Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A History of Malaysia by Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Y. Andaya [Second Edition]

(Book Review)

I wanted to learn about the history of Malaysia while I was travelling through the country.

Malaysian history interested me. You have so many different cultures mixing together: the indigenous culture, mixed with Islam imported by overseas traders, mixed with large groups of Chinese and Indian immigrants, mixed with the British colonial legacy.
You also have the communist insurgency and jungle warfare in the 1950s which served as a rehearsal for the Vietnam War.
[The Malayan Emergency period is completely forgotten these days, at least from American history books. The first time I even became aware of it is was when looking at the War Memorial in Melbourne, and seeing the monuments to the Australian soldiers who had died fighting communists in the jungles of Malaya in the 1950s.]

Ideally, I wanted a nice armchair history—something that was easy to read, interesting, and engaging.

Alas, you can’t always get what you want. If that book exists out there somewhere, let me know. I couldn’t find it. Of all the bookstores I went to (both inside Malaysia and outside) this was the best I could find.

This book is a textbook, designed to be used in an undergraduate survey course on Malaysian history. (They don’t ever say so in so many words, but it’s obvious.)

I wish I could say it was fun to read but unfortunately the thing reads like, well…. a textbook. It’s filled with dry prose that seems almost designed to put you to sleep. The authors seem more concerned about avoiding controversy than advancing any interesting arguments. It contains very few interesting stories, but is packed with statistics, figures, and analysis. The reader is overwhelmed with strange names, most of which appear briefly on the page, and then never re-appear again.  Or worse yet, sometimes a name does reappear again several pages later, leaving the reader to try to remember which of the many characters this was.  (The authors usually assume the readers have just memorized all these strange names they have been throwing at them, and  offer the reader no help in remembering when one of the many names randomly reappears several pages later.)

Books like this are the reason that some people think they hate history. And yet survey history books are a necessary evil.

Obviously history is most interesting when you can look at people’s individual stories in detail. But not everyone has the time to do this, and sometimes survey history books are the most efficient ways to learn a country’s history.

And, I must admit that I did learn a lot of Malaysian history from reading this book.
I did not, however, enjoy the journey. And so depending on what you’re looking for, you should be forewarned ahead of time. If you want a book that makes history interesting, or if you’re looking for arm-chair pleasure reading, stay away from this book.
If want a textbook with lots of facts and figures to get you ready for a university exam, then this might well be the book for you.

Anyone familiar with survey history books will know that the first few chapters always start out before historical records are kept, and are mostly conjecture based on archaeological evidence, and modern anthropology. For example, based on modern anthropological studies, we learn how the ancient jungle people of Malaysia most probably lived.
Because there are no individual stories to tell, this part of the book was pretty boring. But I persevered, hoping that the book would get more interesting once the authors arrived at the time when historical records are kept.

It doesn’t.

Partly this is because of the author’s fondness for an analytical approach to history rather than a narrative approach.

All the interesting events in Malaysia’s history are covered briefly with just a few sentences, while the author’s spend pages analyzing statistics and demographic trends.
For example, here is how they relate the Japanese conquest of Malaya and Singapore in 3 brief sentences:

“Japanese forces landed in southern Thailand and northern Malaya on 8 December 1941 and by the end of the month had established their control of both the Peninsula and the Borneo states. Within a few weeks, on 15 February 1942, the ‘impregnable’ fortress of Singapore capitulated, followed in March by the Netherlands East Indies. With remarkable speed British rule in Malay was replaced by that of the Japanese military” (p. 257).

This can be contrasted with an overly long and boring analytical section on the demographics of education under British colonialism, which lasts for 17 pages (from pages 226 to 243). To quote from part of it:

A striking feature of government and mission efforts was the low enrollment of Iban and Dayak pupils. By 1936 the 2086 students in the 25 government schools for Malays and Muslim Melanus included only six Ibans and one Land Dayak; the mission schools had a somewhat better record, with 339 Ibans and 296 Land Dayaks. By contrast, three–quarters of Sarawak’s total school population of about 14,000 were Chinese attending independent Chinese and mission schools. In 1935, under the direction of C.D. Le Gros Clark a report was compiled that proposed wide-ranging changes in the educational system. These included the appointment of a director and an Education Board composed of representatives from the missions and the people….

….And it goes on like that for 17 pages.

And it was like this all through the book. Everything I wanted to hear more about was covered only in a few sentences, and everything I didn’t want to hear about went on at length.

I suspect this is partly because the authors wanted to avoid giving simply a history of the colonialist powers in Malaysia. In the modern period, Malaysia’s history is one colonial power after another. It was first colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British, than the Japanese, and then the British again. Not until 1957 did the nation finally reach independence.
Ideologically, I’m broadly sympathetic to the idea of “history from below”, but there’s got to be a better way to do it than death by statistics.
(The early chapters contain very little statistics, probably because this survey data wasn’t available back then. But once the authors reach the period of British colonialism, they can’t seem to help themselves from over-using all the statistics and data that the British collected.)

After World War II, the book becomes a little bit more interesting with the story of Malaysia’s struggle for independence and the Communist Emergency. But then once independence has been achieved, the authors fall back on statistics, analyzing the New Economic Policy in terms of percentages of ethnic groups, and then their last few pages on modern Malaysia is spent mainly analyzing the voting patterns of different demographics.

* The mainly negative reviews this book has gathered on Amazon seems to indicate other readers shared my frustration with it. [LINK HERE].

That being said, I am perhaps being a little bit unfair. I’m trying to analyze this book in terms of pleasure reading. It’s designed as a textbook.


Connections with Other Books I’ve Been Reading

A few other characters from Malaysian history have popped up in the Flashman books I’ve been reading.

* James Brooke, the eccentric British adventurer who colonized Northern Borneo (now part of Malaysia) was featured prominently in “Flashman’s Lady” by George MacDonald Fraser.
(In fact, biographies of James Brooke seem to be hitting on the Flashman connection as a marketing point. When I was in a bookstore in Malaysia, I saw a biography of James Brooke that on the back cover mentioned James Brooke had such an adventurous life he could well have been a fictional creation of George MacDonald Fraser.)

* The Chinese millionaire in Singapore, Whampoa, (mentioned briefly in this history) is also a minor character in “Flashman’s Lady."

* Captain T.C.S. Speedy, another eccentric British adventurer, pops up a couple times in this book as one of the British administrators in Malaysia.
Speedy was also part of the British Abyssinian expedition, and as such appears as a character in “Flashman on the March”.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - What Was Leninism?, March 15th, 1989

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