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

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

No One Loves Armed Missionaries

The continuing disasters in Afghanistan have again made me remember Robespierre’s quote:

During the French Revolution, Brissot and the Girondists wanted to export the republicanism to France’s neighboring countries by force. They were convinced that if the French army were to overthrow the monarchies of its neighbors, and set up republican governments, then they would be welcomed as liberators by the local people.

During the euphoria of revolutionary France, Robespierre was one of the few politicians clear-headed enough to see through this. And over 200 years ago, he spelled out exactly what the dangers of this way of thinking were.

The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician's head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign country to make it adopt their laws and their constitutions. No one loves armed missionaries.

Robespierre’s faction lost the vote, and France did invade its neighbors. But the war was a disaster, and Robespierre was vindicated by the actual events.

Actually I’ve already mentioned this quote twice on this blog already, so you might think I’m over-using by bringing it up a 3rd time

However I say this quote doesn’t get used enough.

It so perfectly applies to our present day situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, you would think this quote would get used more. But how many times have you heard it? Do a Google search and see how few times it pops up.

[Admittedly Robespierre’s historical legacy is a bit mixed, and that could be part of the embarrassment of repeating a quote associated with his name. This quote comes from the time of his life when he was just a charming liberal, before the stress of the revolution caused him to lose his mind and become an insane dictator. But either way, it doesn’t make him any less right.]

Conservatives, by and large, have done a very good job of cherry picking their favorite quotes from history and repeating them ad naseum until they get forced into mainstream culture. We liberals need to do more of this.

So repeat this quote. Repeat it and repeat and repeat it. Post it on your blog or on your facebook page. This quote needs to be repeated ad nauseam until it gets forced into the mainstream.


Actually on the topic of under-used historical quotes, I can’t help but remember Herman Goring's quote.

Goring, one of the Nazi leaders, when on trial for war crimes gave his thoughts about how the Nazi's had manipulated the German people into supporting the war:

Göring: Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.
Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

Now I know what you’re thinking: this was already widely quoted in the years running up to the invasion of Iraq.

Well, it was widely quoted on liberal blogs. (I've used it on this blog in the past myself.)
However I saw very little reference to it in any mainstream publications. It also deserves to be repeated ad nauseam. Ideally it would get repeated so much that there wouldn’t be a school child in America who was unfamiliar with it.

Link of the Day
What is the US Deficit?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Santorum on Pornography

It's funny--there are people out there who will try and convince me that (contrary to my own experience) the Christian Church is not obsessed with sex.

You'd never know it from this election cycle.

First, there was the uproar over the contraception issue.

Which resulted in Limbaugh's infamous comments over a female law school student who had the nerve to ask to be insured for contraception.

Now Santorum is crusading against pornography.

(Santorum himself, before becoming a long shot presidential candidate, was most famous for his opposition to gay marriage that first made him a darling of the religious right.)

Okay, so Limbaugh isn't the appointed spokesperson of any organized religion. But you can't tell me it's the secularists who are supporting this type of view.

And maybe the religious right doesn't represent the values of all Christians everywhere. But the inescapable conclusion of this election cycle is that they represent a significant number of Christians. And they vote. And they have no qualms about forcing their narrow view of morality onto the public at large.

And yet, when I try and explain to Christians how the Church is obsessed with sex to the point of myopia on all other issues, they look at me with a hurt expression and say, "Where did you ever get that impression?"

And so now we have Santorum (and presumably his supporters) concerned about the one thing that causes the most harm to American families:

Not guns, which incidentally kill 30,000 people per year. (In fact Santorum and his party are well-known supporters of gun rights. The idea that guns should be regulated is as abhorrent to them as the idea that pornography should be unregulated. They don't seem to see the contradiction.)

Nor does he identify the as one of the greatest threats to families (which also is responsible for 30,000 deaths per year) or tobacco (100,000 per year), or alcohol (50,000 per year).

No, he wants to ban pornography.


Part of the problem with the Republican party is that it has since the 1980s been made up of an awkward alliance between the religious right and the libertarians.

Thus Obama's Health Care plan was denounced in the shrillest terms as too much government intereference in your life.

This by the same party who wants to regulate who you can and can't get married to. And now wants to regulate what you can and can't masturbate to in the privacy of your own home.

It's built on a party that either overlooks this contradiction, or believes that God has given them the duty to interfere in everyone else's sex life.

Because the religious right finds pornography offensive, they must ban it for everyone.

I realize that we are in the midst of primary craziness, and that most of these issues will die away during the general election in November. But it's interesting to see what motivates the religious right.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky speaks to Dutch activists on various topics

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sex Industry and Cambodia

Some interesting articles have been appearing lately regarding the sex industry and Cambodia.

To start out, there's a blog post from Ms Greenwood:
Sex Work and Dignity in Cambodia – Not Everyone’s a Victim at That Girly Bar

(I recently disagreed with Ms Greenwood over her article on Chomsky. But that doesn't necessarily mean she's all wrong all the time and I think she's asking the right questions in this blog post.)

The links from her blogpost are interesting to follow as well:
Group struggles for legal distinction between human trafficking and sex work
and from the Phnom Penh Post:
Professional girlfriends: Moving beyond sex work by Heidi Hoefinger.

Which reminded me of another article I had read recently by the same author in South East Asia Globe:
Professional girlfriends and bar girls are creating new meanings of Khmer womanhood by Heidi Hoefinger.

I have my own thoughts on the issue, but they're largely irrelevant since they usually consist of me trying to imagine how a woman views sex, and that's always a dangerous profession for a man to engage in. (You'll notice that all of the above linked to articles are written by women.)

So I'll confine my observations to the obvious:
Human trafficking is a problem in this region. Some of my Khmer friends tell me that even upper middle class women dare not walk the streets alone at night in this country for fear of being abducted into a car and sold across the boarder to a brothel somewhere.

And yet, as Ms Greenwood says, a simple consideration of the economics of the situation should make the appeal of the voluntary sex trade obvious. A Cambodian woman can work in a sweat shop factory from morning to night in appalling conditions for $30 a month. Or she can get that same amount of money for a few hours work in Phnom Penh.

It's no wonder than that, as these articles indicate, a number of these woman don't appreciate being "saved" by religious groups and NGOs and retrained to work in the sweatshop industry.

Putting aside the morality of sex for a minute, from a purely cold classical liberal economic view, one would hope that the high wages available for sexual activity would force other business to push up their wages in an effort to compete for labor.
One would not hope that the it results in woman being taken off the streets and forced into the sweatshops by anti-human trafficking laws, which is apparently what's happening.

Perhaps the fact that sex workers in Cambodia are attempting to unionize and take their future into their own hands can be seen as a positive development.

Link of the Day
The Soviet Union Versus Socialism

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Thoughts on the Continuing Disaster That is the US Occupation of Afghanistan

The idea of a “War on Terrorism” has always had internal contradictions. How do you fight an enemy without a traditional army?

It was feared from the very beginning that each US military victory would, rather than reduce terrorism, only fuel the anger of the opposition more, and recruit more terrorists. The fear was that we would get stuck in an endless cycle of violence and reprisals that have characterized every other terrorist conflict in the world, such as Northern Ireland, Israel, Chechnya, et cetera.

Way back in 2001, the supporters of the Afghanistan War assured us this wouldn’t happen. They said that while it may be true that every other occupying army in history has been resented by the local population, this time would be different. Our troops would target only the terrorists, and would win the support and trust of the local people.

Over 10 years later, I think it’s time to admit this little experiment has run its course .

If it were active US Government in Afghanistan policy to inflame Muslim hatred as much as possible, it would be hard to imagine how things would be any worse.

First there were the US soldiers urinating on dead Muslim soldiers. Then there was the burning of the Koran. And now the news that 16 Afghanistan civilians, 9 of them children, were murdered by a US soldier.

By themselves, any one of these could be excused as an aberration.

Taken together, I think it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that:
1) The US government has lost control over its soldiers, and
2) US soldiers no longer want to be in Afghanistan.

If anyone can think of any good that can be reached by continuing this occupation, please let me know. Because I can’t see any.

Instead, what I see is a continuing occupation that is just daily making things worse and worse.

It’s time to end this war now. No more US soldiers need to die in Afghanistan, and the US government is hugely in debt and can no longer afford to fund this occupation.

Link of the Day

Friday, March 02, 2012

Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser

(Book Review)

Yet another book in the Flashman series.

 (See also: Flashman, Royal Flash, Flash for Freedom, Flashman at the Charge, Flashman and the Great Game, Flashman's Lady , Flashman and the Redskins, Flashman and the Dragon, and the original source material Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes.)

“Flashman on the March” is actually the 12th book in the Flashman series. Previously I’ve only read up to book 8, which means I am now reading the books out of order. (Here in Southeast Asia, English books are in short supply and I’m reduced to reading only what I can find in used book stores. This book is the only Flashman book I could find at the moment.)
Not that it really matters, because each of these books is a stand alone story, and they’re all written out of chronological order anyway.

This adventure deals with the 1867 British invasion of Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia). The mad emperor of Abyssinia, Theodore, has taken captive several British citizens as hostages, and the British government sends in an army to rescue them.
The campaign is a logistical nightmare. The British are marching into unfamiliar territory in the middle of a mountainous desert terrain were they must forage for food and water. They have to use elephants to bring their artillery up the mountains. Many observers at the time didn’t think they would come back. All of this is well portrayed in the book.
The land of Abyssinia is also very well described, and George MacDonald Fraser brings out all the wonder of the place. It is an unconquered Christian land in the middle of the Muslim empire, and thought to be the inspiration for the legend of Prester John (the mythical Christian king who supposedly reigned on the other side of the Islamic empire (W)). In the 19th Century, it still retained an unorthodox form of Christianity (apparently an older form of Christianity than the one that existed in Europe).
The Christian Emperor Theodore had visions of driving the Muslims out of Jerusalem, and one of the reasons he became hostile to the British is because he thought he was being snubbed by his fellow Christian monarch Queen Victoria.

All of these fascinating details come through in the book.

Once again, Flashman finds himself in the middle of all of it.
As always, Flashman is a reluctant participant. A series of events (starting out with Flashman as the aide-de-camp to the doomed Emperor Maximilian of Mexico) ends up with Flashman joining the British campaign to Abyssinia, despite his every attempt to weasel out of it.
As always, Flashman ends up encountering numerous real life historical figures.
And as always, much of what Flashman sees and hears are backed up by historical footnotes from George MacDonald Fraser. For instance in his footnotes, Fraser indicates that much of what Flashman hears Emperor Theodore say actually comes verbatim from other sources.

There’s not a lot for me to add to this review that I haven’t said in any of my reviews of the previous Flashman books. And by the reader gets to the 12th book in the series, no doubt they know what to expect, and they won’t be disappointed. There are plenty of colorful descriptions of exotic lands and historical figures, and Flashman has his usual series of narrow escapes from all sorts of dangers. It’s an excellent read, even if I’m not sure I agree with the politics of the book.

Which brings me to my next point…

The Politics of the Book

The early Flashman books highlighted the more shameful or bungling episodes of the British Empire (the invasion of Afghanistan, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Sepoy Rebellion, et cetera.)
Flashman’s cowardliness served as a satire on the cult of Victorian heroism. The irony was that Flashman’s shameless sense of self-preservation made him less of a danger to society than all the honorable Victorian soldiers, whose heads were filled with notions of glory for Queen and Empire and who were likely to lead men into massacres or conduct one themselves.

However starting with Flashman’s Lady, a tonal shift seemed to be evident in these books. Instead of serving as a satire on Victorian heroism, Flashman became a foil to it. The stories focused on British soldiers and generals whose heroism author George MacDonald Fraser seemed to admire, and the fictional Flashman’s own cruelty and cowardliness served as a contrast to emphasize the honor of the British officer.

I’m not entirely sure what caused this tonal shift, but I was much more comfortable with the politics of the earlier books than with the pro-Imperial theme of the latter books.

This particular book follows that same pattern, where the British expedition is portrayed in a very positive light, and Lord Napier, who led the expedition, is repeatedly praised throughout the book.

Granted, this is one episode of imperial history where the British did seem to be in the right. They were defending their own citizens, they were provoked, and they were putting down a ruthless African tyrant.
But then, part of the interpretation of history is knowing which incidents to selectively emphasize. Fraser could have chosen to write about many other historical incidents in which the British army was not in the right. (For example at the same time that the Abyssinian expedition was happening, the Maori Wars were going on in New Zealand.)

Also the invasion of Abyssinia may have had political as well as humanitarian motivations.
I’m far from an expert myself. The only other places I’ve heard about the Abyssinian expedition is from “The Decline and Fall of the British Empire” by Piers Brendon (A) and “This Sceptred Isle: Empire” (A). Both of these sources emphasize that British army was sent not purely to rescue the hostages, but also to bolster British prestige world wide at a time when there was growing concern that the British Empire might soon be eclipsed by their European rivals. Also it was necessary that British prestige be upheld in Africa in order to discourage revolts in India.

This perspective is largely absent from Flashman on the March. Or at least, not emphasized.
Flashman does briefly acknowledge the wider political implications of the venture. (On p. 26. Being typically irreverent, racist and always politically incorrect, Flashman expresses himself in language I daren’t quote here.)

But this wider context is often forgotten in favor of rhetoric about soldiers doing what is right, and a government’s sacred duty to protect its citizens. As George MacDonald Fraser states in his introduction:

“…and it may be that along with the light he [Flashman] casts on a unique chapter of imperial history, he invites a comparison with a later and less glorious day.
For Flashman’s story is about a British army sent out in a good and honest cause by a government who knew what honour meant. It was not sent without initial follies and hesitations in high places, or until every hope of a peaceful issue was gone. It went with the fear of disaster hanging over it, but the British public in no doubt that it was right. It served no politician’s vanity or interest. It went without messianic rhetoric. There were no false excuses, no deceits, not cover-ups or lies, just a decent resolve to do a government’s first duty: to protect its people, whatever the cost. To quote Flashman again, those were the days.” (p. x)

On the other hand:
This book was published in 2005, when the Iraq War  was in full swing. The “later and less glorious day” Fraser is talking about is no doubt Britain’s participation in the Iraq War. In fact if you re-read the above paragraph, it looks like all the things Fraser is saying the Abyssinian campaign was not, he’s implying that the Iraq War was. In the Iraq War there were false excuses, deceits, and cover-ups and lies.

To which I can only add: “Hear Hear!”

Connections with Other Books I’ve Been Reading Lately
(Just for my own benefit I always like to draw connections between some of the various books I’ve been reading.)

The Abyssinian incident is sometimes described as a prelude to “The Scramble for Africa.” It takes place 10 years before the start of Thomas Pakenham’s excellent history on the Scramble, but some of the dramatis personae are the same. For example Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who played such a big part in Thomas Pakenham’s book, was one of the newspaper correspondents assigned to the Abyssinian campaign, and pops up a few times in “Flashman on the March.”

Another newspaper writer who is briefly featured as a character on this book, G.A. Henty, later went on to cover the Sudan Wars in the 1890s, and is featured in the excellent “Three Empires on the Nile” by Dominic Green.
(The British campaign to end slavery in the Suez, one of the major themes in Dominic Green’s book, also briefly features in “Flashman on the March,” when Flashman finds himself on the boat of an overly zealous anti-slavery British naval officer.)

Richard Burton’s quarrels with fellow explorer John Speke, about who discovered what on the Nile river, are also mentioned briefly in this book.


I don’t know if everyone caught this, but Flashman was in the news a few months back:
Why Labour are calling David Cameron 'Flashman' [LINK HERE]

And so just for fun, here’s a few more Flashman links.

Christopher Hitchens on the subject of Flashman can be found here [LINK HERE] . (Hitchens actually has a much longer essay on Flashman in his latest book, “Arguably” (A), but I can’t find an on-line version at the moment.)

And here’s John Updike’s review of Flashman [LINK HERE].

Link of the Day
The Imperial Way: American Decline in Perspective