Chris Patten- On Il Fares The Land by Tony Judt


Tony Judt’s thought-provoking polemic flies the flag for social democracy and might make people reassess their own beliefs, says Chris Patten.

Neither Doom nor Gloom: A Reflection on GE-14

April 21, 2018

Neither Doom nor Gloom: A Reflection on GE-14

by Johan Saravanamuttu

Despite the #UndiRosak campaign, two-coalition politics has become has become the new normal – and this is likely to continue, writes Johan Saravanamuttu.

Considerable pessimism occupies the blogosphere these days with the notion that the electoral process has failed to deliver any substantial political change.

Image result for GE-14: Najib or MahathirMalaysia Hobson’s  come May 9, 2018


The #UndiRosak campaign speaks to this gloomy view of developments whether one thinks of it as a BN-orchestrated ruse or not.

A continuing spate of negative political developments, such as what has happened to whistleblower Rafizi Ramli, the Member of Parliament for Pandan, who will lose his seat because of a court conviction, may have also convinced many of the futility of keeping up the good fight.

The gerrymandering exercise of the Electoral Commission, conducted every eight years or so, no doubt contributes to the sentiments about the efficacy of elections and to a sense of powerlessness and frustration of the enlightened voter.

But we should remember that the commission has always provided the structural basis for the ‘manufactured majorities’ of the ruling coalition.

And, over the last decade, we have seen the rise of the Bersih electoral reform movement, which has been able to check some of the Electoral Commission’s excesses, kept it under watch, and even influenced some changes to the electoral system.

The current Bersih campaign for public objections to the redrawing of constituency boundaries is not likely to halt it but importantly, it will raise public consciousness about the need for further electoral reform.

The continued interest in the coming general election and its subjection to almost daily analysis and punditry must surely also mean that elections are still important in the public mind.

Despite structural flaws, most electoral systems are a necessary political device to guarantee meaningful political choice and, ultimately, democracy. Thus, I think we must continually analyse the outcome and impacts of elections to discern new pathways to meaningful change.

Recently we have seen the surfacing of well-researched and complex analyses of elections by independent, non-partisan organisations which have enhanced our understanding of elections.

For this reflection, I’d like to focus on one such recent study on the coming general election by Politweet, which describes itself as “a non-partisan research firm analysing interactions among Malaysians using social media”.

Politweet’s use of statistical tools and computer simulations has added to the sophistication of electoral studies although one should always be forewarned of the caveats and assumptions of such statistical analyses.

It is logical that with the rise in computing power and techniques, Malaysian ‘psephology’ (the statistical study of elections) should become more established. For analysts of Malaysian electoral politics, the statistical studies of the Politweet sort, are certainly an important additional modality to improve and hone our understanding of electoral outcomes.

Image result for GE-14: Najib or Mahathir

The New Partnership for the Malaysian Opposition

So, let me briefly examine the latest findings by Politweet on the coming general election and then present a perspective of how we should view current developments in Malaysia in the light of its findings.

For the Politiweet study, see here.

Study in brief

First, note that this is only a study of Peninsular Malaysia.

The study used the new electoral rolls of the first quarter of 2017, basing its extrapolations on the state and federal outcomes of the 2013 general election and “individual historical voting patterns” of the 2008 and 2013 general elections – that is, using polling lane results, which gives us the best data available to assess individual votes.

The study further adds a scenario, factoring in the current exercise to redraw constituency boundaries undertaken by the Electoral Commission that is most likely to be implemented in the coming general election.

The main focus of the study is on the prospects of Pakatan Harapan in the coming election based on its seat allocations on the peninsula that have recently been announced: 52 seats to be contested by PPBM; 51 seats by PKR; 35 seats by DAP; 27 seats by Amanah.

A total of 300 simulations were run based on three scenarios of voter behaviour:

  1. as occurred in the 2013 general election
  2. with a 2% increase of support for the Opposition, and
  3. with a 5% increase of support for the Opposition.


The results of the simulations are shown in the table below, which I have reproduced from the study.
































Source: Politweet Study of the 2018 general election

The main conclusions of the study are as follows:

  1. In a situation of straight fights in Scenario 3, Pakatan Harapan can form the federal government with a five-point swing of support leading to a win of at least 115 seats in the 222-seat Parliament.
  2. In three-corner fights between PH, Pas and BN (Scenario 3), PH would have to gain 10% of pro-BN supporters on the assumption that 10% of the anti-BN vote would go to Pas.
  3. The simulation based on the current redrawing of constituency boundaries predicts that the BN would win an additonal 10 seats. These would be the Amanah seats of Kuala Nerus, Terengganu; Bukit Gantang and Lumut, Perak; and Hulu Langat and Sepang, Selangor. PKR would lose its seats in Kapar, Selangor; Lembah Pantai, Kuala Lumpur; Telok Kemang, Negri Sembilan; Bukit Katil, Melaka and Batu Pahat, Johor.

There are many more interesting details of the study. See the reports on the study made by the Malay Mail Online and the Malaysian Insight.

The outcomes of the Politweet computer simulations are an eye-opener.

First, rather counter-intuitively, is that the Peninsula results alone could lead to PH winning a majority of seats if there are straight fights under Scenario 3 (that is, a 5% swing of votes to the Opposition). The study did point out that a win of some 10 seats from East Malaysia would buttress Scenario 3 for PH.

Second, in the scenario of straight fights between PH and BN (ie Pas not contesting against the three Malay-based parties of PH), a win is possible with a 5% swing of support to the Opposition. So imagine, if Pas had stayed in the Pakatan fold, the defeat of BN could almost be thought to be imminent in the coming general election. Instead, we now face the likely prospect of three-corner fights. In this scenario, the study shows that an Opposition win would require the tall order of Amanah weaning away 10% of BN supporters. These more difficult odds would surely incense former supporters of Pakatan Rakyat.

Of further note is that the study also points out that its social media data shows a alarming decline in voter interest in political parties, from a high of 64 % in December 2015 to 30% in December 2017. This troubling factor could feed into the #UndiRosak campaign.

Even with all its assumptions and caveats, the Politiweet study does convey to us the sense that much has changed on the electoral terrain in Malaysia, and electoral success is not a foregone conclusion for the ruling coalition.

I would add that if a major swing against the ruling parties occurs in East Malaysia, particularly in Sabah, a BN win is not at all assured.

Concluding remarks

One could take away the following broader observations and conclusions from the Politweet study of the coming general election (GE-14).

First, the overall big picture in Malaysia is that two-coalition politics has become normalised or, if you will, it has become the new normal.

Second, it is also implied that two-coalition politics will continue at the second level of state politics (contra federal). Although this was not analysed by Politweeet this is easily deduced. In a separate earlier study, Politweet analysed the impact of the redrawing of constituency boundaries on Selangor and found that the incumbent ruling group is still likely to retain power.

Third, it is unlikely that the BN will regain its super majority, a two-thirds majority of seats for some time to come even if it continues to win federal elections.

Fourth, Sarawak and Sabah are important states for federal power, if not necessary ‘fixed deposits” as the conventional wisdom seems to hold. The complexity of multi-party politics in these two states obviously deserves a separate analysis. It would be interesting to see if Poltiweet would undertake such a study.

Image result for johan saravanamuttuDr. Johan Saravanamuttu


Finally, I believe that elections are still indispensable to the democratisation process. Bringing about political change through the electoral process is clearly frustratingly slow and riddled with pitfalls but substantial change has been achieved since 2008.

Beyond elections, a strong civil society with a jealously guarded public sphere remains as the ultimate bulwark against democratic slippage.

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter

Malaysia’s ‘Fake News’ Crackdown Begins

April 21, 2018

Malaysia’s ‘Fake News’ Crackdown Begins


By John Berthelsen

Image result for malaysia's fake news commander-in-chief najib razak

If there was any doubt what the draconian “fake news” bill passed by Malaysia’s Parliament was about, it has been pretty much put to rest by a statement by Mazlan Ismail, the Chief Operating Officer of the country’s Communications and Multimedia Commission that 1,500 news stories are being investigated by the authorities.

On April 4, the Parliament passed the controversial law over objections from civil society groups and international rights bodies including Amnesty International, which called it an “assault on freedom of expression.” The measure mandates up to six years in prison and a maximum fine of RM500,000 (US$129,300) and is aimed at not only domestic critics but international ones as well such as Asia Sentinel and the Sarawak Report, both of which have been banned from internet circulation in the country.

Image result for mazlan ismail mcmc

Critics complain that there are no criteria for determining what constitutes “fake news” other than what the government deems to be fake news.

Although the bill was passed to “promote national security,” according to government officials, opponents said its real purpose is to protect the government in advance of the 14th general election, which is scheduled to be held May 9. The government is struggling to protect itself from criticism over allegations of the misuse of at least US$4.5 billion from the state-backed 1 Malaysia Development Bhd. The US Justice Department has sequestered an estimated US$1.2 billion of assets owned by members of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s family and close friends.

The government faces an insurrection led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is leading a seemingly energized opposition in the effort to bring down Najib and UMNO. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, called prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, functions as a conspicuous martyr due to be freed from more than three years in prison in early June.

Virtually all criticism has been stilled, with the mainstream media in the hands of political parties aligned with the government.  However, Malaysia has one of the most energetic social media in Southeast Asia, with dozens of websites criticizing the government and alluding to a long list of scandals perpetrated by the Barisan Nasional and its leading political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

The communications ministry’s Mazlan Ismail said 99 per cent of the false news originated from locals staying in Malaysia.

“The remaining one per cent are from Malaysians who have migrated in countries such as Sweden and Australia,” he told reporters at the launch of MCMC’s Malaysian ICT Volunteer with Institutes of Higher Education.  He charged that critics ae using “fake social media accounts” to spread criticism, according to an April 18 story in the Straits Times, which is owned by the UMNO.

“A majority of these false news came from fake accounts or anonymous accounts,” he said. “Once the false news has become viral shared through various platforms like Facebook, they will immediately shut down the accounts. It is like a guerilla warfare. At least 30 percent of the fake news is being disseminated in such manner.”

The Communications Ministry on April 17 accused “certain movements” of using the social media or Internet, “to actively spread propaganda of contempt against the government,” saying the certain movements were “like `factories’ churning false news with its primary aim to dispute the integrity and efficiency of the government, as well as targeting the Malays and Islam.”

Mazlan told reporters it is difficult to identify the “mastermind to the offence since false news could be disseminated by anyone with internet access. In the past, such `factories’ will have offices. Now, these factories can be in someone’s bedroom or at any place.”

One blogger, in an email to Asia Sentinel, suggested that the Communications Ministry investigate Najib himself since he has delivered several demonstrably false statements including threatening to sue the Wall Street Journal in 2015, said the US$681 million that appeared in his personal bank account came from Saudi Royalty, and many others.

Action has been taken against more than 40 people for improper use of network facilities or network service and 10 have been charged in court, according to the Communications Ministry.

“We are in the process to remove 4,618 fake social media accounts which spread false news, based on the respective social media platform’s terms and conditions.,” a ministry official told the Straits Times.  “A small number of false news, however, were originally spread in foreign countries, but have been translated and adapted to Malaysian context by irresponsible parties.”


The Reagan revolution is officially over

April 18, 2018

The Reagan revolution is officially over

by Fareed Zakaria

Image result for fareed zakaria and Henry Kissinger

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s decision to retire from Congress is being interpreted as a sign by many that Republicans will do poorly in the midterm elections. That may be true, but the exit of the Wisconsin Republican also symbolizes a broad shift that has taken place within the party. It marks the end of the Reagan revolution.

Image result for Paul Ryan and Ronald Reagan

The GOP of the 1950s and ’60s was the party of American business, drawing broad support from white-collar professionals and country-club businessmen. It had a straightforward chamber of commerce orientation, arguing for low taxes, few regulations and fiscal responsibility. But it was a minority party, willing to go along with the basic contours of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

To understand the extent of Roosevelt’s imprint on American politics in the mid-20th century, consider this fact: From 1933 to 1969, the only men who occupied the Oval Office were FDR, fervent disciples of FDR or, in the case of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a general handpicked and promoted by FDR. It is said that when Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969, his already healthy paranoia grew, because he believed, not without reason, that he was a lonely Republican in a federal government that had been stacked with liberals for almost half a century.

In foreign affairs, the Republican Party in the 1950s had only recently shrugged off its isolationist posture but was still cautious about international engagement. On civil rights, the party was progressive and activist. Chief Justice Earl Warren, a former Republican governor, issued the Supreme Court’s landmark decision outlawing school segregation, and Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to Arkansas to enforce the ruling.

Nixon ushered in the beginnings of the party’s first transformation. It had long had a nationalist and nativist side, but Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of the civil rights movement created the circumstances for one of the great flips of U.S. history. The Democrats, heretofore the party of the Jim Crow South, became the party of civil rights, while the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, began to mirror the resentments of Southern whites against the federal government and civil rights legislation. But in other areas of domestic policy, Nixon governed as a liberal. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and managed the economy much like any Democrat would have. “We are all Keynesians now,” he is famously quoted as saying.

President Ronald Reagan finished what Nixon started, turning the GOP into an ideologically oriented party, staunchly advocating free markets, free trade, limited government and an enthusiastic internationalism that promoted democracy abroad. The old country-club Republicans were never true believers, but they accepted Reagan’s redefinition after its electoral success, as demonstrated by the alliance between the Gipper and his vice president, George H.W. Bush.

Related image

The Reagan redefinition of the party, as a quasi-libertarian organization, persisted through the Clinton years, though the GOP continued to bring along its socially conservative base. The party leaders and its official ideology were Reaganite.

Then came Donald Trump. Early on, Trump seemed to recognize that the Republican Party had changed and that the core ideological appeal was no longer about economics but nationalism, race and religion. His first major political cause was birtherism, the noxious and false claim that President Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim born in Kenya.

When Trump ran for the Republican nomination in 2016, he was virtually alone on the podium in rejecting the Reagan formula. He dismissed any prospect of entitlement reform, while criticizing foreign interventions and democracy promotion. Even on free-market economics, he flirted with all kinds of liberal ideas, including big infrastructure spending and universal health care.

But he was consistently hard line on a few core issues — immigration, trade, race and religion. On all these, he stuck to a tough nationalist, protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and pro-police line. And, as a rank outsider, he defeated 16 talented Republicans. Libertarianism, it turned out, was an ideology with many leaders — Republican senators, governors, think-tankers — but very few followers.

A month before the November 2016 election, when everyone expected Trump to lose, Ryan got on a call with other Republican congressmen and told them to feel free to distance themselves from Trump. After the call, the speaker’s approval rating among Republican voters dropped almost 20 points. The base of the party — now older, whiter, and less educated — was with Trump, not Ryan.

Ryan had his faults. He embodied the hypocrisy of Reaganism, advocating fiscal probity while exploding the deficit. He was a bad legislative strategist, unable to repeal Obamacare after years to prepare for it. But he was a genuine and ardent Reaganite. His successors will not be. The second transformation of the Republican Party is now complete.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Politics and Royalty in Malaysia– A Point of View

April 12, 2018

Politics and  Royalty in Malaysia– A Point of View

by Nathaniel

COMMENT | Two truths – first, in a constitutional monarchy, a monarch’s role is to stay above politics. Second, hypocrisy is when someone’s words do not match their actions, regardless of who that person is. 

Image result for Mahathir and Royalty

Royalty too has Freedom of Speech

The invention of constitutional monarchy has helped keep monarchies around the world extant as the concept of allowing some family to arbitrarily maintain absolute rule and control over their subjects has certainly fallen out of favour around the world. 

A constitutional monarchy is a compromise that achieves a number of objectives. For one, it allows a sense of continuity and tradition for some extremely old institutions. 

More significantly, in many cases, constitutional monarchies have performed a practical, useful function by being a government institution that provides a check and balance by virtue of being above politics. 

There are many countries without monarchies that still have an office that performs a similar function, notably parliamentary republics which elect a largely ceremonial president alongside the prime minister which functions as the head of state. Germany, India and Singapore are among the examples that fall into this category. 

Such parliamentary republics also recognise the value of having an office and institution that is part of the government, but apart from the more partisan nature of electoral politics. 

In most constitutional monarchies, the rule of non-interference in politics is treated as something sacred. 

Image result for Sultan Nazrin Shah
The Oxford and Harvard educated Sultan of Perak is often invited to speak on issues related to governance and corporate affairs, foreign policy and public policy. His Royal Highness’ speeches are thoughtful and insightful and accepted by Malaysians. The Johor Crown Prince’s advice to his people may be biting and critical of Dr. Mahathir and the Opposition but he is entitled to his views. I may have a different perspective and may disagree with His Royal Highness but I will defend HRH’s right to free speech.Din Merican


One gets the sense that any member of most royal families around the world commenting in any way that could possibly be construed as partial is a taboo of the highest order. 

Has a line been crossed?

Not long after one Malaysian royal passed some strong comments regarding Dr Mahathir Mohamed, I wrote about how constitutional monarchies are supposed to work, and I quoted one particular scene from Netflix’s “The Crown” that articulated one interpretation of how British royals prioritise impartiality. 

Four months later, we are again faced with more comments emerging from royalty, immediately following the dissolution of Parliament, that seem to raise some eyebrows regarding whether or not this crosses the line of propriety in the context of a constitutional monarchy. 

The royal in question does not believe so, proclaiming in a follow up to his original post (I have been unable to access the original Facebook post in which this appears, so please rely on the translation by Malaysiakini):

“I gave my sincerest opinion for what I think is best for my state. It was my personal opinion and being in my position, I do not support any political party or individual. I did not say I support Mahathir Mohamad, Najib Abdul Razak or anyone else.”

These statements suggest that the royal in question is laudably well aware that his responsibilities as a constitutional monarch preclude him from exerting undue influence in the elections, as this would be wrong and inappropriate. 

Those same claims, however, need to be viewed in light of the original statements themselves, to ascertain whether or not they did, in fact, indicate support for any political party. 

A close examination

Let us examine a few quotes from the original statement in particular: 

“I do not (support) any political party, but in order to change a country’s fate and improve the system, it is not by bringing down a government. We need to change it from the inside.

“Our neighbouring countries and I believe that if a ship has been sailing fine for many years but has an issue due to its skipper, do not fix it with a new engine. We stay on the same ship and guide the skipper to where we want to go.

“This is the time to restore the orders and implement systems that have been damaged by individuals who are dreaming of becoming prime minister.

“Don’t change the boat if the engine is not broken, don’t even change the skipper but allow HM the Sultan of Johor and I guide the skipper for you.”

There is also an anecdote regarding the story of one Private Adam, in which Mahathir is explicitly mentioned by name, and which is followed by the quote below:

“This is how low the highest government’s leadership then is willing to go to have absolute power in this nation. I hope the people are not easily fooled by a forked tongue individual. At the moment he is not trying to save the country, he is more worried about what will happen to his children in the future. Even the wealthiest person on earth would not be able to give birth to three “billionaires”.”


A popular saying among people in power is “I leave it to the people to judge” while a popular attitude among people in power is to say one thing and do the complete opposite. 

Related image

I suppose I will leave it to the people to judge whether the latter is what has occurred, and whether or not the speaker in question is being genuine with regards to the claims of not supporting any side. 

I think this is something we should be concerned with, regardless of our political preferences. It is perilous to cheer the monarchy only when their political commentary favours who we support. 

For the record, I, too, believe that back in the day, Mahathir curbed the powers of the monarchy for selfish reasons rather than for any genuine commitment to democracy. I can certainly understand how some people took it personally and maintained a long-standing grudge. 

Two wrongs, however, do not make a right. Excess and undemocratically curbed powers of the monarchy back then do not justify excessive and inappropriate comments by the royalty in the here and now. 

Two and Two

One other quote from the same individual that was quite jarring goes as follows: “Whatever happens to Malaysia is your problem […] whatever happens to the country, it involves other people, not me.”

The last time I checked, Johor was still part of Malaysia. If some would prefer to secede, it is their right to pursue that goal and the noble manner in which to do so openly. 

I personally believe that within the Malaysian family (and the family of all humanity, really), all of us have a right to be concerned about each other. 

Steven Gan recently quoted George Orwell’s bit about two and two being four. If anyone from anywhere in our nation is trying to make us believe it is three or five instead, then it is our responsibility to disagree, for no one is an “outsider” as far as the truth is concerned. 

In closing, I would like to take some time to remember Douglas Gomez, a brave Johorean hockey coach, who by unrelated coincidence happened to father a son who would go on to write the funniest (and probably best) Malaysian book I have ever read. 

NATHANIEL TAN believes that copies of Devil’s Place by Brian Gomez are probably still available for sale, perhaps at Merdekarya, which is a fun place you should visit. 

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

BOOK REVIEW: In Defense of a Liberal Education

April 8, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: In Defense of a Liberal Education

In Defense of Liberal Education
Fareed Zakaria
New York: W.W. Norton, 2015
208 pp., $16.00 hc

by Marvin Lansverk, PhD
Professor of English Literature
Montana State University Bozeman

“I understand that we need a certain number of philosophers, and I understand that it’s important to have a certain number of people who study history. But we’re not currently creating a lot of jobs in those areas. So we have to look at what curriculums we really need…. People who are getting degrees in philosophy and history, God bless them, it’s wonderful that they’re critical thinkers. But now they’re going back to a college of technology to get a life skill to get a job.” —Brian Schweitzer, Governor of Montana, 2005-2013 (Hechinger Report, 27 June 2012)—Marvin Lansverk

Perhaps I should start with a bias warning: I went to a liberal arts university. I teach English literature. I like the liberal arts, whether as a major or part of a broad-based undergraduate education. And I’m dismayed by the recent rhetorical turn in the media, along with legislative and policy initiatives, away from the liberal arts—as if they are suddenly passé or something to be feared your kid will become interested in, like drugs, especially when such expressions are accompanied by statements implying that the liberal arts don’t lead to employable skills. As an antidote, I like to read defenses of liberal education, whether John Henry Newman’s nineteenth century classic The Idea of a University, or articles from current CEOs explaining why they actually prefer to hire liberal arts majors, or statistics that show that the salaries of liberal arts majors stack up favorably against other majors, or books like this latest one by Fareed Zakaria, someone with a real job—if being a public intellectual, editor of Foreign Affairs and of Newsweek and Time, a TV host and commentator, a Washington Post columnist, a college professor, and an influential writer count as having a real job. Thus even before I picked it up, I expected I would like Zakaria’s recent In Defense of a Liberal Education, and I do: but not just because it validates my own views. Actually I disagree with a number of his views and am bothered by some of his analysis, which seems overly glib. But what I especially like about Zakaria’s modest book is that it isn’t simply another jeremiad about the ills of American higher education, nor an uninformed call for radical changes which too often tend to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, nor an ideological rant with more ideology than information. Instead, it’s a welcome call for balance, written with balance: balancing data, personal stories, social policy, and an understanding of the history of liberal education in America and the multiple purposes of higher education, all accomplished in the context of Zakaria’s deep knowledge of the present social and political global landscape.

Image result for fareed zakaria in defense of a liberal education

The book started as a commencement address defending liberal education to the 2014 graduating class of Sarah Lawrence College—certainly preaching to the choir. Ten months later, the well-received address was expanded into this book, the best audience for which now might be said to be the skeptics, or cold-cruel-world realists who wonder if our students still have time for Chaucer when our global competitiveness is at stake. To them, Zakaria says yes, the liberal arts matter, using his own life story as an important perspective on the material, making the book partly a personal memoir, partly a history of higher education, and partly a call for more informed and data-driven education policies, especially by our leaders who should know better, whether President Obama’s “I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” or the governors from Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin with their recent attempts to de-fund the liberal arts at their state universities, with Rick Scott of Florida’s: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

Zakaria’s response is this book. It is actually a collection of six essays (the six chapters of the book) with a fairly broad focus. But what ties the chapters together is Zakaria’s personal story and his ongoing ethical authority on the subject: as someone who draws daily on his liberal education and the life skills it imparted.

Chapter One, “Coming to America,” tells Zakaria’s personal story, of being raised in India in its education system focused on memorization, content, and tests (steering children, boys especially, almost exclusively into science and business), then almost on a lark finding himself applying to and getting into Yale in the 1980s (when liberal arts institutions in the U.S. were barely on the radar of Indians). Zakaria then tells how at Yale he discovered the power of a liberal education and through it also discovered his future path in international politics and economics, majoring in history (subsequently earning a PhD in Government from Harvard). What makes the story powerful and contemporary is that it’s a version of the classic “American” story, in its Global 2.0 incarnation, of an individual making good through hard work, determination, and exposure to the American system of higher education. And the story itself is a necessary reminder to policymakers now, appropriately worried about American global competitiveness and statistics showing us falling behind in the educational attainment of our population. And the moral of the story is that our education system, with all its problems, is still the envy of the world. And still producing remarkable results.


Chapter Two, “A Brief History of Liberal Education,” though brief, covers a two thousand year history, starting with the Greeks, dashing through the establishment of medieval universities, with a glance at Britain, to an examination of the American system, with a focus on Harvard’s curricular innovations, the rise of electives, and the emergence of our standard liberal arts curricula—with a core curriculum, a major, and a healthy dose of exploration and free choice. Zakaria’s theme throughout is that societies have always struggled with balancing competing needs in their education systems, that curricula in this country have always been undergoing changes, that they aren’t frozen in the medieval past (which some critics continue to claim). Nevertheless, Zakaria recognizes that improvements still need to be made: especially in increasing the scientific literacy of all students. Zakaria again offers a personal example of change, of Yale’s recent joint venture (where Zakaria had become a trustee) with the National University of Singapore to establish a new liberal arts institution in Asia, Yale-NUS College, which opened its doors Fall 2013. Recognizing Singapore’s own need to develop more of the kinds of creativity and critical thinking and entrepreneurship characteristic of American higher education—and even more of the self discovery—it has made a recent bet on more liberal education, not less.

The value of this Chapter 2 actually lies in its brevity. It isn’t that the history Zakaria tells here is new, and it is developed in far less detail than in the sources that Zakaria draws upon (carefully citing the sources in this first book since his own citation scandal in 2012 that we have seen affect other public intellectuals similarly writing at speed with research staffs, and therefore sometimes not as careful about citations as the standards of academic research require). But overviews have their role as well. And many current skeptics or other busy people paying only occasional attention to higher education debates aren’t going to take the time to read the comprehensive histories of the liberal arts (such as Wesleyan’s president, Michael Roth’s 2014 erudite Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which Zakaria also cites). So there is value in quickly retelling the story, reminding us of how we got here, and reminding us what the liberal in liberal education means, which seems especially important for those made queasy by having any association with a term that also serves as a political label as well (Zakaria’s own political views have been variously characterized as centrist, moderate, liberal, and/or conservative). In this case, Zakaria reminds readers that the liberal in liberal education has its roots in a two thousand year history of liberation and freedom—and not in 21st century American politics.

Chapter Three, “Learning to Think,” finally gets down to the business of defending liberal education. And the lead-in is the question: but what about jobs? Thus, the arguments Zakaria makes become both philosophical and practical at the same time, matching the balance that characterizes the book. His specific arguments why liberal education must continue to be valued aren’t new, but the examples and topical asides are. In brief, what liberal education imparts, and what it did for him personally, is three things: 1) it teaches you to write, 2) to think, and 3) to learn. This bald summary isn’t that interesting but the balance of examples, anecdotes, quotes from CEOs and data that Zakaria compiles makes for compelling reading. And one of the more interesting threads Zakaria pulls on is the paradox of international test scores—such as the, the Program for International Assessment (PISA), on which the U.S. and other nations with educational systems more like ours tend to do poorly on, revealing an increasing lack of preparation and competence in a variety of subjects by our students, yet whose results don’t track with actual global competitiveness and success. While a highly complex issue, one lesson—relevant in an age of increasing testing regimes—is that not everything that matters can be measured. Quoting Singapore’s former minister of education comparing our system to theirs, Zakaria reports Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s comparative comments: “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well—like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are areas where Singapore must learn from America.”

Chapter 4, “The Natural Aristocracy,” is an eclectic chapter continuing Zakaria’s theme of meritocracy and capitalism as effective and necessary backdrops for our education system (he takes the term natural aristocracy from Thomas Jefferson, indicating a meritocratic system based on talent rather than birth, wealth, and privilege). And he starts with a meditation on the founding fathers and especially on Ben Franklin as the poster child for the American system. Interestingly, this is also the chapter where Zakaria addresses some of the problems bedeviling higher education, including costs that continue to outpace inflation and the continued cost shifting from public sources to individuals, leading to increased individual debt. Zakaria doesn’t have a single solution to offer, but—experienced in the power of mass media to reach all parts of the globe as he is—he, like many others, is fascinated by the promises of technology and distance delivery of courses, especially MOOCs (still new enough to require an identification of the acronym: Massive Open Online Courses). Still in their infancy, they already are expanding access to information, to great teachers, and to American liberal education. One thing Zakaria finds interesting about MOOCs is that students worldwide aren’t just seeking out engineering and technical courses in this online environment; they are also interested in the liberal arts.

Chapters 5 and 6, “Knowledge and Power,” and “In Defense of Today’s Youth,” turn to even broader subjects, though are each short chapters. Chapter 5 addresses the power of knowledge to change the world, and Chapter 6 is Zakaria’s attempt to address the value of a liberal education in developing the individual life of the mind and ourselves as human beings. Though worthy subjects, both read a bit more like newspaper columns than book chapters at this point—and it’s not surprising that the most frequently referenced source in these latter chapters is New York Times columnist David Brooks, whom Zakaria sees himself in dialogue with here.

Ultimately, it is dialogue that Zakaria wants to promote with this book—informed dialogue. And his method of provoking it is to provide a “zoomed out” Google Earth view of American higher education, which—to keep the map metaphor going a bit—functions as a kind of Mercator projection with the importance of liberal education at the center. And as such, it is successful, bearing the strengths and weaknesses of such an intent. It makes effective use of Zakaria’s compelling success story, making his story emblematic of our times; it provides a good overview of issues in higher education; it provides a useful survey of many recent good books on the same subject (from Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010), and Excellent Sheep (2014)—all previously reviewed in Montana Professor, the latter in this issue); it’s written in a breezy, quick-reading journalistic prose, and it provides much concrete data to counter the recent public narrative that we’ve outgrown or can no longer afford our childish preoccupation with liberal education. As for its weaknesses, like an unfocused essay, perhaps, the book tries to do too much, thereby having to cover territory too quickly, occasionally relying on too many generalizations in the meantime. As such, it’s not always possible to tell what the generalizations mean (e.g., “Bill Gates was one of the first larger-than-life private figures in contemporary America”). Also, like many books on higher education, there’s a tendency to focus on and continue our culture’s obsession with our so called “elite” or “best schools” when much of the information is actually relevant to the whole education infrastructure—including the Montana University System. And sometimes Zakaria wraps up a survey of complex issues with a simple question as a conclusion, such as “Is this so bad?” That method, however, is a good indication of the purpose of the book. Its focus is on common sense, from someone with an uncommon biography, who is criticizing what is becoming too common: taking for granted the importance of a liberal education in this country that not only can we afford, but that we can’t afford to do without.

[The Montana Professor 25.2, Spring 2015 <>%5D