Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

If You Read One Book About Malaysian Politics...

Written by johnleemk on 1:44:26 pm May 12, 2007.
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I have read a great number of books about Malaysian politics and history; some clearly lowbrow, while others have been aimed at an intellectual audience. Although all have made some impact on me, the one which I believe has had the greatest influence is The Malay Dilemma Revisited by Bakri Musa.

Bakri's accomplishment in this book is his articulation of sentiments which every thinking Malaysian feels, but few are capable of expressing. A number of things Bakri writes have the propensity of making you slap your forehead wondering why you hadn't realised this particular insight before.

Unlike many books which deal with roughly the same ideas, The Malay Dilemma Revisited is not an intellectual book. It has the requisite bibliography, and is obviously the work of a well-educated man, but its writing style is colloquial and the ideas are expressed in simple language.

At the same time, it is very apparent that Bakri is not writing for the masses. The poor standard of English education in Malaysia makes his book inaccessible to a vast majority of Malaysians, and not all of his ideas can be easily understood without some appropriate background.

Bakri's obvious audience is thus the Malaysian middle class — the kind of person who is educated enough to comprehend English, but not an academic intellectual who would think it beneath her to read a work without footnotes or significant references to established sociological theories.

The Malay Dilemma Revisited is grounded very firmly in the consistent application of common sense to Malaysian politics and government. To Bakri, there are no sacred cows; almost every topic he touches on is controversial to some extent.

The scope of the book is very broad, dealing with almost every topic imaginable. As its title suggests, it is meant as something of a rebuttal to Mahathir Mohamad's The Malay Dilemma — which Bakri considers to have unfairly denigrated the Malay race by reinforcing negative stereotypes of Malays being innately lazy, stupid, and unable to compete with other ethnic communities.

However, using this critique as a starting base, Bakri branches out, dealing with issues as far-ranging as corruption, party politics and education. Refraining from the extremist views of some commentators, Bakri takes an evenhanded approach, and (some might say) even assumes a very optimistic viewpoint by writing as if his sharp criticisms would be used by the Malaysian government to improve and adjust its policies.

Bakri's book encapsulates perfectly the somewhat paradoxical view I have adopted when it comes to Malaysia's future. The Malay Dilemma Revisited points out the faults and errors in almost every quarter of government policy — there is a dash of pessimism — but goes on to propose solutions for these problems, and takes an optimistic opinion that we can change Malaysia for the better.

It is impossible to summarise Bakri's incisive views, considering how broadly and deeply he tackles Malaysia's problems. I wish I could summarise them, because they are worth it — they should be read by every Malaysian who cares about his or her country, because of just how unique they are and just how brilliantly they state the misgivings many Malaysians have about where their country is headed.

The uniqueness of The Malay Dilemma Revisited lies in its vision of optimism for the country's future. Many opposition politicians and activists have gotten into the habit of negativism — they are very negative about the government and the ruling regime, which is perfectly justified, but their cynicism is so overwhelming, it is difficult to view them as anything more than an anti-Barisan Nasional farce.

The only cause for optimism they offer is "We won't be BN!" — they have failed completely at presenting a vision for Malaysia's future that goes beyond "Not having BN!" Many opposition politicians have not been entirely happy with my somewhat pessimistic views on our future if the opposition can't be more optimistic, but the main reason I am so frustrated is that a simple Malay doctor has been able to write an astounding articulation of Malaysia's problems and how to solve them, while the opposition have been making anti-BN posters and chanting "reformasi".

What Bakri has to offer in The Malay Dilemma Revisited is a reflection on Malaysia's past, and a vision for Malaysia's future if we can correct the mistakes of the past. This uniquely sets his work apart from many other books, which offer only introspection on our history, or unrealistic visions of either unstinting rose-tinted optimism or gloom and doom.

If you want to understand why so many people are worried about our country's future, if you want to gain a deeper comprehension of your own hopes and fears for where Malaysia is headed, if you want to know how things can improve, there is one book I recommend that is head and shoulders above anything else — Bakri Musa's The Malay Dilemma Revisited. It is the one book that every Malaysian with a heart and mind should read.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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