May 13: Mahathir’s dilemma, our cross to bear

Helen Ang (Malaysiakini)

“There are those who object to the circulation of ‘The Malay Dilemma’ because of the repugnance that all civilised people feel for its author. Others object on the grounds that its availability is damaging to new understandings and friendships.

“In the view of the publisher there are powerful counter-arguments. [Mahathir] brought tragedy to his people and the [country] and yet he still has sympathisers today. [Dilemma] is both a compendium of their prejudices and ignorance and an introduction to [Mahathir’s] mind and methods. It is vital that this ‘master of the inept, the undigested, the half-baked and the untrue’ should be understood.”

The two paragraphs above are the publisher’s note to ‘Mein Kampf’ by Adolf Hitler. I merely substituted the book title and author within the square brackets.

‘The Malay Dilemma’ sought to explain the causes of May 13. But Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s screed was instead a compendium of his prejudices and those of the people around him. He wrote of the Chinese in Malaysia as “predatory immigrants”, “aggressive”, possessing “extreme chauvinism” and “unlimited acquisitiveness”, “unscrupulous”, and lacking in understanding and sympathy for others.

In his mind, the Chinese were a menace. He warned of a “complete Sinocization of the economy of the country” by this “hardened and resourceful” race.

Mahathir even begrudged the Chinese “hawking fruits” – a part of “the economic stranglehold that the Chinese held in Malaya”, it seems, when members of the community monopolised everything.

Shooting to prominence

In June of 1969, Mahathir was the Young Turk who penned the widely circulated letter urging Tunku Abdul Rahman to resign as Prime Minister and Umno chief. He laid the blame of the Alliance’s general election losses and May 13 both on Tunku’s shoulders.

The audacity and effrontery of Mahathir catapulted his career. Less than two-and-a-half years after his expulsion from Umno in September 1969, Mahathir was back in the party fold. By 1973, he was appointed senator and in the following year became education minister. A mere dozen years after May 13 and his sacking by the Umno council, Mahathir was PM.

The race riot signified Ketuanan Melayu triumphant. With that, Mahathir’s anti-Chinese polemics found their expression in the NEP that was the aftermath and direct consequence of May 13.

Mahathir already had a reputation as an ultra when he boasted in the 1969 election campaign that he could retain his parliamentary seat without any need for support from the Chinese electorate (this anecdote recorded in Tunku’s recollections which he began writing three weeks after May 13).

A personal detail that provides an insight into Mahathir’s psyche – then in his early 30s – was the hiring of a Chinese chauffer. The colloquial term for ‘driver’ is ‘Ahmad’ because during the colonial era, most drivers were Malay. By 1959, Mahathir was already the prosperous owner of a Pontiac Catalina, and he made sure it was a Chinese who drove him around Alor Setar town.

Now go to Mahathir’s blog Che Det and trawl its reader comment section. Reading the feedback to his postings, you’ll find the ex-premier’s ideological symphatisers displaying sentiments similar to ‘Dilemma’ still.

‘Kurang ajar’ refrain

Mahathir denounced Tunku as giving the Chinese too much face and thus the reason Chinese and Indians felt brave enough to be “kurang ajar” to the Malays on May 12, 1969 (when Gerakan and DAP supporters held their victory processions).

Many defenceless Chinese were butchered in a mass murder and yet Mahathir could blithely turn around and accuse the community of provocation, like the perpetrator blaming a victim of rape as asking for it. Today, he maintains his allegation that Chinese are (figuratively) attacking Malays, so his standard operating procedure is the Chinese “extremists” started it, Malays – c.f. Perkasa – are reacting in defence.

Nowhere in ‘Dilemma’ – “this book seeks to explain the causes for the 13 May 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur”, says its publisher’s note – does he express any genuine regret for the lives lost in the massacre.

And till this day, Mahathir does not repudiate the racial prejudices contained in ‘Dilemma’, evidenced in his new preface written for its July 2008 reprint.

The words ‘Mein Kampf’ headlining Hitler’s manual on race-hate means ‘My Struggle’ in German. Mahathir’s Perjuangan Belum Selesai is phraseology reminiscent of Adolf.

‘Dilemma’ foreshadowed his course of action as PM and the extent to which he was capable of going. If Hitler’s ambition was for a 1,000-year ‘reich’, Mahathir told an Oct 2006 Time magazine cover story, “I thought that I have done most of the things that will serve us for the next 100 years.”

Mahathir’s forthright assessment is correct – he has done enough damage to last us a century. Not only that, he can’t stop. The Perkasa national launch was clearly more a showpiece for Mahathir than Ibrahim Ali, hence a wholly natural suspicion arises that the movement is Mahathir’s vehicle.

Previously Mahathir talked about Chinese swamping Malays. Presently, he still complains about the one million citizenships granted Chinese and Indians at Independence. He hasn’t changed.

Mahathir’s consistent rhetoric is that Malays are always being imposed upon to “tolerate” unreasonable demands made by ‘extremist’, ‘chauvinist Chinese’, and he repeats this leitmotif as recently as last Friday when he blogged about the ‘racist’ label people have been tagging him with.

Chinese admire their abuser

What demands are the Chinese making that are unreasonable, pray tell?

However, utterly unfathomable – and surely short on reason and rationale – is the Stockholm syndrome exhibited by certain Chinese.

The Chinese community as a whole has been at the receiving end of the race discrimination instituted by Malay supremacists. And the Mahathir dilemma-type propaganda that says an inherent character trait of the Chinese is that they are manipulative and cheats, especially in business.

In simple words, the Stockholm syndrome implies that there are some Chinese who have been willing to lick the toes belonging to the foot that kicked them, and polish the jackboot keeping them down. Not to mention themselves swallowing the harsh stereotype painted of them, i.e. brainwashed Chinese blindly believing the brainwashing racist portrayal of Chinese people.

Of course it’s different for tycoons, cronies or Matthias Chang but the admiration professed by a sizeable number of ordinary Chinese for Mahathir remains an enduring puzzle.

In those years that Mahathir was number one, these Chinese men-in-the-street thought Mahathir was fabulous and fawned on his wife, the then ‘First Lady’ as well. (This ‘First Lady’ nonsense started with Siti Hasmah, and not Rosmah, by the way).

Why?! Why did the Chinese worship Mahathir at one point, when he was at the core the same man in his middle years as he was in the Dilemma early years and as he is with Perkasa now in his twilight years?

Dr Kua Kia Soong’s May 13 book cites a secret document from the British cabinet office showing that barely a week after the riots broke out, the CIA had figured out what Razak was planning, i.e. to formalise Malay dominance and to sideline the Chinese.

If that was indeed the plan, it succeeded.

That fateful day left an indelible scar on the victims, and not only those injured or who lost family. It transformed the Chinese, a community that before May 13 were capable of taking to the street, into a cowed minority invariably choosing to stay home safely behind locked doors whenever there are public rallies.

Head in the sand

One can’t help but wonder how far some Chinese will bow under the burden of May 13.

What I see is that some are willing to reject where they come from and deny who they are. I can’t think of any other explanation as to why certain Malaysians nowadays seem to literally choke, like they have a fishbone stuck in their throat, if they should somehow have to admit “Yes, I am Chinese”.

It’s as if the sacred mantra “I’m Malaysian first” chanted to a mind-numbness will help avert further race discrimination.

May 13 should have taught Chinese something but it appears that they learned all the wrong lessons.

These are the Dilemma modules: “Even when the Chinese adopted the language, dress and part of the customs of the Malays, they were not acceptable because of religious differences,” according to Mahathir in 1970.

“The country is very liberal and I think they (Indian Muslims) will be accepted by all if they can pick either to become a Muslim or Indian.” – Mahathir quoted by Bernama late last year.
Listeners in the audience that day recalled Mahathir implying or urging they should pick Muslim (hence bumiputera).

The Mahathir formulation for citizenship: “To be identified with the definitive people (Malays) is to accept their history, their geography, their literature, their language and their culture, and to reject anything else.” One Ridhuan comes to mind.

This man was Prime Minister 22 years for Malays, not for all Malaysians. In 2001, he announced the Islamic state fait accompli.

Hence, Malaysian First-ers should reflect deeply whether any amount of declaration that you’re “Chinese second”, or pushing Chinese-ness to third, fourth or fifth, or proclaiming you’re Malaysian foremost-and-forever, will work as a talisman against all the discrimination here.


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