Book Review: The Life Story of an Indonesian Patriot

February 13, 2016

Book Review: The Life Story of an Indonesian Patriot

Reviewed by Muhammad Yuanda Zara

iseas_aprinceinarepublic_cover_fa_20141226Sultan 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.

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. 

Dr.Paul Krugman Reviews ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert J. Gordon

February 2, 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review

Dr.Paul Krugman Reviews ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert J. Gordon

by Paul Krugman

Back in the 1960s there was a briefly popular wave of “futurism,” of books and articles attempting to predict the changes ahead. One of the best-known, and certainly the most detailed, of these works was Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener’s “The Year 2000” (1967), which offered, among other things, a systematic list of technological innovations Kahn and Wiener considered “very likely in the last third of the 20th century.”

Unfortunately, the two authors were mostly wrong. They didn’t miss much, foreseeing developments that recognizably correspond to all the main elements of the information technology revolution, including smartphones and the Internet. But a majority of their predicted innovations (“individual flying platforms”) hadn’t arrived by 2000 — and still haven’t arrived, a decade and a half later.

The truth is that if you step back from the headlines about the latest gadget, it becomes obvious that we’ve made much less progress since 1970 — and experienced much less alteration in the fundamentals of life — than almost anyone expected. Why?

 Robert J. Gordon-2015

Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macro­economist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we’re in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy, he has repeatedly called for perspective: Developments in information and communication technology, he has insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.

In “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” Gordon doubles down on that theme, declaring that the kind of rapid economic growth we still consider our due, and expect to continue forever, was in fact a one-time-only event. First came the Great Inventions, almost all dating from the late 19th century. Then came refinement and exploitation of those inventions — a process that took time, and exerted its peak effect on economic growth between 1920 and 1970. Everything since has at best been a faint echo of that great wave, and Gordon doesn’t expect us ever to see anything similar.

Is he right? My answer is a definite maybe. But whether or not you end up agreeing with Gordon’s thesis, this is a book well worth reading — a magisterial combination of deep technological history, vivid portraits of daily life over the past six generations and careful economic analysis. Non-economists may find some of the charts and tables heavy going, but Gordon never loses sight of the real people and real lives behind those charts. This book will challenge your views about the future; it will definitely transform how you see the past.

Indeed, almost half the book is devoted to changes that took place before World War II. Others have covered this ground — most notably Daniel Boorstin in “The Americans: The Democratic Experience.” Even knowing this literature, however, I was fascinated by Gordon’s account of the changes wrought by his Great Inventions. As he says, “Except in the rural South, daily life for every American changed beyond recognition between 1870 and 1940.” Electric lights replaced candles and whale oil, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses. (In the 1880s, parts of New York’s financial district were seven feet deep in manure.)

Meanwhile, backbreaking toil both in the workplace and in the home was for the most part replaced by far less onerous employment. This is a point all too often missed by economists, who tend to think only about how much purchasing power people have, not about what they have to do to get it, and Gordon does an important service by reminding us that the conditions under which men and women labor are as important as the amount they get paid.

Aside from its being an interesting story, however, why is it important to study this transformation? Mainly, Gordon suggests — although these are my words, not his — to provide a baseline. What happened between 1870 and 1940, he argues, and I would agree, is what real transformation looks like. Any claims about current progress need to be compared with that baseline to see how they measure up.

And it’s hard not to agree with him that nothing that has happened since is remotely comparable. Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted.

By contrast, urban Americans from 1940 walking into 1870-style accommodations — which they could still do in the rural South — were indeed horrified and disgusted. Life fundamentally improved between 1870 and 1940 in a way it hasn’t since.

Now, in 1940 many Americans were already living in what was recognizably the modern world, but many others weren’t. What happened over the next 30 years was that the further maturing of the Great Inventions led to rapidly rising incomes and a spread of that modern lifestyle to the nation as a whole. But then everything slowed down. And Gordon argues that the slowdown is likely to be permanent: The great age of progress is behind us. But is Gordon just from the wrong generation, unable to fully appreciate the wonders of the latest technology? I suspect that things like social media make a bigger positive difference to people’s lives than he acknowledges. But he makes two really good points that throw quite a lot of cold water on the claims of techno-optimists.

First, he points out that genuinely major innovations normally bring about big changes in business practices, in what workplaces look like and how they function. And there were some changes along those lines between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s — but not much since, which is evidence for Gordon’s claim that the main impact of the I.T. revolution has already happened.

Second, one of the major arguments of techno-optimists is that official measures of economic growth understate the real extent of progress, because they don’t fully account for the benefits of truly new goods. Gordon concedes this point, but notes that it was always thus — and that the understatement of progress was probably bigger during the great prewar transformation than it is today.

So what does this say about the future? Gordon suggests that the future is all too likely to be marked by stagnant living standards for most Americans, because the effects of slowing technological progress will be reinforced by a set of “headwinds”: rising inequality, a plateau in education levels, an aging population and more.

It’s a shocking prediction for a society whose self-image, arguably its very identity, is bound up with the expectation of constant progress. And you have to wonder about the social and political consequences of another generation of stagnation or decline in working-class incomes.

Of course, Gordon could be wrong: Maybe we’re on the cusp of truly transformative change, say from artificial intelligence or radical progress in biology (which would bring their own risks). But he makes a powerful case. Perhaps the future isn’t what it used to be.

Nobel Laureate in Economics Paul Krugman (above) is a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

Dr. M. Bakri Musa on Liberating the Mind

January 30, 2016


Dr. M. Bakri Musa on Liberating the Mind

by Julia Yeow, News Editor

Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz (right) with author and social critic Dr M. Bakri Musa at the launch of his book in Shah Alam, today. Rafidah says it is time Malays stop thinking they are 'special' and must continue getting help from government policies. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Kamal Ariffin, January 30, 2016.

A great leadership will encourage, not suppress, freedom, says US-based Malaysian surgeon Dr M. Bakri Musa (Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz), who says the current leaders are entrapping Malay minds in order to stay in power. – The Malaysian Insider pic by Nazir Sufari, January 30, 2016.

Malaysian UMNO leaders have been intentionally entrapping the minds of Malays as a means to retain their power and positions, says prominent Malay intellectual and writer Dr M. Bakri Musa. Dr Bakri warned that the inevitable advent of the digital world would put an end to such shortsighted leadership regime.

The California-based surgeon, a regular socio-political commentator and author of several books, said it was a common mentality of leaders to try and control their followers, as “corrupt leaders create corrupt followers, who will elect corrupt leaders again”.

But Dr Bakri said that information would be increasingly far-reaching with the growth of technology, and that the mark of a great and lasting leadership was its ability to encourage, not suppress, freedom.

“Every leader will like to control their followers, but the inevitable will be to change.The digital world – I don’t care how strong you are – it can’t be limited. It’s powerful enough,” Dr Bakri told The Malaysian Insider ahead of the launch of his book “Liberating the Malay Mind” in Shah Alam, today.

The book (pic, above) in English and Bahasa Malaysia, is in its second edition after getting positive reviews when it was first published. But he said some criticised him by saying he was not qualified to speak on the problem of the Malays because he had been living abroad for decades.

His response? “Judge me on my views and opinions, not on where I live,” said Dr Bakri. He said the current state of politics was proof that leaders are unable to keep the people ignorant forever, as the Internet reach continues to grow.

He cited the example of Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak’s controversial RM2.6 billion donation, saying it was unlikely the entire episode would have been exposed if not for the digital world.

Dr Bakri said the Malays had remained intellectually and economically backward in spite of decades of policies and assistance.

“We have been talking about the Malay problem ever since I was young and probably when my grandchildren are grandparents, we’d still be talking about it,” he said

“Why is it after 60 years of independence, with sultans and leaders as Malays, and the government being led by Malays, we still have this problem?

“The reason is that we do not know that our minds have been entrapped, imprisoned. In my book, I used the metaphor that the Malays are like frogs under a coconut shell.The shell will topple one day, make no mistake about it. The question for our society is if we will topple the coconut shell our way, to minimise the collateral damage, or do we allow it to topple on its own and risk a disaster.”

The ability to look beyond race can help draw the Malays out of their shells, says well-known critic Dr M. Bakri Musa. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, January 30, 2016.

The ability to look beyond race can help draw the Malays out of their shells, says well-known critic Dr M. Bakri Musa. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, January 30, 2016.

Dr Bakri said Malays who were not properly educated and exposed would be prime targets for “darker and dangerous” influences, including hardline religious teachings.

“Influences such as Isis can be appealing to the Malay mind if they are not adequately exposed and educated. The leaders must realise that the liberation of the mind is already happening, but the messages that are being sent now are dark and dangerous.”

To counter this influence, Dr Bakri suggests a greater liberalisation of the media, saying that the more sources of information available, the better equipped the Malays would be.

Apart from that, he said that a greater immersion of the Malays in commerce and capitalisation would “automatically change their worldview.They won’t see people as Chinese or Indian or Malay, they look at everyone as potential customers.”

This ability to look beyond race, he said, would help draw the Malays out of their shells.

In his book, Dr Bakri draws on the examples of civilisations and communities around the world which he said shared similar problems with Malays in Malaysia, such as the early Irish and the Italians.

“I want the Malays to realise they have a problem, but it’s not unique to them. There are other societies and civilisations and communities and we can learn from them. They have managed to overcome it. We can learn from it and we can overcome it.”

Dr Bakri’s book will be available at all major bookstores nationwide from early February.

‘Russell Kirk: American Conservative,’ by Bradley J. Birzer

January 28, 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review

‘Russell Kirk: American Conservative,’ by Bradley J. Birzer

“I’m so happy to find that you’re little, too!” the political philosopher Leo Strauss said when he first met Russell Kirk in Chicago in the mid-1950s. “From your books, I had feared that you might be a great, tall, fierce man.” Kirk can still seem great and fierce.

It was his book “The Conservative Mind” (1953) that first used the word “conservative” to classify various currents of anti-progressive dissidence that ran from the French Revolution to the 20th-century heyday of social democracy. Kirk’s book was an event. After a recommendation from Whittaker Chambers, Time magazine devoted the entire book review section to it. And Kirk had other gifts. He was a capable writer of ghost and fantasy novels. He founded and edited two prestigious journals. Not just Strauss and Chambers but also T. S. Eliot and Ray Bradbury esteemed him. In 1955, Flannery O’Connor, scarcely able to walk, traveled 340 miles in hopes of seeing him lecture in ­Tennessee.

Yet, by the time he died in 1994 at the age of 75, Kirk did look little. His brand of conservatism had come under attack from some of the people it was meant to inspire, including “neoconservative” foreign policy hawks in Washington and Lincoln-revering disciples of Strauss on the West Coast.

In a diligent and adulatory study of Kirk’s life and thought, the Hillsdale College historian Bradley J. Birzer makes high claims for Kirk as both a man of letters and a philosopher, and makes plain why Kirk worked such a fascination on thinking Americans, even non­conservatives, half a century ago.

Kirk grew up in Plymouth, Mich., in a family that was bookish but poor. He was solitary and self-dramatizing, later even a bit of a dandy, affecting sword canes, capes, three-piece suits with watch fobs and fedoras. He wrote his first autobiography in his mid-30s and often referred to himself in the third person. (When his rival Frank Meyer won a foundation grant, Kirk wrote to William F. Buckley, “There is a concerted effort to denigrate Russell Amos Kirk.”) He sought out feuds with anyone he suspected of pragmatism, utilitarianism or logical positivism.

When the publication of “The Conservative Mind” made it possible for him to resign his junior faculty position at Michigan State, he cast his decision as a protest against the institution’s “progressive lowering of standards.”

The principles Kirk laid out in his books once passed for a generic description of conservatism. Today they look idiosyncratic. “The Conservative Mind” grew out of a doctoral thesis on the intellectual heirs of Edmund Burke that he wrote at St. Andrews in Scotland. Kirk was intellectually smitten with Burke, especially with his critical assessment of the French Revolution. He could paraphrase Burke with such subtlety that the reader can almost never tell where Burke leaves off and Kirk picks up.

“The individual is foolish, but the species is wise,” Kirk writes. “Prejudices and prescriptions and presumptions are the instruments which the wisdom of the species employs to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites.” Kirk stressed the religious roots of Burke’s thought, easily documented but until then of interest to relatively few scholars.

“The Conservative Mind” is Manichaean in its certitudes. It elicits passions and loyalties as a sport does. A conservative is one who plays on the Burkean “team,” fights for the same decencies Burke does and denounces the right opponents: the dastardly Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, and Jeremy Bentham, promulgator of “utilitarian” theories that seek “the greatest good for the greatest number,” who is the book’s archfiend. Thus Kirk conscripts the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, a liberal Whig, into his conservative army, only because Macaulay wrote a rather atypical debunking of Bentham in his youth.

Kirk is preposterously Anglophilic. This disposition is justified by the influence of British thought on the conservative parts of America’s constitutional culture, but it quivers with something more literary and emotional, too. When Kirk writes of Britain’s tragic inability to defend “the rural parishes and tight little towns that had nourished English political stability, English literature and English charm,” one hears a note that runs through American literature after Henry James.

“The Conservative Mind” is the work of an American shocked by a first encounter with Europe, and thus with the relative shallowness of his own culture. Perhaps Kirk had a vocation for nostalgia: In his early 20s, he worked at Greenfield Village — Henry Ford’s “living history” theme park — where he did a variety of jobs, including playing the role of old-time preacher.

Kirk’s philosophical conservatism is nothing like the political doctrines that today bear that name: He backed the Socialist Norman Thomas for President in 1944, Barry Goldwater in 1964, Eugene McCarthy in 1976 and Pat Buchanan in 1992. He was not nationalistic. American nuclear strategy, the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, the country’s treatment of American Indians and Middle East policy at the time of the first gulf war — these outraged him. Nor does Kirk extol entrepreneurship. He regrets that “Alexander Hamilton the financier, the party manager, the empire builder, fascinates those numerous Americans among whom the acquisitive instinct is confounded with the conservative tendency.” Kirk worried early on about “vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining.”

Because Kirk cut such an eccentric path through the Western intellectual tradition, it is no mean scholarly feat to discern an overarching project in his writing. At this Birzer succeeds admirably. He gives mini-biographies of those who influenced Kirk, including the Harvard French scholar Irving Babbitt, the Nation editor Paul Elmer More and (in rather too much detail) T. S. Eliot.

Birzer traces a favorite Kirkian-Burkean argument — that societies too rationally organized make easy prey for demagogues — to its origins in Plato’s “Republic.” He shows that the Stoicism Kirk professed in his youth is in profound philosophical harmony with the Catholicism he turned to in the 1960s and that Kirk was not the first intellectual to make the transition from one to the other. He believes Kirk suffered from his forays into politics and from his association with Buckley and National Review.

Birzer’s focus is more on Kirk’s thought than on his life. We do not find out why Kirk remained celibate until he married in his mid-40s or how he managed to spend whole summers in Scotland when he was so often strapped for cash. Like Kirk himself (who called Henry Adams “the zenith of American civilization,” Eric Voegelin “the most influential historian of our century” and Bradbury 20th-century America’s “best prose fiction” writer), Birzer is given to flinging around superlatives. He calls one of the characters in Kirk’s “Lord of the Hollow Dark” “not only a highlight of the novel but also a highlight of 20th-century literature.” He exaggerates Kirk’s importance in the past decades’ revival of interest in Burke and Tocqueville.

Birzer ascribes to Kirk a larger role than the facts warrant in the early stages of Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the 1964 Republican nomination, showing that Kirk wrote two speeches for him in 1962 but giving no account of any conversation the two ever had and citing no Goldwater letters that go beyond political boilerplate. Kirk is too often the book’s hero rather than its subject.

Birzer calls “The Conservative Mind” a “postmodern hagiography.” It is an apt description. Kirk’s mighty intelligence was, in retrospect, that of a curator or anthologist, not that of a creator. To say so is not to demean him. Kirk’s guiding principle was that when the subject is human nature, nothing is ever really created. Institutions, traditions and wisdom are either handed down or, if need be, rediscovered. This remains a deep and necessary insight. “Conservatism” is as good a name for it as any.

An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to the aspect of America’s World War II internment of people of Japanese ancestry that particularly outraged Russell Kirk. It was the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, not the internment of Japanese citizens. (Though many Japanese citizens were indeed interned, a majority of the internees were American citizens.)

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

A version of this review appears in print on January 24, 2016, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Original Conservative.

Book Review –Azmi Sharom’s Brave New World

January 27, 2016

Book Review –Azmi Sharom’s Brave New World

by S.Thayaparan

“A great writer creates a world of his own and his readers are proud to live in it. A lesser writer may entice them in for a moment, but soon he will watch them filing out.”― Cyril Connolly

He has Brains, Values, and Guts

COMMENT: I have often wondered why Azmi Sharom chose ‘Brave New World’ from the Aldous Huxley novel of the same name as the title of his column for The Star. As one critic observed, Huxley’s novel was a rejection of the ‘Age of Utopias’.

Anyone reading Azmi’s columns would note the undisguised optimism permeating from his writings even when he is engaged in dissecting the foibles of the authorities. This last part in my experience has been a rancorous endeavour.

Some readers perhaps unaware of the pedigree of the title would assume that Azmi is writing about a possible new world of hope. What Malaysia could be instead of what it is? I do not subscribe to this point of view.

Perhaps the title is a sly reference to the propaganda that infects every aspect of our beloved country. Perhaps, Malaysia as a post-colonial construct with its social contract, Petronas ads, National Harmony Act, Bangsa Malaysia and the host of other dystopian tropes is the so-called Utopia we are told we are living in but in reality a dystopia ripe for mockery by men and women driven by conscience.

Azmi is currently facing sedition charges for giving his opinion on the Perak constitutional (sic) crisis. Only in Malaysia would a law professor be charged with sedition for giving his academic opinion on a legal matter. That is not exactly true. There are many countries in the world run by venal cabals, who would persecute those who dare to speak the truth to power but Malaysia, Truly bumbling Asia, which has always flirted with tin pot dictatorship status, seems intent on emulating what the minions learned on their “lawatan sambil belajar” jaunts to who knows where.

Reading the compilations of articles, one can’t help but be amused by Azmi’s cheeky pop cultural references, which reads like a middle finger to those corrupt forces that inhabit our political landscape.

Writing on PAS’s dissolution of its Pakatan Rakyat marriage, ‘An identity crisis for PAS’, Azmi references extend from the Beatles to the Clash (of Civilisation) and in a memorable sentence compares PAS’s changing identities to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase. How wonderful.

This subtext provides fuel to his opponents that label him as a “Malay” traitor or anti-Muslim. Referencing these Western cultural touchstones, ideas such as music and the fraternity, rebellion and fleeting freedom that comes with it, the very concepts that are anathema to the religious mullahs intent on imposing group think on the Malay and eventually the Malaysian polity. Azmi reminds them, albeit subtly, that public spaces however confined are still being used by some Malaysians to speak the truth to power.In other words, Azmi has no problem rocking the Kasbah.


Without guile, he writes, “I suppose there was a certain naiveté amongst some people (myself included) regarding the character of PAS. Over the last eight years or so, there was a belief that PAS had changed. It was modernist and inclusive, and had moved away from its insular and traditionalist past. Wrong, sadly very wrong. “KeADILan untuk Semua” (PAS 2008) is pure and unadulterated bumkum and Abdul Hadi is a fraud.

“This view was encouraged by certain individual PAS leaders whose eloquence and forward-thinking attitudes made one believe that there were more similarities between PAS and their partners than differences. Hence, a viable coalition opposition (and perhaps a viable new federal government) was a real possibility. How exciting it all seemed.”

And this is what is interesting about this compilation of articles. Azmi has no problem retreating from certain positions, recalibrating his views as the facts change and acknowledging that the sometimes very fallible Malaysian yearnings for a better tomorrow are misplaced. It was John Maynard Keynes who said “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”. Why should Azmi be an exception, then.

Furthermore, unlike some columnists who waffle around principles either out of fear or out of sycophancy, Azmi Sharom is not afraid to lay his cards on the table.

In ‘Freedom of religion and fear mongering’, he states – “I believe in freedom of religion. Completely. This means that I believe in the right of people to practice their religion as they see fit and this includes their right to proselytise.” But he also acknowledges that “That is my belief and as far as Malaysia is concerned it amounts to little more than a hill of beans. In our country there is no complete freedom of religion.

“The Constitution guarantees the freedom of everyone to choose their religion and the Supreme Court has confirmed this, but yet, the practice of the state governments does not respect this. If you are a Muslim and you convert out of Islam, in some states you can and will be punished.

“The Constitution also allows the control of proselytising. No person can proselytise to Muslims if the state government makes the necessary laws to control such actions. This includes Muslim to Muslim proselytising. This is the reality in our country.”

This is the toxic reality that someone like Azmi finds himself exploring. Just how toxic? In ‘Suffer the children … of some’, a short fictional piece on the angst of holiday making amongst the political elite in times of financial turmoil, Azmi ends with this postscript:

“When we the people of Malaysia were experiencing hardship due to the rising petrol costs, the BN government in all their wisdom suggested that ministers could only holiday in the region and not further afield. This is so that they would suffer along with the rest of us. I shit you not.”

We are living in an era, were words do not matter. Unfortunately, for Azmi Sharom, the Umno state has proven that words matter. This book like his spurious sedition charge is evidence that the UMNO state is terribly afraid of words. They are afraid that words matter and that eventually more people would like to inhabit the world Azmi would like Malaysia to be, a sentiment which sometimes escapes because of enthusiasm and passion.

If you believe that words matter and you are interested in another greatest hits collection from a Malaysian with a certain point of view, then Azmi’s book will serve an interesting guide in Malaysian politics. For me, personally, just reading his book, knowing that he causes so much discomfort to the fascists, fearmongers and inept bumbling kleptocrats out there, is worth the price of the book.

S. THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) in the Royal Malaysian Navy.


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