Wednesday 4 June 2008

Can't Malays be more Jewish?

The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia by M. Bakri Musa (Merantau Publishers, 1999, 368 pages)

PICTURE it: A politician named Dr Mahathir Mohamad is out of Umno after criticising its leadership. No, the year is not 2008 but 1970.

Back then, the decision for him to leave came not from him but from the party president, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Dr Mahathir then wrote a book The Malay Dilemma, that promptly got banned. (This was before blogs, remember).

The Malay Dilemma is one of the key Malaysian books of the 20th century. Not because of the beauty of its prose nor the strength of its arguments, but because it revealed so much about Malaysian public policies from the late Seventies (after Dr Mahathir was brought back into government) until today.

The Malay Dilemma Revisited, on the other hand, is not a sequel or update, or even fully a rebuttal. Although the initial chapters address The Malay Dilemma directly, most of the book is devoted to the author's polemical observations — and prescriptions — for the issues of the nation.

The author, M Bakri Musa, is a surgeon in California. Like the author of the original Malay Dilemma, he is a man of science; unlike him, he has no immediate political affiliation or ambitions.

I have never met Dr Bakri but I feel like I have shared many dinners with him. Each chapter reads like a monologue from a particularly opinionated host. Each paragraph leaves you in no doubt about where he stands on a particular issue, and he tends to wrap things up neatly, just in time for dessert.

One would imagine that an actual dinner will leave you exasperated at not being able to put in a word edgewise, but encountering him in book form allows you at least temporary respite through the simple means of sometimes laying down the thing.

Mahathir's original thesis (although not in the academic sense) ascribed Malay economic backwardness to a combination of internal (outdated customs, deleterious genes) and external (ruthless immigrants!) factors.

Bakri's best chapter here debunks Mahathir's "simple Mendelian" concepts of genetics, which basically meant that Malays were biologically destined to be obtuse. Bakri points out that Biology had already moved on from this concept and holds Mahathir culpable for perpetuating a concept that's both destructive and masochistic.

Although that chapter draws on Bakri's medical training, the rest of the book attests to his reading in other fields and his general keen interest in things. There are many illustrative anecdotes, often comparisons between the Malaysian and American ways of doing things.

The chapter on affirmative action, in particular, should be compulsory reading for ethnic vanguards who want to maintain quotas at the expense of quality.

In America, affirmative action made universities and corporations better places because the best of minority races helped make these institutions more representative of the societies they serve. Ironically enough, all-black colleges, for example, produced better graduates before the era of segregation because discrimination simply made people work harder.

The Malaysian parallel can become a case of wanton wastefulness: continuously awarding special privileges to Malays who neither need nor deserve them. This will make the community soft.

Malays should instead learn from the Jews, who are numerically small but highly successful. (Although, as he says, the Orthodox Jewish way of being obsessed with religious rituals should not be emulated lah).

Bakri's "snap out of it, sucker!" pronouncements are Mahathirian in some respects. In order to become "competitive " (a word he uses often), Malays must not take ‘soft' subjects like Islamic or Malay Studies but go into more difficult terrain; power should also be rolled back from the bloated religious bureaucracy; feudal habits discarded.

The book is not only better-researched but more entertaining than The Malay Dilemma. It has more jokes, too. (The two pages itemising why Malays are similar to Hispanics, for example). And how many doctors, even those who live here, can reference so many Malaysian novels and sociological theses?

Written only in 1999, some of the things that Bakri saw as a given have quite changed, such as the "limited appeal" of Pas and the idea that ethnic Indians will always be pliant and docile. These are not quite misreadings as he was merely working on the data he had back then.

And luckily for us, this gentleman scholar is still producing books, so we can accompany him in keeping track of these changes.

(Malay Mail, 4 June 2008. The paper changed the heading to 'Back and forth – and now what?)


an--ew said...

Read the 1970 and will do the 1999. But I was once told it’s easier to be a Jew than a gypsy. To my disappointment, a gypsy has to be born!
Good luck in Italy..

Anonymous said...

Hahahaha! I can't believe you even ATTEMPTED that title! Man, you got chutzpah*!

The book sounds interesting, though there are many more salient arguments against, um, "affirmative action" as it is supposedly practiced in Malaysia.

-- Preeta

*keeping to the Jewish theme ;-)