Tun Mahathir’s usage of ‘pariah’ is not insulting



ON Monday, August 26th, the Prime Minister Tun Mahathir had said: “If we treat Lynas like a pariah and ask them to leave this country, we won’t be able to get other people to come and invest”.

As a result, he came under fire from certain quarters branding him disrespectful and showing a racist mindset by just uttering the word.

It is important to exactly understand what the word ‘pariah’ means.  It is not even an Indian word in the usage of ordinary English.  According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word pariah means a person who is not accepted by a social group, especially because he or she is not liked, respected, or trusted.

Collins English Dictionary had it as “if you describe someone as a pariah, you mean that other people dislike them so much that they refuse to associate with them.”

Examples of usage of the word pariah: “His landlady had treated him like a dangerous criminal, a pariah”; and “Because of its poor human rights record, the country was treated as a pariah by other nations”.

The statements above do not refer to any group of people or ethnicity.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary described it as a member of a low caste of southern India or one that is despised or rejected: Outcast.

The following are other examples of the word pariah in a sentence : “For decades, African states longed for the day when South Africa would be liberated from its status as the apartheid pariah and become the economic engine that would pull Africa out of its mire of poverty and underdevelopment, much as Japan did for the Pacific Rim” (Allister Sparks, Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2001);

“Once they began to migrate to the United States, especially after this country conferred citizenship on them in 1917, they discovered what it meant to be a pariah in the country that had adopted them.” (John Hope Franklin, “The Land of Room Enough,” 1981, in Race and History,  1989);

“North Korea has continued to churn out fissile material and is no longer an isolated pariah on the world stage” (Washington Post, “AP Analysis: Trump smiles with North Korea, threatens Iran,” 2 July 2019); and Collin Powell, former Secretary of State once wrote “Trump is a national disgrace and an international pariah” (First Post, 25 October 2015).

The above examples are not referring to any ethnic group. Likewise, the Prime Minister was not referring to any ethnic group when using the word pariah.

Clearly, according to the dictionaries and usage of the word pariah by the people cited above were used to refer to anything which is derogatory. In other words, pariah is just a term very much like the word ‘bangsat’ which is a derogatory word among the Malays to mean “orang yang jahat perangainya atau miskin.” Similarly the word ‘sial or barua’ is derogatory and are terms in the language.

The terms pariah, bangsat, sial and barua if used to describe a person, situation or condition is not reflective of ethnicity. It depends on the context in which it was used.

In the case of the Prime Minister using the term pariah to defend Lynas Malaysia Sdn Bhd’s rare earth refinery, it is very clear that he was not referring to any particular ethnic group.

If the Prime Minister had used the word bangsat or sial instead of pariah in the so-called controversial statement, would it have offended anyone? We can bet our last dollar that no one would have been offended.

Every language has its derogatory, disparaging and depreciatory terms that lessen the merit or reputation of a person or thing. Their usage should be completely allowed for describing what it is intended for. Hence, we would like to conclude that when the Prime Minister said “If we treat Lynas like a pariah….” what he meant was “If we treat Lynas like an outcast…”. He was not referring or looking down on any community of this nation.


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