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Mahathir's community IQ perspective

  • On the one hand Mahathir keeps reminding the Malays they are lazy, on the other hand he introduces patronage measures that will only erode the competitiveness of Malays more.

By Dr. Song Beng Kah

On the question of an ethnic community's IQ, both Nobel Laureate James Watson (1962, one of the discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA molecule), and Malaysia's prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad will very likely answer it from the perspective of race.

In an American TV show in January 2019, Watson upheld his view on “genes causing a difference on average between blacks and whites on IQ tests” made 12 years before that, although he apologised for it in 2007. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, of which Watson was the director for 14 years, subsequently issued a statement dismissing Watson's remarks as unsubstantiated and reckless, and stripped him of the honorary titles of chancellor emeritus conferred to him.

Dr Mahathir, in his book The Malay Dilemma published in Singapore in 1970, touched on several highly controversial points, inducing the argument that the Malay race was inferior to other races because the Malay society was more receptive to marriages between close relatives and early marriages despite serious physical or mental issues.

The book was banned soon after it was published, and the ban was only lifted after Mahathir became prime minister.

The book nevertheless has come under heavy criticisms from Malay intellectuals, including Dr Bakri Musa who hit out at Mahathir in his book The Malay Dilemma Revisited (2017, ZI Publications), saying his views were both unscientific and outdated without taking into consideration many modern scientific discoveries, including non-genetic factors in epigenetics.

Having said that, The Malay Dilemma remains highly influential in the Malaysian society to this day.

In mid-1990s, while I was pursuing a course in human genetics, a USM Malay professor Dr N presented in the class several pictures of rare genetic diseases among Malay villagers in Kelantan, attributing them to in-breeding from marriages between close relatives such as cousins.

Mahathir was obviously very clear about this point, as he said the Malays had generally not realised the adverse effects of in-breeding.

Thanks to relatively more advanced scientific concepts among the people, the incidence of “in-breeding” and “mandatory marriages” has reduced dramatically into the 21st century.

From the genetic point of view, in-breeding will increase the incidence of the pairing of recessive genes to form a “dominant trait”. No matter how epigenetic and environmental factors such as diet, air, lifestyle, exercise, etc., have explained the comparatively higher occurrences of certain illnesses in specific ethnicities, scientific researches have strongly proven that in-breeding indeed boosts the incidence of certain illnesses in an ethnic community.

A well-known classical example has been Huntington's disease (characterised by involuntary limb movements, facial spasms and loss of thinking ability) a small group of impoverished fishermen living in isolation on the shores of Lake Maracaibo in northern Venezuela got from a European sailor some two centuries ago. The disease was then passed down to their descendants through in-breeding within the closed community. In early 1980s, medical scientists found some 2,600 survivors suffering from Huntington's disease in those villages. The prevalence of the disease among western Europeans is 0.01%, or one in ten thousand, while the prevalence among Asians is as low as 0.0001%.

The pathogenic genes will continue to spread within the community if in-breeding is not stopped.

As Mahathir said, this is an effect of in-breeding that remarkably increases the number of “recessive homozygotes”, and hence higher occurrence of genetic diseases within a specific community.

I believe Mahathir's purpose then was to stop the unscientific nuptial customs from olden days among Malay villagers in hope of reversing the dilemma of the Malay society over long term.

Mahathir suggested that genetic and environmental factors were primary reasons for Malay students' poor academic showing vis-à-vis non-bumis, and hoped the Malays would understand and admit that some of their customs were indeed destructive, in a way making it easier for him to control them.

Such well-intentioned reminder has over time showed positive effects in the Malay society. Where this is concerned, Mahathir and other far-sighted people should be given their due credit.

At the same time, Mahathir has over and again mentioned that “Malays are lazier than the Chinese”, which is actually not a good thing.

On the one hand, he keeps reminding the Malays of this, on the other hand he still introduces patronage measures that will only erode the competitiveness of Malays more.

While this will not eventually help the Malays, it has at the psychological level undermined unity among Malaysians.

(Dr. Song Beng Kah (Ph.D.) is a molecular geneticist by training. He has teaching and research responsibilities in genomics and molecular genetics, particularly in rice and other higher eukaryotes. In his spare time, he publishes series of education- and science-related articles in local dailies.)


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