The late 19th century and 20th century were amazingly eventful and transformative periods for the Malayan/Malaysian economy and its institutions. Defined by the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, waves of globalization, 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 passionately committed to achieving and sharing a deeper understanding of Malaysia’s long-run economic and social changes. His interest in national economic and social development was propelled 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 during this period 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 led and 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 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 and outreach and the EHM website was established to house and disseminate the outcomes of this research. Besides an extensive historical economic and population data base, and a detailed technical description of the methodology behind the historical GDP accounts, the EHM website 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. A second volume of Charting the Economy, detailing the methodology used to construct the historical national accounts in the first volume, has also been prepared but not yet published.
During 2017 to 2019, Sultan Nazrin Shah built on his earlier research and attempted to trace the evolution of Malaysia’s economy and institutions over the past 150 years, and to set out elements of his vision for the country. 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.
Current project orientation
Sultan Nazrin Shah is currently finalizing a pioneering study of the many economic and social changes of the natural resource–rich Malaysian state of Perak over the last two centuries. When globalization first took hold and international trade networks broadened and deepened in the first half of the 19th century, and a new capitalist world order emerged in the second, Perak was a key player. Its tin was in high demand in Western industrializing countries and foreign capital, labour, and technology propelled it forward.

This study will be published by Sultan Nazrin in a book titled: Globalization: Perak's Rise, Decline, and Regeneration in May 2024. It brings together various sub-themes: economic geography, the institutional legacy of colonialism, increasing federal government centralization, forces of economic agglomeration and human migration, which drove Perak's fortunes in sometimes dramatic economic cycles and ultimately led to the collapse of its tin and rubber industries, and the migration of many of its young and skilled.

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 and Vincent Lim Choon Seng, and Linda Tham serves as the EHM Project Coordinator. Ad hoc support is provided by international and national consultants on a needs basis.
About the Logo
The Economic History of Malaya project logo alludes to the natural resources and technological advancement made through tin mining and rubber cultivation that drove Malaya’s substantial economic growth and social development. The crescent contains flowers of rice and is taken from the coat of arms of the State of Perak.

The colours used—white, black, and yellow—are the traditional colours of Perak, which was at the forefront of Malaya’s progress.

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

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