Book Review: Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence


August 6, 2014

BOOK REVIEW:

Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence. A Malaysian Experience

A Review of Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence. A Malaysian Experience. Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013. 308 pp. US$35.00; RM44.90.

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

Ruslan Khalid

During World War II, British aviation experts were consumed with analyzing and fixing returning warplanes that had been fired upon, until it was pointed out that those damages were not critical as the planes could still fly. It was counterintuitive but logical; if you want to study critical damages, you examine downed planes.

Last year, the Talent Corporation spent RM65 million on Malaysian professionals abroad to entice them to return. It may be counterintuitive but the money would be better spent on those at home so they would not even consider leaving. If they are happy, the good word would spread, enticing those abroad to return.

Our wise elders counseled us of the trap of kera di hutan di susukan, anak di rumah mati kelaparan. (breastfeeding the monkey in the jungle while letting your child at home starve to death.)

An emigrating family, like Tolstoy’s unhappy family in Anna Karenina, is unique in its own way. Thus instead of studying “big data” on the brain drain, it would be more fruitful to analyze individual cases, not those who emigrate but the ones who return or stay.

One such professional was the late architect Ruslan Khalid. He died in November 2012, only days after final-proofing his autobiography, Quest For Architectural Excellence. The Malaysian Experience.

Product of London’s AA School of Architecture

Ruslan graduated from London’s prestigious Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture, and had a successful practice in London before returning home late in 1979. Among his clients while there was the Sultan of Pahang.

His final dozen years or so in Malaysia took only about a third of his 308-page book. Those running Talent Corporation would learn more from reading those pages than they would from gallivanting around the world enticing Malaysians to return.

It would also be a lot cheaper, and the book is an enjoyable read, quite apart from being informative. Ruslan wrote well, with elegance and passion. He also immersed himself into the upper crust of British artistic society, and we get a glimpse of that as a bonus.

Ruslan dedicated his book to “all late starters.” Presumably he considered himself one. On the contrary as is evident from the book, he was intelligent, insightful, and very resourceful. Those qualities however, were not recognized early or at all by his native country, nor are they readily assessed on a paper-and-pencil test.

He obtained only (his description) Grade II in his School Certificate Examination in 1952 and a scholarship to a third-rate British architectural school. He recognized that stark reality on his very first day on campus. For an institution to train designers of buildings and structures, the edifice was anything but inspiring. It was like entering a hospital or medical school where the foyer was dirty and ambience unhygienic; you have to be desperate to have any trust or confidence.

It reflected the foresight of his colonial interviewers that they awarded him a scholarship despite his Grade II; they saw his potential. After all he entered English school only two years earlier having previously attended only Malay and religious schools. It also reflected the wisdom of his teachers then that he had to take English classes at his Islamic school. Where are those educators today?

On his voyage to England he bunked with three top-scorer students. By the time they reached Bombay, he had already befriended a certain lady from the First Class deck while the other three were content jabbering among themselves. As luck would have it, she was the wife of a famous architect besides being one herself.

With uninspiring lecturers in a third-rate institution, Ruslan flunked his second year. Undeterred and confident of his talent, he pursued his craft through the old apprentice system. His portfolio, together with his contacts with many well-known architects, later paved his way into AA School as an advanced student on a British scholarship.

All these are interesting preamble. My interest however, is on enticing successful Malaysians to return, or what make them leave. So I will focus on this native son’s travails at home upon his return late in life.

Disappointments At Home

Despite having been a practicing architect for over a decade in London, his application for registration in Malaysia was summarily denied. He did not have the prerequisite two years of local public service. Not wishing to be desk-bound in some ministry, he opted for Universiti Teknoloji Malaysia. After all he had been a senior lecturer in London.

The ending was predictable, and came soon. He left after the minimum two years to pursue private practice, which led him to be editor of his professional association’s journal. He soon discovered that his profession at home was handmaiden for developers and the journal he edited was more advertising channel for the industry rather than advancing the art and science of local architecture.

I can attest to that. In 1977 my wife and I engaged a famous architect in Kuala Lumpur to design ourbakri-musa dream house. We chose him because his name was similar to mine, and with his foreign wife I thought he would appreciate our aspiration. We wanted a wooden house with local fruit trees for landscaping. Imagine our surprise when he answered our every query with, “Yes, we can do that!” without offering alternatives or critiquing our ideas.

Then at a public housing exhibition I encountered the firm of Goh Hock Guan; it had won first prize in that competition with its wooden house design. We chose it, and to our surprise were assigned to a young Malay associate. Surely he had been sent abroad on a government scholarship and thus should be pushing papers in one of those ministries, I thought.

Esa Mohamed too answered all our questions but he also warned us that while he was enthusiastic about our project, our house would have little resale value as it was not mainstream design. We nonetheless proceeded and were enthralled with his creation! Unfortunately by this time I had already decided to leave. We paid his fees and kept the blueprint. Esa went on to have a very successful career.

Thwarted Academic The Second Time

Back to Ruslan, a few years later UPM opened its architectural faculty. Eager to train future architects in his mold, he became its founding dean. Again the quick and predictable ending! Despite being on the Sultan of Pahang’s polo team and Prime Minister Mahathir’s riding companion, quite apart from having a half-brother in the cabinet, (Tan Sri Azmi Khalid) Ruslan was, as he wrote, “relieved of his duties.” Mahathir offered his services to have him reinstated, but bitten twice, he politely declined.

The one incident during his deanship was symptomatic of the country’s malaise and obsession with praises from foreigners. He had fought hard to improve the academic facilities when, unbeknown to Ruslan, the Vice-Chancellor hired a British consultant. As it turned out Ruslan knew him. Consequently the report was full of praise and confidence of the faculty’s future under Ruslan’s leadership. The VC used that as an excuse to deny Ruslan’s request, deeming that the faculty was fine as it was!

Again I can relate to that. As a surgeon in Johor Baru 1978 I fought hard to upgrade the hospital to be worthy of a teaching institution. Then came a British delegation sponsored by the ministry. At the exit conference the British spokesman could hardly restrain himself in praising our facility, egged on by the beaming smiles of local officials.

When he finished I spoke up. I told him that much as I appreciated his generous remarks, he had effectively undercut my efforts. The ministry would now not approve my request seeing that our facility was already doing well. Then to drive home my point, I told everyone that I had never been to a British teaching hospital, but if they were impressed with our facility, then I did not think highly of their standards.

datuk-ruslan-khalidAt the end of the meeting one of the surveyors sought me to apologize. I told him it mattered not as the damage had been done and that he surely would be invited again for the next survey, unless of course he was willing to submit an amended report. These ugly realities would never be uncovered in glitzy official reports or expensive consultants’ surveys; hence the need for personal accounts as with Ruslan Khalid’s In Quest for Architectural Excellence

Ruslan Khalid is now gone, may Allah bless his soul and put him among the righteous. Architect Ruslan bequeathed his extensive portfolios; native son Ruslan, this thoughtful and insightful autobiography. Malaysia would be poorer if it does not heed his wisdom.

BOOK REVIEW: Shankaran Nambiar’s The Malaysian Economy: Rethinking Policies & Purposes


July 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Shankaran Nambiar’s new book, The Malaysian Economy: Rethinking Policies & Purposes 

by Tricia Yeoh@ http://www.thesundaily.com.my

FEW writers and analysts are able to both identify precisely the challenges facing the Malaysian economy as well as communicate these in a manner easy to digest. Shankaran Nambiar’s new book, The Malaysian Economy: Rethinking Policies & Purposes does so with bold and relevant commentary. Dating from 2003 to the present, this compilation of writings focuses on six broad themes including the need to strengthen institutions, the importance of competitiveness, regional trade, fiscal reform and finally, the reality that is the influence of elections and politics over economic policy.

?????????????????????What is prevalent throughout the book is the clear economic position he takes, arguing for a more open and free economy, one in which companies and traders would be able to compete without the shackles of a large and interventionist government. He takes cognisance that our neighbours are moving at a rapid pace, and mentions specifically China in its ability to out-compete many in the region, but that Malaysia would need to “develop our human capital and readjust our institutional framework to align it with global requirements.”

Of course, on the economic ideological continuum, criticisms often abound of the far-right leaning liberal position. More specifically, public sentiment in Malaysia has weighed heavily against the free market and privatisation. This is not surprising, since the Malaysian version of “free market” and “privatisation” is anything but. It has been but a muddied example of what a free market could actually do to improve the quality of goods and services.

Nambiar does not shy away from this oftentimes-controversial debate. He states explicitly, “privatisation, in theory, implies giving markets a bigger role … privatised companies have to be efficient … and cannot rely on the government to bail them out.”

Theoretically, yes. But in the execution of it – and Malaysia has done a poor job at this – privatisation has not been done in a fair, competitive way. In fact, what took place in our context is that when public entities were privatised, instead of improving efficiency, things got worse. Again, Nambiar hits it squarely on the head: “What was once a government monopoly now becomes a private monopoly. One form of inefficiency is substituted with another.”

Reading the book, one would initially conclude that he is a hard-hitting liberal – libertarian in American circles – and based on many principles, indeed this is so: his firm belief in competition, economic freedom, strong institutions and a legal framework, property rights and so on.

But what is refreshing to note is that he does not blindly accept what would typically be a liberal’s position, but views all subjects with a critical mind. Instead, he agrees with the need for a minimum wage because based on empirical research, this would transform the economy into one that is technologically advanced and contribute towards high value-added growth. A hardcore liberal economist would usually argue against the minimum wage as it is a false and forced imposition by government, which does put many small and medium companies out of business.

 

Finally, as many things seem to be in Malaysia, economic policy is subject to political influence, and this is evident in the many examples Nambiar provides, such as how the federal government transfers revenue to individual state governments, Najib’s electoral position determining whether or not the goods and services tax is introduced, and other “inappropriate policies” that are introduced “because of the polls”, which is “as if we have an economy balancing on the tip of a pin”, which is dangerously accurate.

Many proposals have been expressed elsewhere, on the need for fiscal reform and discipline, addressing structural issues (income distribution, corruption, crime, education), and so on. But the book’s beauty lies in its concise and deft articulation of problems and solutions. The commentaries are candid, and arguments tight. He also comes across as rational and fact-based, criticising or praising whenever necessary. This neutral, non-partisan position of analysing economic (or any other) conditions in the country is rare and must be valued.

As Malaysia enters into its final year of the 10th Malaysia Plan in 2015, and draws up its next set of policies for what would be the last five-year plan before the year 2020 – the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016 – 2020) – it is certainly worth examining Nambiar’s publication that spans the last decade or so. Where exactly are we going? Will the problems raised in his book 10 years ago start to manifest themselves in the next 10? What happens to an economy that pays little attention to such recommendations, and fails to strengthen its institutions?

Policymakers, politicians, academics and students ought to pick up this slim and thoroughly readable volume to gain a historical perspective of good and bad policy. History may not repeat itself, but its leaders may very well do – so it is up to the electorate like us to know which pressure points to press, well before the alarm bells start ringing.

The Passing of James MacGregor Burns at 95


July 16, 2014

The Passing of  James MacGregor Burns at 95

by Bruce Webber–July 15 @www.nytimes.com

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/us/james-m-burns-a-scholar-of-presidents-and-leadership-dies-at-95.html?ref=books&_r=0

 

J M BurnsJames MacGregor Burns, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and political scientist who wrote voluminously about the nature of leadership in general and the presidency in particular, died on Tuesday at his home in Williamstown, Mass. He was 95. The historian Michael Beschloss, a friend and former student, confirmed the death.

Mr. Burns, who taught at Williams College for most of the last half of the 20th century, was the author of more than 20 books, most notably “Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom” (1970), a major study of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stewardship of the country through World War II. It was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

An informal Adviser to Presidents, Mr. Burns was a liberal Democrat who once ran for Congress from the westernmost district of Massachusetts. Though he sometimes wrote prescriptively from — or for — the left, over all he managed the neat trick of neither hiding his political viewpoint in his work nor funneling his work through it.

The nature of leadership was his fundamental theme throughout his career. In his biographies of Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, among others, and in his works of political theory — including “Leadership,” a seminal 1978 work melding historical analysis and contemporary observation that became a foundation text for an academic discipline — Mr. Burns focused on parsing the relationship between the personalities of the powerful and the historical events they helped engender.

His award-winning Roosevelt biography, for example, was frank in its admiration of its subject. But the book nonetheless distilled, with equal frankness, Roosevelt’s failings and character flaws; it faulted him for not seizing the moment and cementing the good relations between the United States and the Soviet Union when war had made them allies. This lack of foresight, Mr. Burns argued, was a primary cause of the two nations’ drift into the Cold War.

Roosevelt “was a deeply divided man,” he wrote, “divided between the man of principle, of ideals, of faith, crusading for a distant vision, on the one hand; and, on the other, the man of Realpolitik, of prudence, of narrow, manageable, short-run goals, intent always on protecting his power and authority in a world of shifting moods and capricious fortune.”

This was typical of Mr. Burns, who wrote audaciously, for a historian, with an almost therapistlike interpretation of the historical characters under his scrutiny and saw conflict but no contradiction in the conflicting and sometimes contradictory impulses of great men. He could admire a president for his politics and his leadership skills, yet report on his inherent shortcomings, as he did with Roosevelt; or spot a lack of political courage that undermined a promising presidency, as he did with President Bill Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, in “Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation,” written with Georgia Jones Sorenson. In the book, he chastised both men for yielding their liberal instincts too easily.

In “The Power to Lead: The Crisis of the American Presidency,” his 1984 book about the dearth of transforming leaders, as opposed to transactional ones, in contemporary America, Mr. Burns was able to denounce the outlook of a staunch conservative like President Ronald Reagan but admire him for his instinctive leadership — his understanding of not just how to maneuver the levers of power but also how to muster party unity and effect an attitudinal shift in society.

This distinction between transforming and transactional leadership was central to Mr. Burns’s political theorizing. As he explained it in “Leadership,” the transactional leader is the more conventional politician, a horse trader with his followers, offering jobs for votes, say, or support of important legislation in exchange for campaign contributions.

The transforming leader, on the other hand, “looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower,” Mr. Burns wrote.“The result of transforming leadership,” he went on, “is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.”

If there was any way in which Mr. Burns’s personal views pierced his objectivity as a writer and researcher, it was in his understanding of the human elements of leadership. He had faith in the potential for human greatness, and though he often scolded presidents, congressmen and party officials for failing to strive for progress, one could discern in his writing a pleading for great men and women to lead with greatness.

“That people can be lifted into their better selves,” he wrote at the end of “Leadership,” “is the secret of transforming leadership and the moral and practical theme of this work.”

Mr. Burns was born on August 3, 1918, in Melrose, Mass., outside Boston. His father, Robert, a businessman, and his mother, the former Mildred Bunce, came from Republican families, though Mr. Burns described her as holding feminist principles. She largely raised him, in Burlington, Mass., after his parents’ divorce, and it was she, he said, who instilled in him the independence of mind to oppose the political views prevalent in his father’s family.

“I rebelled early,” Mr. Burns told the television interviewer Brian Lamb in 1989. “I got a lot of attention simply because I sat at the dinner table making these outrageous statements that they never heard anybody make face to face.” He added, “There was a lot of very strenuous and sometimes angry debate within the household.”

After graduating from Williams, Mr. Burns went to Washington and worked as a congressional aide. He served as an Army combat historian in the Pacific during World War II, receiving a Bronze Star, and afterward earned a Ph.D. from Harvard. He did postdoctoral work at the London School of Economics. His first book, “Congress on Trial: The Legislative Process and the Administrative State,” a critical appraisal of American lawmaking, was published in 1949.

After his second book, “Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox” (1956), a study of the president’s early years, Mr. Burns ran for Congress in 1958 from a western Massachusetts district that had not elected a Democrat since 1896 — and it did not again.

Burn's Books

During the campaign he became acquainted with John F. Kennedy, then running for his second term as senator from Massachusetts. After the election, with unrestricted access to Kennedy, his staff and his records, he wrote “John Kennedy: A Political Profile,” an assessment of him as a potential president. Though the book was largely favorable, it was not the hagiography the Kennedy family and presidential campaign had anticipated. (“I think you underestimate him,” Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to him after she read it, adding: “Can’t you see he is exceptional?”)

After Kennedy’s assassination, Mr. Burns said frequently that Kennedy had been a great leader and would have been even greater had he lived. But in his book he called Kennedy “a rationalist and an intellectual” and questioned whether he had the character strength to exert what he called “moral leadership.”

“What great idea does Kennedy personify?” he wrote. “In what way is he a leader of thought? How could he supply moral leadership at a time when new paths before the nation need discovering?”

in 1978, after a half-dozen more books, including the second Roosevelt volume and separate studies of the presidency and of state and local governments, Mr. Burns wrote “Leadership,” an amalgamation of a lifetime of thinking about the qualities shared and exemplified by world leaders throughout history. It became a standard academic text in the emerging discipline known as leadership studies, and Mr. Burns’s concept of transforming leadership itself became the subject of hundreds of doctoral theses.

President Reagan“It inspires our work,” Georgia Sorenson, who founded the Center for Political Leadership and Participation at the University of Maryland, said of “Leadership.” She persuaded Mr. Burns, who was on her dissertation committee, to teach there in 1993, and four years later the university renamed the center in his honor; it is now an independent nonprofit organization, the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership.

Mr. Burns’s two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by three children and his companion, Susan Dunn, with whom he collaborated on “The Three Roosevelts” and a biography of George Washington, two of the half-dozen or so books Mr. Burns wrote or co-wrote after the age of 80. His last book, “Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World,” was published in 2013.

Asked to describe Mr. Burns’s passions away from his writing, Ms. Sorenson named skiing; his two golden retrievers, Jefferson and Roosevelt; the blueberry patch in his yard; and his students.“He would never bump a student appointment to meet with someone more important,” Ms. Sorenson said. “I remember Hillary Clinton once inviting him to tea, and he wouldn’t go because he had to meet with a student. And he would never leave his place in Williamstown during blueberry season.”

Correction: July 15, 2014

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to Mr. Burns’s book “Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court.” It was not his last book. (“Fire and Light: How the Enlightenment Transformed Our World,” published in 2013, was his last.)

 Correction: July 15, 2014

An earlier version of this obituary misstated the number of children who survive Mr. Burns. It is three, not four. The earlier version also contained an outdated description of the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership. It is an independent nonprofit organization; it is no longer affiliated with the University of Maryland.

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

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/03/myth-strong-leader-political-leadership-modern-age-archie-brown-review

 

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

BOOK REVIEW

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

NY TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW

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.

Tun Dr. Mahathir Thwarts Sultan’s Power Grab


Taipei. Taiwan

June 18, 2014

Mahathir Thwarts Sultan’s Power Grab

Written by Our Correspondent

http://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/mahathir-thwarts-sultan-power-grab/

Sultan of Johore

Malaysia’s aging former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had to act earlier this week to save Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak from an embarrassing legislation that would have given the Sultan of Johor executive powers to run the housing authority of the country’s second biggest state.

Eventually the legislation was amended to remove the threat. But once again it is Najib, in the eyes of political analysts in Kuala Lumpur, who is regarded as having suffered a blow to his political standing because of his failure to act. Former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam, at 80 still a political force in Johor, also joined the fray to stop the legislation.

Although Najib’s position remains secure because there is no threat from anyone either inside or outside the United Malays National Organization, the country’s dominant ethnic political party, he is the subject of widespread criticism. He has come to be viewed as indecisive ever since the 2013 general election, in which the ruling national coalition lost the popular vote for the first time since 1969 although it maintained its majority in parliament,.

TDM--21 March“Thank God for Mahathir,” said a prominent Kuala Lumpur opposition source. “I never thought I’d say that, but thank God for Mahathir.”

The hereditary rulers in nine of Malaysia’s 13 states supposedly merely perform ceremonial functions except in matters related to Islam, where they have powers of intervention. The Johor Sultan, Ismail Idris, was attempting to go far beyond that.

That is largely because during his 22-year period as Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Mahathir, now 88, engaged in a ferocious struggle to break the absolute power of the rulers, who take turns swapping the country’s kingship among them. Even after Mahathir broke their absolute power with legislation, the sultans have continued to get away with physical assaults and large-scale gambling debts in London and other casinos that have had to be paid from state coffers.

In 1993, in a speech before the Dewan Rakyat, or Parliament, the then Prime Minister pushed through legislation that allowed commoners to criticize the sultans including the king without fear of the country’s Sedition Act. However, in recent years, Mahathir’s measure has been largely ignored, including by the former premier himself, as UMNO has played politics to use the sultans to stifle dissent.

Now UMNO got caught in its own contradictions. The Johor Sultan suddenly made a power play in a sweeping bill tabled by his ally, the state chief minister, Mohamed Khaled Nordin, in the Johor legislature that would have given the Sultan control over vast amounts of lucrative state land through the Johor Property and Housing Commission. The measure would have given the sultan the power to appoint board members and investigate the commission‘s books, among other functions.

It was the latest in a series of moves by the Johor monarch, which critics say have been designed to eventually effectively take full power in the state, the country’s second richest and one that is growing richer because of its proximity to Singapore across the narrow Singapore Strait. The vehicle is the huge Iskandar development region, covering the city of Johor Bahru and three adjoining towns. The Iskandar project, encompassing 2,217 hectares of land, is in effect becoming Singapore’s industrial and residential suburb. It is estimated that as much as 40 percent of infrastructure spending for the country under Najib’s Economic Transformation Program is being spent in the state.

Enter the Sultan, who since the project got underway in 2006 has assumed greater and greater control over the region. He has been accused privately of sanctioning kickbacks, money laundering and a variety of backroom deals. He was a college classmate of Chief Minister Khaled, whom he appointed to his job. But in the growing atmosphere of political repression of comments about the sultans, his misdeeds have remained unreported and the power play was largely hidden in shadowy language in Malaysia’s mainstream press, along with his behavioral antics.

Despite Mahathir’s legislation outlawing the use of sedition laws to stifle criticism of the sultans, for instance the late Karpal Singh, the former chief of the opposition Democratic Party, was convicted on appeal of sedition charges in February this year after he merely said in Kuala Lumpur in 2009, during a political squabble over the leadership of the state of Perak, that a decision by the Sultan of Perak could be questioned in court. Karpal was stripped of his legislative seat and fined. He was appealing the decision when he was killed in a car wreck.

That use of sedition against opposition members left Najib and UMNO in a quandary when it came to the Sultan of Johor, who is hardly a Boy Scout. Ibrahim was jailed on allegations that he had beaten people in nightclubs before he became sultan and committed other offenses including shooting a man in a nightclub after an argument during the 1980s. The charge was dismissed because of the then-prince’s immunity. Ibrahim was also involved in two other separate assault cases.

In a 2005 case, a young woman reportedly was assaulted by Ibrahim after he accused her of two-timing him. His late father, Iskandar, who died in 2010 and for whom the Johor project was named, was alleged to have murdered two people but was not charged because of his immunity as a sultan. It was one of those murders that impelled Mahathir to push through laws removing the sultans’ immunity from prosecution.

Thus the ruling coalition and UMNO in particular were presented with a dilemma — how to criticize the actions of a state ruler they themselves had deemed untouchable. Najib, say sources in Kuala Lumpur, simply abandoned the situation, ignoring a letter sent to him by Mahathir demanding he take action. Apparently it fell to Musa and Mahathir to force amendments in the legislation behind the scenes to stop the sultan’s ploy.

Part of Najib’s dilemma stemmed from the fact that UMNO has seen its local political clout diminish. Although it still The Silent Onecontrols 56 of the 74 seats in the State Legislative Assembly, it lost 18 seats to the opposition in the 2013 national election. In that relatively weakened state, political analysts said, opposing the sultan, who remains the figurehead of rural Malays, was considered politically unwise by Najib.

That was when Mahathir stepped in from Kuala Lumpur to criticize the legislation, along with Musa, who told the Straits Times Sunday edition that “If the allegations are true, then it will affect the fundamental principles of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. One cannot expect the people to keep quiet on the matter.”

Ultimately the bill was modified to remove the sultan’s power to make appointments and vest it in the chief minister, which remains a continuing concern. It was passed on June 9. Mahathir himself remains suspicious, saying Chief Minister Khaled might succumb to the Malay tradition of considering the sultan the head of state.

“This is the Malay custom, if the sultan says something, it must be followed,” the former Prime Minister told Malaysiakini. “I am worried that it would not be the [chief minister] advising the sultan, but the sultan advising him.”

Literature moving into obscurity


June 15, 2014

Literature moving into obscurity

by Bhavani Krishna Iyer*@www.thesundaily.com

http://www.thesundaily.my/node/256005

E Literature

I HAVE vivid recollections of receiving brickbats from family members and friends when I made the announcement one eventful day that I was planning to pursue a doctoral degree in English Literature.

Many thought that such a degree would not earn me a living and yet others thought literature was out of vogue. I would say both these groups were neither completely right nor wrong, but the point is I have no regrets having pursued my passion.

It was uphill all the way getting material, and my search to support my thesis often ended in futility. I remember scouring bookshops in India where the assistants would send me to the deepest, darkest and most obscure corners in the shop to look for books related to literature. I often felt small but never any less important.

IT and engineering references were hot sellers and the bookshop owners used to tell me that literature books don’t sell because there was no demand.

There is also this common complaint that studying literature will not be of any use for a working adult unless one is teaching the subject. Not forgetting the acidulous remark we get that literature will not teach anyone how to make a sandwich or build a bridge, hence, why bother?

A course mate said she was almost coaxed into doing something “more marketable” when she was about to embark on the PhD. Such were the harsh realities when all things related to science and technology appeared to have elevated status at work and outside work, due to their perceived importance.

English writersWhen I stood in front of my boss years ago, asking for time off to attend classes, I was not surprised that he asked “how is it going to be of any benefit to you and the company.” I simply said, “I will be a better person to say the least, and of course as an employee, I will have a more enlightened view of my surrounding, the environment and the people around me.

“People with a literature background have better written and other communication skills and it has been widely accepted that understanding complex ideas and theories and doing research come easy,” I explained. He did not say anything further.

The zeal for literature is very much a personal preference, either you like it or you don’t and for those who are consumed in it for reasons other than academic, they will know the many-pronged benefits. I am a staunch believer that the interest can be developed.

Exposure to literature keeps one afloat in a conversation about the life and times of people which would appeal to just about anyone. Additionally, one’s vocabulary increases by reading literature and last but not least, literature serves as momentary escapism from the harsh realities of life. It serves to de-stress people who are overcome by the stress of modern living. People who read literary works will know the power and pleasure of using the language with all its quirks.

Personally, I think, literature adorns one with the ability to appreciate the enriching array of human characters and experiences.”But literature is difficult,” is often the lament from many, but let me tell you it need not be so if you get into the groove of it and start with the right material.

The Ministry of Education has incorporated a component called Language Arts in its English Language syllabus where pupils from Year 1 study rhymes, short stories and others to “activate pupils’ imagination and interest”.

I am told by a friend who is a teacher trainer that the English language teachers are exposed to teaching literature in the classrooms, in a small way from the way I see it but this is a good move and I hope we get this going without high-handed interference.

Having said that we seem to be in transition most times from quick-fixes in as far as learning English is concerned and perhaps a revolutionary policy in teaching and learning English might be just the answer to arrest the decay.

*The writer was a language teacher and now teaches part-time in public universities, apart from having a full-time job. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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


June 9, 2014

Bakri Musa reviews Dr. Syed Hussin Ali’s Memoirs


June 9, 2014

BOOK REVIEW

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.

So much noise, so little signal


May 25, 2014

So much noise, so little signal

by Raman Krishnan@Silverfish Books

https://www.facebook.com/SilverfishBooks

Raman KrishnanOh, so much noise, so little signal. Like listening to a short-wave radio.I will start with two stories. The first one is quite benign; the second, not.

Silverfish Books has always had a section on philosophy, theology and metaphysics; not quite the ‘idiot’s’ guide to religion, but something more thought-provoking.  Two lovely young women came up the stairs once, to show us some books by a religious group (some would call them a cult) that I had heard of, and to ask us if we would stock them. “Sure,” we said, and told them our terms.

Their next question was, “Where will you shelf them?” “We have a few shelves for religion,” we explained, whereupon, they said that theirs was not a religion but a way of life. So, big mouth, me, asked, “Do you know of any religion in the world that claims not to be a way of life?” They were politely offended, stunned and silenced. They withdrew quietly, taking their books with them, sticking to their beliefs, even if it meant not disseminating the ‘word’.

The second incident happened when I was in the university. I stayed in a hostel with five blocks, mine quite creatively called E-Block. There was the usual inter-block rivalry over all sorts things like sports, like who could shout the loudest, who could piss the furthest (it was a mostly men’s hostel), fart the most times, and so on.

We would often tease visitors from the other blocks and greet them with water filled balloons, often missing on purpose, but getting a great laugh from it. Then one night, it turned ugly. It started with some E-blockers hooting at a group of visitors from another block who had come to work on a tutorial with some friends. It then progressed to shouting, name calling, object throwing, chasing with sticks and ending in fisticuffs. I watched in horror, shock and confusion; they were all my friends!

I remember the kindergarten wisdom: united we stand, divided we fall. Rubbish: as individuals, we stand; united, we are a mob, bullies. William Golding got it spot on in the Lord of the Flies, the story of a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island after a plane crash, who try to govern themselves with disastrous results.

There was an interesting story in The New Yorker on-line by Maria Konnikova recently, I Don’t Want to Be Right, about a study by Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth on parental attitudes toward vaccination and other subjects, and how it is almost impossible to change a perception, once formed; and how ineffective factual correction is .

The story says: ‘Nyhan’s interest in false beliefs dates back to early 2000, when he was a senior at Swarthmore. It was the middle of a messy presidential campaign, and he was studying the intricacies of political science and came to the conclusion that “The 2000 (US presidential) campaign was something of a fact-free zone …” It appears it’s almost impossible to get people to change a belief or attitude, even when they are way off the truth.

In the first story, I guess no amount of logic would have changed the belief of the two women that theirs is the only ‘way of life’ that existed. The second is stranger because there was no belief system involved except maybe superiority. Curiously, they still get together every year and behave like they did when they were students in campus. Arrested development? Superiority complex? Beats me. Another friend, Ikram, who also attended the 30th anniversary bash with me, dropped in to Silverfish a few days after the event and said, “Shall we do that again in another 30 years?” I laughed. It was my sentiment exactly.

Running a bookshop like Silverfish is fraught with danger, given the quasi-intellectual nature we appear to project. We love the free exchange of ideas (many ambassadors visit us for that reason), but when some people insist that we should agree with them no matter what, it becomes difficult to say the least. They don’t understand, that while we may call a spade a spade, we are not always interested in taking sides; that even if we do chose a side, facts remain unaltered. It became really bad during the run-up to GE13, and no amount of factual correction made a difference. Unfortunately, even a whole year after GE13, it still hasn’t stopped, and this will probably continue to GE14.

Another quote from the story: “In a study, Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks looked to see if political misinformation … that was corrected immediately would be any less resilient than information that was allowed to go uncontested for a while. At first, it appeared as though the correction did cause some people to change their false beliefs. But, when the researchers took a closer look, they found that the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn’t work—it made the subject more distrustful …”

“Shouting, shouting, shouting,” says good friend and academic, Sumit Mandal, of Malaysian politics. The less you have to say, the louder you shout it,which turns out to have little to do with one’s stated political affiliations and far more to do with self-identity: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be? All ideologies are similarly affected.”

In other words, you may shout as much as you want, but people are not dumb; they know what they want. They are watching you. Or, is that merely wishful thinking?

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)

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/books/review/asias-cauldron-by-robert-d-kaplan.html?_r=0

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

BOOK REVIEW

http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/what-was-neoliberalism

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

Taking on Adam Smith (and Karl Marx)


April 21,2014

Taking on Adam Smith (and Karl Marx)

PARIS — Thomas Piketty turned 18 in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, so he was spared the tortured, decades-long French intellectual debate about the virtues and vices of communism. Even more telling, he remembers, was a trip he took with a close friend to Romania in early 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

piketty-“This sort of vaccinated me for life against lazy, anticapitalist rhetoric, because when you see these empty shops, you see these people queuing for nothing in the street,” he said, “it became clear to me that we need private property and market institutions, not just for economic efficiency but for personal freedom.”

But his disenchantment with communism doesn’t mean that Mr. Piketty (left) has turned his back on the intellectual heritage of Karl Marx, who sought to explain the “iron laws” of capitalism. Like Marx, he is fiercely critical of the economic and social inequalities that untrammeled capitalism produces — and, he concludes, will continue to worsen. “I belong to a generation that never had any temptation with the Communist Party; I was too young for that,” Mr. Piketty said, in a long interview in his small, airless office here at the Paris School of Economics. “So it’s easier in a way to reopen these big issues about capitalism and inequality with a fresh eye, lbecause I was too young for that fight. I don’t have to justify myself as being pro-communist or pro-capitalist.”

In his new book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (Harvard University Press), Mr. Piketty, 42, has written a blockbuster, at least in the world of economics. His book punctures earlier assumptions about the benevolence of advanced capitalism and forecasts sharply increasing inequality of wealth in industrialized countries, with deep and deleterious impact on democratic values of justice and fairness.

Branko Milanovic, a former economist at the World Bank, called it “one of the watershed books in economic thinking.” Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel in economic science and a columnist for The New York Times, wrote that it “will be the most important economics book of the year — and maybe of the decade.” Remarkably for a book on such a weighty topic, it has already entered The New York Times’s best-seller list.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” with its title echoing Marx’s “Das Kapital,” is meant to be a return to the kind of economic history, of political economy, written by predecessors like Marx and Adam Smith. It is nothing less than a broad effort to understand Western societies and the economic rules that underpin them. And in the process, by debunking the idea that “wealth raises all boats,” Mr. Piketty has thrown down a challenge to democratic governments to deal with an increasing gap between the rich and the poor — the very theme of inequality that recently moved both Pope Francis and President Obama to warn of its consequences.

Mr. Piketty — pronounced pee-ket-ee — grew up in a political home, with left-wing parents who were part of the 1968 demonstrations that turned traditional France upside down. Later, they went off to the Aude, deep in southern France, to raise goats. His parents are not a topic he wants to discuss. More relevant and important, he said, are his generation’s “founding experiences”: the collapse of Communism, the economic degradation of Eastern Europe and the first Gulf War, in 1991.

Those events motivated him to try to understand a world where economic ideas had such bad consequences. As for the Gulf War, it showed him that “governments can do a lot in terms of redistribution of wealth when they want.” The rapid intervention to force Saddam Hussein to unhand Kuwait and its oil was a remarkable show of concerted political will, Mr. Piketty said. “If we are able to send one million troops to Kuwait in a few months to return the oil, presumably we can do something about tax havens.”

Would he want to send troops to Guernsey, the lightly populated tax haven in the English Channel? Mr. Piketty, soft-spoken, barely laughed. “We don’t even have to do that — just simple basic trade policy, trade sanctions, would do the trick right away,” he said.

A top student, Mr. Piketty took a conventional path toward the French elite, being admitted to the rarefied École Normale Supérieure at 18. His doctoral dissertation on the theory of redistribution of wealth, completed at 22, won prizes. He then decamped to teach economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before returning two years later to France, disappointed with the study of economics in America.

“My Ph.D. is mostly about pure economic theory because that was the easiest thing to do, and I was hired at M.I.T. as a young assistant professor doing economic theory,” he said. “I was young and successful at doing this, so it was an easy way. But very quickly I realized that there was little serious effort at collecting historical data on income and wealth, so that’s what I started doing.”

Academic economics is so focused on getting the econometrics and the statistical interpolation technique correct, he said, “you don’t really think, you don’t dare to ask the big questions.” American economists too often narrow the questions they examine to those they can answer, “but sometimes the questions are not that interesting,” he said. “Trying to write a real book that could speak to everyone meant I could not choose my questions. I had to take the important issues in a frontal manner — I could not escape.”

He hated the insularity of the economics department. So he decided to write large, a book he considers as much history as economics, and one that is constructed to lead the general reader by the hand.

He is also not afraid of literature, finding inspiration in the descriptions of society in the realist novels of Jane Austen and Balzac. Wealth was best achieved in these stories through a clever marriage; everyone knew that inherited land and capital was the only way to live well, since labor alone would not produce sufficient income. He wondered how that assumption had changed.

As he extended his work on France to the United States in collaboration with Emmanuel Saez, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, he saw that the patterns of the early 20th century — “the top 10 percent of the distribution was full of rental income, dividend income, interest income” — seemed less prevalent from the 1970s through the early 1990s.

“It took me a long time to realize that in effect we were returning slowly in the direction of the previous equilibrium, and that we were part of a long transitory process,” he said. When he started working on the issue in the late 1990s, “there was no way this could be understood so clearly — having 20 additional years of data makes a big difference to understanding the postwar period.”

His findings, aided by the power of modern computers, are based on centuries of statistics on wealth accumulation and economic growth in advanced industrial countries. They are also rather simply stated: The rate of growth of income from capital is several times larger than the rate of economic growth, meaning a comparatively shrinking share going to income earned from wages, which rarely increase faster than overall economic activity. Inequality surges when population and the economy grow slowly.

The reason that postwar economies looked different — that inequality fell — was historical catastrophe. World War I, the Depression and World War II destroyed huge accumulations of private capital, especially in Europe. What the French call “les trentes glorieuses” — the roughly 30 postwar years of rapid economic growth and shrinking inequality — were a rebound. The American curve, of course, is less sharp, given that the fighting was elsewhere.

A higher than normal rate of population and economic growth helped reduce inequality, along with higher taxes on the wealthy. But the professional and political assumption of the 1950s and 1960s, that inequality would stabilize and diminish on its own, proved to be an illusion. We are now back to a traditional pattern of returns on capital of 4 percent to 5 percent a year and rates of economic growth of around 1.5 percent a year.

So inequality has been quickly gathering pace, aided to some degree by the Reagan and Thatcher doctrines of tax cuts for the wealthy. “Trickle-down economics could have been true,” Mr. Piketty said simply. “It just happened to be wrong.”

His work is a challenge both to Marxism and laissez-faire economics, which “both count on pure economic forces for harmony or justice to prevail,” he said. While Marx presumed that the rate of return on capital, because of the system’s contradictions, would fall close to zero, bringing collapse and revolution, Mr. Piketty is saying the opposite. “The rate of return to capital can be bigger than the growth rate forever — this is actually what we’ve had for most of human history, and there are good reasons to believe we will have it in the future.”

n 2012 the top 1 percent of American households collected 22.5 percent of the nation’s income, the highest total since 1928. The richest 10 percent of Americans now take a larger slice of the pie than in 1913, at the close of the Gilded Age, owning more than 70 percent of the nation’s wealth. And half of that is owned by the top 1 percent.

Mr. Piketty, father of three daughters — 11, 13 and 16 — is no revolutionary. He is a member of no political party, and says he never served as an economic adviser to any politician. He calls himself a pragmatist, who simply follows the data.

But he accepts that his work is essentially political, and he is highly critical of the huge management salaries now in vogue, saying that “the idea that you need people making 10 million in compensation to work is pure ideology.”

Inequality by itself is acceptable, he says, to the extent it spurs individual initiative and wealth-generation that, with the aid of progressive taxation and other measures, helps makes everyone in society better off. “I have no problem with inequality as long as it is in the common interest,” he said.

But like the Columbia University economist Joseph E. Stiglitz (right), he argues that J Stiglitzextreme inequality “threatens our democratic institutions.” Democracy is not just one citizen, one vote, but a promise of equal opportunity.

“It’s very difficult to make a democratic system work when you have such extreme inequality” in income, he said, “and such extreme inequality in terms of political influence and the production of knowledge and information. One of the big lessons of the 20th century is that we don’t need 19th-century inequality to grow.” But that’s just where the capitalist world is heading again, he concludes.

Mr. Saez, his collaborator, said that “Thomas combines great perfectionism with great impatience — he both wants to do things well and do things fast.” He added that Mr. Piketty has “incredible intuition for economics.”

The last part of the book presents Mr. Piketty’s policy ideas. He favors a progressive global tax on real wealth (minus debt), with the proceeds not handed to inefficient governments but redistributed to those with less capital. “We just want a way to share the tax burden that is fair and practical,” he said.

Net wealth is a better indicator of ability to pay than income alone, he said. “All I’m proposing is to reduce the property tax on half or three-quarters of the population who have very little wealth,” he said.

Published a year ago in French, the book is not without critics, especially of Mr. Piketty’s policy prescriptions, which have been called politically naïve. Others point out that some of the increase in capital is because of aging populations and postwar pension plans, which are not necessarily inherited.

More criticism is sure to come, and Mr. Piketty says he welcomes it. “I’m certainly looking forward to the debate.”

READ onhttp://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/business/international/taking-on-adam-smith-and-karl-marx.html?ref=books

Penang to give Karpal official send-off


The Penang government will provide veteran lawmaker Karpal Singh an official send off.
The Penang government will provide veteran lawmaker Karpal Singh an official send off.

April 17, 2014

A Tribute to The Tiger of Jelutong:

Legacy of the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’ will endure

by Aimee Gulliver @www.malaysiakini.com

  • Cowards die many times before their deaths;
    The valiant never taste of death but once.
    Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
    It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
    Seeing that death, a necessary end,
    Will come when it will come.

    • Julius Caesar Act II, scene 2, line 33.

Karpal Singh’s story may have come to an abrupt end this morning, but the author of his biography says the legacy of the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’ will endure in Malaysia, where he was a warrior in the fight for equality and justice.

image

New Zealand journalist Tim Donoghue first met Karpal in Penang in 1987 and spent nearly 30 years researching the biography he wrote on the fearless lawyer and advocate, titled “Karpal Singh – Tiger of Jelutong”, which was published in 2013.

“I’ve done a few things in journalism, but I’m particularly proud of that because this man was the ultimate scrapper, but he had a sense of humour,” Donoghue said.

“The things he had to deal with, the life and death issues that he had to deal with, he smiled his way through them all, and he helped a lot of people out along the way. There was always that great twinkle in his eyes, and you just knew that no matter what anyone was ever going to throw at that guy, he was never going to kow-tow to any man.”

Karpal and his aide Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, 39, were killed in a road accident about 1.10 this morning near Kampar in Perak. The former DAP chairperson’s sudden departure has shocked the nation, and elicated a flood of eulogies from both sides of the political divide.

His death comes as the 74-year-old was gearing up to appeal his recent conviction for sedition that was cross-appealed by the government, which is seeking have the wheelchair-bound politician jailed.

Karpal

“I don’t think the legal system has brought any great credit upon itself by convicting this man of sedition.“I think that is something that those in the ruling political and legal establishment of Malaysia do need to think about.”, Donoghue said.

The government’s persecution of the man who stood up and fought for human rights in Malaysia had made a martyr out of him, Donoghue said.

“Now that Karpal has gone to his death under threat of imprisonment for this sedition charge, I think he will be a great rallying point come the next election – there will be a huge groundswell of support among the opposition parties in the country.”

A long line of challenges

Karpal’s conviction for sedition was just the latest in a long line of challenges for the “Sikh warrior in legal attire”. “Back when he was 65, after the car accident, most people said he was gone. Even his best friends, with the best intentions in the world, were saying it would have been a far more merciful end if he had died at that time.”

“But the Tiger of Jelutong had a message for those who doubted him.

“He suffered a huge amount of pain as a result of that accident, but he vowed, with the help of his family, to get back out there into the realm of both politics and the law in Malaysia and to keep challenging those in power.”

“Karpal continued his work, and some of his most notable achievements came in the years following his debilitating accident”, Donoghue said.

“After his car accident, his life was totally shattered. But I do think he did his best work, both in the law and in politics, in the seven or eight years that he had after his accident. He did some amazing things in his life. “He would say to me, ‘retirement is not a word in my dictionary’. And the reason I think he hung on was as a result of the pain he suffered because of that accident.”

Donoghue said the manner of Karpal’s death could be considered a merciful release in some ways, but his family would not agree.

Backed by family, every step of the way

“Every step of the way they backed him, they fought with him, and they lifted and laid him. They fought to keep him going.” It was with the support of his family, and his devoted assistant Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, 39, who was also killed in this morning’s accident, that Karpal was able to continue his work after the 2005 accident.

“Michael gave his life for this man. He worked around the clock, 24 hours a day, just to support Karpal, and the whole family is very, very, grateful for the job he has done.

“Everything Karpal has done in the last few years has been with the support of (his wife) Gurmit Kaur and Michael. They’ve kept him going, really.”

When he came to Malaysia to launch Karpal’s biography in 2013, Donoghue said he could tell Karpal was extremely proud of what he had achieved in his life.

“Basically, his legacy is one of uncompromising challenge to human rights on a number of fronts throughout his 40-plus years in legal practice.

“I suppose what endeared him to me was he challenged, he challenged, he challenged – and he did it in such a way that everybody enjoyed the trip.”

Although he was an eminently patient man, Donoghue said, Karpal would occasionally get frustrated with him, and ask when the book would be completed.

“I would tell him we would finish when he gave me an ending. We had the final ending this morning, and I think Karpal Singh will go down as one of the great warriors of the Malaysian legal and political fraternities.”

“He was a man who, as long as he had breath going into his lungs, was always going to fight. And in the wake of this man’s life, the fight will go on in Malaysia.”


AIMEE GULLIVER is a New Zealand journalist interning with Malaysiakini for six weeks, courtesy of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.