Book Review: ‘Reagan: The Life

January 24, 2015

NY Times Sunday  Book Review

Reagan: The Life, by H. W. Brands

For a man who lived most of his life on camera, Ronald Reagan eludes focus. There was, and remains, a gauziness to the picture; Reagan retained, throughout his political career, the remoteness of a screen idol, though he never achieved that status as a movie actor. He was ubiquitous for decades and, as president, left a lasting imprint on America’s political culture. Yet he was all the same an unknowable man — even to those nearest him. In White House meetings, he was mostly silent, often leaving his aides to guess at (and feud over) his views. In his personal relationships, he was unfailingly warm but rarely intimate. “He doesn’t let anybody get too close,” one observer said. “There’s a wall around him.” That the observer was his wife, Nancy, should give pause to any politician or pundit who claims to know what Reagan would do if he were here today. (It should, but it won’t.)

It should also serve as a warning to any biographer. A two-volume treatment by Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan as a reporter for more than three decades, arguably got close to the real Reagan. But that was a rare achievement. The example of Edmund Morris provides a cautionary tale: In the mid-1980s, having won the Pulitzer Prize, he signed on to write an authorized biography of Reagan and was given extraordinary access to the man and his papers. Yet Morris found his subject so confounding that — in a spectacularly misguided attempt to understand and explain Reagan — he rendered himself a fictional character, worked his way into Reagan’s life story and called the resulting book, “Dutch,” “an advance in biographical honesty.” Once described as “America’s Boswell,” Morris ended up as Reagan’s Ahab — driven mad by his mission to “strike through the mask,” as Melville’s accursed captain put it.

Few authors since have dared reckon with Reagan’s life in full. And where biographers fear to tread, monographers run wild and free, publishing shorter takes on narrower topics. The Reagan canon contains books on his spirituality, his character and his dream of a world free of nuclear weapons; books on his successful run for governor of California in 1966, his failed campaign for the Republican nomination in 1976 and his election as President in 1980; and books on his love letters to Nancy and his relationships with Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Taken together, these books constitute a blind-men-and-the-elephant approach to reconstructing Reagan. Even if one were to read them all, Reagan’s own question — a line from one of his films, “King’s Row” — would remain: “Where’s the rest of me?”

The answer might seem likely to be found somewhere in “Reagan: The Life,” the first substantial biography of the 40th President in the decade and a half since “Dutch.” Undaunted by Morris’s misadventure, the historian H. W. Brands does not break a sweat in his brisk, if extended, stroll through Reagan’s long life. Brands is at ease in the company of a colossus; in “Reagan,” as in his popular biographies of Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and other great men, he breezes through and around complexities without pause or digression.

His portrait of Reagan is fair-minded if fond; “Reagan” is free of the partisan ax-grinding and mostly free of the mythmaking that characterizes much of the Reagan bookshelf. Brands makes clear that Reagan was, in many ways, a paradox: an “ideologist” who was open to compromise, even on taxes and federal spending; a reflexive optimist with a wide streak of “negativity”; a staunch anti-Communist whose policies toward the “evil empire” were, as Brands notes, mostly cautious, “pragmatic” and “nonjudgmental.”

Like his subject, Brands appears happiest when he’s telling a story, and Reagan, of course, provides many excellent ones — from his good humor in the emergency room after being shot by John Hinckley in 1981 to his two-day-long negotiation with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986, the prelude to a historic arms reduction agreement the following year. Few of these stories, though, are unfamiliar. “Reagan” is a greatest hits collection that is light on new material. Considered against other biographies in its weight class — those mega-books to which the word “definitive” adheres as if by laws of physics — Brands’s account is peculiarly unambitious, overfull of pat and timeworn observations.

On Reagan’s enduring appeal, he writes that “Reagan loved the camera, and the camera loved him. The affair would last a lifetime.” On the political power of Reagan’s jokes and anecdotes, he notes that “democratic elections are, at their most basic level, popularity contests, and Reagan knew how to be popular.” It is counterintuitive to call an 800-page book superficial, but length does not equal depth.

Brands, who holds an endowed chair in history at the University of Texas at Austin, shows a surprising indifference to the literature on his subject. Aside from marquee memoirs by Michael Deaver, Donald Regan, George Shultz and other members of the Reagan staff and cabinet, Brands draws on very few books at all, and apparently even fewer primary documents — typically the biographer’s manna. This despite the government’s rolling declassification of millions of pages of memos, notes and correspondence from the Reagan years. The chapter on Reagan’s February 1981 address to Congress, in which he set out his economic agenda, cites only a single source: the text of the speech. An account of Reagan’s six-day visit to China in 1984 relies almost exclusively on Reagan’s own diary.

“The most important source of information on Ronald Reagan,” Brands observes in a note on sources, “is Reagan himself.” It’s true that Reagan, the former actor, did an impressive amount of his own scripting as a politician, writing not only speeches and letters but also policy essays and radio addresses. Reagan’s diaries can be refreshingly frank. Brands quotes a June 14, 1982, entry in which Reagan admits to sharing his advisers’ irritation with Al Haig, his contentious secretary of state: “It’s amazing how sound he can be on complex international matters,” Reagan writes, “but how utterly paranoid with regard to the people he must work with.”

Often, though, Brands simply steps back and allows Reagan — who frequently conflated fact and fiction, and had trouble distinguishing movie plots from reality — to function as his own narrator. At times, Brands casts doubt on Reagan’s version of events, but usually he lets Reagan speak for himself, unchecked and unchallenged.

“Reagan” is, in the end, a missed opportunity — a disappointingly thin and strangely inert portrait of a president who, given his hold on the conservative imagination, still needs to be better understood. His admirers have worked so assiduously for so long to promote a particular notion of Reagan — the tax-cutting, ­government-loathing Reagan, the line-in-the-sand Reagan who was unafraid to rattle a saber or call an empire “evil” — that over time it has become harder, not easier, to apprehend the essential Reagan, contradictions and all. The appropriation of Reagan’s image by those who reject and deny his political pragmatism requires in response a sharper, clearer, fuller portrait than Brands provides. The rest of Reagan might never be knowable, but the search is important, and ought to go on

Jeff Shesol is the author, most recently, of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.”

A version of this review appears in print on June 7, 2015, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Unknowable Man. Today’s Paper

Ebba Eban–Israel’s Finest Diplomat and Voice

January 3, 2016

Ebba Eban–Israel’s Finest Diplomat and Voice

NY Times Sunday Book Review

‘Abba Eban: A Biography,’ by Asaf Siniver

In December 1955, following Syrian har­assment of Israeli fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, Israel carried out a large attack on Syrian military positions, killing 50 soldiers and capturing 30. Abba Eban, Israel’s eloquent and admired representative to the United Nations, thought the response was over the top and wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Ben-­Gurion condemning the raid.

At the United Nations, meanwhile, Eban defended the operation, assailing Syria’s implacable hostility. Ben-Gurion wrote back to Eban saying he himself had had doubts about the retaliation but “when I read the full text of your brilliant defense of our action in the Security Council, all my doubts were set to rest. You have convinced me that we were right after all.”

It was a moment that captured the cruel irony of Eban’s political career, filled with glory at the podium and derision behind the scenes. Known as the Voice of Israel, he was one of the most stirring orators of the second half of the 20th century and an accomplished author of popular history. President Lyndon Johnson said a speech of Eban’s was worth several divisions to Israel and told him, “I think you are the most eloquent speaker in the world today.”

But in Israel, he was mostly dismissed as a pompous, softheaded outsider overly worried about world opinion. (When Golda Meir heard that Eban was considering running for prime minister, she asked, “In which country?”) After 10 years representing Israel at the United Nations and in Washington, he spent three decades as a member of Parliament and eight as foreign minister. But his political influence was minimal and his legislative accomplishments nearly nil (not a single bill carried his name).

Having done less to shape Israel than to defend and chronicle it, Eban is a challenging choice for a biographer. Asaf Siniver, a Professor of International Studies at the University of Birmingham in England, has produced a clear and ­levelheaded volume, a vast improvement over the only other Eban biography, a gushing bit of hagiography by the journalist Robert St. John in 1972. Eban himself wrote two somewhat self-­congratulatory memoirs along with his numerous works about Israel and the Jews. But “Abba Eban: A Biography” is the first attempt to examine this unusual man’s life and work and use them as a lens for the history of Israel. The life and work come across reasonably clearly, the lens part less so.

Siniver says that the six years he spent reading Eban’s every word and interviewing associates and relatives gave him affection for his subject. Perhaps, but he judges his man pretty harshly. Eban was, Siniver says, “the Voice of Israel, but not its mind,” and describes his story as “ultimately one of failure.” That failure, Siniver asserts, lies as much with Eban’s compatriots as with him, ­evidence of a virulent form of anti-intellectualism at the heart of Zionism that helps explain Israel’s continuing preference for militarism over diplomacy. While that argument might have been an intriguing one for the author to follow, Siniver does not develop it. He merely states it.

This is a shame, since one suspects that whatever general interest remains in Eban today comes from a similar sentiment. At one time, Zionism was represented by a liberal intellectual like Eban, a peace-loving Arabic scholar whose every English word sounded like Keats. Israel’s current United Nations ambassador, Danny Danon, is by contrast a scrappy right-wing advocate of Jewish settlements. Could Eban’s life and work be used to examine how that shift occurred? Perhaps. But Siniver has not really tried. Instead, his book is a straightforward account of Eban’s personal story interwoven with Israel’s diplomatic and political history. Both stories are pretty extraordinary.

Born in 1915 in South Africa and raised in England, Eban, who was originally named Aubrey, had a rough childhood. His father died when he was an infant. His mother remarried and sent Aubrey to an English boarding school at age 4. He felt orphaned, which may help explain his reserved, formal manner. He buried himself in studies, especially of lan­guages, and excelled. He won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he earned a rare triple first in Hebrew, Arabic and Persian, three of the 10 languages in which he reputedly became fluent. This was a man who amused himself by translating newspaper articles into classical Greek. He was a Cambridge don at 23 and would have gone on to a distinguished academic career had not the Zionist movement come calling.


He began at the Jewish Agency in London, and although he was deeply devoted to Jewish national rebirth in Palestine, he was troubled by two shortcomings of the movement. The first was a “tendency to claim a total rectitude for its views and to be based on the assumption that nobody else has any case at all.” The second was disdain for Arab culture. Eban said that his deep study of Arabic literature “made it impossible for me thereafter to adopt the routine Zionist stereotype that regarded the Arab nation with intellectual condescension.”

His skill as a wordsmith became evident quickly and he was put to work. His speech at the United Nations advocating Israel’s membership lasted more than two hours, to great admiration. He gained fame for some aphorisms. (“Men and nations sometimes behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.” “His ignorance is encyclopedic.”) But his brilliance as a speaker was not about the killer quote. It involved pace, image and word choice, a mix of grit and poignancy, as when he said of Israel’s struggle for international recognition that it “held the joy of birth and the fear of death in a single taste.”

In the end, Siniver’s account raises fewer questions about the gap between Eban and his country than about the gap between his beliefs and his words when it mattered most. In that sense, it is a more tragic story and more damning account than many may expect. Siniver offers numerous examples of Eban defending Israeli actions with which he disagreed or urging that steps (like annexing the Golan) be simply more discreet, not abandoned. In 1967, Eban was sent to Washington to ask it to lead an effort to reopen shipping lanes that were under Egyptian control. But in a meeting with the American secretary of state he knowingly read a false intelligence report alleging that six Egyptian divisions were gathered in Sinai in preparation for an Arab attack. He was angry at his government and himself, but he did it. Only after Eban was ejected from Israeli politics in the 1980s did he find a real voice of dissent, publicly advocating for the Palestinian case and assailing some of Israel’s restrictive laws.

In his last interview, two years before his death in 2002, he told an Israeli journalist that he had been mistaken to hold his tongue. “I was wrong when I did not fight for my positions,” he said. “I didn’t have the courage.”

Ethan Bronner, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, was The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief from 2008 to 2012.

A version of this review appears in print on January 3, 2016, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Defender of Israel. Today’s Paper.

Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman

November 26, 2015

Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman


Richard Feynman: Life, the universe and everything

Flowers, music, strip clubs…Richard Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. Christopher Riley pays tribute to an eccentric genius

by Christopher Riley

In these days of frivolous entertainments and frayed attention spans, the people who become famous are not necessarily the brightest stars. One of the biggest hits on YouTube, after all, is a video of a French bulldog who can’t roll over. But in amongst all the skateboarding cats and laughing babies, a new animated video, featuring the words of a dead theoretical physicist, has gone viral. In the film, created from an original documentary made for the BBC back in the early Eighties, the late Nobel Prize-winning professor, Richard Feynman, can be heard extolling the wonders of science contained within a simple flower.

There is “beauty”, he says, not only in the flower’s appearance but also in an appreciation of its inner workings, and how it has evolved the right colours to attract insects to pollinate it. Those observations, he continues, raise further questions about the insects themselves and their perception of the world. “The science,” he concludes, “only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower.” This interview was first recorded by the BBC producer Christopher Sykes, back in 1981 for an episode of Horizon called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. When it was broadcast the following year the programme was a surprise hit, with the audience beguiled by the silver-haired professor chatting to them about his life and his philosophy of science.

Now, thanks to the web, Richard Feynman’s unique talents – not just as a brilliant physicist, but as an inspiring communicator – are being rediscovered by a whole new audience. As well as the flower video, which, to date, has been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, YouTube is full of other clips paying homage to Feynman’s ground-breaking theories, pithy quips and eventful personal life.

The work he did in his late twenties at Cornell University, in New York state, put the finishing touches to a theory which remains the most successful law of nature yet discovered. But, as I found while making a new documentary about him for the BBC, his curiosity knew no bounds, and his passion for explaining his scientific view of the world was highly contagious. Getting to glimpse his genius through those who loved him, lived and worked with him, I grew to regret never having met him; to share first-hand what so many others described as their “time with Feynman”.

Richard Phillips Feynman was born in Far Rockaway — a suburb of New York – in May 1918, but his path in life was forged even before this. “If he’s a boy I want him to be a scientist,” said his father, Melville, to his pregnant wife. By the time he was 10, Feynman had his own laboratory at home and, a few years later, he was employing his sister Joan as an assistant at a salary of four cents a week. By 15, he’d taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, analytic geometry and calculus, and in his last year of high school won the New York University Math Championship, shocking the judges not only by his score, but by how much higher it was than those of his competitors.

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and obtained perfect marks in maths and physics exams for the graduate school at Princeton University — an unprecedented feat. “At 23 there was no physicist on Earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science,” writes his biographer James Gleick.

Such talents led to him being recruited to the Manhattan Project in the early Forties. Together with some of the greatest minds in physics in the 20th century, Feynman was put to work to help build an atom bomb to use against the Germans before they built one to use against the Allies. Security at the top-secret Los Alamos labs was at the highest level. But for Feynman — a born iconoclast – such control was there to be challenged. When not doing physics calculations he spent his time picking locks and cracking safes to draw attention to shortcomings in the security systems.

“Anything that’s secret I try and undo,” he explained years later. Feynman saw the locks in the same way as he saw physics: just another puzzle to solve. He garnered such a reputation, in fact, that others at the lab would come to him when a colleague was out-of-town and they needed a document from his safe.

Between the safe cracking and the physics calculations, the pace of life at Los Alamos was relentless. But for Feynman these activities were a welcome distraction from a darker life. His wife, Arline, who was confined to her bed in a sanatorium nearby, was slowly dying of TB.

When she died in the summer of 1945, Feynman was bereft. This misery was compounded, a few weeks later, when the first operational atom bomb was dropped on Japan, killing more than 80,000 people. His original reason for applying his physics to the war effort had been to stop the Germans. But its use on the Japanese left Feynman shocked. For the first time in his life he started to question the value of science and, convinced the world was about to end in a nuclear holocaust, his focus drifted.

He became something of a womaniser, dating undergraduates and hanging out with show girls and prostitutes in Las Vegas. In a celebrated book of anecdotes about his life – Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman – the scientist recounts how he applied an experimental approach to chatting up women. Having assumed, like most men, that you had to start by offering to buy them a drink, he explains how a conversation with a master of ceremonies at a nightclub in Albuquerque one summer prompted him to change tactics. And to his surprise, an aloof persona proved far more successful than behaving like a gentleman.

William Hurt as Richard Feynman in a BBC drama based on his role in the Challenger disaster report

His other method of relaxation in those years was music; his passion for playing the bongos stayed with him for the rest of his life. Physics had slipped down his list of priorities, but he suddenly rediscovered his love for the subject in a most unexpected way. In the canteen at Cornell one lunchtime he became distracted by a student, who had thrown a plate into the air. As it clattered onto the floor Feynman observed that the plate rotated faster than it wobbled. It made him wonder what the relationship was between these two motions.

Playing with the equations which described this movement reminded him of a similar problem concerning the rotational spin of the electron, described by the British physicist Paul Dirac. And this, in turn, led him to Dirac’s theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED); a theory which had tried to make sense of the subatomic world but had posed as many questions as it answered. What followed, Feynman recalled years later, was like a cork coming out of a bottle. “Everything just poured out,” he remembered.

“He really liked to work in the context of things that were supposed to be understood and just understand them better than anyone else,” says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist who sits today at Feynman’s old desk at Caltech, in Pasadena. “That was very characteristic of Feynman. It required this really amazing physical intuition – an insight into what was really going on.” Applying this deep insight, Feynman invented an entirely new branch of maths to work on QED, which involved drawing little pictures instead of writing equations.

Richard’s sister, Joan, recalls him working on the problem while staying with her one weekend. Her room-mate was still asleep in the room where Richard had been working. “He said to me, ‘Would you go in the room and get my papers, I wanna start working’,” she remembers. “So I went in the room and I looked for them, but there was no mathematics. It was just these silly little diagrams and I came out and said, ‘Richard, I can’t find your papers, it’s just these kind of silly diagrams’. And he said, ‘That is my work!’” Today Feynman’s diagrams are used across the world to model everything from the behaviour of subatomic particles to the motion of planets, the evolution of galaxies and the structure of the cosmos.

Applying them to QED, Feynman came up with a solution which would win him a share of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics. Almost half a century later QED remains our best explanation of everything in the universe except gravity. “It’s the most numerically precise physical theory ever invented,” says Carroll.

Discovering a law of nature and winning a Nobel Prize, for most people, would represent the pinnacle of a scientific career. But for Feynman these achievements were mere stepping stones to other interests. He took a sabbatical to travel across the Caltech campus to the biology department, where he worked on viruses. He also unravelled the social behaviour of ants and potential applications of nanotechnology. And he was active beyond the world of science, trading physics coaching for art lessons with renowned Californian artist Jirayr Zorthian. (While at Caltech he also began frequenting a local strip club, where he would quietly work out his theories on napkins; he found it the ideal place in which to clear his head.)

But it was his talent as a communicator of science that made him famous. In the early Sixties, Cornell invited him to give the Messenger Lectures – a series of public talks on physics. Watching them today, Feynman’s charisma and charm is as seductive as it was 50 years ago.

“He loved a big stage,” says Carroll. “He was a performer as well as a scientist. He could explain things in different ways than the professionals thought about them. He could break things down into their constituent pieces and speak a language that you already shared. He was an amazingly good teacher and students loved him unconditionally.”

Recognising this ability, in 1965 Caltech asked him to rewrite the undergraduate physics course. The resulting Feynman Lectures on Physics took him three years to create and the accompanying textbooks still represent the last word on the history of physics. The lectures themselves were brimming with inspiring “showbiz demonstrations” as his friend Richard Davies describes them. Most memorably, Feynman used to set up a heavy brass ball on a pendulum, send it swinging across the room, and then wait for it to swing back towards him. Students would gasp as it rushed towards his face, but Feynman would stand stock still, knowing it would stop just in front of his nose. Keen to capitalise on these talents for engaging an audience, Christopher Sykes made his film for Horizon. “He took enormous pleasure in exploring life and everything it had to offer,” remembers Sykes. “More than that, he took tremendous pleasure in telling you about it.”

In the late Seventies, Feynman discovered a tumour in his abdomen. “He came home and reported, ‘It’s the size of a football’,” remembers his son Carl. “I was like ‘Wow, so what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I went to the medical library and I figure there’s about a 30 per cent chance it will kill me’.” Feynman was trying to turn his predicament into something fascinating, but it was still not the kind of thing a son wanted to hear from his father.

A series of operations kept Feynman alive and well enough to work on one final important project. In 1986, he joined the commission set up to investigate the Challenger disaster. The space shuttle had exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing the entire crew of seven astronauts. Feynman fought bureaucratic intransigence and vested interests to uncover the cause of the accident: rubber O-ring seals in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters that failed to work on the freezing morning of the launch. At a typically flamboyant press conference, Feynman demonstrated his findings by placing a piece of an O-ring in a glass of iced water. But the inquiry had left him exhausted. With failing kidneys and in a great deal of pain he decided not to go through surgery again and went into hospital for the last time in February 1988.

His friend Danny Hillis remembers walking with Feynman around this time: “I said, ‘I’m sad because I realise you’re about to die’. And he said, ‘That bugs me sometimes, too. But not as much as you’d think. Because you realise you’ve told a lot of stories and those are gonna stay around even after you’re gone.’” Twenty-five years after his death, thanks to the web, Feynman’s prophecy has more truth than he could ever have imagined.

Christopher Riley is a visiting professor at the University of Lincoln. His film ‘The Fantastic Mr Feynman’ is on BBC Two on Sunday.

Thanks Loess74

Tun Dr. Ismail A. Rahman– A Malaysian Patriot

October 31, 2015

Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman and I

When both Dr. Ooi Kee Beng and Oxford-educated Tawfik IsmailDin Merican7a were working on the book titled The Reluctant Politician, I asked Tawfik what was it like to be the eldest son of Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman. At that time, I was being interviewed and subsequently quoted in the book.

I had been observing Tun Dr. Ismail since I was in the Foreign Service (1963-1965) when as Assistant Secretary (Political)  on the South East Asia desk reporting to  YM Raja Tan Sri Aznam Raja Ahmad. I used to accompany foreign leaders who paid courtesy calls on our Second Deputy Prime Minister at his Home Affairs Office in the Prime Minister’s complex in Jalan Dato Onn, Kuala Lumpur.

After he resigned from the Tunku’s cabinet, Tun Dr. Ismail practised medicine at Macpherson, Catterral, Khoo and Partners. He examined me and  signed my medical certificate that enabled me to further my studies in the United States in 1968 as a Bank Negara scholar.I remember saying to Tawfik that I wished I had kept a copy of that medical certificate.

As luck would have it, upon my return from Washington DC with a postgraduate degree in mid-1970, I became a frequent golfing companion of the Tun who was then President, Kelab Golf Negara Subang  by virtue of my being Chairman of the Club’s caddy committee in 1971.

What Tawfik told me confirmed my view of Tun Dr. Ismail.  The Tun was punctual, meticulous, competitive and strict. He was a man of few words yet friendly, kind and considerate.  Tawfik added that Tun Dr., Ismail was a model family man who found time for his wife, Toh Puan Norashikin and his children. He was particularly interested in their  education and upbringing, despite his busy schedule. It was obvious to me that Tawfik admired and loved his much respected father.

When Tun Dr. Ismail died in 1973, like many men and women of my generation, I was moved to tears. I felt that Malaysia had lost a leader who was a dedicated public servant of  dignity and integrity.–Din Merican

Tun Dr. Ismail A. Rahman– A Malaysian Patriot

by R B Bhattacharjee
Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul RahmanTun Dr. Ismail –A Man of Integrity

A hundred years ago on November 4, Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, the much respected second Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, was born. The public’s liking for him, according to numerous accounts of his life and times, was based on certain traits in his character that made him stand out as a public figure.

These qualities included a non-racial outlook, a tough but fair approach towards the rules, and a principled stand on issues affecting the nation’s future.

As former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah said in an interview with the New Straits Times daily on Dr Ismail’s role following the May 13, 1969 racial riots:

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah“The Chinese did not have much confidence in (second Prime Minister Tun Abdul) Razak (Hussein), but they did in Ismail. Razak was always associated with Malay and rural affairs, et cetera. Ismail was a principled man – and was seen that way by the different races. He was the Rock of Gibraltar. Once he decided on something you could be sure that he had gone through the relevant details and studied them. What is confidence unless it is based on the people’s belief in the leader?”

Indeed, Dr Ismail’s steadfast character and penchant for correctness was such that Razak seldom disagreed with him, including when the country was run by the National Operations Council during the Emergency rule following the 1969 riots.

Former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was quoted in the New Straits Times article as recalling that Razak often took pains to accommodate Dr Ismail’s views, extending meetings whenever there was a clash of opinions so as to satisfy Dr Ismail.

The independence of mind that Dr Ismail displayed allowed him to articulate a moderate vision of nationhood that was reassuring to the different races in the country, while retaining the special position of the Malays as a central pillar.

That vision was evident, for instance, in a statement that Dr Ismail issued as the Home Minister in the heated period before the riots broke out. Ultra Malay leaders including Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Musa Hitam had called for Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s resignation in favour of a leader who would restore “Malay sovereignty”.

The Tunku responded by forcing Dr Mahathir and Musa out of Umno, at which Dr Ismail issued a statement that: “These ultras believe in the wild and fantastic theory of absolute dominion by one race over the other communities, regardless of the Constitution… Polarisation has taken place in Malaysian politics and the extreme racialists among the ruling party are making a desperate bid to topple the present leadership.”

The moderation that Dr Ismail espoused strikes an especially meaningful chord in the current times, when inter-racial harmony is repeatedly being tested by inflammatory statements from right wing groups.

Dr Ismail’s views on the multi-racial nature of Malaysia’s politics are a far cry from the intolerant and extremist opinions being aired today. They tell us that the inclusive vision of our founding fathers has been supplanted by a narrow, regressive version of what Malaysian stands for.

Contrast Dr Ismail’s views with the oft-repeated call to extend the New Economic Policy (NEP) on the grounds that the Bumiputeras are still unable to compete on a level playing field.

An avid golfer, Dr Ismail likened the NEP to a handicap for the Malays which “will enable them to be good players, as in golf, and in time the handicap will be removed,” he was quoted as saying, in a retrospective article on his contributions to the nation, carried in the Sun daily.

“The Malays must not think of these privileges as permanent: for then, they will not put effort into their tasks. In fact, it is an insult for the Malays to be getting these privileges,” he said.

Dr Ismail’s courage in laying bare the reality behind affirmative action makes him a rare commodity in a field where development policy has been misdirected for political advantage.

It is time that we draw strength from Dr Ismail’s honesty to realign our efforts towards the original goals of the NEP, namely the eradication of poverty and restructuring of society, weaning the able off its life support system.

tawfikOxford educated Tawfik Ismail

Even concerning the question of the special position of the Malays, which was a core issue in the Independence negotiations, Dr Ismail is quoted in his biography ‘The Reluctant Politician’ (2007) as having written that “the leaders of the Alliance realised the practical necessity of giving the Malays a handicap if they were to compete on equal terms with the other races. The only point of controversy was the duration of the ‘special position’ – should there be a time limit or should it be permanent?

“I made a suggestion which was accepted, that the question be left to the Malays themselves, because I felt that as more and more Malays became educated and gained self-confidence, they themselves would do away with this ‘special position’ because in itself this ‘special position’ is a slur on the ability of the Malays and only to be tolerated because it is necessary as a temporary measure to ensure their survival in modern competitive world: a world to which only those in the urban areas had been exposed.”

Expressing concern over racial polarisation in the country, he once asked:

“Why did we fight for Merdeka? So that the different races can be divided? That can’t be the way, right? That can’t be why all these great Malay and UMNO leaders fought for this… Something is wrong…

“I hope the new discussions will start. Why are we building Malaysia? What Malaysia are we building? What kind of symbol is Malaysia supposed to be?”

It is telling that over 40 years after Dr Ismail’s passing, the questions that he had posed then continue to trouble us. It is left for the people today to draw inspiration from Dr Ismail’s clarity of vision about the relations among Malaysia’s diverse communities in order to forge a common future.

His untimely death at 58 has truly made him “the best Prime Minister Malaysia never had”.

Book Review: A Prince in a Republic–Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX of Yogyakarta Sultanate

October 28, 2015

Book Review: A Prince in a Republic

by Muhammad Yuanda Zara

John Monfries,
A Prince in a Republic: The Life of Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX of Yogyakarta, (Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 2015)

Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX of Yogyakarta Sultanate (ruled 1940-1988) is one of the greatest Javanese rulers. He enabled his sultanate to survive and thrive through four different political regimes which surrounded it. More than 20 years after his death, his legacy is still apparent.

John Monfries, a scholar and former Australian diplomat in Jakarta, has written a significant book exploring the complex life of a figure that very much influenced Indonesian politics for half a century.

Born as Dorojatun in 1912, the Sultan was educated at Leiden University. Given the widespread hostility to feudalism in the early phase of the Indonesian revolution (also known as the Indonesian war of independence, 1945-49), it seemed that Yogyakarta Sultanate would come to an end. Angry masses had forced the aristocracy to retreat in Surakarta (Central Java) and East Sumatra, and one may have thought that Yogyakarta would be the next. But the Sultan managed to take advantage of the revolution to save his monarch and draw support to his existence by showing incessant support to the Republic of Indonesia whose independence was declared by Sukarno on 17 August, 1945.

It was very likely that the Sultan, with the positive reputation he received due to his devotion to the revolution, would assume key posts on the national stage. However, he only occupied minor positions during the 1950s, his ‘decade of disappointment’ (p. 234), due to his opposition to many of Sukarno’s policies. After the 1965 coup, together with Army General Suharto and another civilian leader Adam Malik—called the ‘triumvirate’ by Monfries— the Sultan began to create a post-Sukarno Indonesia, the “New Order.”

New Order economic policies advocated domestically and internationally by the Sultan included eradicating vested interests in the economy, opening up the country to foreign investment, and encouraging private enterprise. Warmly welcomed by the public, these policies radically contrasted with Sukarno’s neglect of economic issues.

Despite this success, the Sultan’s appointment as Suharto’s vice president (1973-78) soon became a source of dissatisfaction. According to Monfries, the Sultan had no real power and was only tasked to carry out symbolic functions. He withdrew into the backstage of Indonesian politics by his resignation in 1978.

Feudalism, democracy and state management

Monfries critically examines one of the biggest achievements of the Sultan: his success in securing a Javanese monarchy in the form of the Sultanate within an emerging democratic state. Despite the fundamental difference between the two, he proved that their amalgamation is possible in the Indonesian context. This is mainly due to the fact that during the revolution the Javanese sultan turned into a widely popular Republican leader and a well-known anti-Dutch patriot.

This fame, according to Monfries, ‘became the bedrock of his subsequent impeccable reputation’ (p. 323). Monfries points out several reasons for this popularity, which also differentiated the Sultan from other native rulers in Java and Sumatra who failed to defend their kingdoms’ existence in the face of the so-called social revolution. These reasons included the optimal use of his status as a Javanese sultan to appeal Javanese society, his continuous support of independence, his loyalty to the Republic, and his support for pro-Republic militia (pp. 161-2).

Moreover, Monfries explores another key point in the Sultan’s life that greatly shaped Indonesian politics: his administrative capabilities, which were one of the main reasons for his various appointments between 1946 until 1978. For Monfries, the Sultan’s oratory skills may seem dull in comparison to Sukarno, but he had what Sukarno lacked, namely the skill to ‘organise and run meetings, to follow through agendas and seek consensus’ (p. 45). This skill proved important during the post-independence period, when the Sultan was involved in hundreds of meetings concerning, among other things, the cabinet, the Indonesian scout movement (informal education for the youth held mainly outdoor, which focuses on the development of useful skills, co-operation, and learning by doing; it is like the scout training for boys and girls introduced by renowned British Army officer Robert Baden-Powell), and aid assembly with foreign governments and organizations, with varying degree of success.

The Sultan owed these skills both to his time studying with the Indology Faculty at Leiden, where he learned to become middle-level public administrator, and also from his own experience as a reformer of the bureaucracy in his own sultanate.

Myth breaker

Numerous Indonesian accounts on the Sultan’s contributions see him as a legend, encircled with historical myths. Unlike these works, the main strength of Monfries’s book is the author’s position as a myth breaker.

Monfries demystifies at least three widespread beliefs about the Sultan. First, in his coronation speech in 1940 the Sultan stated: ‘I have had an extensive Western upbringing, yet I am and remain above all a Javanese’. This catchphrase is so well-known that many Indonesians nowadays see it as nationalistic sentiment of a Javanese ruler, while others interpret ‘Javanese’ here as ‘Indonesian’. Monfries doubts this claim because no adequate proof exists to suggest that the Sultan ‘thought of himself as anything but a Javanese prince.’ (p. 81)

Second, in other part of the speech, the Sultan declared that he ‘will work for the interests of the Land and People’. In the Indonesian version of the speech, the ‘Land and People’ was translated into ‘nusa dan bangsa’ (homeland), thus implying that the Sultan felt concerned with the whole of Indonesia. However, Monfries suspects that this was originally a Dutch term, Land en Volk, and in 1940 its meaning was obviously Yogyakarta principality, not the entire country. Therefore, a Javanese king would not intend to ‘represent citizens of the Indies outside his principality.’ (p. 81)

The third and perhaps the most popular myth concerns the Mataram Canal and the romusha (forced labour, ‘勞務者’) question. In 1944, the Japanese occupation forces built a thirty kilometre long canal in Yogyakarta, known as the Mataram Canal, intended for irrigation, provision of fresh water, and prevention of flood. In Indonesian accounts, it was said that the canal was the proof of the Sultan’s excellent ability to prevent the Japanese sending thousands of Yogyakarta youth abroad to become romusha. Instead, these young men were employed in the canal project. Monfries argues that this interpretation is an exaggeration. Monfries offers some reasons: Yogyakarta’s problem of rice was not much worse compared to other regions in Java and the Sultan was not involved in romusha recruitment (pp. 109-110). For Monfries, the Sultan’s contribution to the project should be acknowledged but not overstated.

Methodologically speaking, this book is a noteworthy answer to the accusation that biography tends to be elitist. Monfries does not isolate the Sultan as the sole hero, but connects him to wider phenomena and larger sociopolitical groups. So, the Sultan’s life did not just tell about the life of a king, but also the experiences of less privileged communities and actors outside the kraton (palace) walls in modern Indonesia. These people included the Javanese employed as forced labourers, Chinese minority, and the Indonesian communists.

But it is surprising that Monfries’s work ignores the role of the Sultan’s wives in political decision-making process. He seems to take for granted the traditional view on the role of wives in Indonesia, in particular Java (the absence of public involvement and total dedication to household matters).

In fact, some contemporary reports stress that the Sultan’s fifth wife, Sumatran born Norma Musa (they married in 1976 after one of his four wives passed away), played a major role in his life outside the kraton walls, and was perhaps the Sultan’s political advisor. Given that the Sultan spent most of his work time in Jakarta, that Norma’s cleverness was widely known among Republican politicians, and that she was an insider in political circles in Jakarta (she was once personal assistant of President Sukarno), this vice president’s wife deserves more attention.

Nevertheless, overall Monfries’ study fills a gap in the English language scholarship on 20th century and contemporary Indonesia. More importantly, it offers new perspectives in understanding key political problems in 20th century Indonesia, including the fragile existence of monarchy in a democratic country, the civilian-military dichotomy in a developing country, and the fate of a freedom fighter in post independence nation-state building.

Suggestions for Further Reading 

Atmakusumah (ed.). Tahta untuk Rakyat: Celah-celah Kehidupan Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX. Jakarta: Gramedia, 1982.

George McTurnan Kahin. Southeast Asia: A Testament. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

P.J. Suwarno. Hamengku Buwono IX dan Sistem Birokrasi Pemerintahan Yogyakarta, 1942-1974. Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 1994.

Sri Sultan: Hari-hari Hamengku Buwono IX; Sebuah Presentasi Majalah TEMPO. Jakarta: Grafitipers, 1988.

Sutrisno Kutoyo. Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX: Riwayat Hidup dan Perjuangan. Jakarta: Mutiara Sumber Widya, 1996.

Y.B. Sudarmanto. Jejak-jejak Pahlawan: Dari Sultan Agung hingga Hamengku Buwono IX. Jakarta: Grasindo, 1992.

Muhammad Yuanda Zara is a researcher at NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies (Amsterdam) and a PhD Candidate at Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, at the University of Amsterdam. 

Book Review: Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore

October 28, 2015

Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore

Margaret Thatcher It is not easy to assess objectively a book of more than 800 pages about events in which one played some part oneself. This second volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher is no bedside book, nor would it fit easily into a briefcase for reading on the train. Nor am I convinced that organising the chapters by theme, rather than telling the story as a series of consecutive events, makes it any easier for the reader.

On the other hand, if the prime purpose of biography is to bring its subject to life, there can be no doubt that Moore has succeeded. The book is an immensely detailed account of Thatcher’s life, as she saw it, from the summer of 1982 in the aftermath of the Falklands through to the general elections of 1983 and 1987.

During the 13 years I worked for Margaret Thatcher, I found her on the whole to be reasonably predictable, provided one remembered that she was the daughter of a grocer from middle England, a devout nonconformist Christian and a scientist by training. The scientist in her came out when she would stop a discussion on a policy issue with the words: “Gentlemen, shall we have the facts first and then the discussion.” But she would always be thinking of the moral imperative, not merely what was expedient. So she opposed economic sanctions against the old apartheid government in South Africa, despite the abuse that brought upon her, because she knew sanctions would bring poverty and violence to the very people they were supposed to help.

As a journalist, Moore observed Thatcher throughout her time as Prime Minister. Then, having been commissioned as her official biographer, he moved from watching her on the field of political battle to looking over her shoulder. He goes deep into her uncertainties: not just over her colleagues’ loyalty, but about whether they were even capable of carrying through complex legislation such as that required for the privatisation of BT.

Moore’s technique is compelling, but at times I think it leads to a loss of objectivity about the world she inhabited. The uninformed reader might come to believe that the whole of government was a sprawling battle between Thatcher and a changing cast of advisers without responsibilities on the one hand, and a deadbeat civil service and the mostly overrated ministers more concerned with their personal ambitions than their briefs, on the other.

In reality, while Thatcher was Prime Minister, government across the board went calmly on. Policies were developed, green papers were firmed up into white papers and Cabinet committees approved draft legislation without any help from the advisers clamouring for the ear of the PM.

Early on, Thatcher wisely consulted outsiders, notably business people of substance. However, as Moore’s narrative shows, those were progressively replaced by largely sycophantic individuals of little experience but great ambition who fed her insecurities and fears with tales that her colleagues were constantly plotting to bring her down.

Margaret Thatcher

Nowhere was this more clear than over the motor industry. In 1981, I had helped Keith Joseph to develop a strategy that comprised both a progressive privatisation of British Leyland and Jaguar (as opposed to a shutdown), and brought Nissan, a world-class manufacturer, to Sunderland. When I took over the Department of Trade and Industry in 1983, I returned to the task – only to be frustrated, as Thatcher took advice not from me, although it was I who had to carry it through Parliament, but from her troupe of advisers. As Moore recalls, I told her that while I would do any job in government or none, I would not carry a title and responsibility if she chose to take the advice of others who took neither. That she accepted, but it was not long before I was moved to be chairman of the Conservative Party, where I had to put up with another pack of meddlers.

For me, the best parts of this book are not about the battles Margaret Thatcher was encouraged to pick with me over the motor industry, nor the hysteria generated within the entirely successful general election campaigns of 1983 and 1987, but those in which I was not a player.

Gorbachev was taken aback by her almost flirtatious approach

Above all, I was enthralled by Moore’s account of her early meetings with Gorbachev. She was still sore with President Reagan over the Falklands and the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, which perhaps prompted her to look more closely at this rising and rather unusual Russian. She was open-minded enough to see that Gorbachev was far more realistic than others in the Kremlin about the Soviet Union’s relative weakness, and the dangers of conflict with the West. He was taken aback by her hard line alternating with an almost flirtatious approach, and by her instinct for capturing the attention of ordinary people on her visits to Russia.

Moore also captures her frustration and anger when she realised in talks with China over the future of Hong Kong that it was the Chinese who held all the trump cards.

This book should have been subtitled “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown”. For volume three, I would suggest: “Under the Great Oak, Acorns Seldom Grow”.

Margaret Thatcher Charles Moore cover