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Books & printed materials

[2926] My readings in 2020

We are almost done with 2020!

This truly horrible year is coming to an end. The lockdown has provided me with an excessive amount of leisure time. I am using the extra time to try to finish off my book, and to catch up with my readings. In 2019 when I was truly busy, I read only 5-7 books throughout the year. This year, I have more than doubled the count.

So, here is a review of some of the stuff I have read in the past 12 months. I am listing 12 here and they are:

  • The Republic by Plato
  • Dubliners by James Joyce
  • The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
  • The Fall of Constantinople by Steven Runciman
  • The Constitution of Malaysia by Andrew Harding
  • The Good State by A. C. Grayling
  • Contesting Malayness, edited by Timothy Barnard
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  • Billion Dollar Whale by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright
  • Palace, Political Party and Power by Kobkua Suwanathat-Pian
  • Capitalism Alone by Branko Milanovic
  • Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor

The Republic by Plato, translated by Richard Sterling and William Scott (1996)

I started the year by re-reading The Republic. Well, not quite. It has been an on-and-off reading. I first flipped the pages back in May 2019 but since it was such a heavy reading—the monologues are worse than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—I needed a lot of time to read and then digest it. This is a recurring theme: I really, really first read the few first chapters of The Republic back when I was an undergraduate more than 10 years ago.

But what is it about?

The Republic seeks to describe the idea of justice, and the way to which we could create a just (city) state. The expositions are done through a series of long dialogues between Plato’s teacher (Socrates) and a bunch of men in Piraeus in Athens during the times of ancient Greece.

I do not pretend to understand most of the ideas discussed fully. This is the kind of book you have to read multiple times to really understand what is happening. I read parts of the books in short bursts and then watched some lectures on YouTube to help with my comprehension.

In the course of explaining justice, Socrates appears to advocate a dictatorship. He believes in a benevolent kind of dictatorship ruled by philosopher kings striving towards the creation of a just state. Measures he proposed are drastic. For instance, believing Greek religions are unhelpful in teaching men and women virtues, he advocates for a complete rewriting of history and beliefs. Truth does not matter according to Socrates. What matters is the utility of history and beliefs in creating a just society. The changes are so drastic that only a dictatoc could make it.

Reading The Republic shows how certain ideas are very old. For instance, Socrates is big on specialization and division of labor, and he believes each man should focus on one thing and one thing only. A blacksmith should just be a blacksmith and nothing else. A soldier should just be a soldier and nothing else. A ruler just a ruler. While reading that part, I wondered how it might have inspired Adam Smith.

I do not intend to write a full review and I have not finished the book yet. So, let us move on to the next book.

Dubliners by James Joyce (1914)

This is a collection of short stories set in Dublin in the early 20th century. I did not finish it and do not intend to do so because I am not a fan of short stories. I picked the book up on the assumption it was not, and perhaps to prepare myself for Ulysses. I think such preparation is still so far off.

Nevertheless, I read half of the book.

While not a fan of short stories, there are plenty of good ones inside. My favorite is about a young couple living an unhappy life in the city. The young man wants to leave Ireland for America, and tries to convince his lover to come along. She wants to migrate to America, except she feels divided about leaving her family behind, despite her family not treating her well. On the day they are supposed to leave, with both of them about to board a ship for New York, she decides against sailing across the Atlantic. It is an abrupt goodbye.

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (2019)

This is a fiction set in Kuala Lumpur during the May 13 1969 race riots. The main character, a young teenager suffering from some kind schizophrenia (I think), gets separate from her mother during the riots and she set on a journey crisscrossing the city to reunite with her, on the assumption the mother is still alive.

This book is supposed to be a young adult read but the details can be a bit gore. Not Game of Thrones gore. But still. Example: the scene I remember best is the cinema on Petaling Street. A gang of rioters are barging into the hall with machetes and deciding who should live. People of the wrong skin colors are killed on the spot.

The most exciting thing about the book are the Kuala Lumpur locations cited. There is just something about being able to say “hey, I know that place” while reading the book.

The Fall of Constantinople by Steven Runciman (1965)

This is easily my favorite book for this year. It is super-engaging despite being a scholarly work. This book is truly a treasure. I found the first edition while visiting several bookstores in Istanbul last year.

The Fall of Constantinople recounts the events leading up the the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantium capital in 1453.

Runciman shows that by the 14th century before its final defeat, Byzantium was already a weakened power. Its hold to power did not extend far beyond the city walls of Constantinople.

Conflicts between Byzantium and the Ottomans were not strictly a Christian-Muslim affair. And Byzantium’s political rivals were not just the Muslims. Divisions within the Christian world meant Western Christendom based in Rome did not care enough for Constantinople. Despite pleas from Byzantium for help against a ‘common’ foe, reinforcement from Italy did not arrive until it was too late.

And it feels like Runciman blames Rome and the Italians for the fall, more than the Ottomans.

One or two chapters describe the actual battle and the most astounding detail is a maneuver carried out by the Ottomans. Constantinople was surrounded by tall thick stonewalls on all sides, with large bodies of water on three sides. The only reasonable access was through Byzantium docks on the inside of the Golden Horn, a waterway that meets the Bosporus. But entry was blocked by a strong boom preventing any ship from passing and Ottoman’s ships were not the best in the Mediterranean, especially when compared to Byzantine ships and its allies. To overcome the barrier, the Ottomans under Mehmet II transported their fleet across a peninsula for several miles and then caught the defenders on their flank. That was the beginning of the fall of Constantinople.

The Constitution of Malaysia by Andrew Harding (2012)

This book traces the development of the Constitution and changes that happened over the years. Harding believes Malaysia have had 3 social contracts: first came out of the 1946-1963 periods that began with opposition to the Malayan Union. The second was various amendments made in the aftermath of the May 13 1969 riots. And the third was in the 1990s under Wawasan 2020. These three events influenced the development of the constitution and its interpretation.

Harding finds some faults with the Constitution: the Constitution does not do enough to safeguard basic liberties, and put too much trust on parliamentary democracy. This means there are not enough check-and-balance in Malaysia and as a result, the executive has too much power. Additionally, the Constitution relies too much on exceptions that the exceptions become the rules. Harding proves this by showing the effects from the May 13 riots could still be felt today. For one, local election still has not been reinstated.

He ends the book with a hint of optimism by stating that Malaysia is gradually correcting its past mistakes (particularly errors of the 1980s) since 2008. But I wonder if he feels the same in 2020…

The Good State by A. C. Grayling (2020)

Grayling argues the Westminster model is flawed. It fails at separating powers and relies too much on party politics, so much so that national interest comes second after party interest. Additionally, the Westminster system does a bad job at preventing bad people from getting power. And the whole thing is made worse with the use of first-past-the-post. To address all the problems and more with Westminster democracy, Grayling proposes to make it more representative by implementing proportional representation

Contesting Malayness, edited by Timothy Barnard (2004)

This is a collection of papers on Malay identity presented at a symposium in Leiden, the Netherlands. Each chapter is a different paper and all papers argue that the idea of Malayness is quite complex and not as simple as presented by the Malaysian constitution with its three-test. Ultimately, the Malay identity is more fluid than many would like to admit.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1963)

This is a relative short novel set in a gulag somewhere deep in the Soviet Union. He was innocent but found himself imprisoned nonetheless. As the title suggests, the whole novel happens within a day where the author describes the working conditions within the gulag.

This is my second Sozhenitsyn’s read. The first was For the Good of the Cause, which I like better. One Day, I feel, spends too much time over-describing the scenes that it became a bit of a chore to read.

Billion Dollar Whale by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright (2018)

This book traces the evolution of the fugitive Jho Taek Low from young up to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad corruption scandal. And oh, you’ll Jho Low after reading this book.

Jho Low is painted as an international mystery man with links to various governments all around the world. He even attempted to infiltrate the White House. Jho Low is a smart criminal, working with corrupt collaborators in the Malaysian and Emirati governments (among others).

Despite 1MDB being a convoluted case (I did some work on 1MDB and even then, I had troubles keeping up which was which), Hope and Wright write the book in a very accessible way, and definitely entertaining.

My copy was signed by Tom Wright, thanks to Tony Pua… which is one of the characters inside the book.

Palace, Political Party and Power by Kobkua Suwanathat-Pian (2011)

This traces the evolution of the royal institution during the colonial times, Japanese occupation, post-independence and finally during the Mahathir era.

Most of the Rulers were mere puppets during colonial period, particularly those in the Federated Malay States. Although they lost their political power, the British were careful in raising the Rulers’ prestige to the point that the Malay masses were unaware their rajas had become mere figureheads. The real rulers were the British Resident. So powerful were they that in more than once, the colonial authority had a say in the succession process, which was supposed to be under the sole purview of the Rulers.

The Malays finally found out the truth about the Rulers when the Japanese removed the curtains that the British put up. It was during this time that the Malays really began to develop politically. By the end of the war, the Rulers’ authority had been exhausted that they could not provide the leadership needed. UMNO under Onn Jaafar successfully wrestled Malay leadership from the Rulers and the author provided examples of explicit clashes between Onn Jaafar and the Rulers that, by today’s standard, is quite shocking.

The Rulers’ political fortune was on a persistent downhill until Mahathir resigned for the first time in the early 2000s. Led by the Perak royal house, the monarchy reformed itself to become respectable again and began to assert influence beyond its constitutional roles.

Capitalism Alone by Branko Milanovic (2019)

Capitalism Alone argues capitalism is the only system in the world at the moment but that does not mean it is monolithic. From what I gather, there are two main capitalisms at play at the moment: political capitalism and liberal capitalism. There are other kinds of capitalism but those either do not exist yet, or have become obsolete.

Political capitalism is the authoritarian kind as practiced in China while liberal capitalism is the one associated with democracy.

Milanovic has an interesting theory about the roles of communism in newly independent states, in contrast to the traditional understanding of communism. While communists believe capitalism is a stage of development needed to create a communist society, Milanovic says communism is necessary to create a capitalist society.

Why?

Under colonialism, the economic system was not conducive for capitalism. Newly independent states would need their own indigenous capitalists in order to develop but colonial power was not interested in nurture, and more interested in preserving and strengthening feudal structure to control the local population, and make money for themselves.

Communism worked to abolish feudal structure and freed individuals to become free agents. In a sense, communism gave a colonized society a fresh start. Once the abolition was complete and the economy developed, communism would lose its usefulness and give way to capitalism, which was a superior way to organize a complex economy.

Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor (2017)

Tharoor attempts to debunk the argument that the British was a power for good for India. He does so by listing the many wrongs commited by the colonial authority. Some of them include discriminating qualified locals over unqualified British, worsening ethnic and religion divides, dismantling preexisting societal way of life and creating a corrupt system of government.

This book feels more of a list of arguments, perhaps in the style of The God Delusion. So, it is an easy read, although you might want to get accustomed with general Indian history before reading Inglorious Empire. Perhaps, after a little intro into history, you should read Niall Ferguson’s Empire before diving into Tharoor’s work. After reading all three, then maybe, you would be better able to appreciate the debate about the legacy of the British empire.

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Books & printed materials

[2899] My 10 books for the decade

Inspired by Barack Obama’s book list, here are my top 10 books that I have read during the past decade, in no particular order.

This is quite a hard list to compile because there are so many books. And if such a list is possible, then ten is such an arbitrary number. Nevermind that this assumes the decade began with 2010, and not 2011. Nevertheless, let us not get such debate in our way.

So, what would be the criterion for listing a book? I think mine would be the book’s influence on my understanding of the world.

There is no order to the list. Listing only 10 is hard enough and I do not want to complicate it. Be warned though as there might be recency biased. I cannot remember all of the books I have read earlier during the decade.

Here we go.

  1. Orientalism by Edward Said. This makes the list because of several things but the one thing I appreciate the most is not about orientalism — though it was enlightening — but on how history is textual: we understand history based on what has been written, not on what happened per se. That is such a revelation to me despite it being so obvious. Orientalism is also in the list because of its influence other books that I have read. The Myth of the Lazy Native by Syed Hussein Alatas for instance clearly adapted Said’s ideas within Southeast Asian context.
  2. The Malays by Anthony Milner. This should be read together with Kerajaan by the same author. The book describes and proposes the definition of Malayness and its justification will make you question the meaning of becoming a Malay. Bangsa Melayu by Ariffin Omar and Leaves of the Same Tree by Leonard Andaya are probably useful further reading.
  3. The Malay Dilemma by Mahathir Mohamad. This is an important book to read in order to  understand Malay politics. You can disagree with the content of the book, but you cannot deny its relevance in this age of heightened ethnonationalism (and during the administration of Mahathir II).
  4. Ownership and Control in the Malayan Economy by James Puthucheary. The book highlights the fact that the debate between Malay and non-Malay wealth distribution in the early days of Malaya and Malaysia totally ignored European control over the Malayan economy. The book also created a whole new research line in Malaysia.
  5. The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya by Timothy Harper. What I love about the book is its tracing of pre-independence Malayan history that sheds light on the Chinese Malaysian community’s dynamics, particularly the pre-war rivalry between the Kuomintang and the Communists, as well as the origin of Sino-Malay rivalries deep during the Japanese occcupation. The citation here is massive. In some ways, this book compresses classics like Willam Roff’s The Origins of Malay Nationalism and Boon Kheng Cheah’s Red Star Over Malaya.
  6. Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson explains the creation of national identity. I think the book is particularly interesting when read together with Milner’s work. The two authors do offers competing explanations, but I think together both explain the creation of the old (classical?) and modern Malay identities, and in doing so,outline the full evolution of the Malay identity.
  7. A History of God by Karen Armstrong. The book traces the history of the Abrahamic religions, and it will make you realize how smooth the evolution of beliefs from the earliest of Judaism to Islam. I recommend reading Heirs to the Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell for a view of what happened to all the heterodox Abrahamic beliefs, and other pre-Abrahamic religions as a minor companion to Armstrong’s excellent work.
  8. The Theory of The Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. It is all about signalling!
  9. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber. Essentially, the Reformation in Europe had removed the Church as a means of salvation. This led to the evolution of values, which suggested that work was the new means of salvation. This led to capital accumulation among individuals.
  10. The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. A great broadbrush take about western philopshy. Durant’s work really feels like an brief encyclopedia to help you decide which work do you want to read first. Additionally, it also traces multiple ideas and how it evolved across time, from ancient Greece to industrial Europe and early 20th century. This book might be fun to read together with the fiction Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

Other notable mentions include:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is about racism in America. Some profound observations made by the author here.
  • Empire by Niall Ferguson. An apologist for the British Empire.
  • Identity by Francis Fukuyama. He describes the rise of communalism/nationalism in the 21st century and the reasons behind it, with plenty of references to Plato’s The Republic.
  • Capitalism by Juergen Kocka. This is a history of capitalism and a little bit about capital accumulation.
  • Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism by Benedikt Koehler. Self-describing.
  • The Opium War by Julia Lovell. This is a great retelling of the Opium War, critical of both Imperial China and the British Empire.
  • A Sudden Rampage by Nicholas Tarlings. A great work detailing the Japanese decisions that led to its invasion of Southeast Asia during World War II. Be ready to revise your assumptions about the war.
Categories
Books & printed materials Fiction

[2883] A story on integrity from Solzhenitsyn’s For the Good of the Cause

I am taking a break from reading everything Malaysiana that is related to my book project. And I have finally decided to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s For the Good of the Cause that has been resting on my bookshelf for more than a year.

Here is an excerpt which I would like to share.

But the story fell flat. Fyodor did not laugh. Grachikov knew that it was better not to revive war memories. But having started this train of thought, he now recalled what had happened the following day, when his division was suddenly ordered to cross the River Sozh and deploy itself on the other side.

The bridge across the river had been badly damaged. The engineers had repaired it during the night, and Grachikov was posted as the officer in charge of the guard on it. He had instructions that nobody was to be allowed through until the division had crossed over. It was a narrow bridge—the sides had collapsed, the surface was very bumpy, and it was important to keep the traffic moving, because twice already single-engine Junkers had sneaked up on them from behind the trees and dive-bombed the bridge, though so far they had missed. The business of moving the division across, had moved up, but they waited their turn in small pine wood nearby. Suddenly, six covered vehicles—they were brand-new and all alike— drove up to the head of the column and tried to force their way onto the bridge. “St-o-p!” Grachikov shouted furiously at the first driver and ran across to head him off, but he kept going. Grachikov may have reached for his pistol, perhaps he actually did. At that point a middle-aged officer in a cape opened the door of the first truck and shouted just as furiously. “Hey you, Major, come over here!” and with a quick movement of one shoulder he threw back his cape. And Grachikov saw that he was a Lieutenant-General. Grachikov ran up, his heart in his mouth.

“What were you doing with your hand?” the General shouted ominously. “Do you want to be courtmartialed? Let my vehicles through!”

Until the General order his trucks to be let through, Grachikov had been willing to settling things amicably, without raising his voice, and he might even have let them through. But when right and wrong clashed head-on (and wrong is more brazen by its very nature), Grachikov’s legs seemed to become rooted to the ground and he no longer cared what might happen to him. He drew himself up, saluted and announced:

“I shall not let you through, Comrade Lieutenant-General!”

“What the hell…?” The General’s voice rose to a scream and he stepped down onto the running board. “What’s your name?”

“Major Grachikov, Comrade Lieutenant-General. And I’d like to know yours!”

“You’ll be in the stockade by tomorrow!” the General fumed.

“That may be, but today you take your place in the line!” Grachikov shot back and then planted himself right in front of the truck and stood there, knowing that his face and neck were flushed purple, but quite determined not to give in. The General choked with rage, thought for a moment, then slammed the door and turned his six trucks around. [Page 95-96. For the Good of the Cause. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Sphere Books. 1971]

That is integrity at work.

Categories
Books & printed materials History & heritage Politics & government

[2863] Reading The Malay Dilemma

Reading is a private experience that takes place within a personal bubble. It is one between you the reader and the author through his or her text. You can read in a group silently or aloud, but chances are most of the time it is a private experience.

During the time you spend reading, the text is your world and the author exercises an authoritarian control over your mind. He or she tries to convince you of something by explaining an idea, describing a scene real or otherwise, or even ambitiously trying to create another world to take your mind away from the real current life we all live in. You have no say for the bubble is not democratic. You can agree or disagree, politely or violently, but the author will always have the final say. Your immediate protestation would be heard by a deaf inanimate object.

Of course you are free to free yourself from the dictatorship, temporarily or for good. Temporarily because something else more urgent in nature is taking place like the likes on your Facebook, or for good because the author bores or disgusts you, or that you simply do not have the stamina to go through it. I have a book claiming to be a complete collection of Franz Kafka’s published work. Reading it mangled my mind so badly that I felt I was at risk of losing my mind. The private bubble of mine was beginning to detach itself from the real world and I was drowning at the shallow side of the river while watching someone, or something, trying to cross it in the most incomprehensible manner. I had to leave Kafka behind to preserve whatever left of my sanity. I would rather be left alone with Critique of Pure Reason instead of The Metamorphosis. Kant would help preserve your mind intact from rationalist assaults. Kafka would consume you whole.

But outside of the personal bubble, you are not free from the gaze of strangers. They may not know what exactly you are reading or thinking. You can create another bubble to exclude a third-party from observing you by reading at a private space, like in your room or at a carrel in a library. But reading can happen in public space too.

I read at various places to pass my time gainfully. These places include the trains during rush hour. While my mind would focus on the text, I sometimes do notice strangers peeking discreetly trying to identify the book I am reading. If our eyes accidentally met, they would pretend to look elsewhere. I sometimes can see judgment made.

I re-read The Malay Dilemma recently. Mahathir Mohamad the author in 1970 (and well, later the fourth prime minister of Malaysia, and if the stars align spectacularly, also the seventh) argued the Malays as a whole due to their feudal and rural background were too polite to fight for their rights and compete with others in the colonial industrial economy. More specifically, he wrote:

“…[W]hat is important, the Malays are told, is that Malaysia must prosper as a nation, and amateurs like them in business are not likely to contribute to this prosperity. All these arguments are completely true. If no impediment at all is placed in the way of total Chinese domination of the economy of Malaysia, the country would certainly be prosperous. The Malay dilemma is whether they should stop trying to help themselves in order that they should be proud to be the poor citizens of a prosperous country or whether they should try to get at some of the riches that this country boasts of, even if it blurs the economic picture of Malaysia a little. For the Malays it would appear there is not just an economic dilemma, but a Malay dilemma.”

The Malay Dilemma. 1981 edition

Mahathir had the book published when he was out in the political wilderness. Tunku Abdul Rahman kicked him out of Umno over policy differences: Mahathir was harshly critical of Tunku. The Malay Dilemma itself was first published just about year after the May 13 racial riots. Mahathir wrote it partly to explain why there were riots and partly to suggest ways to address the Malay discontent in the countryside.

It was a re-read because this time I felt I read it more critically, armed by other sources that better informed me of the 1920s-1960s conditions in Malaya and Malaysia, and also of the high colonial period. I read it with the relevant context in my mind. Books like The Malay Dilemma are always dangerous when read in isolation because its arguments are based on generalized racial stereotypes and if taken as unchallenged complete truth, it has the power to radicalize the mind towards the wrong side of the spectrum. Syed Husin Alatas in The Myth of the Lazy Native criticized many, including Mahathir, for accepting orientalist presumptions wholly and uncritically.

While Mahathir did accept and go far to justify the stereotypes, such as accepting the graceful Malays, to put it politely, as uncompetitive against the 19th-20th century migrants to Malaya, and the Chinese were greedy but intelligent, and the British efficient, the book is also more nuanced than that. It describes partially the economic picture of that time that fuelled Malay discontent. Sources like James Puthucheary’s 1960 The Ownership and Control in the Malayan Economy, perhaps Lim Teck Ghee’s 1971 PhD thesis Peasant Agriculture in Colonial Malaya or even the modern 2014 revisit on wealth by Muhammad Khalid’s The Color of Inequality, I think do corroborate with the picture of mass Malay poverty Mahathir painted. Kua Kia Soong meanwhile is more than happy to paint the whole of 1969 as a Malay peasant revolt, interpreted, perhaps, from communist (Marxist?) understanding of history. The then economic reality was a real contributor to Malay unhappiness that blew up in 1969 and which later gave rise to the 1971-1990 affirmative action policy, the New Economic Policy.

Indeed, deep in the book beyond generalization lies a Keynesian voice. Mahathir praised the free market system but pointed out what he considered laissez-faire market failings, which he believed, and still believes, necessitating state actions. The book not only has a Keynesian voice, but it has an egalitarian one as well spoken through a communal loudhailer. The Mahathir of 1970 showed himself as an integrationist. He almost achieved his dream in the 1990s with his Bangsa Malaysia, except that the means he used to achieve his integrationist dream were unlibertarian and at times felt contradictory.

Some of his solutions appeared reasonable. To pacify the Malay discontent and address the inequality between races, he wanted affirmative action mixed with meritocracy in education so that the Malays could join the modern economy faster. He wanted to urbanize the Malays so that ordinary Malay families would get exposed to the modern life rather than live isolated in the rural kampongs. He wanted to create Malay industry captains so that the Malays in the streets would have role models to look up to.

All three policy recommendations were carried out under his watch. Despite its failings, PTPTN and the mushrooming of tertiary institutions expanded education opportunities for the Malays. Wangsa Maju, Subang Jaya and many others were created as part of Malaysian urbanization that partly benefited the Malays. And then there were Halim Saad, Tajuddin Ramli, Yahaya Ahmad and many others who were Malaysia’s industry captains before the Asian Financial Crisis left the country in ruins.

His other suggestions were quite intrusive, based on extreme distrust of Chinese businesses and guilds. The suggestions included harsh price controls and frequent spot-checks. He went as specific as suggesting standardizing all weighing machines purely because he believed Chinese shopkeepers were cheating their customers.

Some fifty years on, some of his ideas are now obsolete. If I had the chance to sit with him, I would ask if he had changed his mind. Whatever the answers might be, this book is still crucial in understanding Mahathir’s mind.

And regardless of the validity of the stereotypes made by the Mahathir of the Malays and the Chinese, and also of the Europeans, these stereotypes did fuel discontent against the other among the Malays. These stereotypes cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. It had a real world impact on Malaysian politics, and it is true even today unfortunately. Timothy Harper in his 1999 book The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya, the book I am reading at the moment quotes The Malay Dilemma early: “those who say ‘forget race’ are either naive or knaves.”

But the book is mainly known for its stereotypes. Truly, The Malay Dilemma is like Romeo and Juliet. It is book that everybody has heard of, and everybody thinks he or she knows, but pretty much nobody has read it really.

It is not only the book that suffers such reputation. The reader reading it in the public too can suffer a stranger’s judgment. And I am a Malay, who read that book in the train where its passengers were of multiethnic composition

The occasional strangers’ gaze left me uncomfortable in the train. When I began the book, I noticed not the various ethnicities in the car. But while reading it, with those not sharing my skin color standing or sitting next to me, I felt uneasy. I should not feel so for I do not share Mahathir’s racialist worldview. Yet, I did feel uneasy.

That is the cost of reading in public space.

But such discomfort is perhaps less powerful than the political discomfort we live in now. So uncomfortable it is now that some plan not to vote at all in the upcoming general election, citing it as their rights to do so. The robots are so confused after being caught in a false equivalence fork, frozen to decisive inaction.

Categories
Books & printed materials Economics History & heritage

[2816] A short history of capital accumulation

Capital accumulation as an idea sits close to the center of modern economic growth theory. Any introduction into the field will begin with physical capital accumulation, before population growth, technological progress, human capital and even institutions are progressively thrown into the mix to explain the real world.

As far as modern macroeconomics is concerned, I think I can trace the idea of accumulation as the key to growth right up to Harrod-Domar as formulated in the 1940s. The model has a naive mechanics. William Easterly lays out the world of Harrod-Domar within the context of international aid and points out the model’s weaknesses in his 2001 book The Elusive Quest for Growth. Those same criticisms led to the articulation of the famed Solow-Swan growth model in the 1950s, which in turn was improved in the 1960s through the Ramsey-Cass-Koopmans model. About twenty years later, the so-called new growth theory with its endogenous models dominated mainstream macroeconomics.

Harrod-Domar is the earliest modern growth theory with capital accumulation at its heart that I can think of. If I try really hard, I think I could cite Karl Marx in the 1850s-1860s and even Adam Smith in 1770s although both of them did not produce a model while I do not think Marx’s idea of accumulation is directly related to growth as we understand it today. I struggle to trace the evolution of the idea beyond Marx and Smith, although a quick search on the internet points towards St. Aquinas and Ibn Khaldun, and possibly right up to Greek philosophers.

But the tracing of these models and works only describes the evolution of the idea. It is not the history of accumulation per se.

Jurgen Kocka recounts the history of physical capital accumulation in Capitalism, a nifty book on the history of capitalism. First published in German in 2014, the English translation came out this year. It is only available in hardcover currently with a price tag of MYR142. I bought a copy from Kinokuniya in Kuala Lumpur. Kocka is a German historian focusing on German and eastern European labor history.

Kocka writes consumption pattern gradually switched from a period of instant gratification when personal accumulation was hard if not impossible for the majority to a time when where they began to care for the next generation and were able to gather private wealth and transfer it to their children as inheritance. Although Kocka does not use the term, this is the intergenerational capital accumulation.

The intergenerational accumulation happened in a limited fashion in the middle age be it in Europe, Arabia or Asia. Even among the merchant class, the accumulation and transfers were limited among a few families before the Industrial Revolution. Wealth produced by a person was generally consumed within his or her lifetime, with limited opportunity for intergenerational transfer. This happened as feudalism worked in the background, the great institution that prevented the majority who were serfs from accumulating capital. The personal wealth of the serfs generally belonged to or easily extracted by to feudal lords. What is the incentive for work when the fruits could be appropriated freely by the local lords?[1]

Private wealth accumulation in Europe began only during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Rapid economic pace in the cities suddenly made accumulation faster than ever in history for most. That attracted serfs from the rural areas to the town and cities which led to the crumbling of feudalism as there were fewer and fewer pairs of serf hands to work for the feudal lord. Now freed from serfdom, common workers were able to accumulate private wealth and participate in intergenerational accumulation. It was a slow process and never a straightforward one judging from the various labor unrests and even revolutions during the industrial age but it did start the process of capital accumulation among the masses nonetheless.

But even before the Industrial Revolution, early companies in the 1100s in Venice played a role in intergenerational capital accumulation. A company, a product of various traders and merchants coming together to pool resources and diversify risk extended the accumulation horizon beyond the lifetime of a person. The application of the new social technology — along with the creation of double-entry accounting to keep track of the company’s resources — means the endowment got bigger and bigger, which encouraged bigger accumulation that was possible if wealth was restricted within one’s lifetime.

Some of these traders and merchants went on to form their own banks (as company) to finance their and others’ various business requirements. Jurgen in his book points to the 1300s as the turning point, when rich trading families first established banks in northern Italy. This made the financial market more efficient, which in turn aided them and other banking consumers to manage and amass their wealth better.

The evolution of companies continued in London and Amsterdam, capitals of the trading nations England and the Netherlands. The joint-stock companies were developed and more and more individuals and entities got together to pool their resources to finance, among others, the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, the first true multinationals in the world.

But the greatest enabler of capital accumulation was, of course, technological progress, as stressed in the Solow-Swan model. Indeed, wealth per capita soared during the 1800s Industrial Revolution after thousands of years of largely stagnation that began in northwestern Europe.

Gregory Clark in his 2008 book A Farewell to Alms claims it happened in England and the Netherlands because they had the institutions that enabled the Industrial Revolution to take place in exactly those countries first. He goes on to suggest, controversially, that these institutions which were absent in other places led to a deep cultural change that made the industrial age possible.

Kocka does not challenge that in his book. While explaining the connection between industrialization and capitalism, he writes:

One the one hand, when industrialization began, capitalism already had a long history to look on. Not even in its proto-industrially expanded form did merchant capitalism, which was widespread throughout the world, lead inescapably to full-fledged industrialization. There are many cases illustrating this point. Conversely, the case of the Soviet Union substantiates how it is also possible for industrialization to exist in a noncapitalist form. The concepts of capitalism and industrialization are defined by different features, and it is advisable to make a sharp distinction between the two of them.

On the other hand, preindustrial-commercial traditions of capitalism, whenever they persisted, significantly promoted the breakthrough to industrialization, whenever that happened in the nineteenth and twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, industrialization took place within capitalist structures everywhere. Alternative models of a centrally administered economy were tried out under Communist auspices between 1917 and 1991. They proved to be inferior. China’s rapid industrialization also began to take off only when the country’s party leadership decided to loosen political controls step by step and make room for capitalist principles. There obviously was (and is) a pronounced affinity between capitalism and industrialization: for both, investments are of decisive importance. An inherent part of industrialization is the permanent search for new projects, as is constant engagement in new configurations; to this end, pointers and feedback from markets were and are irreplaceable. A decentralized structure that disperses decision-making among many different enterprises has proven indispensable. So far, any effort at industrialization expecting to be successful over the long run has presupposed capitalism. [Page 99-100. Capitalism: A Short History. Jurgen Kocka. 2016]

But accumulation did not always happen peacefully through hard work, production or technological progress. In the middle age, pillages, plunders and wars were a common way to accumulate wealth. There were a lot of cases in Europe and elsewhere as well. This continued into the 1800s during the colonial age where European mercantilism helped European powers accumulate more wealth.

Such mercantilism meant accumulation for European was the dis-accumulation for the rest of the world.

Kocka does not go into the dis-accumulation as he is focusing on European capitalism mostly. But he does mention the slave trades between Europe, Africa and America, where African slaves were used to man the plantations and fulfil European demand. It does appear to me the slave trade and European colonial policy decimated Africa.

In Asia, especially Malaya, colonialism seems to have the opposite effect. Although European powers, the British in Malaya especially, were still accumulating wealth, the colonialism did have an accelerating effect on domestic growth in the 1800s and the early 1900s. Perhaps the reason for that was that the colonial administrators in Malaya was importing European advancement along with various institutions from the Industrial Revolution, hence boosting technological growth in this part of the world.

So, was colonialism good or bad for Malaya in terms of capital accumulation? I guess the only way to answer it is to address the counterfactual: how would capital accumulation have progressed if Malacca was not defeated by the Portuguese war fleet? How would the area now called Malaysia have fared if it had never been colonized by the British and the Dutch?

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — Let me digress slightly. Anthony Milner in The Malays believes the feudalist structure explains the lack of the Malay merchant class during the 1700s-1800s. The sultan as the feudal lord owned everything and the idea of private wealth among the masses did not exist. Everything within the realm ruled by the sultan belonged to him. Milner, if I recall correctly, cited Munshi Abdullah who lamented in his writing about the lack of security to self and property of the masses due to tyranny of the sultans in the 19th century Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan.

While this sounds like a rival explanation to Syed Hussein Alatas’ as outlined in The Myth of the Lazy Native where he postulated that European colonialists killed the Malay merchant class by regulating trade in a way that granted monopoly to European traders, I feel both arguments can be true. Milner is describing the effect of the sultans’ influence on the masses while Syed Hussein focusing specifically on the merchant class. Indeed, Milner’s point is more general and hence, the effect of European monopoly could well happen within Milner’s explanation. So, it was a double-whammy for Malay traders.