The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown – Book Review

July 6, 2014

The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown – review

by Richard Reeves — The Guardian, Thursday 3 July 2014 10.00 BS


Attlee and Truman get top marks, but not Thatcher or Blair: this is an excellent argument for the virtues of collegiate leaders

The Myth of the Strong LeaderAmericans love to honour their former presidents: paintings, statues, libraries. Even airports get relabelled. Since 1963, travellers to New York have been touching down at JFK; Washington DC is served by Reagan national airport. There is now a campaign, led by senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, to give Harry Truman his due by renaming DC’s main train station Truman Union station. But the plan is facing an unexpected opponent, from beyond the grave: Truman himself. It turns out that Truman wanted a “living memorial”, rather than bricks and mortar. A scholarship programme in his name was established, helping students on their way to a career in public service. The legislation founding it, drafted in consultation with Truman’s friends and family, states: “The Harry S Truman scholarship program as authorised by this chapter shall be the sole federal memorial to President Harry S Truman.

This will please Archie Brown, for whom Truman is something of a hero. In contrast to self-styled “strong” leaders, seeking to achieve their aims through dominance and diktat, Truman was an instinctively collegiate president, delegating significant authority to his colleagues – especially his two secretaries of state, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. As Brown writes: “It was characteristic of Truman’s style that the most outstanding foreign policy achievement of his presidency is known as the Marshall Plan, not the Truman Plan.”

Brown points out that Truman was brought into the presidency as a result of the death of FDR. He was “a reluctant vice-president of the United States and subsequently a reluctant president”. This is, it seems, a good thing. In his sweeping history and analysis of political leadership, Brown comes close to endorsing Plato’s view that power should only be entrusted to those who do not seek it.

Truman QuoteTruman was modest not only about his own status, but about the powers of the presidency itself. While many US presidents – perhaps most – feel the need to exaggerate their powers, Truman said: “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to do without my persuading them … That’s all the powers of the president amount to.”

Brown has provided in The Myth of the Strong Leader  two books in one. The first, as indicated by the title, is an opinionated treatise on the idea of political leadership. The second, which takes up the bulk of the book, is a rich description of different varieties of political leadership in diverse cultures. It is hard to imagine a better guide than Brown, who has lived and worked in the UK, US and Russia, and is both an outstanding political scholar and an elegant, witty writer.

First, the polemic. He is out to topple the idea of the “strong leader”, arguing that party leaders matter little to electoral outcomes, and wield limited individual power, except – and often fatally – in foreign policy. Clement Attlee, who became prime minister just three months after Truman became president, gets the nod of approval from Brown. Like Truman, he was a natural delegater, and content to have powerful ministers running their departments – Bevin, Bevan, Cripps, Gaitskell, Wilson. As Bevin’s biographer Alan Bullock (no Attlee acolyte) pointed out: “No politician ever made less effort to project his personality or court popularity.”

Thatcher and BlairNo prizes for guessing the prime ministers who earn lower marks for leadership style: Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. All suffered, according to Brown, from a suboptimal conception of the role of the head of a government: “that of the leader as boss”. And all were ejected at the hand of their own colleagues, rather than the ballot box. But, with the exception of Chamberlain, all also make it into the top 10 of any poll ranking of great 20th-century prime ministers: the “best” leaders, in Brown’s sense, may not be the ones voters are typically electorally attracted to.

Political leaders err when they come to believe too strongly in their own powers and perception: a form of personal exceptionalism that disfigured the premierships of both Thatcher and Blair. Brown records Kenneth Clarke‘s recollection of Thatcher exclaiming: “Why do I have to do everything in this government?” He is particularly strong on identifying foreign policy as a dangerous area for overreaching political leaders. He brackets Blair/Iraq with Eden/Egypt, and painfully teases out, in Blair’s case, the path to war. There is a well-known tendency for prime ministers to tire of domestic politics, or what Max Weber described as the “slow, strong drilling through hard boards”, and turn to foreign adventures instead.

Towards the end of his time in office, Blair started to complain about the delay between “the flash and the bang” in relation to some policy reform. Ministers realised that Blair had picked up military terminology and was applying it to, say, the constitutional status of foundation hospitals. Compared with the complex, sluggish nature of public service reform, foreign policy, and especially military action, becomes seductive. You can bomb Baghdad tomorrow; improving the quality of early-years education will take longer.

Colleagues can seem an inconvenience, even if – perhaps especially if – they are foreign secretary. Contrast Robin Cook‘s treatment at Blair’s hands with Denis Healey’s response to Harold Wilson‘s desire to assist the Americans in Vietnam: “Absolutely not!” (Or at least, that’s how Healey records it.)

In the second half of the book, Brown provides a four-fold typology of political leadership styles: redefining, transformational, revolutionary and totalitarian. For each, a comprehensive global history is provided, complete with biographical sketches of every important political leader in the last century. On almost every page Brown offers us a historical tidbit or anecdote. (I did not know, for instance, that Goebbels presented Hitler with a German translation of Thomas Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great.)

What he calls “redefining” leaders are those who change politics, and in particular by changing “people’s thinking on what is feasible and desirable”, he writes. They “redefine what is the political centre, rather than simply … placing themselves squarely within it”. Attlee and Thatcher were redefining leaders, Macmillan and Blair were not: “Blair accepted the new centre-ground of British politics that Thatcher and like-minded colleagues had helped to create.”

Paris_Charles_de_GaulleStatue of De Gaulle in Paris

A “transformational’ leader is one who changes their nation in some systematic way: Mandela in South Africa; Abraham Lincoln in the US; Gorbachev in the USSR; De Gaulle, founder of the Fifth Republic, in France. These are leaders who leave the economic or political system of their country altered. By definition, they are rare, especially in settled polities. Brown may set the bar a bit too high here. Perhaps LBJ, who brought black Americans into the national fold and laid the foundations for US postwar welfare could be seen as having transformed his nation; ditto Attlee, for the creation of the NHS. Brown concedes that Blair may have a small claim to be transformational as a result of his semi-accidental constitutional reforms. But the only contemporary British politician with the potential to be transformational is Alex Salmond, should he succeed in breaking Scotland off from the UK.

In his desire for more humility in political leaders, Brown longs for a world in which political parties carry more weight, relative to their leaders. In his view, leaders have no role in setting the goals of the party, merely in implementing them. “If political parties become moribund,” he warns, “so will democracy.” This seems utopian and oddly shortsighted. Strictly defined, tightly whipped political parties have often acted against the democratic grain, rather than with it. It is not clear that democracy lives or dies with the party system.

At points, I wasn’t sure if Brown was describing the world as it is, or as he wished it could be. It is quite likely that the UK is headed for more coalition government in the future, which requires precisely the kind of collegiate leadership Brown admires. But for such leaders to succeed electorally will require a broad shift in political and popular culture. The “strong leader” may be a myth, but it is a politically powerful one.

Growing Up With A Nation That Isn’t

July 2, 2014


Growing Up With A Nation That Isn’t

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa,Morgan-Hill, California

Ahmad Kamil Jaafar’s Growing Up With The Nation

Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013. 256 pp. RM135

The life of a diplomat, as the laity sees it, is one of glittering cocktails parties, spacious residences in leafy exclusive neighborhoods, and being pampered in MAS first-class cabins, all paid for by taxpayers.

Ahmad Kamil JaafarSo it was a surprise to read this opening line in Growing Up With The Nation, the memoir of Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, Malaysia’s former top diplomat, “The life of a diplomat and foreign policy maker can be pretty much routine and humdrum during the best of times.” Then as if to underscore this point, midway through the book, in the chapter “China – A Transformational Journey,” he writes, “Finding myself with ample free time I tried my hand at learning Chinese … and Chinese brush painting.”

This was the mid-1980s when China was undergoing, as per the chapter title, transformational changes under Deng Xiaoping. To be bored or have ample free time at such a period reflected more on the caliber of our diplomats generally rather than on Kamil Jaafar’s talent, ability, or diligence.

It was commendable for Kamil to learn Mandarin. It would have been even more impressive had he done it before being posted there. There was (and is) no lack of opportunities for learning that language in Malaysia. Granted, the Malaysian Chinese accent may be way off the Beijing variety, nonetheless the basics remain the same.

Kamil Jaafar is privileged to have been given the great opportunity and responsibility to guide the young nation. There are many others, but most are content to spend their retirement collecting lucrative GLC directorship fees and hitting golf balls. Malaysians owe Kamil a huge debt of gratitude for having taken time and effort to recollect his experiences so others could benefit.

Maximal Recollection, Minimal Reflection

Kamil’s memoir, competently written, spans a career of over three decades. He retired in 1996 as the top civil servant in the Foreign Ministry, and then continued on as Special Envoy. He covers vast expanse of water. However, as any scuba diver would tell you, the world underneath is even more rich, challenging and fascinating. Skimming the surface may get you far but at the price of missing this wonderful universe below. Stating it diplomatically, Kamil’s memoir has maximal recollection but at the expense of thoughtful reflection.

On the rare occasions when he does pause, Kamil is astute and penetrating, revealing much. Recalling a meeting between Prime Minister Mahathir and Chairman Deng, Kamil noted the large spittoon which Deng used only three times during the entire encounter. Kamil congratulated Mahathir, deeming the meeting a success, at least by that criterion. Deng may be a transformational leader of the biggest country, but in mannerisms he was just another coolie. Diplomatically spun, Deng remained faithful to his plebian origin.

During Abdullah Badawi’s tenure as Foreign Minister, Kamil felt like his ministry was under the Prime Minister’s Department. That reveals volumes as to Abdullah’s capability and contribution. Apparently Abdullah was satisfied if not reveled in being sidelined.

Abdullah was a special guest at the book’s launching. He obviously had not read the book, or if he did, missed that subtle but devastating jab. Or I could be over reading that passage.

In a post-publication interview Kamil related how tough he was with his subordinates. I wish he had been equally frank and tough on his political superiors. Did he see any parallel between Abdullah’s performance as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister? As for the other dozen or so foreign ministers Kamil served under, none merited more than just a few bland lines penned in passing. Most were skipped entirely. Perhaps that said it all.

Of all the Prime Ministers, only Mahathir did not serve concurrently as foreign minister. Yet Kamil devotes more ink to Mahathir at IDFRhim than to anyone else. His adoration for Mahathir is unbridled, and evident throughout the book. Yet when Kamil lamented on the poor English of our young diplomats and how that handicaps them professionally, he fails to make the connection. Mahathir is most responsible for this sorry state, first as Minister of Education and later as Prime Minister.

Mahathir appointed Kamil Secretary-General of the Foreign Ministry; I reckon that has much to do with this uncritical appraisal. As for that promotion, Kamil recalled his colleagues urging him to decline it, in deference to the incumbent who had been at it for only six months. That reveals the destructive culture of the civil service, this tunggu geleran (patiently waiting your turn), like landing planes at a busy airport. That, more than anything else, is responsible for the anti-meritocratic norms of the civil service. There is no such thing as “fast tracking.”

Kamil rationalized his acceptance thus:  “I dare not go against the Prime Minister’s decision.” I would have preferred had he asserted that he could do a better job. False modesty is hard to conceal while the genuine form is overrated. Besides, a senior civil servant should never fear of going against his political superior if that is the wise thing to do.

Kamil had a brief and less-than-laudatory paragraph on Prime Minister Hussein Onn, recalling a meeting involving a sensitive issue related to a neighboring country. Kamil and his counterparts in the Home Ministry including its Minister, Ghazali Shafie, had concocted a nefarious scheme the nature of which was not revealed. When they finished briefing Hussein, he became visibly angry and reprimanded them.

“What you are doing is a bottomless pit. You cannot do to others what you do not want others to do to you,” Kamil quoted Hussein, who ordered an immediate halt. Kamil did not describe his or Ghazali’s reaction to this dressing down.

Hussein was not known to be a decisive leader but on that occasion when he most needed to be, he was. That brief anecdote epitomized Hussein’s integrity and fair-mindedness. I remind readers that the odious phrase “cronyism, corruption and nepotism” entered the popular Malaysian lexicon only after Hussein left office. As an aside, he was not cited in the index, perhaps an honest slip.

John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy’s political-appointee Ambassador to India, wrote in his Ambassador’s Journal that Kennedy read his (Galbraith’s) dispatches because they were a joy. I assume that most diplomatic communications are not, consumed as they are with being detached and laced with bureaucratese as well as bewildering acronyms. They are also written so as not to offend anyone.

Kamil no longer needs to be deferential to his former superiors. He should have been critical of their performances. He should go beyond lamenting the current sorry state of Malaysia and analyze the “who, what, where, when, why and how.” Which leaders were most culpable for our nation not growing up? If luminaries like Kamil shy away from this crucial responsibility, then by default it would fall on the tin kosong jaguh kampong (empty tin-can village champions). And the nation would be the poorer for that.

Proposed Diplomat’s Assignment

Kamil recalled how as a young diplomat he was clueless as there was no one to guide him. Now having reached the pinnacle of his career, he put forth few ideas to guide his young successors, except for them to improve their English. That in itself reveals volumes on the state of our foreign service.

To fill this void, I share with our diplomats, young and old, this advice, the one my late father gave me before I left for Canada back in 1963. Observe the country and its people, he counseled me, be perceptive of and receptive to your new environment. Heed the wisdom of our culture, Alam terkembang di jadikan guru (Let the expanding universe be your teacher), echoing Wordsworth’s “Let nature be your teacher.”

In particular my father asked me to ponder this question:  Why was it that Canada was offering those generous scholarships to young Malaysians and not Malaysia to Canadians?

Tailoring it to our diplomats, I would advise them thus. Study one feature of your host country that is worthy of our emulation, or conversely, the one to avoid falling into. Our Third Secretary in Venezuela could learn how that country successfully used music to empower poor children and produce superb youth orchestras as well as many accomplished young conductors. Our High Commissioner to Nigeria would warn us of the fate that awaits Malaysia if it does not get a handle on corruption, while that to Pakistan, the dangers if religious extremists were to get the upper hand.

With that assignment tagged onto their regular duties our diplomats, novice and seasoned, would never again complain of their posting “being routine and humdrum,” or having “ample free time.” Thus occupied, they would not likely get themselves into mischief or otherwise embarrass the nation.

bakri-musaDr. M.Bakri Musa’s own memoir, Cast From The Herd. Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia, is due out in 2015. 

Calculated Risks: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’

June 25, 2014


Calculated Risks: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’

In 1969, the night before a Wellesley College senior named Hillary Rodham gave a commencement address that would draw national attention, she was introduced to Dean Acheson, the legendary former secretary of state who had come to campus for his granddaughter’s graduation. “I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say,” Acheson told Rodham. At the time, many in the country were looking forward to hearing what Acheson had to say. He had just put the finishing touches on “Present at the Creation,” his landmark memoir that would come out a few months after his encounter with the young Rodham, providing a seminal portrait of his role in helping Harry S. Truman forge a new national security architecture at the outset of the Cold War.

Forty-five years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton has delivered a memoir about her own time in the job Acheson once occupied. But “Hard Choices” is no “Present at the Creation.” Where Acheson offered a bracing, at times blunt, account of his four years as secretary of state — he eviscerated his wartime predecessor, Cordell Hull, and titled one chapter about Congress “The Attack of the Primitives Begins” — Clinton has opted for a safe and unchallenging volume, full of bromides and talking points.

To its credit, Clinton’s memoir is serious, sober and substantive. What it is not is revealing. Taking the reader along on her journey representing the United States as President Obama’s top diplomat, she provides a sophisticated analysis of many of the world’s most complicated hot spots, but no analysis of one of the world’s most complicated political figures. We learn about the progress of Botswana and the challenges facing the Democratic Republic of Congo, but we learn little about Hillary Clinton.

To compare “Hard Choices” with “Present at the Creation” may be unrealistic. Acheson was done with his career and wrote for history. Clinton is not and has not. Much as we may yearn for her to pull back the mask after more than two decades on the national stage, that’s hardly a practical expectation for someone with the Oval Office still on her to-do list. So perhaps it’s more fitting to compare her memoir not with the diplomatic histories of other secretaries of state but with the pre-campaign books of other would-be presidents. In that context, “Hard Choices” stands a cut above. It certainly demonstrates a greater mastery of the world than, say, “The Audacity of Hope,” by Barack Obama, or “A Charge to Keep,” by George W. Bush.

No fair-minded reader could finish this book and doubt Clinton’s essential command of the issues, whatever one might think of her solutions for them. She roams widely and delves into war and peace, terrorism and Russia, economic development and women’s rights. She knows the players and the history. If nothing else, she implicitly makes the case that if she were to occupy the Oval Office there would be no need for the kind of on-the-job training in foreign policy required by the last three presidents, including one she happens to know well.

Hers is a cold-eyed view of international affairs. “Our relationship with Pakistan was strictly transactional,” she writes, “based on mutual interest, not trust.” The administration’s demand that Israel stop building settlements “didn’t work.” And the desire to abandon autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was unwise: “Were we really ready to walk away from that relationship after 30 years of cooperation?”

In some ways, we do learn about one side of Clinton, the earnest wonk genuinely absorbed by the environmental and health implications of cookstoves in the developing world. When she devotes three pages to Mongolia, it’s because she finds each of the places she visits fascinating in its own way, as anyone who has traveled with her knows. Indeed, she devoted three pages to Mongolia in her last book, “Living History,” about her time as first lady. But she gives little sense of the other side of the Clinton story, of the politics and the ambition that drove her to the verge of the presidency. She discusses how her husband ordered missile strikes on Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998 without mentioning that it happened just after he admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky and she was making him sleep on the couch. She gives little sense of the darker corners of Hillaryland, as her aides took to calling her world — a world characterized at times by feuding courtiers who vie with opponents, reporters and one another.

Even when she flavors the narrative with a little revelation, the portions are stingy. She got into “a shouting match” with Leon Panetta, then the C.I.A. director, over a proposed drone strike, but doesn’t say which one, who prevailed or why she dissented. She supported the military operation in Libya over the objections of Vice President Biden and Robert Gates, then the defense secretary, but doesn’t take us into the Situation Room to hear the debate. Indeed, much to the relief of the White House, she stays resolutely away from the sort of candor that marked Gates’s own recent memoir. In his book, for instance, Gates reported that he and Clinton tried unsuccessfully to get rid of Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and Douglas Lute, the White House coordinator for Afghanistan. “I’ve had it,” he quoted her saying. Clinton makes no mention of that. When she discusses internal debates, her adversaries are often vaguely described as “some of the president’s advisers.” There’s no score-settling here.

While Gates entitled his memoir “Duty,” Clinton might have called hers “Dutiful.” Every box that needs checking has been filled. Latin America? Check. Benghazi? Check. The book demonstrates that in at least one way she’s ready to be president — it amounts to a 600-page State of the Union address, in which every constituency and every issue receives due mention.

Clinton traveled to 112 countries as secretary of state, more than any of her predecessors, and she seemshillary-clinton-hard-choices determined to cite each one of them. (The index lists 105, but missed some she mentions, like Belarus, Brunei and Nepal.) At times, “Hard Choices” feels like the book you might have gotten by picking up your iPhone and asking Siri to write a politically safe memoir. “All the set-piece speeches and procedural mumbo-jumbo can often be deadly boring,” she concedes at one point.

If “Living History” left readers wanting to know more about the author’s relationship with the 42nd president, this new book leaves us wanting to know more about her relationship with the 44th. Unlike Acheson, Clinton had the challenge of forging a partnership with the man who beat her for the presidential nomination and then asked her to serve in his cabinet. By all accounts, she did a remarkable job of overcoming that history, and yet she doesn’t tell us how she did it or dwell on whatever personal or political trade-offs must have been involved.

Barack Obama is a peripheral figure in “Hard Choices.” Meeting with him just after their nomination battle was “like two teenagers on an awkward first date,” she allows, without much elaboration. He “took me to the woodshed” over impolitic comments by her special envoy to Egypt after he left office, she writes, without letting us hear Obama’s voice. They disagreed at pivotal moments — on cutting Mubarak loose, on arming Syrian rebels — but she mentions them only gently.

Clinton’s overarching philosophy as secretary of state seems primarily to involve engagement and hard work, the idea that showing up is as important as any treaty or ideology. Perseverance matters. Sometimes this pays off, as with the pressure campaign that eventually forced Iran to slow its nuclear program, temporarily at least. At times, though, this approach seems maddeningly inconclusive, as when Clinton works two mobile phones in the back of a car to hold together a peace deal between Armenia and Turkey, only to have it fall apart again later. She finds solace in the hope that someday the groundwork she laid will yield the breakthroughs that eluded her.

Rather than putting in place a new foreign policy, as Acheson did, Clinton portrays her tenure as a transition period and herself as just one runner in a relay race, passing along the baton. Acheson won a Pulitzer Prize for his memoir. Clinton seems to have a bigger prize in mind.

Book Review: Hillary Clinton’s Book ‘Hard Choices’

June 9, 2014

Bakri Musa reviews Dr. Syed Hussin Ali’s Memoirs

June 9, 2014


Malaysian Leaders’ First World Education, Third World Mentality
Review of Syed Husin Ali’s Memoirs of a Political Struggle.
Dr. Syed Husin Ali:  Memoirs of a Political Struggle. Strategic Information and Research Development Center, Petaling Jaya, 2013. 273 pp.

Reviewed by Dr. M.Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

bakri-musaThe deserved universal condemnation and merciless ridicule of the Malaysian authorities’ bungling of the MH370 tragedy did not arise in a vacuum.

From leaders’ refusing to entertain questions at their press briefings to radar operators ignoring intruding beeps on their screens, this unconcealed contempt for the public, and the accompanying lackadaisical attitude, is the norm.

Our leaders may have had First World education, alas their mentality remains stubbornly stuck in Third World mode. Their bebalism and tidak apaism make the Jamaican “It’s not my job, mon!” a valid excuse by contrast.

To readers of on-line news portals, I am not stating anything new here; likewise to ordinary citizens who have had to deal with governmental agencies. However, when these general inadequacies and gross incompetence in their infinite manifestations are put in print as in books, there is satisfaction, at least to their authors, that they are being documented for posterity. So when Malaysia degenerates (as surely it would) into another Nigeria with its endemic corruption, or Pakistan with religious fanaticism, scholars would have ample materials upon which to base their analyses. Until then these accounts serve as a much-needed antidote to the fluff and gloss that typify Malaysian official reports.

We owe these authors, from ordinary citizens to seasoned journalists, and opposition activists to members of the establishment, a huge debt of gratitude when they record their experiences. Dr. Syed Hussin Ali’s reflective autobiography, Memoirs of a Political Struggle, is one such valuable addition, tracing the nation’s social and political development, beginning with the decade before independence. Despite the title, the book is an autobiography more than a memoir.

Once pedantic readers get past the pedestrian I-was-born opening, the scholar in Syed Hussin gives us an unsentimental and detached view. As a politician, he details the many hypocritical ways of his peers. He relates an occasion when he was on a panel discussion with one Dr. Mahathir at the University of Malaya campus. Mahathir then was not yet prime minister but headed that way through his rising popularity as head of UMNO Youth.

Mahathir chided those “impure” Malay political activists. “Those of Arab descent,” Dr. Syed Hussin quoted Mahathir, “should not have any right to talk about political issues of this country.” His understated nonchalant riposte was, “I do not wish to talk about ancestry for otherwise I will have to talk about the rights of those of Indian descent.”

My purpose with this quote is not to showcase Mahathir’s hypocrisy (readers can readily find their own far more consequential examples) or highlight Dr. Syed Hussin’s not-widely recognized wit, rather to point out one significant observation. That is, you will never find such a panel discussion on today’s Malaysian campuses where contrasting positions would be presented. That is one the many destructive legacies of Mahathir.

Dr. Syed Hussin is, quoting Anwar Ibrahim, “in a category of his own, unique in terms of moral conviction, and not in the business of saying things to please people.” A sociologist, he gave up his productive academic career to turun padang and get involved in electoral politics. He is less successful in this second endeavor. Nonetheless with the victory of his party’s coalition in the last general election, he was appointed as a Senator from Selangor. A well-deserved appointment!

Dr. Syed Hussin Ali had a First World education (London School of Economics PhD), but unlike many in the country similarly blessed, he maintained those First World qualities. As an academic he was not content resting on his sterling academic qualification. His pioneering work on social stratification in traditional Malay society remains widely quoted.

In an enlightened administration, especially one that professes to champion the plight of poor rural folks, a man of Dr. Syed Hussin’s insight and talent would be co-opted to play a major role. Alas, UMNO is far from being enlightened, and its commitment to alleviating rural poverty is more an election gimmick, and a scheme to enrich its operatives through the many “development” schemes. Thus funds meant for poor livestock growers are siphoned to buy luxury condos in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Three qualities struck me about Dr. Syed Hussin. One, his humility, integrity and piety; two, his early socio-political consciousness, beginning right at primary school; and three, his thoroughly Malaysian experience and outlook. His rural upbringing in Batu Pahat, Johore, has much to do with his humility; his religious parents, his piety; and, being a former King Scout, his integrity.

When Anwar underwent surgery in Germany, Syed Hussin visited him using his own funds. One of Anwar’s operatives tried to reimburse Syed by handing him a bundle of $100 US notes, but he would have none of it. Unable to stop the man, Syed gave the money to his party’s treasurer upon his return. On another occasion, when as a scholar he was given a UNESCO research grant, he returned to his Dean the unused portion. That’s integrity! Anyone else would finagle a way to present his paper at the University of Hawaii or Bali with those leftover funds.

Syed Hussin's Memoirs

Dr. Syed Hussin grew up in colonial Malaya. To today’s young accustomed to incompetence, cronyism, and influence peddling, that was an entirely different era. While he did not hide his nationalistic and anti-colonial streaks, nonetheless that did not stop the authorities from selecting him to attend a scouting jamboree in Australia.

The other aspect to Dr. Syed Hussin’s path is that his schooling, extracurricular activities and political activism all took place in an environment involving Malaysians of all races. That was why he was so offended by Mahathir’s remarks at that panel discussion. He embodies the values and aspirations of a truly modern Malaysian.

Dr. Syed Hussin’s leftwing leanings began early. In a society obsessed with labels, and where political sophistication was rudimentary, it was not wise to identify or be labeled as a socialist, especially when memories of the brutal communist insurgency were still fresh. Dispensing with labels, what is clear is that this LSE educated scholar-researcher is committed to social justice, economic equity, and equal opportunities. What he abhors is leaders betraying their followers’ trust. This betrayal comes in many guises – greed and its associated corruption, incompetence and its bebalism or tidak apaism, or just plain stupidity and ignorance.

I wonder what would be his fate had Dr. Syed Hussin dispensed with labels and joined UMNO like so many like-minded Malays. The Fabian socialists would surely approve of Tun Razak’s generous redistributionist policies and massive state interventions in the economy. After all there was a time when the term kaum kapitalis (capitalist hordes) was an epithet hurled by the likes of UMNO’s Syed Jaafar Albar and Syed Nasir Ismail. Today with the spoils of crony capitalism, socialism is a curse; likewise social justice.

Had Dr. Syed Hussin joined UMNO, would he be as corrupt as the rest or would he be like the snake that would not lose its venom despite crawling among vines, as per the Malay proverb? I believe he would the latter, and the nation would have been richer for his contributions.

I detect a tinge of regret as Syed Hussin recollects his struggles over these years. Being a former sociologist, he of course tried hard to conceal his own disappointments. There is however, no settling of old scores, not even with his old jailors. There is a touching picture of a smiling Syed greeting his old tormentor from the Special Branch. That’s class! Contrast that to the vile-filled memoirs of many recently-retired politicians.

Make no mistake. Dr. Syed Hussin is capable of penning moving prose and be passionate in his writings. I remember reading his Two Faces. Detention Without Trial, and slamming down the book in anger at the authorities’ brutal and inhumane treatment of this great intellect and patriotic Malaysian.

This was his poignant ending to the short opening paragraph in Two Faces:  “One minute I was a professor, the next I was a prisoner.” I suppose his fate could have been worse. Consider that for Egypt’s Morsi it would be, “One minute I was president; the next, a prisoner.”

A generation hence when dysfunctional countries like Egypt would be our peers, we can look back and realize that there were committed and courageous Malaysians like Syed Hussin who tried hard to stem the slime. And our descendents would glow in the reflected glory of his many heroic efforts.

Book Review: ‘Asia’s Cauldron,’ by Robert D. Kaplan

May 13, 2014

Sea Change

‘Asia’s Cauldron,’ by Robert D. Kaplan

by Ian Morris (04-17-14)

This is the latest in a series of insightful books, like “The Revenge of Geography” and “The Coming Anarchy,” in which Robert D. Kaplan, the chief geopolitical analyst at the global intelligence company Stratfor, tries to explain how geography determines destiny — and what we should be doing about it.

“Asia’s Cauldron” is a short book with a powerful thesis, and it stands out for its clarity and good sense from the great mass of Western writing on what Chinese politicians have taken to calling their “peaceful development.” If you are doing business in China, traveling in Southeast Asia or just obsessing about geopolitics, you will want to read it.

Asia's Cauldron2Kaplan starts out from some basic economics. More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage (including four-fifths of all the oil burned in China) passes through the South China Sea. This commerce, Kaplan says, has turned that waterway into “the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans — the mass of connective tissue where global sea routes coalesce,” investing its straits, shoals and islands with extraordinary strategic significance. At the heart of Kaplan’s book is a striking analogy that aims to explain what this will mean in the 21st century: “China’s position vis-à-vis the South China Sea,” he suggests, “is akin to America’s position vis-à-vis the Caribbean Sea in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

The parallel Kaplan draws is straightforward and convincing. Between 1898 and 1914, the United States defeated Spain and dug the Panama Canal. This allowed Americans to link and dominate the trade of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, transforming the meaning of geography.

“It was domination of the Greater Caribbean Basin,” Kaplan concludes, “that gave the United States effective control of the Western Hemisphere, which, in turn, allowed it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere.” In a rather similar way, he suggests, the South ­China Sea now links the trade of the Pacific and Indian Oceans; consequently, “were China to ever replace the U.S. Navy as the dominant power in the South China Sea — or even reach parity with it — this would open up geostrategic possibilities for China comparable to what America achieved upon its dominance of the Caribbean.” ­Because of this, the South China Sea is “on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world.”

Throughout the book, Kaplan tempers hard-nosed geopolitics with an engaging mix of history and travelogue (no reader is likely to forget his evocative comparisons of Hanoi and Saigon or his description of Borneo’s water villages) and also stresses the differences between the two cases as well as the similarities. Probably the biggest of these differences is that in the 1890s the revisionist power in the ­Caribbean — the United States — was militarily stronger than Spain, the status quo power, whereas in the 2010s the revisionist power in the South China Sea — China — is militarily weaker than America, the status quo power.

Kaplan is surely right to conclude from this that Beijing is unlikely to risk a military showdown involving Washington any time soon. Instead, he tells us — mixing historical analogies slightly — that China will “Finlandize” Southeast Asia. Confronted by the same kind of pressure that the Soviet Union applied to its Scandinavian neighbor during the Cold War, Southeast Asia’s governments “will maintain nominal independence but in the end abide by foreign policy rules set by Beijing.” Because Finlandization is so different from the way the United States threw Spain out of the Caribbean in 1898, the outcome will differ too. “But,” Kaplan concludes, “the age of simple American dominance, as it existed through all of the Cold War decades and immediately beyond, will likely have to pass. A more anxious, complicated world awaits us.”

These sentences might tempt readers to lump Kaplan into the company of “declinists,” writers who rejoice in announcing the imminent fall of the American Empire, but that would be too simple. ­Kaplan is in fact a leading proponent of the theory of international relations known as realism, which traces its ancestry back nearly 2,500 years to Thucydides. Kaplan is explicit about his intellectual debt to this tough-minded ancient Greek and, like him, glories in stripping away fondly held illusions to reveal the harsh reality of governments nakedly pursuing their own self-interest without concern for values, beliefs or ideology.

It is realism that keeps Kaplan’s book so refreshingly free of the breathless “oh my God it’s worse than you think” prose style that mars so much Western writing on the rise of China. In its place, however, realism encourages a Thucydidean detachment that some readers will find even more alarming. But that, Kaplan says, is the way it has to be, because the struggle over the South China Sea is going to be detached and unemotional. America’s struggle with the Soviet Union raised great moral issues and fired the passions of all involved; but it has proved hard to invest the South China Sea with the same philosophical freight as the Berlin Wall, despite the best efforts of some. (While writing a column for a newspaper — not this one — a few months ago, I was firmly informed that the editor wanted “less history, more scary stuff about China.”) “The fact is,” Kaplan observes, “East Asia is all about trade and business.”

The heroes in Kaplan’s story are hard, pragmatic men who recognize this, men like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (“head and shoulders above most other leaders worldwide in the 20th century”) and China’s Deng Xiaoping (“one of the great men of the 20th century”). Realists to their core, both regularly turned on a dime, ditching what had once seemed to be deeply held convictions. Neither had much time for democracy; nor, it seems, does Kaplan. Admitting that such thoughts are “heretical to an enlightened Western mind,” he writes that “if you left the South China Sea issue to the experts and to the elites in the region, the various disputes would have a better chance of being solved than if you involved large populations in a democratic process, compromised as they are by their emotions.”

The solutions that would be reached, though, might not be the ones that most people around the South China Sea would want. In the course of his travels, Kaplan found the spirit of Lee and Deng much in evidence. One realist after another told him that they did not wish to be Finlandized or to replace America’s embrace with China’s; but realism teaches us that history is driven more by necessities than desires. “At the end of the day,” one Singaporean said, “it is all about military force and naval presence — it is not about passionate and well-meaning talk.” Since 2011, there has been much passionate American talk of a pivot toward Asia; but Vietnamese officials, realists to a man, respond by quoting a proverb — “A distant water can’t put out a nearby fire.”Poor Southeast Asia. So far from God, so close to China.

Correction: May 11, 2014

A review on April 20 about “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific,” by Robert D. Kaplan, referred incorrectly to “Finlandization,” a concept the author applies by analogy to China’s relations with its neighbors. The term describes the Soviet Union’s influence on Finland during the Cold War, not Russia’s pressure on the country during the czarist period.


NY Times Sunday Book Review:Cradle of Civil Disobedience

May 10, 2014

Sunday Book Review

Cradle of Civil Disobedience

Gandhi Before India,’ by Ramachandra Guha

At the end of the 19th century, Mohandas Gandhi was a young lawyer living in Durban, South Africa. He left his house in Beach Grove every morning for an office on Mercury Lane, where he spent much of the day helping his fellow Indian immigrants navigate the onerous colonial bureaucracy. He kept meticulous records, including a logbook of correspondence — from an English missionary and local planters, and a series of letters exchanged with the Protector of Indian Immigrants about the treatment of indentured laborers. In January of 1897, and again a few months later, he heard from another lawyer who was, like him, a Gujarati who had studied in England and then struggled to establish a practice in Bombay. The contents of these letters are unknown.

R GuhaIn a remarkable new biography, “Gandhi Before India,” Ramachandra Guha (left) gingerly speculates about what they might have been. Expressions of support for Gandhi’s nascent activism? Or perhaps “explorations of interest in a possible career in South Africa”? Guha wisely stops there.

What is not in doubt is the name in Gandhi’s logbook — “M. A. Jinnah,” Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would become the founder of Pakistan. “All we now know is that, a full 50 years before partition and the independence of India and Pakistan, the respective ‘Fathers’ of those nations were in correspondence.”

Guha’s description of this encounter is evidence of his strengths as a historian. He mines primary sources — in this case, records of Gandhi’s law practice from the archives in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, and the logbook dug out of a filing cupboard in the Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad, India — to establish that Gandhi and Jinnah were in contact a decade earlier than previously documented. And he writes vividly enough to compete with that bête noire of all Gandhi biographies, Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi.” (In the movie, they meet at a garden party in India, where a skeptical Jinnah adjusts his monocle while the turbaned Mahatma smiles beatifically.) Guha reminds us of everything these two legendary opposites had in common — language, education and the desperate striving of the ambitious immigrant. “Gandhi Before India” is full of such revelations, each one a delight for the reader.

Early on, Guha spells out how his technique differs from those of previous biographers: He uses the records of contemporaries to complement and sometimes challenge Gandhi’s own account. Gandhi was prolific — the first 12 volumes of his collected works run to 5,000 pages — but, Guha explains, “This reliance on Gandhi’s words can often narrow the historical landscape against which his life and work were enacted.”

This approach helps illuminate Gandhi’s time in South Africa. (As the title indicates, “Gandhi Before India” ends with his final departure, in 1914. A planned second volume will pick up the thread in India.) What Gandhi achieved legally for Indians in South Africa was modest, but by filling out the narrative with Gandhi’s colleagues and rivals, Guha makes a persuasive case that this period is just as significant politically as the years in India. Through the mutual wariness of Gandhi and John Dube, his neighbor and a pioneer of the South African freedom struggle, Guha sketches the marginal, often conflicted role of Indians in African nationalist movements.

The frustrations of South Africa’s Gujarati Muslim merchants, Gandhi’s main political patrons, prefigure the mistrust that would later split apart the movement in India. Guha also uses the nervous functionaries of the Raj to show why Gandhi’s agitation in South Africa was so threatening to the larger colonial project — it forced authorities to acknowledge that under its veneer of liberal paternalism, the British Empire was built on racism. “Every patriotic South African looks forward to the establishment of a large and vigorous European population here,” the governor of Transvaal, Lord Selborne, wrote. “The immigration of an Asiatic population on a large scale he regards as a menace to the realization of this ideal.”

Most of the revelations in this book are political, not personal. Readers looking for salacious details about Gandhi’s sexual life will be disappointed. Guha does not venture far into that territory, except to recount the tale of Maud Polak, sister of Gandhi’s old friend Henry Polak, whose apparent infatuation with Gandhi led her to chase him from England to South Africa. “She cannot tear herself away from me,” Gandhi wrote in one letter to Henry. Guha is more interested in giving the well-known contours of Gandhi’s life a new gloss. He shows, for example, how Gandhi’s sexual abstinence and vegetarianism were informed by a long engagement with Christian nonconformism.

These ideas are thoroughly explored elsewhere, but Guha’s moving portrait of Gandhi as an immigrant is new. “Mohandas Gandhi had been a journeyman between continents,” he writes. “Born and raised in Kathiawar, he had braved convention and community to study in England. . . . Having tried, and failed, to establish himself in Rajkot and Bombay, on his third try Gandhi became a successful lawyer in Durban.”

Gandhi by Guha

Gandhi was part of a wave of Indian immigrants who left the subcontinent in the late 19th century to find work in other parts of the Empire, from Fiji to Mauritius to Trinidad. His struggles were their struggles: estrangement from his wife, Kasturba, and their sons; financial worries (at one point he considers abandoning law to study medicine); and a lifelong sense of indebtedness toward his brothers, who pawned the family jewelry to pay for his education.

Guha populates Gandhi’s world with a Bloomsbury’s worth of fascinating characters. In India, we meet the dissolute Sheikh Mehtab, a childhood friend who is shunned after arranging a disastrous visit for the young Gandhi to a brothel but later becomes a bard of the Indian struggle. In Durban, Leung Quinn enters the scene as a steadfast leader of the South African Chinese, traveling to India to preach the gospel of Asian solidarity. And hovering in the background is Sonja Schlesin, Gandhi’s secretary, who cut her hair and began wearing a shirt and tie as part of her bid to become the first woman in South Africa to qualify for the bar. Rejected, she visited jailed passive resisters, rushing “about on her bicycle from prison to prison, carrying food and messages.”

These small details give the book a cinematic richness. After his family moved to Johannesburg, Guha writes, Gandhi “rose early, helped his wife grind flour for the day’s meals, then walked the five miles to his office in Rissik Street, carrying a packed lunch of wholemeal bread with peanut butter and a selection of seasonal fruits.” When Kasturba is released from a difficult jail term, Henry Polak describes the scene via telegram: “Reduced skeleton tottering appearance old woman heart breaking sight.”

Guha falters, though, in explaining why it all matters. He tends to summarize rather than analyze. “There were, circa 1906, six separate strands in the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi,” he writes near the end of one chapter. And in a work of this depth, it seems glib to mention that “a prominent Chinese blogger has a portrait of Gandhi on his profile” as evidence of Gandhi’s relevance to China’s pro-­democracy movement.

Why does Gandhi matter now? Perhaps the fullness of his life is evidence enough. Guha introduces us to a stressed-out parent, a self-­righteous advocate for raw food and a risk-­taking newspaper editor (he coined the word “satyagraha” with a reader contest — an early experiment in user-­generated content). Above all, he was a skillful politician who allowed his adversaries to sharpen his thinking. Fittingly, Guha leaves the last word on Gandhi in South Africa to his nemesis, Gen. Jan Christian Smuts: “The saint has left our shores — I sincerely hope forever.” Jinnah, presumably, reappears in the sequel.

Book Review: Masters of the Universe

May 4, 2014


Masters of the Universe : Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics

Click here to read “Response to ‘What Was Neoliberalism?’ A Debate Between Joshua Clover / Jasper Bernes and Michael W. Clune.”

What Was Neoliberalism?

by Michael W. Clune

Masters of the Universe

HOW DID IT HAPPEN? In the early 1970s, Western governments, academia, and the media understood the relationship between the state and the market according to the same liberal consensus that had been in place since the end of World War II.

During what is commonly called the “golden age of capitalism,” government, capital, and labor had reached the uneasy agreement that markets produced social ruin when left to their own devices. The state was needed to mitigate inequality, to provide basic services, and — through a combination of monetary and fiscal means — to even out capitalism’s boom-bust cycle. By the early 1980s, all that had changed: the British and American governments, joined by large segments of the media and intelligentsia, declared that the state was the root of social evil, that free markets could do nearly everything better than government, and that the economic crises of the past were the result of state meddling.

This view is often called “neoliberalism,” a term first used by interwar continental and British economists and philosophers to describe an economic doctrine that favors privatization, deregulation, and unfettered free markets over public institutions and government. These philosophers saw themselves as championing the values of classical liberalism in a mid-20th century world threatened by unchecked state power — a threat vividly embodied in the totalitarian societies of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Writers like Ludwig von Mises and Karl Popper saw hope in the liberalism of J.S. Mill and Adam Smith. They shared the earlier philosophers’ skepticism about the capacity of human reason to design functional and ethical social orders, and were committed to processes of “liberated” or open exchange to create knowledge and distribute wealth.

The meaning of the prefix has aroused a great deal of debate. For thinkers on the left, “neo” signals a liberalism shorn of many of the features that made classical liberalism plausible and effective. Recent scholarship on Adam Smith, for example, has emphasized the extent to which neoliberal thinkers such as F. A. Hayek focus on Smith’s celebration of self-organizing markets in The Wealth of Nations while neglecting Smith’s argument, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, for the importance of non-market values in sustaining social orders. Indeed, the neoliberal embrace of the prospect of a social world almost wholly organized by market relations strongly distinguishes this thought from the classical liberal tradition, which fostered a capitalism embedded in the institutions of civil society, the norms of civilized communication, and state regulation of the economy.

There are two popular accounts of how this philosophy of free markets and minimal government came to determine the economic policies of the US and UK. For the right, including the heirs and acolytes of Milton Friedman, the failures of both state socialism and the Keynesian welfare state made the political triumph of neoliberal ideas inevitable. For the left, including figures like the Marxist geographer David Harvey and the activist-journalist Naomi Klein, neoliberal policies were the expression of the interests of capital, which systematically infiltrated government in order to reverse postwar regulations.

In Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, the economic historian Daniel Stedman Jones persuasively argues that both these popular accounts are wrong. That neoliberalism won out was due neither to the failures of the welfare state nor to a “master plan” pushed by the agents of capital. The story Stedman Jones tells is considerably more nuanced. He shows neoliberalism’s ascendance to be the result of a series of more or less ad hoc moves on the part of politicians, activists, media figures, and economists in response to a series of political and economic shocks that began in the 1970s. The image of a dramatic face-off between neoliberals and proponents of the postwar center-left consensus is largely an artifact of retrospective right-wing propaganda, which the left seems to have accepted in its essential features.


The main lines of Stedman Jones’s narrative are as follows: The appearance of stagflation in the 1970s, and the perceived inability of conventional economic wisdom to account for or mitigate it, made left governments in the US and UK receptive to certain technical policy adjustments, collectively known as “monetarism,” to combat inflation. Monetarists believe that control over the money supply should be the chief means that governments use to moderate the fluctuations of a national economy, as opposed to the view (derived from John Maynard Keynes) that both monetary and fiscal intervention could (and should) be used to tame the business cycle. The intellectual sponsors of these monetarist policies, Milton Friedman and his acolytes at the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the University of Chicago economics department, also tended to believe in the power of free markets to organize society more efficiently than the state. But if both Jimmy Carter’s Democratic and James Callaghan’s Labor administrations accepted the monetarist policies, and began to implement them, they rejected the free market philosophy.

The application of these monetarist policies tamed inflation, but not before deepening the recession and contributing to the ouster of the Democrats and Labour. The conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan that succeeded them claimed that neoliberal free market thinking had rescued America and Britain, and that these ideas should be systematically implemented to solve a range of economic and social questions going forward. This narrative, that neoliberalism emerged victorious from Keynesianism’s inability to deal with stagflation, won widespread acceptance.

Pushing against this dominant account, Stedman Jones disassembles the monolithic neoliberalism of left and right myth into several conceptually and historically separate elements, which he shows came together in a “lucky” way at a particular moment in history. These elements are:

A) A network of intellectuals joined by belief in the power of free markets, initially centered on F. A. Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society, later exerted force through conservative and libertarian think tanks and economics departments in Chicago and Virginia.

B) Milton Friedman’s development of monetarism into a viable economic policy rival to the reigning Keynesian approach.

C) The economic crises of the 1970s, ranging from the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement, to the OPEC oil shocks, culminating in runaway inflation and high unemployment.

Stedman Jones quotes Friedman’s statement that “the role of thinkers […] is primarily to keep options open, to have available alternatives, so when the brute force of events make a change inevitable, there is an alternative available.” When the worst postwar economic crisis discredited Keynesian orthodoxy, Friedman was ready with an attractive technical solution. In turn, a transatlantic network of intellectuals and journalists — figures like Ed Fuelner of the Heritage Foundation, Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times, and Peter Jay of the BBC — was ready to cast the distinction between these policies, not only in technical terms, but also as an epochal choice between the welfare state and the free market.

Rather than emerging from any sort of “master plan,” it was, in fact, a series of local choices — in the face of unyielding inflation, the Carter administration’s appointment of Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board in 1979, or the reluctant decision of Hayekian free marketeers to make uneasy peace with social conservatives — that led to the neoliberal breakthrough.

Stedman Jones traces the rise of neoliberalism to the decision of left-leaning governments to adopt monetarist policies. His description of this decision is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of his account. To understand how his argument challenges what we think we know of neoliberalism, we need to take a step back, and take a closer look.

Discussions of neoliberalism, on both the left and the right, suffer from what Paul Krugman and others have called “zombie” ideas. These are economic concepts that have been long discredited, but continue to shamble on. On the right, a central zombie idea is that reduced state regulation of markets leads to sustainable economic growth. If you believe this, then the rise of neoliberalism is a no-brainer. Neoliberalism is simply the economic philosophy that works. But why should anyone believe this? The idea that unleashing free markets then leads to good economic times should never have survived the Great Depression, and should surely be killed for good by the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Meanwhile, a new generation of leftist economists has discovered that their progressive brethren suffer from a zombie idea of their own. Mike Beggs, for example, has recently argued that the Marxist economics many on the left continue to find attractive has a fatal flaw. Marx believed in the labor theory of value, the idea that a commodity’s value is equal to the labor that goes into it. Generations of Marxist thinkers have built on this foundation to form a picture of the way the world’s economy works. Thinkers like David Harvey have used this theory to create a sophisticated explanation of neoliberalism as the natural response of capital to changing conditions. If you subscribe to Harvey’s Marxist theory, then the rise of neoliberalism is, again, a no-brainer. But as Beggs points out, the concept underlying theories like Harvey’s was decisively disproved over a century ago, and no one has ever come up with a persuasive defense.

Once we see that the no-brainer explanations of neoliberalism are in fact zombies, then the question becomes truly interesting. How did the governments of the Western world come to embrace this radical free market philosophy? Stedman Jones answer is: they didn’t. What they did accept was monetarism. Monetarism — the idea that one can smooth out economic cycles by controlling the money supply — was invented by Milton Friedman, a neoliberal. And virtually everyone on both the left and the right associates monetarism with the neoliberal commitment to free markets. But, as Stedman Jones argues, these are two very different things, and history turns on this difference.

Monetarism is a government policy for manipulating the economy. The free market is the vision of an economy liberated from government control. Understanding how a rather technical policy approach came to be identified with the love of free markets opens an entirely new approach to the fundamental economic and political transformation of our time. And understanding how this identification came to be resisted allows us to understand the longevity of the biggest zombie of all: the tendency to blame government for everything that’s wrong with the economy.

The story of monetarism begins with the way in which Keynesian orthodoxy came to dominate economic policy in the English-speaking democracies. The basic logic of this orthodoxy is familiar. The Great Depression spectacularly illuminated capitalism’s tendency to periodically implode, but the problem was not just that the cyclical busts seemed to be getting worse and that the resulting unemployment threatened social stability. Keynes argued that even the eventual recoveries could not be relied on to productively employ the population. He saw a basic gap between social goals and the outcomes produced by markets. Government, however, could overcome this gap. Through loose monetary policy and spending by the state, we could counter the cyclical waning of demand, restoring full employment. Then, when the economy threatened to overheat, we could raise taxes and tighten the money supply to control inflation.

Vast wartime spending reversed America’s unemployment problem and fueled the prestige of the Keynesian approach. A Keynesian “technocratic elite” rose to control the levers of fiscal and monetary policy, hoping to ensure the country would never again suffer a devastating depression. This Keynesian faith in the power of government to solve social problems meshed with broader liberal goals — to invest in the nation’s infrastructure, to create a health care safety net, to defeat poverty — that were pursued by successive Democratic and Republican administrations. And while virulent racists and anticommunists increasingly protested these social programs, when it came to economic policy, as Nixon famously said, everyone was a Keynesian.

But the economic technocrats had an Achilles’ heel. Stedman Jones points out that although Keynes doubted that managing supply and demand could ever become an exact science, his heirs came to believe that advances in statistics gave them access to fine-grained, timely economic data, which they could use to strike the sweet spot of low unemployment and low inflation. However, events were soon to prove their confidence hubristic.

Milton Friedman, meanwhile, had been developing an alternative mode of government control over markets, one with “much more modest goals,” and animated by skepticism about the ability of any centralized administration to gather accurate and up-to-date information about a complex modern economy. He dismissed the Keynesian technocrats’ idea that one could achieve low inflation and full employment, arguing that the application of inevitably crude fiscal tools to lift employment would always tend to increase inflation. It was far better, he thought, to restrict central economic policy to what it could do well: control inflation by controlling the supply of money.

The coming of stagflation, and the seeming incapacity of economic orthodoxy to deal with it, discredited the Keynesians and lifted the monetarists. Economic policy didn’t seem to be working, and as the 1970s progressed, the pressure to make a change became irresistible. Monetarists ascended to key policy positions, but this ascent did not mark the capitulation of center-left governing practices to the neoliberal faith in free markets, as right-wingers like to claim. The idea that accepting monetarism meant accepting free markets is the result of a retrospective “conflation of monetarism with a theoretically separate set of arguments about the supposed superiority of markets over government intervention in the economy.”

At first glance, this seems a strange claim, given both Friedman’s status as a prime exponent of free-market thinking, and the fact that — compared with Keynesianism — monetarism represents a relatively restricted mode of government economic intervention. Isn’t opting for monetarism simply a form of opting for greater freedom for markets?

But in fact, as Stedman Jones argues, monetarism is not the same as the neoliberal faith in markets. Monetarism is not — nor did it appear to policy makers in the 1970s to be — a laissez-faire program. Rather, it is a program for government control of economic volatility. Given stagflation, the choice between monetarism and Keynesianism looked less like an ideological choice and more like a choice between two techniques of state intervention.

The fact that people, at the time, could clearly perceive a distinction between monetarist policy and neoliberal philosophy is illustrated in Hayek’s extreme reaction to Friedman’s plan. Hayek advocated the abolition of legal tender, and the spontaneous, market-driven creation of private currencies. From the other direction, Democratic and Labour governments with little interest in freeing markets from government could adopt monetarist policy solutions without believing they were admitting the bankruptcy of the welfare state. The latter interpretation was strictly rear-view, Stedman Jones claims. And had events like the Iran hostage crisis not intervened, he argues, the story of liberal capitulation and failure might never have served to justify the implementation of genuinely neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 1990s.


Stedman Jones’s careful history offers us a genuinely new account of the rise of neoliberalism by demonstrating that the link between monetarism and free markets was not obvious — it was forged in the fires of conservative ideology. But a flaw in his historical analysis prevents him from drawing the full implications of this fact. This flaw becomes visible in his conclusion, when he dismisses the desire for the free market as a delusion and calls for a return to “sanity” in economic policy. His plea finds many echoes in today’s center-left observers of our political scene. But while Stedman Jones judges the enthusiasm for free markets as essentially inexplicable, a boundless faith in free market logic keeps welling up in the story he tells, thus undercutting his effort to present the rise of neoliberalism as the result of rational decisions.

One can, of course, easily sympathize with his assessment of the desire for a free market. This enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have an obvious source. Every historical event — from the advent of the Great Depression under laissez-faire policies, to the advent of the Golden Age of Capitalism under Keynesian statism, to the financial panic of 2008 under deregulation — seems to undercut it. Still, he acknowledges that the conservative success in framing the economic story of the late 1970s and early 1980s as the triumph of markets over states, for example, drew upon a broad and deep existing enthusiasm for free markets in the population. Stedman Jones never accounts for why.

Even more troubling, the love of free markets won’t stay in the right political box. In his chapter on neoliberal housing policy, for example, he initially contrasts the conservative, proto-neoliberal emphasis on single-family suburban home ownership with the leftist urban vision of Jane Jacobs. But he soon suggests that the idea of curing urban ills with free market “enterprise zones” was inspired by the pro-commerce, anti-planning vision of… Jane Jacobs. One comes away from Masters of the Universe with the unsettling impression that many of the players in his story — on both sides of the political spectrum — are somehow predisposed to enthusiasm about the prospect of free markets. This doesn’t exactly undercut his narrative of neoliberalism’s political triumph, but it does alter our sense of the social and cultural context of this triumph in ways the book only fleetingly acknowledges.

Stedman Jones shows us the gap between the monetarist manipulation of the economy and the commitment to free markets. One might argue that this gap is more widely intuited today than Stedman Jones recognizes. Moreover, skepticism about the proposition that monetarism is a “free market” solution to economic crisis applies to other neoliberal policies that are said to promote free exchange. Many on the left, and the right, saw that what was being marketed as free market policy by Reagan and Thatcher was, in fact, an insidious form of government manipulation. Much of the political resistance of the past three decades has focused on distance between a social world, organized by genuinely free exchange, and the forms of government control identified with free markets by successive neoliberal administrations. The sense of this distance enables people on both the far right and the far left to claim, with justice, that the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions were founded on lies, that neoliberalism’s ascent witnessed not the retreat of government, but its insidious extension. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s attempt to claim the slogan “down with big government” for the left, and the “end the fed” signs that appeared at both Occupy and Tea Party rallies, are symptoms of a pervasive belief that free exchange has yet to triumph over the state.

Clearly, a work of political history like Stedman Jones’s does not — nor should it — pretend to delineate the shape of popular free market utopias, to analyze why the idea of free markets is so widely appealing, or to trace the routes of its cultural dissemination. Yet he leaves us with too many unanswered questions to justify his concluding dismissal of it as insanity.

We may very well conclude not that free market ideology has coopted the left, but that resistance to actually existing capitalism now takes a form inassimilable to the political positions of the early postwar period. Perhaps Jane Jacobs is different from Milton Friedman after all. Perhaps there are two visions of the free market, left and right, and we will one day look back on the postwar period as the emergence of a new form of ideological struggle. For now, the scale of the problem is visible only in the distortions it causes in so sober a history as this one.


P.S. I am reading Stedman Jones’ book at this time. I thought I should share Clune’s review with you. The exploration of neo-liberalism makes interesting read.–Din Merican


NYTimes Sunday Book Review: ‘John Quincy Adams,’ by Fred Kaplan

May 3, 2014

Sunday Book Review

A Principled Warrior

‘John Quincy Adams,’ by Fred Kaplan

Book Review on South China Sea

February 12, 2014

Book Review on South China Sea

Jacket image for Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea – Chandos Publishing

Wu Shicun, Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea: A Chinese perspective [Hardcover], 1st Edition, Chandos Asian Studies Series, Chandos Publishing,Oxford,2013,ISBN 978-1-84334-685-2.

Reviewed by BA Hamzah.

Writing a book on the complex subject of the South China Sea is a challenge. A bigger challenge is to attempt to address all the issues, which border geo-politics, law, economics and history under two hundred pages.

However, to his credit, the author has succeeded to present China’s official views of the disputes over the overlapping maritime claims in the South China. Where he fails to provide a balanced view on contemporary issues, he makes it up by a thorough treatment of the historical events that led to the present conflict, albeit from the Chinese perspective.

For the non –mandarin speaking researchers, getting an official Chinese position on the conflict in the South China Sea is always a guessing work. Dr Wu Shicun’s book fills in the much-needed void.

The title of the book is a bit misleading. The book focuses on the overlapping claims in the Spratly although the title says, “Resolving Disputes for Regional co-operation and Development in the South China Sea.” While no one should judge the book by its cover, the message is clear: that China wishes to resolve the overlapping claims via some forms of regional cooperation. There is a slight change in the nuances. In the past, China was rather reluctant to enter into any kind of Joint Development Projects. Recent events seem to suggest a policy change, a new appetite to reduce tensions in the Spratlys.

By training, the author is an historian. He has contributed significantly to the body of knowledge on the South China Sea. His current position as President of the National Institute of South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) gives him a rare insight into the thinking of policy planners at Beijing. The author’s special relationship with policy makers at Beijing makes this book a valuable contribution to the literature on China’s official position on the South China Sea.

Like all books, it is impossible to do justice to the subject matter, especially when the writer wishes to fill a wide canvass as he has attempted. In covering too wide a ground, the author inevitably misses some important details. For example, he gives only a glimpse examination on the Philippines’ decision in January 2013 to refer China to the United Nations Arbitration Tribunal.

Although China has refused to participate in the Arbitration process, the author should have, in my view, examined in some details the law and facts of the case from China’s vantage. A sneak preview of how China will deal with the issue should the Tribunal find the case, in absentia, against China. Leaving the matter hanging would invite all kinds of innuendoes.

The author has defended China’s “indisputable sovereignty over the entire South China Sea”. He claims that China’s position results from discovery, presence and history. In his view, China has demonstrated historic right over the South China Sea. He forgets to remind readers that in customary international law, mere discovery of a territory, gives the discoverer only an “inchoate title”. That is to say, it has only a temporary right to make an effective occupation. If, within a reasonable time, the area is not occupied, it is subject to appropriation.

The author has asserted that China has “exercised successive administration” (p50) over the features in the South China Sea since the Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD). While the assertion could be historically correct, modern international law puts greater weight on an interrupted, peaceful and continuous display of state authority to satisfy the legal requirement of effective jurisdiction.

China has not been able to demonstrate that it has exercised continuous and effective display of state authority on all the features it claims in the South China Sea. For example, Great Britain and France occupied some major features in the South China Sea, when China was weak. Japan occupied the major features in the Spratlys during WW 11 including the Paracels, Pratas and Itu Aba.

The author has ignored another occupation. In 1878, for example, Great Britain occupied Amboyna Cay (presently occupied by Vietnam and claimed by Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines). The British gave permission to the Central Borneo Company Limited to extract phosphates (guano) and to fly the Union Jack on the island.

Intriguingly, the author acknowledges that between the 1930s and 1950s the ownership of the features in the South China Sea were claimed by “France, Japan and occasionally by a private Filipino (p 4). However, he fails to impute any legal result that accrues from such occupation. By dismissing these claims, the author is at odd with state practice with respect to the means of acquiring of territories under modern international law.

The book deals at great length with China’s controversial nine-dash line map. The author refers to this map as the “U-shaped line”. The Nationalist Government of China (under General Chiang Kai- shek), first published the nine-dash line map (originally eleven dash-lines) in 1947. This controversial map was given a semi-official status in May 2009, when it was appended to China’s Note Verbale to the United Nations Secretary General. The Note Verbale was China’s diplomatic response to a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam on their extended continental shelf to the UN Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) in May 2009.

The author cited four different interpretations of the controversial “U -shaped line”. In his view, Judge Gao Zhiguo’s explanation of the line as being “synonymous with a claim of sovereignty over the island groups…” including claim to historical right of fishing, navigation, and other marine activities is more acceptable to the “international audience”. The author warns that the debate over the U-Shaped line will continue, “If China remains silent and keeps its claim ambiguous.”

China policy makers should heed this advice.

The map that shows “the U-shaped line” is one of many maps that China could use to defend its title, according to the author. The author has also cited many ancient Chinese maps that incorporated the South China Sea as China’s territory. The legal status of these ancient maps under temporal international law is questionable and uncertain at best. While official maps often play pivotal role in international boundary disputes, the international courts have tended in the past to give little evidentiary value to ancient maps, especially those bereft of coordinates. For example, in the Burkina Faso/Republic of Mali Case (ICJ Reports, 1986) the Court finds that “the IGN map is not an official document” and the Court observes that, in general, “whether in frontier limitations or in international territorial conflicts, maps merely constitute information which varies in accuracy from case to case.” (italics added).

The author argues that the ambiguity of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) has led to different interpretations of its provisions. This ambiguity has made it difficult to put the conflicting territorial claims in its proper perspective. According to the author, the failure of UNCLOS to give recognition to the concepts of “historic rights” and “historic waters” under international law has not done justice to China’s claim.

The author also discusses in some details the bases of claims by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei to the features in the Spratly. Dismissing all these claims as illegal, the author offers joint development as a way out. In his view, for the JDA to take off, it has to be premised  on four principles:[1]

·     The ocean should be used only for peaceful purposes;

·    Incremental approach. Regional cooperation should commence with the less sensitive topics like marine environmental protection;

·    All inclusive approach. The projects must benefit all the stakeholders;

·Preservation of marine environment. The author has suggested that the exploitation of living and non-living resources in the South China Sea should not damage the marine environment.

Based on the above principles, the author has outlined the general areas for co- operation. They include:

·         Joint development for oil and gas. He cited the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) case (2004-2008) between the National Oil Companies of China, the Philippines and (later) Vietnam.

·         Joint management and conservation of fishery resources. He cited the China -Vietnam Agreement on Fishery Cooperation in the Biebu Gulf (2004) as an example.

·         Navigational Safety and Search and Rescue activities;

·         Combating international maritime crimes, and

·         Marine scientific research and marine environmental protection.

Interestingly, throughout the book, the author makes no mention of the claim by Taiwan. Although Taiwan claims the same area, as China’s and the bases of claims are similar, it deserves a fair treatment. After all, it has effectively occupied two large features in the South China Sea-the Pratas and Itu Aba.

The author’s discussion on Malaysia’s claim requires updating. Malaysia has relied on the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf to claim certain features in the Spratlys (known as Gugusan Terumbu Semarang since 2006). The area and the features claimed by Malaysia are contained in the 1979 Map on the Continental Shelf of Malaysia.

In 1978, Malaysia sent a team of officers from the National Mapping Directorate, the Royal Malaysian Navy and Army Engineers from the Line of Communication Unit to survey the area. The team found no trace of occupation of the features, except on Amboyna Cay. There, the team found a concrete structure with Vietnamese markings. However, at the material time, there were no Vietnamese soldiers or civilians on the island.

Soon after the Malaysian survey team returned to their home base, the Vietnamese troops went back to reclaim Amboyna Cay. Similarly, the Philippines, which also claim Amboyna Cay (Pulau Kechil Amboyna), made hasty return to Commodore Reef (Terumbu Laksamana) soon after the Malaysian survey team left the Reef in 1978. The Philippines still maintains a military outpost on Commodore Reef.

The Malaysian Government published the 1979 map only after the survey team has physically established that the features were located on its continental Shelf as defined under the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf. To suggest otherwise is quite inaccurate.

The author also examines China’s trade-based ancient tributary political patronage system (with a strong China at its apex), which in his words, became “the dominant international order in ancient East Asia”. Although the author does not draw any implication from this tributary system in the book, the message that a strong China had kept peace and order in the region in the past is quite instructive. Is a strong China trying to replicate the trade-based political patronage system in the current multi-polar international structure is not quite clear? However, this point is worth noting as the countries in the region continue to engage China. 

In conclusion, it becomes obvious that China is desperate to reduce the tension in the South China Sea. Yet by continuing to insist that the entire South China Sea as its own sea and that it has indisputable sovereignty over the features within the nine-dash line map, gives little space and hope for other claimant parties to advance their claims. Compounding the jurisdictional problem in the contested- South China Sea, apart from China’s hard-line position, is the role of third parties, which China considers as unfriendly to its interest. Beijing views the presence of USA, Japan and India, who have no territorial claims in the South China Sea, as unhelpful.

China’ offer to consider joint development projects, with the claimant parties, as defined by China is an attempt to rebuild confidence. However, until such promises are met, they must be viewed with some circumspect. In my view, China is unlikely to negotiate its sovereignty claim. Nonetheless, it is prepared to co-exist by acknowledging the present status quo only if the claimant state makes no effort to undermine or belittle its claim. Taking China for arbitration over the territories in the South China Sea as the Philippines has done, for example, goes again the current modus operandi of China as a rising power. Similarly, China finds it odd why some claimant states have allied with the third parties, external to the region, against it.

Under the current geo-political circumstances, the challenge to China is to demonstrate to the region that it is a benign power with the capacity to keep peace in the Spratlys and the region beyond.

[1] Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said at the 8th East Asia Summit at Brunei (8-9 October 2013), “China and ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] have agreed that the disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully through consultations and negotiations between countries directly concerned.” Still, until a peaceful agreement is met, these are just words.


Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M Gates

February 5, 2014


Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M Gates – Review

by Dan Roberts, The Observer, 2 February, 2014

Republican Robert M Gates’s account of his years in the Bush and Obama administrations is sometimes catty yet full of insights

Obama and GatesIn a town blighted by partisan rancour, Robert Gates’s memoir of his time as secretary of defence under both George W Bush and Barack Obama has largely been read as a political morality play: a sober warning of what goes wrong when you mix tribes.

Despite a reputation as someone able to rise above party squabbles, the elder statesman once nicknamed Yoda by White House staff has ended up embarrassing a trusting Democratic Administration with a surprisingly un-Jedi-like account of his time as a Republican behind enemy lines.

However, there is more to this book than catty, if entertaining, swipes at Washington’s great and good; readers outside the beltway will come away from reading Duty with a more meaningful insight into the world’s military capital. Indeed, for anyone trying to understand how America’s most liberal president in decades could allow drone assassinations, Guántanamo Bay and NSA surveillance to continue largely unchecked during his time in office, this memoir has a very different moral to that seized upon by DC’s self-obsessed pundits. Though not a dominant driver of such controversial policies, Gates reveals himself as an emblem of the continuity that sustains this increasingly militarised country regardless of who is in the Oval Office.

Since joining the CIA in 1968, Gates served six other presidents before he was put in charge of the Pentagon’s 3 million employees and $700bn budget by Bush the younger at the recommendation of his father. And although there is more warmth to the book’s early chapters chronicling the last days of that dynasty’s reign in office, this consummate company man makes clear that Obama’s decision to reassure security hawks by retaining him was a lot less of a shock to the system than everyone assumed at the time.

“Although Obama, to my mind, is a liberal Democrat and I consider myself a moderately conservative Republican, for the first two years, on national security matters we largely saw eye to eye… as loath as partisans on both sides were (and are) to admit it,” writes Gates.

“I’m no peacenik,” he fondly quotes Obama telling him. “My staying in place would show foreigners that US resolve would be undiminished.”

The book’s much-publicised attacks on Obama’s senior advisers do reveal some differences of style between the two administrations. Vice-president Joe Biden incurs the most wrath for opposing the military’s proposed troop surge in Afghanistan. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” says Gates.

Former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and current UN ambassador Samantha Power come under fire, too, blamed for opening up a “poisonous” “chasm” between the White House and the Pentagon over everything from gay rights in the military to intervention in Syria. And Obama is politely criticised for adding to the mistrust by failing to act like he really enjoyed continuing to pour troops into America’s disastrous foreign wars. “As I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” recalls Gates of one planning meeting.

History may ultimately judge Obama’s reticence more favourably than the military’s reluctance to admit defeat, but the brass nonetheless succeeded in persuading the president of the need for the troop surge. Gates also convinced Obama to retain another Bush-era spook, current director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who infamously went on to lie to Congress over the extent of NSA mass surveillance on Americans.

The detailed fights to protect defence spending and clear disdain for civilian politicians makeRGates Book-Duty clear that the Pentagon remained in safe hands throughout Gates’s four-and-a-half years in office. But Duty is not the memoir of a neocon warmonger. Gates writes intelligently and candidly of the anxieties of sending men to die and makes clear he largely disliked his “deployment to the Washington combat zone”.

Some sections detailing military deployment negotiations will prove as dry as Afghan dust to anyone not wearing green, but overall the book is a rewarding read and a rare insight into the ongoing capture of the Obama administration by Washington’s security establishment.

The Great Moderniser of Thailand: King Chulalongkorn

January 27, 2014


The Great Moderniser of Thailand: King Chulalongkorn

Irene Stengs, Worshipping the Great Moderniser: King Chulalongkorn, Patron Saint of the Thai Middle Class

Singapore and Seattle: NUS Press and University of Washington Press, 2009. Pp. xiii, 316; photographs, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Erick D. White.


The dramatic heyday of the cult of Chulalongkorn has passed. Arising in the early 1990s, in the middle of the Thai economic boom that lasted from the mid-1980s until the crash of 1997, its prominence has nonetheless persisted into the post-crash 2000s and beyond. Along the way it has gradually declined from a feverish public passion into an accepted and persistent modality of faith and ritual on the kingdom’s mainstream religious landscape. Bangkokians still gather at the Equestrian Statue on the Royal Plaza on Tuesday evenings to show their devotional respect. Practitioners across the nation still petition the deceased monarch before his statues in a myriad of temples and public spaces. Consumers still buy amulets and portraits of Chulalongkorn to adorn their bodies and home altars.

Spirit mediums are still regularly possessed by the monarch and thus able to offer advice and assistance to those in need. But since the dramatic emergence of the cult in the heady boom times of the 1990s, other devotional movements, centered on other deities (Princess Suphankalaya and Jatukamramathep, for example) have by now come and gone, part of the relentless churn of religious innovation and inspiration that characterizes popular religiosity in contemporary Thailand. That devotionalism to Chulalongkorn remains popular is not surprising: it is centered on a Chakri monarch in an age of high royalist revival and continuing, if more contested, general public reverence.  Nonetheless, the cult of Chulalongkorn no longer evokes quite the same excitement, quite the same breathlessness, or quite the same exuberance. The cult of Chulalongkorn also does not evoke scholarly investigation and analysis as it once did.

And yet its settled, conventional, accepted, and taken-for-granted status as a devotional movement is itself instructive about not only contemporary Thai religiosity and social change, but also the deeper relationship among monarchy, royalism, Buddhism, and popular religiosity in the increasingly unsettled twilight of King Bhumibol’s reign.

Irene Stengs’s monograph, Worshipping the Great Moderniser: King Chulalongkorn, Patron Saint of the Thai Middle Class, critically analyses and insightfully opens up for investigation a range of questions about royalty, religiosity, and devotionalism amidst nationalism and consumer society. Her study is based on multi-sited field research carried out between 1996 and 1998 in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. In Bangkok her fieldwork centered primarily on the Equestrian Statue and an organization called the “Prayers Society”, while in Chiang Mai she focused on a temple that was a center of Chulalongkorn worship as well as the abode of a spirit medium possessed by the king.

The study’s long incubation allowed the author to step back and take a somewhat more measured approach, one informed by the passage of time and new or additional scholarship. As a modestly revised version of her dissertation, the monograph’s substance and argument retain much of their original thematic focus and analytic tack, with a limited number of topics expanded or highlighted.

The remainder of this review is accessible here.

BOOK REVIEW: Student Activism in Malaysia

January 17, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Student Activism in Malaysia


Meredith L. Weiss, Student Activism in Malaysia. Crucible, Mirror, Sideshow.

Ithaca and Singapore: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications and NUS Press, 2011.  Pp. vi, 302; list of acronyms, figure, index.

Reviewed by Leon Comber.

This is a fascinating book, which provides a detailed account of student activism in Malaysia, with its rise and demise, from the early twentieth century to more recent times. Beyond that, it provides a considerable amount of information about the development of Malayan and Malaysian politics and, to a lesser extent, Singapore politics too.  However, it is not easy reading, as the publisher has used a small, rather eye-straining typeface and as it is packed with facts which are well documented from the extensive and impressive research that the author has carried out into English and Malay sources.

The author points to the heyday of the university protest movement being between 1967 and 1974, and based on the reviewer’s own knowledge of those times, this is probably correct.

It is interesting to see, too, reference to the earlier February 1948 “Conference of Youth and Students of South-east Asia Fighting for Freedom and Independence” which was held in Calcutta and sponsored by the communist-controlled World Federation of Democratic Youth and the International Union of Students (p. 37), as the influence that this conference may have had on student unrest in Chinese-medium schools in Malaya is often overlooked.  It is perhaps worthy of further research by the author (especially in the Malayan Chinese-language press) in view of the important role that students played in the political upheaval then taking place inMalaya. It may well have been the reason that the Malayan Special Branch rather simplistically categorized in those days all student unrest as “communist” inspired.

Student politics were a cause of concern, too, to the authorities in the University of Malaya when it was located in Singapore in those early days, and in this connection the author mentions James Puthucheary and William Kuok Hock Ling (who used the communist alias of Peng Cheng), both well known student activists. Though the author does not refer to it, William Kuok—who went underground with the Communist Party of Malaya at the start of the Malayan Emergency in June 1948, edited a stenciled CPM English-language newssheet from the jungle, and was eventually killed by the security forces in an attack on a communist jungle camp in north Malaya—came from a well known and respected business family in Johor Bahru. His brother, Robert Kuok, is reputed to be the richest Chinese in Southeast Asia today.

It would be interesting if the author could elaborate further on the alleged penetration by intelligence agencies of the Malayan and Singapore student activist movement, especially as in 1974, S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s foreign minister at the time, referred to CIA and KGB activity, and also on the increased interest being shown by the Singapore Police Special Branch into student affairs (p. 179).

The author refers to the turning point of Malaysian student activism having taken place in the 1970s, when the Malaysian government followed a policy of constraint and repression resulting from changes in Malaysia’s political regime and political culture. While this may well be correct, there are, too, other factors that should be taken into account.  These include the tragic 13 May 1969 racial riots in Malaysia, which led to the introduction of the government’s New Economic Policy (NEP).  The NEP attempted inter alia to adjust the racial balance of students entering universities. Prior to 1969 Chinese students accounted for approximately 70 per cent of the Malaysian undergraduate population, with a Malay student intake of approximately 30 per cent. But by the time the NEP began to take effect in the mid-1970s, the proportion had nearly reversed.

Consequently, the university population became noticeably divided along racial and religious lines as each ethnic group had its own historical differences along lines of language, culture, religion, and geographical backgrounds. An increasing number of Malay students came from the more underprivileged sector of the population and were not inclined to take part in student political activities. They were more interested in studying, especially if they were on government scholarships, rather than participating in student politics. All of these factors would have had a depressing effect on the emergence of any strong student movement.

But to sum up, Dr Weiss’s book provides an excellent study of student activism in Malaysia and it will undoubtedly become one of the standard reference sources for this subject.

Leon Comber is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.  A Malaysian citizen, he fought in Burma as an officer in the Indian Army during the Second World War, commanded the Special Branch of the Malayan Police in Johor during the Emergency, served on the staff of Singapore’s first Chief Minister David Marshall, was director of Hong Kong University Press, and has written or edited two dozen books.

Roth Unbound: A Guardian Book Review

January 17, 2014

Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont – Review

Who inspired Philip Roth’s characters? This new study claims to reveal many secrets.
The Guardian, Friday 17 January 2014 09.00 GMT
Philip RothPhilip Roth

Philip Roth, at age 40, published the essay “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’ or, Looking at Kafka”, which appropriates its title from the short story “A Hunger Artist”, and fantasises that the genius of Prague didn’t die at age 40, but instead was cured of tuberculosis, and lived on to witness the Nazi regime. His response was to give up literature and flee to America, where he took a job teaching in a shabby Hebrew school in Newark, New Jersey.

Among his students was a young “Philip Roth”, who nicknamed this strange, halitotic hermit “Dr Kishka”, Yiddish for “guts”. The Ghost Writer, published six years after this piece in 1979, is the first of Roth’s novels narrated by his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. In it, Zuckerman imagines that Anne Frank survived Bergen-Belsen only to have to hide from the celebrity of her diary in a clapboard farmhouse in the Berkshires, where she changed her name to Amy Bellette and served as an amanuensis to a famous Jewish-American novelist. Roth’s Kafka spends his post-literary existence drilling children in the alef bet; Roth’s Frank spends hers imparting to the work of her employer and lover the authenticating imprimaturs of Holocaust trauma and European Kultur.

Kafka, in his lifetime, published two books; Frank, in hers, published none; Roth debuted with Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and announced his retirement 25 novels later with Nemesis in 2010. According to Claudia Roth Pierpont, he has been enjoying his dotage “discussing books and politics and a thousand other things”, entertaining her with “memories, observations, opinions, thoughts, second thoughts, jokes, stories, even songs”.

Pierpont assures us that though she is not related to Roth, she has produced this study of his fiction with his collaboration. It is no surprise that her book is a useful resource for plot summary, then, but it is shocking that the new secrets it claims to offer are only shopworn trivia that even my parents – not academics, just Jews from Jersey – already know: the stock in trade of Saturday synagogue book clubs, and the Sunday New York Times. In The Ghost Writer, the novelist EI Lonoff, who shelters the ostensible Anne Frank, was based on Bernard Malamud; the novelist Felix Abravanel, who is too egotistical to adopt Zuckerman as a literary son and so dispatches him to Lonoff, was based on Saul Bellow – neither were grateful, but both were flattered, I’m sure.

Pierpont mentions that a Zuckerman first appeared in My Life As a Man, as a character in two stories by Peter Tarnopol, another Rothian double, who happens to share a psychiatrist, Dr Spielvogel, with Alexander Portnoy.

Yet another Roth redux, the public radio intellectual and lit professor David Kepesh, changes into a six-foot-tall, 155-pound breast in The Breast; in The Professor of Desire he ventures to Prague and hallucinates a whore who, for $10, will narrate the sex acts she performed on Kafka, and for another $5 will let Kepesh inspect her octogenarian vagina himself. Pierpont tags these books as reactions to The Metamorphosis, but also to Roth’s sojourns behind the iron curtain, which themselves were merely bids to escape his reputation after the release of Portnoy’s Complaint, that classic of filial suffering and fervent wanking: Roth’s “Portnoy readers – even the ones who loved the book, or maybe especially those – viewed him as ‘a walking prick’. When they came up to him in the street, that’s what they saw, it seemed to him, that’s whom they were congratulating.”

Roth--BookThe problem with this is not how one congratulates a prick – by wanking it, perhaps – but rather the quotation marks: it is not clear, when it comes to “a walking prick”, who exactly is talking. This vagary plagues every page of Roth Unbound, regardless of attributive punctuation, to the point where Pierpont’s criticism references Roth’s “non-fiction books” as if they were gospels, and assimilates their opinions too. These supposedly impeachable sources are The Facts, which purports to be an autobiography discussed in letters between Zuckerman and Roth; and Patrimony, a memoir of Roth’s father’s death, written in the midst of his decline.

Then there are the miscellanies: Shop-Talk, and Reading Myself and Others. The former collects conversations Roth conducted with the likes of Primo Levi and Milan Kundera, in which he proposes interpretations of their works and they, of course, agree. The latter is a Maileresque orgy of vanity featuring interviews of Roth by George Plimpton and Joyce Carol Oates; an essay about writing Portnoy, in which Roth excerpts a speech he delivered to an Anti-Defamation League symposium; an essay on the novelist-critic divide, the bulk of which is given over to a letter Roth wrote but never posted to critic Diana Trilling, dissenting from her review of Portnoy; a self-interview Roth did for Partisan Review that refers to an essay he wrote about himself for Commentary; not to forget his own review of a Broadway play adapted from his earliest stories.

Now that Roth’s retirement has given him the opportunity to pursue his legacy full-time, it is telling that he hasn’t proceeded in the manner of Henry James, who dedicated his final stretch to assembling his corpus into the New York Edition, rephrasing whole sentences, if not just rearranging the commas he had strewn them with half a century previously. It is as if Roth doesn’t think it makes much difference that Our Gang, his humourless Nixon pastiche, and The Great American Novel, his fussy and precious baseball picaresque, are still available as they were written. Or maybe, after more than four decades in analysis, he has resigned himself to their flaws, or even thinks they are perfect and deserve to be shelved alongside his best: The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral.

But then Roth’s tendency has never been to withhold, rather to explain, or revise by explanation, and it is ironic that the same technique that unifies his oeuvre has the opposite effect on its criticism: to Pierpont, Letting Go is about the influence of James, Thomas Wolfe, the stultifying 50s, and “not letting go”; When She Was Good is about the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, the stultifying 50s, and Roth’s first wife Margaret Martinson, who faked a pregnancy, faked an abortion, took Roth’s money in a divorce and promptly killed herself (though Pierpont insists that her fullest character portrayal is as Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man).

Roth’s second wife Claire Bloom is Eve in I Married a Communist and, wait for it, Claire in Deception; while the female actor in Zuckerman Unbound is a monster made of Bloom, Edna O’Brien, and Jackie O, whom Roth once dated (kissing her was like “kissing a billboard”). Establishing biographical correspondences is a pleasant way to wait out the clock, but it will never pass for serious criticism. Still, with each of Pierpont’s chapters centred on a certain book, pure fun salaciousness just isn’t feasible. The result is that Roth’s life between publications is mostly ignored, and the most obvious lacuna is the fact that in 2012 Roth authorised an official biography, to be written by Blake Bailey, whose prior subjects – John Cheever and Richard Yates – had been too dead to refuse the honour, or meddle.

This suggests that Roth Unbound might be even more than its breathless publicity promises; indeed, it might be Roth’s most virtuoso stunt. Imagine Roth approaching his 80th birthday laden with awards and honorary degrees, globally translated, universally read, his talent having triumphed over every adversity: mental breakdown, heart ailment, rabbinic orthodoxy, feminism. As an artist who has always thrived on transgression, he must have discerned his mortality in the sense that there was no opposition left for him to outlast. Once again, he would have to invent one, a persecution not romantic or erotic this time, but ultimate enough to flirt with the posthumous, and so he granted access to a biographer, and pretended to retire.

Predictably, the oppressive prospect of having a stranger narrate his life invigorated Roth, and had him reasserting the pre-eminence of his work, by ghostwriting a study of it. The slackness of the prose, then, must be attributed not to Roth’s senescence, but to the demands of writing under an assumed identity. Unable to bear not receiving credit for this feat, and for having concluded his career in the voice of a sympathetic female, Roth chose a pseudonym – “Claudia Roth Pierpont” – just foolish enough to betray the truth. Roth, it seems, is back, and once again he is begging to be punished.

BOOK REVIEW: Floating on a Malayan Breeze

January 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW:Floating on a Malayan Breeze

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh,Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore

Hong Kong and Singapore: Hong Kong University Press and NUS Press, 2012.  Pp. viii, 282; map, photographs, notes, index.

Reviewed by Elvin Ong

Ever since Singapore’s split from Malaysia in 1965, the government of each country has been bent on directing its trajectory away from that of the other.  This tendency perhaps peaked during the governments of the two countries’ most renowned authoritarian leaders, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad. Singapore was always going to be what Malaysia was not. Malaysia was always going to go its own way, irrespective of what Singapore did. So dominant are the two opposing caricatures that have emerged – one clean, one dirty; one efficient, one corrupt; one carefree, one perpetually stressed – that we very often forget that Singapore and Malaysia have a shared past in British Malaya and that they have always been dependent on each other, at least in the economic realm.

Floating Breeze

In an attempt to correct this view, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, the Singaporean-born son of a Malaysian-born father, declares early in that the book is his attempt to provide what has been a missing “bottom-up perspective in national discourse” by writing about the two countries “as seen from the ground” (p. vi). On the one hand, he relates encounters with random personalities from Singapore, with people met during his month-long biking expedition around Peninsular Malaysia in 2004, and with various interesting individuals whom he interviewed on the ground during the campaign for the watershed 2008 Malaysian elections. On the other, he shares pieces of personal insight about the socio-political development of the two countries in the past decade. The resulting book is part travelogue and part socio-political commentary, a somewhat frustrating combination that is enjoyable, but that also raises more questions than it answers.

Sudhir’s vivid descriptions of his interviews and of the challenges encountered during his travels in Malaysia often set the stage for his larger points. Throughout the book, we are drawn into his conversations with various “big” and “small” personalities across the political spectrum in Malaysia. Some “big” personalities include Steven Gan, co-founder of the Web-site Malaysiakini and Nurul Izzah, the incumbent member of parliament for Lembah Pantai – better known, perhaps, as the daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the political opposition to Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional government.

The interviews with such “big” individuals are useful to the extent that they provide a sliver of insight into these individuals’ backgrounds and their motivations for driving socio-political change in Malaysia today. But as Sudhir demonstrates, “small” characters often have important, sometimes much more important, stories to tell.

Betty owns a nondescript souvenir shop just across the border from Malaysia in Betong, Thailand. She was a former guerrilla soldier with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which fought against the British, Japanese and newly-independent Malayan and Malaysian governments for a Communist Malaya. She is uniquely positioned to help Sudhir excavate a broader point about the CPM’s forgotten role in Malaya’s independence movement. Mr Liew is a Chinese businessman and eager supporter of the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) in Kota Bharu, Kelantan. He punctures the stereotype that PAS is an extremist Malay political party that does not know how to “do” development. In a sense, these colourful “small” characters like Betty and Mr Liew are the gatekeepers for forgotten or interesting stories. They give life to staid political-science theories and dull academic writing.

Yet, for all the fascinating interviews and insights that Sudhir’s encounters with such people provide, it is difficult to make sense of them in a coherent manner, except in the context of Sudhir’s personal interpretation and commentary. Although he tries his best to make many good points about many salient topics, this is also where the book hits some serious snags.

First, and even if we set aside the dire lack of a common thread running through his book (a lack due to its being written, in part, on the basis of random encounters during a bicycle expedition), Sudhir dithers between perpetuating stereotypes about Singapore and Malaysia and countering those stereotypes.

As the book’s title suggests, Sudhir constantly “floats” between repeating official dominant ideologies and noting the various instances in which they require qualification, so much so that one cannot quite conclude what to make of the issue. For example, in the process of stressing the divergence between race-conscious Malaysia and race-neutral, meritocratic Singapore, Sudhir brings up so many qualifications to the idea of meritocracy in Singapore that one wonders if they negate the entire hegemony of meritocracy at all! He notes that senior management from India working in Singapore often hire their own kind, that he himself suffered from racial stereotyping when growing up, that the Singaporean Malay-Chinese taxi driver Ishak vows to retire in Thailand because he can no longer tolerate the racial stereotyping in Singapore, and that Malay Singaporeans still cannot serve in sensitive sectors in the Singapore Armed Forces. It appears that Singapore – both the government and the people – is as race-conscious as Malaysia after all

Second, Sudhir often ruminates on a wide variety of important social issues in the two countries – media control and censorship, the nascent development of civil society, the influx of immigrants, the growing income gap, bumiputera affirmative-action policies, religiosity, family planning and urban stress – without actually coming to any definitive conclusion about what indeed should be the way forward. This deficiency is most clearly exposed in two chapters discussing the gradual decline of the United Malays National Organisation in Malaysia and the People’s Action Party in Singapore. After much discussion of race-based politics in the former party and the iron cage of group-think in the latter, Sudhir concludes with a meek “It will be interesting to see how long they last” (p. 92).  While some students or casual readers may find this conclusion satisfying, serious academics will find such a concluding line entirely frustrating. Where is the comparative theory on authoritarian regimes?

Third and finally, while as a fellow Singaporean I strongly concur and empathize with Sudhir’s description of recent trends in Singapore society, I cannot help having the nagging feeling that both of us are trapped with the same stereotypical worldview and narrative of what Singapore is, with both of us having good university educations and mixing in similar circles. (Full, though late, disclosure: I met very briefly with Sudhir at the videotaping of a debate about Lee Hsien Loong and was an intern in the Civil Service College under Donald Low, one of his few Singaporean interviewees.)

What would be the worldview of the young Singaporean McDonald’s deliveryman? Or the elderly cashier at NTUC FairPrice supermarket? Or the uncle sipping his potent brew of Guiness or Heineken and ice cubes at the local coffee shop? Or the multitude of people who queue up in the wee hours of the morning for a chance to buy a “Hello Kitty” toy from, again, McDonald’s?

There is a reason that Jack Neo, arguably Singapore’s most successful movie director as measured in box office receipts, consistently makes movies that break record after record at the cinemas, even though many educated intellectuals find his movies generally crass and distasteful. Perhaps Jack Neo understands the Singaporean psyche better than we do? Are we already victims of the growing inequality that we constantly deride?

Floating on a Malayan Breeze serves as a good introductory text for readers unfamiliar with Singapore and Malaysia, or for students and the general public who have for far too long been fed state-endorsed narratives of the history and social development of their respective countries. The book’s vivid and somewhat witty writing brings many of its interviews to life, and, before long, the reader will find an unconscious smile creeping across his or her own face as he or she ponders what is unfolding between Sudhir and the interviewee. But this book is no serious academic research. Random sampling does not necessarily result in a representative sample. Anecdotal evidence is not robust evidence. Scholars who already know both countries well may be able to glean some nuggets of interesting insights, but they are unlikely to advance their knowledge of the two countries in any serious way.

Elvin Ong is an incoming doctoral student in political science at Emory University with an interest in the varied performances of politics in Southeast Asia.–

Lee Kuan Yew, One Man’s View of the World

December 28, 2013

BOOK Review: Lee Kuan Yew, One Man’s View of the World

Singapore: Straits Times Press Holdings, 2013. Pp. 352, photographs, index.

Reviewed by Nina Ong (12-13-13)


In March 2007, when the Australian National University conferred an honorary degree on Lee Kuan Yew, protestors gathered with placards that implied that ANU was wrong to honour a leader whom many considered a “dictator” for his repressive measures to rein in the Singapore media and opposition. The New Mandala blog archive includes a number of insightful posts on the issue. Lee Kuan Yew’s reputation in the eyes of “Western publications” is not helped by his fiercely protective attitude towards his own legacy, which has resulted in him winning lawsuits in Singapore courts for alleged defamation in articles published in The Far Eastern Economic Review and The International Herald Tribune.

Nevertheless, Lee’s admirers continue to wax lyrical about him, viewing him as a “grand master” who, despite his small stage (my own native country, Singapore), has managed to impress world leaders and influence the policies of even a major power like China. A case in point would be Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, which, Lee implies in this book, One Man’s View of the World, was in part inspired by Deng’s exposure to Singapore’s economic success during his 1978 visit to the city-state. In fact, the book is peppered with anecdotes of Lee’s encounters with world leaders and his opinions of them. Of former PRC president Hu Jintao, he writes, for example, “Behind the benign, avuncular appearance, I think there is iron in the man.” (p. 32).

It all leaves the reader with little doubt that Lee wrote One Man’s View of the World for people who regard him as a visionary leader whose analyses of international politics and perceptions of world leaders are to be taken seriously. The more critical reader, however, will hardly find comments like the one on Hu perceptive. The same might be said of a great number of politicians, including Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin or even the American Vice President Joe Biden.

At the same time, if we can look beyond the sweeping views that one reviewer from Singapore calls “more entertaining than alarming or illuminating”, it is possible to gain fresh insight from One Man’s View of the World. How much readers gain from the book will depend on how they choose to read it. Like all autobiographical narratives, One Man’s View of the World tells us more about the man who wrote it than about the world that he observed.

Although not strictly an attempt to glorify the achievements of the man – a purpose better served by the pictorial book Lee Kuan Yew – A Life in Pictures,  from the same publisher – One Man’s View of the World seems to be a publication whose timing betrays the intention further to justify the People’s Action Party’s response to the challenges that Singapore faces by emphasizing similar challenges faced by other countries. For example, it would be difficult for those familiar with politics in Singapore not to notice the parallels between the country’s struggle with low fertility rates and the matter of Japan’s ageing population, which is the focus of the book’s section on that country.

Either Lee or his editors chose to title that section “Japan – Strolling into mediocrity”. Lee’s warning for Japan echoes his warning for Singapore. Of the former he writes, “Unless decisive action is taken very soon to resolve the population problem, no change in politics or economics could restore this nation to even a pale shadow of its post-war dynamism” (p. 129). Of Singapore, he asks rhetorically, “Is there a country in this world that prospers on a declining population?”, and then adds, “If I had to identify one issue that threatens Singapore the most, it would be this one” (p. 222).

Despite the fact that geopolitical issues in East Asia might be of greater concern than demography, especially to an international audience, these issues are only addressed in the last four pages of the discussion of Japan, and in a “Question and Answer” format.* Lee’s “answers” are brief compared to his treatise on Japan’s population problems.

One Man’s View of the World is unlikely to satisfy Lee’s critics because it lacks (again) absolutely any attempt to engage with their criticisms of him. Those who have read Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (also from the same publisher), a thick volume on the economic realities to which Singapore must face up to survive as a country, will find the persona that Lee has created for himself in One Man’s View of the World familiar.

Lee continues to style himself as the dispenser of “hard truths” – a pragmatic politician who is brutally frank and has no regrets about his past actions. Examples of this stance include his continued unapologetic embrace of the idea that a person’s capabilities are largely determined by his or her genes: “[India’s] caste system freezes the genetic pool within each caste” (p. 149). Or his revealing non-reply to a reporter’s question about the effects of privileges for Malaysia’s bumiputeras: “Where do you think the talent pool is?” (p. 170). Or his dismissal of the view that his “Stop at Two” policy might have contributed to the long-term low fertility rate in Singapore as an “absurd suggestion” (p. 218).

Previously criticized for being secretive about his family life, Lee (or perhaps his editors) now seeks to disarm critics by providing shockingly honest details, even when this does not seem terribly appropriate. The caption at the bottom of a page with a photograph of his family at the wedding of his eldest son, Singapore’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to Ho Ching – no doubt a happy occasion – says little about the bride. Instead, it is revealed that the “flower girl is Loong’s daughter Xiuqi, whose mother Wong Ming Yang died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 31”. It is as if Lee is saying, “There, everything’s accounted for.” Judging from the responses to his book in Singapore, both on-line and off-line, it appears that he has mastered, in writing, the art of being frank to the point of political incorrectness, while deftly deflecting further discussion of thorny topics.

Nevertheless, his critics in Singapore should still read this book, not least because the book will provide them with an understanding of Lee’s perception of Singapore’s place in the global economy, which is crucial for anyone who seeks to offer a sound critique of Lee’s policies in Singapore, many of which are being continued by the current PAP government under his son, Lee Hsien Loong.

Younger Singaporeans, too, should read One Man’s View of the World, as should those interested in Singapore’s position on foreign policy issues. For the book does offer a broad perspective on world politics and quite successfully places Singapore in the context of an increasingly interdependent network of nation-states. Its succinct summaries of episodes in recent and not so recent history, such as Thaksin Chinnawat’s rise to power in Thailand or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, provide enough background information for readers unfamiliar with the regions discussed in the book. However, a lack of in-depth analysis of the multiple historical factors that shaped the regions discussed also characterizes the book. For instance, on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, British ambiguity in the 1917 Balfour Declaration is not addressed with Lee stating that the British “supported the settlement of Jews in Palestine with the view of eventually allowing them to form a Jewish state” and that the Balfour Declaration “formally set out this position” (p. 249). Yet it is relatively well known (indeed, it is in the ‘A’ levels History syllabus currently taught in Singapore’s schools) that the declaration, which Lee quoted, never mentions a “state” but a “national home” for the Jews.

Thus, those with a serious interest in learning more about international politics should still refer to other sources to supplement their knowledge. Readers who are wondering why regions such as Latin America and Africa are omitted from the book might want to flip to page 308. In his reply to a journalist’s question on his regular reading, Lee says, “I follow closely on the Internet news on Singapore, the region, China, Japan, Korea, America, India and Europe. The Middle East – occasionally, Latin America – almost zero, because it is not relevant to us. Too far away.” Readers invested in the growing trade links between Latin America and Singapore need not be alarmed, however, because Lee is no longer in charge of the government. He is very much a retired political leader speaking from his past experiences.

On a more personal note, when thinking of Lee Kuan Yew, as a Singaporean, I remember two moments. As a primary school student in 1990, I watched on television the National Day Parade and teared when Lee sang the National Anthem at the parade for the last time as Prime Minister after three decades in power. To a primary school student, that seemed like forever. Even at the age of nine, I had learnt at school and at home that Lee was an extraordinary man and that his stepping down from power could be a turning point for my country, for better or for worse. The second moment was when there was a palpable sigh of relief in Singapore, and the National Stadium erupted in the loudest cheers for a PAP leader since the General Elections of 2011, when Lee, frail but still walking on his own, appeared at NDP 2012, thus squashing rumours on the Internet of his passing.

Judged against a modern critical yardstick, One Man’s View of the World may fall short. It reveals Lee Kuan Yew as a man who remains steadfast in his convictions, despite the fact that those convictions are influenced by ideas that many readers now may regard as archaic. For readers interested in international politics, there will be points of disagreement on controversial issues regarding Asia, America and Europe. But, for historians interested in Singapore history, the book does offer rich insights into the man, insights that will gain value through study of the cultural milieu of his formative years.

Despite his prominence as a political leader, there is an unnatural dearth of academic writings on Lee Kuan Yew. One Man’s View of the World will certainly provide a rich source of information for future generations of scholars interested in analysing his leadership.

“Nina Ong” is the pseudonym of a graduate of the National University of Singapore who lives in her native country’s Bukit Merah neighbourhood. 


* We are told in a blurb that the Q&A sections of the book are “gleaned from conversations he [Lee} had with journalists from The Straits Times”. According to The Straits Times, the team of journalists and editors who helped to produce the book were also working together with Mr Shashi Jayakumar, the son of Singapore’s former Senior Minister, S. Jayakumar.

Uncertainty as the Secret of Happiness

December 29, 2013

Food for Thought ahead of 2014. Negativity is the antidote to positiveFacebook-K and D thinking. So rediscover the power of negative thinking and may you find Happiness and Success, says Mr. Burkeman. For me the key to happiness is to be one’s authentic self. I have always looked at the positive side of life. Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. That is the dictum for me. Good luck, Mr. Burkeman.–Din Merican

Against Positive Thinking: Uncertainty as the Secret of Happiness

by Maria Popova

Exploring the “negative path” to well-being.

Having studied under Positive Psychology pioneer Dr. Martin Seligman, and having read a great deal on the art-science of happiness and the role of optimism in well-being, I was at first incredulous of a book with the no doubt intentionally semi-scandalous title of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (public library). But, as it often turns out, author Oliver Burkeman argues for a much more sensible proposition — namely, that we’ve created a culture crippled by the fear of failure, and that the most important thing we can do to enhance our psychoemotional wellbeing is to embrace uncertainty.

Besides, the book has a lovely animated trailer — always a win

Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

[Research] points to an alternative approach [to happiness]: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.

The American edition (once again with an uglified, dumbed down, and contrived cover design) won’t be out until November, but you can snag a British edition here, or hunt it down at your favorite public library.