 1981 edition

Mahathir had the book published when he was out in the political wilderness. Tunku Abdul Rahman kicked him out of Umno over policy differences: Mahathir was harshly critical of Tunku. The Malay Dilemma itself was first published just about year after the May 13 racial riots. Mahathir wrote it partly to explain why there were riots and partly to suggest ways to address the Malay discontent in the countryside.

It was a re-read because this time I felt I read it more critically, armed by other sources that better informed me of the 1920s-1960s conditions in Malaya and Malaysia, and also of the high colonial period. I read it with the relevant context in my mind. Books like The Malay Dilemma are always dangerous when read in isolation because its arguments are based on generalized racial stereotypes and if taken as unchallenged complete truth, it has the power to radicalize the mind towards the wrong side of the spectrum. Syed Husin Alatas in The Myth of the Lazy Native criticized many, including Mahathir, for accepting orientalist presumptions wholly and uncritically.

While Mahathir did accept and go far to justify the stereotypes, such as accepting the graceful Malays, to put it politely, as uncompetitive against the 19th-20th century migrants to Malaya, and the Chinese were greedy but intelligent, and the British efficient, the book is also more nuanced than that. It describes partially the economic picture of that time that fuelled Malay discontent. Sources like James Puthucheary’s 1960 The Ownership and Control in the Malayan Economy, perhaps Lim Teck Ghee’s 1971 PhD thesis Peasant Agriculture in Colonial Malaya or even the modern 2014 revisit on wealth by Muhammad Khalid’s The Color of Inequality, I think do corroborate with the picture of mass Malay poverty Mahathir painted. Kua Kia Soong meanwhile is more than happy to paint the whole of 1969 as a Malay peasant revolt, interpreted, perhaps, from communist (Marxist?) understanding of history. The then economic reality was a real contributor to Malay unhappiness that blew up in 1969 and which later gave rise to the 1971-1990 affirmative action policy, the New Economic Policy.

Indeed, deep in the book beyond generalization lies a Keynesian voice. Mahathir praised the free market system but pointed out what he considered laissez-faire market failings, which he believed, and still believes, necessitating state actions. The book not only has a Keynesian voice, but it has an egalitarian one as well spoken through a communal loudhailer. The Mahathir of 1970 showed himself as an integrationist. He almost achieved his dream in the 1990s with his Bangsa Malaysia, except that the means he used to achieve his integrationist dream were unlibertarian and at times felt contradictory.

Some of his solutions appeared reasonable. To pacify the Malay discontent and address the inequality between races, he wanted affirmative action mixed with meritocracy in education so that the Malays could join the modern economy faster. He wanted to urbanize the Malays so that ordinary Malay families would get exposed to the modern life rather than live isolated in the rural kampongs. He wanted to create Malay industry captains so that the Malays in the streets would have role models to look up to.

All three policy recommendations were carried out under his watch. Despite its failings, PTPTN and the mushrooming of tertiary institutions expanded education opportunities for the Malays. Wangsa Maju, Subang Jaya and many others were created as part of Malaysian urbanization that partly benefited the Malays. And then there were Halim Saad, Tajuddin Ramli, Yahaya Ahmad and many others who were Malaysia’s industry captains before the Asian Financial Crisis left the country in ruins.

His other suggestions were quite intrusive, based on extreme distrust of Chinese businesses and guilds. The suggestions included harsh price controls and frequent spot-checks. He went as specific as suggesting standardizing all weighing machines purely because he believed Chinese shopkeepers were cheating their customers.

Some fifty years on, some of his ideas are now obsolete. If I had the chance to sit with him, I would ask if he had changed his mind. Whatever the answers might be, this book is still crucial in understanding Mahathir’s mind.

And regardless of the validity of the stereotypes made by the Mahathir of the Malays and the Chinese, and also of the Europeans, these stereotypes did fuel discontent against the other among the Malays. These stereotypes cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. It had a real world impact on Malaysian politics, and it is true even today unfortunately. Timothy Harper in his 1999 book The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya, the book I am reading at the moment quotes The Malay Dilemma early: “those who say ‘forget race’ are either naive or knaves.”

But the book is mainly known for its stereotypes. Truly, The Malay Dilemma is like Romeo and Juliet. It is book that everybody has heard of, and everybody thinks he or she knows, but pretty much nobody has read it really.

It is not only the book that suffers such reputation. The reader reading it in the public too can suffer a stranger’s judgment. And I am a Malay, who read that book in the train where its passengers were of multiethnic composition

The occasional strangers’ gaze left me uncomfortable in the train. When I began the book, I noticed not the various ethnicities in the car. But while reading it, with those not sharing my skin color standing or sitting next to me, I felt uneasy. I should not feel so for I do not share Mahathir’s racialist worldview. Yet, I did feel uneasy.

That is the cost of reading in public space.

But such discomfort is perhaps less powerful than the political discomfort we live in now. So uncomfortable it is now that some plan not to vote at all in the upcoming general election, citing it as their rights to do so. The robots are so confused after being caught in a false equivalence fork, frozen to decisive inaction.

4 Responses to “[2863] Reading The Malay Dilemma”

  1. […] [2863] Reading The Malay Dilemma […]

  2. on 07 Sep 2019 at 15:35 snow

    Please note the Chinese were not the only business people, there were also Arabs e.g. Al Junid, Al Kaff, Al Sagoff. So is there mention of Arabs businessmen – where are they now, what happened to them.

    As for the dilemma, it is really whether the proud Anglos have the willingness to not look down on the Malays in the first place, and be willing to not be ashamed and revive the rich legacy. Please, there is no grand shame in being Malay – they have Indo European roots from the Indo Greeks in the Himalayas, as well as Arab Persian rooting from the Middle East.

    With this legacy, they can trade network across the swaths of North India to Central Asia to the Middle East. That’s a giant prospect.

    So please, the proud Anglos who control the khazanah (treasury) need to be willing to invest in infrastructure and workforce, without having to conform and be subservient to the British ways.

    Kampung Glam
    Dream Land

  3. on 07 Sep 2019 at 15:36 Snow

    You can deny my comments like the other proud Anglos
    But remember – there is no grand shame in being Malay

  4. […] The Malay Dilemma by Mahathir Mohamad. This is an important book to read in order to  understand Malay politics. You can disagree with the content of the book, but you cannot deny its relevance in this age of heightened ethnonationalism (and during the administration of Mahathir II). […]

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