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[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.

By Hafiz Noor Shams

For more about me, please read this.

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