The Malay Dilemma Misshaping The Race Discourse

Lim Teck Ghee

Now is the time to take the book out for fumigation
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 most educated and those who have achieved the
greatest socio-economic and political mobility by taking advantage of their so-called victim

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 and
society in the aftermath of the racial violence of 13 May.

Initially banned for its alleged seditious content and potential to destabilize a society reeling
from the trauma of 13 May, the ban was lifted in 1981 when Dr. Mahathir became Prime

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 Dr. 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 which 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 Malay Dilemma and its
applicability to the current situation in 2020.
Social Darwinism: Its Relevance in Malaysia

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 “his place in the Malayan sun” – stems from a social darwinist understanding
of Malayan society gleaned by Dr. Mahathir and his peer group during the era of British

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 are 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 writing of the book by Dr. 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 ​races 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 policy
makers and politicians.
One recent reader has 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
generalizations and overall a terrible attempt at justifying institutionalized 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
potentialto 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

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
quota of results without regards to merit. This allowed massive numbers of non-qualified
persons to attain and maintain entry and 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 race discourse.
Now is the time for our leaders to take the book out for fumigation.

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