Mahathir Mohamad says that if it was not for affirmative action he would not have been a doctor.
Therefore, today, he presents himself as an evidence that affirmative action works.
I’d like to deconstruct his statement.
Mahathir jumped the queue and became a doctor. Ahead of him, those with better grades.
It is assumed, his parents would not have been able to afford him a medical degree unless through a state option.
Is that settled than, the argument made for affirmative action?
Mahathir’s legacy is in politics, not in medicine. He was never more than a competent general practitioner (GP). Would he have failed in politics if he had no medical degree?
How fair was that to that person?
In fact throughout his administration, his first time around, his people would argue it does not matter that if students with better grades were deprived of places in our public university medical programmes, because they can do well in any of the other courses.
The same should be applicable for Mahathir.
What’s good for the goose can’t be awful for the gander.
Maybe he could have been the best pharmacist prime minister this country ever had! Maybe.
There are dangers with analogical arguments. While a forty-something Mahathir did that in the Malay Dilemma, he can’t in all conscience extrapolate from his personal story reasons for a general policy on everyone, today.
Firstly, while he claims to not fail the opportunity afforded to him, when students with better entry grades dropped off, it is not argument that the student who he deprived of a place would be lackadaisical about the chance to study medicine.
We don’t know what potential that person had, and how his or her life took shape after being denied.
The Mahathir “my story is the story” track relies on assumptions built on assumptions, the conclusion far from scientific.
There are so many permutations, and every individual is different.
This is why, when applying affirmative action it must be judicially applied, not carte blanche permission to do as one likes because there are examples of it working.
It is this maddening style of proving a point which is problematic and emblematic of the tangled web Malaysia has today.
Merit, entitlement and historical seniority are interchangeable as and when they are useful, and at the end, it is about creative argumentation rather than resilient logic.
Affirmative action is a slippery slope, and adults recognise that. To present it as a complete method and always justifiable is cowardice in thinking. To ignore its pitfalls while celebrating its returns is irresponsible.
Every time it is applied it must be discussed. It would require tack even if unsavoury facts must be presented, and always, always, decision makers can’t opt for it because they can. They have to own the situation, the people who benefit and the people who don’t, they live the reality decision makers determine.
They hold lives in their hands, and all lives are precious.
Social engineers have to accept their own fallibilities and accept they’d get things wrong as much as right, and if they retain integrity, fairplay and a grip on their conscience, convinced the balance would be for the greater good.
Otherwise, you’d end up like Mahathir, living in a world of lopsidedness to outome but never cost.