50 years on, Mahathir’s Malay dilemma never seems to end

Well, the rest is history. Malaysians are grappling with the racial impact these policies have caused. No prime minister or party will dare undo these embedded privileges as it will mean a huge voter backlash.

(FMT) – Young people do not really know who Dr Mahathir Mohamad is, beyond the fact that he was prime minister twice, and was the longest in office.

It’s important that they know who he really is, and was, more so because he has, yet again, launched a new race-based political platform for the next general election.

Five million new young voters have been added to the rolls since the voting age was lowered to 18; some will be voting for the first time.

Mahathir’s new Malay-only coalition is called Gerakan Tanah Air. Loosely translated in English, it means Homeland Movement. Lacks some oomph, many are saying.

Social media reaction was generally one of “Oh no! Not another racially-based political outfit in an already highly charged environment.” Many people now wonder if the only way to win elections in Malaysia is by using the race and religion cards.

The formation of the Pejuang-led GTA as a Malay-only coalition has come under criticism from several quarters, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who said a more multiracial approach is needed to resolve the country’s woes.

However, Federal Territory Pejuang deputy chief Rafique Rashid Ali was quick to ask why the critics are not picking on the many other political parties which are also racially-based.

He claims being a racial party does not make it a racist one, and that it is open to cooperation with all.

Mahathir’s return to the Malay base comes half a century after his book, the Malay Dilemma, which he wrote a year after the May 13 racial riots had put the nation in a perilous mode.

In it, Mahathir openly advocated affirmative action policies for Malays.

The book was banned in Malaysia by then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. It was lifted 11 years after Mahathir became prime minister.

Since then, historians have noted its influence on Malaysian society and governance, particularly the New Economic Policy which widened the affirmative action of special quotas for Bumiputeras in all fields. Mahathir’s open and unapologetic thrust was:

  • Malays are the indigenous people (Bumiputeras) of Malaysia, and by definition follow Islamic faith.
  • The sole national language is the Malay language and people of all other races are to learn it;
  • The tolerant and non-confrontational nature of the Malays has allowed them to be subjugated in their own land by people of other races, with the collusion of the British; and
  • A programme of affirmative action is required to correct the hegemony of Chinese Malaysians in business, and create a bigger Malay professional class.

Well, the rest is history. Malaysians are grappling with the racial impact these policies have caused. No prime minister or party will dare undo these embedded privileges as it will mean a huge voter backlash.

Some say the prospect of a Malay community deprived of special privileges is a potential time bomb. They may have a point but questions arise why after 50 years, the imbalance has not been corrected. In fact, it has led to a much more politically divided community.

In Mahathir’s early years as prime minister, he had to whet the appetite of the Malays as the government was faced with a pressing need to provide jobs. He launched a massive recruitment exercise for the public services, called Operasi Isi Penuh, to fill all vacancies in the civil service.

Veteran union leaders say the policy was the cause of the racially lop-sided civil service today.

After retiring in 2003, he returned to active politics in 2016 as one of the founders of Bersatu, formed by those who left Umno. Again it was a Malay-only party but with a weak exception: others could join as associate members without voting rights

But it was his presence at the highly contentious Malay Dignity Congress in 2019 while he was the prime minister of the multiracial Pakatan Harapan government that courted criticism. He stated that the Malays had accepted outsiders as citizens in exchange for independence from the British.

He not only defended his presence at the congress, he gave a pro-Malay speech and berated some non-Malays who had called the gathering racist, saying others could freely organise their gatherings and speak in their mother tongue without being labelled as bigots.

To some, this gathering was the start of a move by Umno, PAS, Bersatu and some Malay-based NGOs to oust PH claiming there were just too many non-Malay ministers in the Cabinet. Umno and PAS leaders were meeting Mahathir often to tell him the Malays were unhappy with the PH racial equation and it was a dangerous situation.

True, his government contained the largest number of non-Malay ministers in a Malaysian cabinet, mainly from the DAP. But they were legitimately elected to Parliament by Malaysians.

It was obvious that Mahathir did not put in enough effort, intentionally or otherwise, to stop the eventual “Sheraton Move” that ousted PH from power after 22 months, resulting in a near all-Malay government.

When asked at that time why he did not hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim as promised to the voters in the general election campaign, Mahathir said Anwar could not be prime minister because he is from a multiracial party and that PKR was not a Malay outfit.

After leaving Bersatu with his son and a small group of hardcore supporters, Mahathir formed Pejuang, another Malay-only party. Again, his theme was to “defend” the Malays from the so-called “marauding” Umno politicians who he claimed were corrupt.

Now at 97, Mahathir, who suffered a life-threatening illness last year, has just announced the formation of the Malay-based GTA coalition which currently comprises Pejuang, Parti Barisan Jemaah Islamiah Se-Malaysia (Berjasa), Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia (Putra) and the National Indian Muslim Alliance Party (Iman).

The movement also consists of Malay NGOs, academics and professionals. The aim is to change the government, going up against Umno at GE15.

For a man who publicly referred to Indians using the derogatory term “keling” a month before the 2018 general election and who later said it was “normal” for Malays to use that term on Indians, it must have come easy to form a race-based party or political platform over and over again.

But to keep on using the same old template, claiming that the move is to “save the Malay race” is actually an insult to the Malays themselves, let alone other races.

Using the Malay dilemma over and over again is a desperate move to keep himself and, by extension his son, relevant in politics.

I think Malaysians have had enough of this pathetic charade.