The social media outrage squads are going after Deputy PM Zahid Hamidi for highlighting Mahathir’s Indian ancestry. Big deal. Anwar also made jibes against Mahathir’s parentage in the past – hardly anyone threw a fit then. (You can watch the video of it here.)
Still, a broader question lurks behind this latest farce: Does Mahathir’s race matter? I think it does for one simple reason – Mahathir spent his entire political career turning race into our national obsession. And to a large extent, he was frighteningly successful.
During Malaysia’s infancy as an independent nation, Mahathir was already a seasoned practitioner of racial politics. He was instrumental in removing our first PM Tunku Abdul Rahman from office, accusing him as being pro-Chinese and insufficiently pro-Malay. Tunku described how it all went down in this heart-wrenching video:
With progressive forces like Tunku sidelined in Umno, Mahathir had a free hand to advance his racial agenda. Lest we forget, he wrote a book titled ‘The Malay Dilemma’. Eventually becoming PM himself, he predictably oversaw a massive expansion of race-based policies. Malaysian politics would be changed forever.
Fast forward to the 21st century, Mahathir became the most high-profile supporter of Perkasa, the Malay pressure group many blame for stoking racial and religious tensions. One analyst even compared the group to the Ku Klux Klan.
Mahathir officiated Perkasa’s first annual general meeting (AGM) and regularly spoke at its events. By his own telling, the group was formed because Umno failed to stand up to “Chinese and Indian extremists” who want an end to race-based policies and schemes. It feels as if we’re reliving Mahathir’s battle with Tunku, the congenial PM who was seen as too accommodating to the non-Malays.
So, forgive me for gagging a little over the sudden outpouring of sympathy for Mahathir. Can Indians join the party he now heads as full-fledged members? Nope, only bumiputeras and the Orang Asli are eligible. Immigrants from Kerala, even naturalised, are definitely out.
There’s a reason why Lim Kit Siang once called Mahathir “the number one racist in Malaysia.” Kit Siang may be singing a very different tune these days but many of us rightly remain unconvinced. Ultimately, Mahathir is best described by Professor James Chin of the University of Tasmania.
“[Mahathir] is the single most important roadblock to anyone in Malaysia who wishes to break free from an ethnic-based (and increasingly Islamic-based) political system,” Chin wrote in his book, ‘Malaysia Post-Mahathir: A Decade Of Change’.
He added, “For Mahathir, Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) is the cornerstone of Malaysian politics and of political stability in Malaysia. In his view, Najib’s 1Malaysia not only undermines Malay supremacy but gives false hope to the non-Malay community that they may get political equality.”
Chin is absolutely right. Accordingly, it’s amusing to watch Pakatan loyalists employ all kinds of acrobatics to defend Mahathir from alleged racism. Mahathir made race the bread and butter of his politics. So why shouldn’t we remind him of his own heritage? Mahathir’s race matters only because he made race matter.