The late 19th century and 20th century were amazingly eventful and transformative periods for the Malayan/Malaysian economy. Defined by the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, the boom and bust of tin and rubber, two divisive World Wars, the devastation of the Great Depression, the collapse of imperialism, decolonisation and the birth of nationalism, leading to the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957, followed by the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

Understanding economic and social history provides the foundations for transforming the country into a more prosperous, resilient and cohesive nation. A successful society with a collective national identity requires a critical mass of informed and engaged citizens, who understand the country’s present day economic and social achievements and challenges, and are open to discourse that will pave the way forward.

Sultan Nazrin Shah is passionate and committed to achieving and sharing a deeper understanding of Malaysia’s long-run economic and social changes. His interest in national development was stimulated through his PhD dissertation at Harvard University, where he made some provisional estimates of Malaya’s GDP for the early decades of the 20th century, and attempted to explain the economic changes that had occurred through the use of econometric techniques.
Historical roots
On his return from Harvard in 2001, and with the support and encouragement of the late Shaharil Talib, Sultan Nazrin Shah established and led a small research team at the Asia-Europe Institute of the University of Malaya. The team, managed by Dato’ Gnasegarah s/o C. Kandaiya, comprised Mr Harbans Singh s/o Sohan Singh and up to 15 research assistants. HRH was actively involved in the research work. During the early years of the project, despite his very demanding schedule and his many public engagements, HRH made it a point to meet the team regularly to discuss progress, help resolve issues, and to provide encouragement.

A major preoccupation of the research was the preparation of a robust and comprehensive set of historical GDP accounts for Malaya. Data from colonial historical statistical records obtained from the National Archives of Malaysia, and the National Archives Office of the United Kingdom, were carefully pieced together using an innovative methodology to construct a time series of Malaya’s GDP and its components from 1900 to 1939.
Sultan Nazrin Shah and the former team at the Asia-Europe Institute
Project Reorientation
In January 2016, the Economic History of Malaya Project entered a new phase of research, publication, dissemination and outreach and this website was established to house and disseminate the outcomes of this research. Besides an extensive historical economic data base, and a detailed technical description of the methodology behind the historical GDP accounts, it also includes articles on the economic and social history of Malaya/Malaysia.

Sultan Nazrin Shah launched his first flagship publication Charting the Economy: Early 20th Century Malaya and Contemporary Malaysian Contrasts in January 2017. The publication broke new ground on Malaya’s GDP and its components, and in understanding the dynamics of Malaya’s economic performance during the first four decades of the 20th century whilst under colonial rule, and how it compared with post-independence Malaysia.
During 2017 to 2019, Sultan Nazrin Shah built on his earlier research and attempted to trace the evolution of Malaysia’s economy over the past 150 years, and to set out elements of his vision for the future. In July 2019, he published his second book, Striving for Inclusive Development: From Pangkor State to a Modern Malaysian State. The book analyses the country’s successful economic and social transformations, articulates the challenges still remaining, and emphasises the benefits of continuing to strive for an inclusive Malaysia.
Future project orientation
The short-term future research orientation of the project will be two-fold. First, on completing a second volume of Charting the Economy detailing the methodology used to construct the national accounts in the first volume. Second, on the economy of the state of Perak, once the global centre of tin mining and Malaya’s most populous state in 1901. This research will focus on the impact of globalisation on the demographic and economic decline of the state. The experience of Perak will be compared and contrasted with that of other once-flourishing international mining cities, drawing insights from those that successfully transitioned into a modern economy.

Beyond research for technical publications, there are also plans to increase awareness and to encourage discourse on the country’s economic and social history through national and international seminars on aspects of Malaysia’s economic history, as reflected in Sultan Nazrin Shah’s research and publications.
Economic History of Malaya Project team
Since 2016, the Economic History of Malaya Project has been managed by Richard Leete, formerly the United Nations Resident Coordinator for Malaysia and UNDP Resident Representative for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Senior research assistance is provided by Cheng Fan Soon, Vincent Lim, Sharon Ng and Sonia Wong Persson.

c/o Asia-Europe Institute
University of Malaya,
50603 Kuala Lumpur

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