The Malay Dilemma: Revisited

“It is more likely that this [fatalistic] attitude is a form of escapism from the realities of life, an insulation against the envy the Malays must feel for the prosperity of other races and other countries.”

This accurate explanation sums up one of the many reasons for the relative socio-economic stagnation of the Malay community. Dr Mahathir points out ironically that while Malays rever life since its a gift from God, they do not seem to know what to do with it, except preparing themselves for the afterlife. This fatalistic attitude makes the acceptance of everything, whether good or bad, possible with unprotesting tolerance and resignation. This attitude is even more damaging with the rapid pace of change now, as the Malay community slowly slides off into oblivion. Dr Mahathir also points out perceptively that:

“For most part, the Malay Social code is therefore somewhat anachronistic and can only lessen the competitve abilities of the Malays and hinder their progress.”

Having identified the gross deficiencies of our code of ethics and value systems, the solutions also seem as unpalatable and impossible as the problem itself. The only solution to anachronism is revolution, in this case, an ultimate reversal of ideas, values, customs and traditions, which would take generations of Malays to overcome. Ironically, this sheer impossibility of circumstances has also created the quintessential courageous Malay, which in this case, exemplifies his willingness to face up to a hopeless situation.

“The courageous or brave Malay is usually foolhardy, and because he is likely to do things without thinking of the consequences, the average Malay treats him with fear and respect.”

In any case, if the currents trends are portents of the extinction of the Malay race, at the very least we will be remembered as courageous individuals ( following strictly to the Malay definition of courage of course).

On the basic concept of goodness, Malays seem to fall in with the Kantian idea of uprightness. What is good is not what is pleasant but what is proper. This is laid out clearly in Islam and adat. Hedonism has no place in Malay code of ethics. Worldly life is dedicated not to pleasure or merriment but to serious religious thought and obedience to the injunctions of religon. Form is so important that it is prefered to the actual substance.

Is this the reason why I feel that Hari Raya Aidilfitri has become so contrived, simply because there is a severe sense of akwardness and utter dislocation visiting your so-called relatives whom you meet only once every year? Is it also why even in death, we are only allowed to mourn in peace, without excessive melodramatic rantings of a lunatic, who simply cannot let go? Is it also why when someone gives us a gift, it is customary to reject it a few times before inevitably accepting it, since its a sign of temperance and goodness, noting that if we were to really reject it, it would be a discourteous and impolite gesture?

Being a modern liberal Malay trapped in the crossroads of modernity and age-old tradition, sometimes it is difficult to realise and understand the fundamental reasons why the Malay community is as it is. After reading the Malay Dilemma, it only confirms my previously vague and intangible perceptions of the Malay community at large, that even an educated Malay politician across the causeway can realise this 30 years ago (the book was published in 1970) As he has shown throughout the book, there is no evident solution to the Malay dilemma. Even till today, headlines like “Return to Malay cause, urges Umno Johor chief” in the Straits Times, dated 13th July 2005, provides adequate underpinning that the Malay society is still suffering from an incurable plague that has slowly and incrementally eating away all of our defenses. Malay Singaporeans are also no spared from this plague, which I will soon discover more about in the next book I’m reading by Lily Zubaidah Rahim, who is coincidentally is related to Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first president.


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