Drop the myth

03 Nov 2019 / 18:54 H.

IT IS a disappointing indictment of our leaders and policymakers when they have to return to the myth of the lazy native or resort to some perverted version to justify the nation’s socio-economic policies.

This form of stereotyping and analysis of the Malay community – whatever its intention – is not only without basis. It has been thoroughly discredited.

The origins of this myth can be found in the colonial period when European colonisers attempted to justify Western domination by denigrating the so-called racial characteristics of the natives in the colonial territories which they held sway.

When undertaking research on the Malay peasantry for my masters and doctoral dissertations – both published – the tens of thousands of files that I examined from the records of the colonial administration in Malaysia and London for the period from 1874 to 1940 provided a different picture relating to the underdevelopment of the Malay peasantry that other scholars had provided.

The reports and minutes of officials schooled with the colonial perspective provide incontestable evidence of a hard working, enterprising and often risk taking native population. What held back the local population were the feudal rulers who extracted rents and appropriated the fruits of the peasantry’s work during the pre-colonial period; and the successor British colonial administration which implemented discriminatory policies against the peasantry and local smallholders in favour of plantation capitalists.

At that time my work was assessed by the Harry Benda award committee as having “broken important new ground” and “contribut(ing) substantially to the study of Southeast Asia”.

Apart from the findings of my work, other later scholars have also refuted the notion of any crude racially-biased or oriented notion of laziness. Dr Wan Zawawi Ibrahim in his study of local Malay and immigrant labour in rural Terengganu in the post-colonial period has noted that the Malays’ decision not to work as plantation labour was based on a rational exercise of choice to work in the industrial sector.

It is not necessary to read any scholarly work to dispel simplistic racial stereotyping such as this of the lazy Malay. Just look around us.

Many of the hardest workers in the country in the past and today are workers of Indonesian and Malay stock. They are not only hard working. They are also diligent, conscientious, loyal and trustworthy – often way beyond what one would expect from their wages and conditions of service. They do not deserve the brickbats levelled at them, especially by those who have never experienced work in the fields, farms and factories.

Unfortunately this myth of the lazy native is being kept alive. It is done so – perhaps inadvertently, certainly opportunistically – as a key underpinning and ideological rationale for the nation’s post-independent policies.

Post-colonial state’s intellectual bankruptcy

Clearly the warning sounded by Syed Hussein Alatas, the country’s foremost sociologist scholar, has been forgotten or ignored by our political leaders and policymakers. In his book The Myth of the Lazy Native, Alatas criticised the coloniser’s beliefs of the natives as ranging “from vulgar fantasy and untruth to refined scholarship” while providing an ideological justification of colonial domination.

He argued that “(t)he image of the indolent, dull, backward and treacherous native has changed (during the post-colonial period) into that of a dependent one requiring assistance to climb the ladder of progress”, especially with publications like the 1971 Revolusi Mental (Mental Revolution) by Umno that succumbed to the language of colonial capitalism.

If Alatas was alive today, what would he say about the latest Shared Prosperity Vision (SPV) policy document which according to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his recent speech to the Dewan Rakyat was intended to correct the mistakes of the NEP as well as his own Vision 2020.

Mahathir asserted that the government wanted to produce a new generation of bumiputras who have moral values such as integrity, dignity, a strong nationalist spirit, and are hardworking, to save the country and not to be dependent on foreigners.

“Therefore, we need to come up with a new approach. If the governments before focused on equitability of opportunities for the bumiputras – especially in the economy and the education sector – the focus now will be on the equitability of outcomes,” he said.

Questioning the SPV

Many questions should be asked of the SPV especially of its goal of ensuring the equitability of outcomes.

How different is it from the ethno-nationalist NEP developmental approach that ended up with the Malay elite and upper middle class being the primary beneficiaries?

Can it provide the answer to the corruption, leakages and abuse of power that have been among the main stumbling blocks to Malay and national advancement?

Will it address or reinforce the negative self-stereotyping and external stereotyping that comes with an outcomes strategy rooted in a narrow ethnic nationalistic paradigm?

In his papers relating to the NEP, Alatas was concerned that the Barisan Nasional government’s race-based socio-economic policies were akin to that of the Orientalist view that the Malays were lazy and incapable of growing their businesses on their own or competing with other communities. In place of what he saw as a strategy that had a debilitating impact on the Malay and other communities, he argued instead for a merit-based society in economy, education and in all the other sectors to finally bury the myth of the lazy native.

Pakatan leaders and their policymakers support group would do well to read Alatas’ corpus of work on the NEP and the lazy native before they begin implementing the SPV.

This article is the 13th in the series on the state of Malay dominance. Lim Teck Ghee’s “Another Take” is aimed at demystifying status quo orthodoxy. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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