Mahathir, stuck in his framework of Old Politics, is wrong in his conception of human beings – we are fluid, dynamic, and capable of progress, says Douglas Teoh.
In a particularly alarming tenth-anniversary-of-retirement interview, Dr Mahathir has reiterated (and added new comments to) his views on Malaysian politics and intercultural differences in Malaysia.
Sad to say, any serious listener in politics and human rights would come to the same conclusion – that the Malaysian Maverick has overstayed his welcome as a political advisor to Malaysia.
Even more worrisome is the fact that there are still staunch and loyal Mahathirists (such as former Minister Zainuddin Maidin) who advocate the ex-premier’s return to politics to “set things straight”.
I don’t think this is a good idea at all. Mahathir’s perspective on politics are not just dated (following from his days of writing the Malay Dilemma); it is also, for better or for worse, easily contestable with some knowledge and basic reasoning.
In my understanding of Mahathir’s thoughts, bad things happen when one attempts to question and subvert conventions and traditions associated with our past. We have achieved harmony in the past, whether between ethnic groups, between religions, and/or between parties through efforts to respect (a supposedly crucial ingredient in all inter-group communications) one another.
These days – Mahathir would probably argue – such respectfulness is totally absent from our discourses, in which selfish people (presumably the Catholics, liberals, Chinese, so on and so forth) attempt to manipulate the situation to best benefit themselves at the cost of others.
Regardless of how it’s articulated, Mahathir’s philosophy can perhaps be exemplified and traced back to his archaic conception of the social contract, presumably following the footsteps of one of his predecessors (who set the stage nicely for the Malay capitalists post-May 13th; see Kua Kia Soong’s May 13: Declassified Documents).
My aim in writing this essay is two-fold: firstly, to refute and provide some arguments as to why his ideas are altogether obsolete, as well as to contemplate and suggest an alternative conception which I find to be more useful and applicable.
Mahathirism: Social contract and harmony between groups
Mahathir’s views on the social contract have never changed, and it probably can be summarised thus: that the Malays and non-Malays have always lived in peace post-1969 because they honour and respect the implicit, unwritten agreement which was put in place.
This agreement is basically a promise of sorts. In return for Malaysian citizenship (which, according to him, is only possible due to the niceness, tolerance, and accommodative attitude of the Malays), it is mandatory for the non-Malays to respect and not question Malay special rights and the Islamic religion.
Disruption of harmony happens only as a result of either party turning their back against this contract. Since the Malays never actually demand that the Chinese or Indians turn in their citizenship thanks to their laid-back attitude, the fault (presumably) would lie with the non-Malays, who are asking for more (and the unacceptable).
The non-Malays, he reasoned, no longer want the Malays to have special rights only because they no longer need governmental help themselves. These ‘ingrates’ are unable to empathise with the plight of the Malays, and wish to ‘remove the crutches from the disabled’ (Dr M talks about this in his blog post: ‘Hijacking the Social Contract’) simply because they themselves are no longer disabled. They forget that it was the government and the Malays who allowed them to live good lives.
But what Mahathir neglects (or rather, hides from plain sight) is the fact that this social contract, or the harmony that results from it, can never be attributed to respect. In fact, it is an innate fear, as a consequence of the constant display of media manipulation and politicisation of history — of imprisonment, of harm, and of the ‘Other’ race which threatens the livelihood of its own. The Malays constantly fear the insatiable Chinese greed, who take more and more of the pie while the Malays are not looking — while the Chinese are always afraid of forceful silencing and violence by the Malays. Fear and threats fuel this relationship between Malays and the Chinese.
Our inter-ethnic (or indeed inter-faith) relationships have seen a turn for the worse lately, with ethnic and religious sentiments dominating our headlines. But I shudder when consider this: have our ethnic relations (post-independence) ever been good in the first place? Building relationships between ethnicities has never been much of a consideration as much as the economic inequalities and working our ways around it.
This, I argue, is the result of Mahathir’s policies on media control, education, as well as democratic institutions such as elections, Parliament, and the Judiciary. By focusing on progress and developmentalism (Francis Loh, Old vs New Politics in Malaysia), the never-resolved tension between races has been swept under the rug and is allowed to fester and boil over a good number of years – only to emerge with a vengeance.
The Manichean relation: Fundamental differences between Yellow, Brown and Black
In my opinion, there is also a hidden paradox that Mahathir’s logic would always fail to account for: in engaging different communities of various ethnicities or faiths, differences should never be the emphasis. Breaking down Mahathir’s philosophy ultimately leads to one fundamental conclusion: that of human determinism.
The Malays HAVE TO be the lords of the lands. They can’t ever be as business-savvy as the Chinese. The Chinese HAVE TO be businessmen. They can’t ever be politicians because they are unscrupulous immigrants.
This is the consequence of a conception of society based on differences – if everybody is given a fixed role to play, then the imagination of our present as well as future hits a stalemate. Indeed, morality itself arrives at an impasse. After all, quoting Orwell: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”. A relation of differences is consequently a relation of hierarchy and of dominance and subordination.
My question regarding the social contract is ultimately this: at a time when the understanding of egalitarianism is advanced, pluralities of perspectives appreciated, and empathy crucial to the communication between people – can we still hold on to a dated social contract whose origins come from fear and threats and results in an unchanging and stagnant humanity? I do not believe so. There needs to be a more optimistic, more open and more empathetic way of engaging different ethnicities.
Mahathir’s views are obsolete. His ideas of stability and progress for the nation are found on disturbing building blocks – that of fear and threats (disguised and ideologically manufactured as “respect”) – which paints a bleak picture of humanity as a whole and grants an ethics no longer suitable for our times.
Time to move on: Beyond Old Politics
Going beyond Old Politics is difficult – it requires us to recognise that in terms of inter-ethnic conflict, it is a mostly a personal irrational judgement of the other race that fuels it. By attributing race to being a “floating signifier”, Stuart Hall asserts that difference in races are constructed – people give meaning to ‘race’ before it is understood as something that is important.
Hence, these conceptions about others always originate from our fickle minds, which are perfectly capable of making mistakes and prejudicial errors. The “intimate enemy” (aptly described by political psychologist Ashis Nandy) is one who originates from and constantly intertwines with our self. Improving relations between the Self and the Other is a constant re-negotiation of our own moralistic positions in relation to others.
Aiya, the Malays always work slow-slow one. Chinaman mah, everything also money. Stupid Indians always con people.
But are those statements above in any way true – or are they but unfair thoughts which we force our ‘opponents’ to accept? In fact, are we not playing into the fundamental determinism of human beings (not unlike Mahathir’s social contract) by doing so?
Moving beyond into a harmonious future, then, requires self-reflexivity; one that does not attribute mistakes to others without first evaluating ourselves. Of course, this is difficult to do: it requires us to take apart the beliefs which we hold so strongly about the Others and rely on to build our own identities. “Maybe I’m mistaken here. Maybe I’m the one who misjudged these people. Do they have any other reasons for doing this?” are possible starting points to critically evaluating people.
This is related to what Ashis Nandy proposes: “the tradition of reinterpretation of traditions to create new traditions”. By questioning our own assumptions, we can come up with more insightful answers to and (as importantly) further questions about how to make progress in Malaysia.
To conclude, Mahathir is wrong in his conception of human beings – we are fluid, dynamic, and capable of progress. We need not be boxed into a predetermined notion that someone constructs on our behalf – but then the opposite has to be logically true as well. Getting out of a prejudicial ethnic- and faith-based system requires us to actively deconstruct the boxes which we force upon others. When more and more people do the same, ethnic- and faith-based politics and violence will eventually cease being an issue.