Rethinking the Malay problem

Azly Rahman

"…the scholar is not he who gives the right answers, but he who asks the right questions…" Claude Levi-Strauss, French structural anthropologist.

Where does the predicament of the contemporary Malays lie? How must one study the ongoing crisis in multiethnic Malaysia? These are daunting and nagging questions for scholars interested in studying the complexity of race relations in this hypermodern country. Here are a few thoughts and suggestions.

One must look at the structure of domination that has plagued this race from feudal times immemorial. One must study the genealogy of the political economy of the Malays, dissect its historical-materialistic dimension, provide a critique of the nature of elitism vis-a-vis pattern of ownership and lastly present a perspective of change that gives hope to this race that has been disgraced by its own political elite.

Society must be looked at as an evolution of an entity in which the agriculture and maritime power not only gave rise to feudal lords but industrial power gave birth to the total power of the ruling regime; one that controls not only the productive forces of society but also created the religious class that culminate in the present day branded-religio-political ideology of Islam Hadhari first and One Malaysia next.

Like Gramsci's analysis of Fascist Italy, one must write more on the emergence of the "hegemony of the ruling class" particularly in the Mahathir administration in which what is projected to the masses is an image of "benevolence albeit authoritarianism" and the perception of "moral and intellectual leadership" foundation upon the power of Fordist industrialism, encultured in the image of production of goods such as national cars, microchips and tallest towers.

For 22 years, Malaysians were fed with this perception of the success of the Malays. In analysing the Malay problematique one must analyse writings such as Mahathir's 'Malay dilemma', Sanusi Junid's 'Mental revolution' and Malik Munip's 'Ketuanan Melayu/Malay dominance' amongst the leit motif of this new era of Malay industrial bourgeoise-ism that contributed to the near-destruction of this race itself circa 2008.

Like Frederic Jameson's work on the cultural logic of late capitalism, one must write about Malay history that marginalised the people and glorified the advancement of capitalist ideology, creating classes with material and cultural capital.

What went wrong with the Malays? What then must the Malays do?

Herein I provide my own interpretation of what is still wrong with the psyche of the Malays.

The problem with the Malays

The problem lies not in the here and now but in the past; one that needs to be de-constructed and reconstructed. It lies in the Malay psyche. It lies in the notion of hegemony as it relates to the political-economy of totalitarianism and controlling interests that continue to cement the master-slave narrative/relationship of the ruler and the ruled. That master-slave narrative has become a technology of psycholinguistic control and institutionalised as "culture."

The Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and British colonialists succeeded because the fertile ground of the slave mentality is already prepared historical- materialistically. We can see this mentality in the idea that a Malay political leader must not be challenged (such as in case of the presidency of the Umno) and this is a manifestation of this neo-feudalism hypermodern inner construct of the Malay in the Age of Cybernetics. Let us further analyse this psychological contradiction, using current perspectives of hegemony the Malays must learn to use in order to move beyond this non-issue of Malay politics.

Presently the "Either-Or" illusion/dimension of the Barisan Nasional-Pakatan Rakyat problematique is not the issue. This is merely a manifestation of the shadow play of the "winners of history", and in what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would term as the "habitus" and the 'disposition' of the neo-feudal Malay mentality that will require a Lacanian (postmodern psycholinguistics) analysis. The character of the controlling interest, for example, in the issue of the Johor half bridge presents us with a holistic picture of the immense success of the collaboration between the ruler and the local political-economic elite in making sure that hegemony is maintained for material gains.

The common Malay does not need emotional outbursts or a Cold-War-ish 'amuk' as a tool of analysis and revenge, rather they need an excellent view of their own socio-psychological history to establish an even better foundation of a new society. At present, because of the moral bankruptcy of their own leaders, the poor common Malay is unfairly carrying the image of a 'silently-reproduced' people who are betrayed by their own 'nationalists' – all in the name of Takkan Melayu Hilang di Dunia. ('The Malay Shall Never Perish from this Earth'): a leitmotif of thought-control that masks the historical-material-political-economic nature of structural violence.

The non-Malays must understand the predicament from an intellectual perspective and must learn to arrive at a common ground to help each other progress to eradicate poverty, to restructure society, and to build and educational foundation that will celebrate diversity. We might have misunderstood each other based on selective historicising that have been produced as artifacts and historical facts and disseminated to each generation. The only history we know in short is the history of the ruling class. Colonial times in Malaya have shown us how those in power, whether the Dutch or the British, or the traditional Malay rulers can all be the powerful that enslave the powerless.

At every epoch in history the narrative structure has been such – the winners write history, the losers write poetry or study anthropology. Even the non-Malays have their own master-slave narrative and their own history of 'mental enslavement' that they need to reflect upon, revolt against, de-construct, and reconstruct so that only the signs, symbols, significations that are truly 'humanising' will be allowed to flourish.

Scholars must now ask the right question in studying Malaysian history. A pertinent inquiry theme might be this: How has mental and physical slavery beginning from ancient times contributed to the malaise of the peoples of Malaya?


While the opinion in the article is mine,
the comments are yours;
present them rationally and ethically.