Charting the Economy: Early 20th Century Malaya and Contemporary Malaysian Contrasts 
Speech by HRH Sultan Nazrin Shah 
17 January 2017 | The St Regis Hotel 
Thank you Professor Perkins for that wonderfully informative and erudite overview – setting Malaysia’s economic history within a global and contemporary perspective.
Excellencies and friends…thank you too for taking time away from your busy schedules to be here this morning for the launch of my book: Charting the Economy: Early 20th Century Malaya and Contemporary Malaysian Contrasts.

The book represents the culmination of a journey that began some two decades ago when I studied for a doctoral degree at Harvard University. My conviction is that to better understand contemporary economic performance it is necessary to understand long-run trends.

Professor Perkins has covered the importance of reconstructiong historical GDP and some of the book’s macro-economic analysis. I’m not going to say anything more about these - otherwise you may not want to read what’s in it for yourselves!

Instead, let me take you back through the mist of time to try to capture some of the rich diversity of human endeavour in that period. I will do so through the lens of a few distinguished writers on those times. I wil start with Dr Ho Tak Ming’s brilliant account of cosmopolitan Ipoh When Tin Was King.

Dr Ho paints a colourful, compassionate and sensitive picture of the mosaic of life in Ipoh during the early decades of the 20th century - when Ipoh was Malaya’s commercial capital.

The occupationaly-defined personalities included mining towkays, rubber planters, hard-working coolies, bullock-carters and rickshaw pullers, money-lending Chetties, petition-writers and lawyers, vagrants and squatters whose number swelled during the Great Depression, anti-gambling and anti-opium social activists, hawkers and peddlers, and many other groups besides.

Dulang washers were another such group - mainly women washing for tin. Dr Ho describes the hard-working Hakka women who, and now I quote, “had to keep house, go out the whole day to work, often in isolated and dangerous places, and then come home to prepare dinner.…

“Just gangs and gangs of Chinese coolie-women, working so hard, bearing such numbers of children, making real homes in impossible places, and withal so happy, so sane, so alive, so full of fun, such friends with their husbands, such proud, loving mothers to their children.

….. every morning by eight o’clock hundreds of them will be seen laughing and chattering along the road, carrying the flat wooden dishes called dulang from which the women get their name.

….they all wear either the same huge cane hat as the rickshaw coolie does, or a big brim with no crown…and I have never seen one of these working women without green jade earings, banglets and generally anklets too… and I’ve never seen one of them even after a long day’s work on a mine or in the jungle, one bit as neat than they started, or finish her word less cheerfully than she began it”.

And, of course, another important group, whose life style and idiosyncracies were fictionalised by Somerset Maugham, were the British colonialists - civil servants, planters, engineers and traders - who ran the country and managed the economy.

By and large the colonialists were ordinary people. They played tennis, went to a club to play billiards, to drink, to have tiffin, and to play bridge. And as he says: “They had their little tiffs, their little jealousies, their little flirtations, their little celebrations. On the whole they were good, decent, normal people“.

In Back and Beyond, Somerset Maugham described what he saw as the monotonous daily routine of a planter, Tom Saffary, during the 1930s, and I quote:

“The planter rose before dawn at 5am and went down to the lines where the coolies were assembled. When there was just enough light to see he read out the names, ticking them off according to the answers, and assigned the various squads to their work. Some tapped, some weeded and others tended to ditches.

The planter then went back to his solid breakfast after which he set out on his rounds accompanied by a Tamil overseer. He examined the trees to see that they were properly tapped, and when he came across a coolie at work looked at the shavings and if they were too thick swore at him and docked him half a day’s pay. At noon he returned to the bungalow, drank beer and lunched in a sarong and baju. He rested for half an hour, and then went down to his office till five, he then had tea and then went to his club”.

Later, approaching independence and at the “twighlight” of British rule, Anthony Burgess fictionalised the lives of Malaya’s main communities, the Malays, Chinese and Indians

In Anthony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare wrote: "The beds i' the east are soft" and that sets the tone for Burgess' Malayan Trilogy. For pleasure and purpose Burgess wrote about the state of the state of Malaya. Burgeoning on the cusp of freedom in a post-colonial society: "Merdeka! Merdeka!" is preached, "Freedom, independence, self-determination for de Malays!". We see a fight for independence and autonomy for the citizens of a budding society.

We get a glimpse into this emerging nation, the culture, and the people when the protagonist says:
 "You've got to accept that this isn't London, that the climates tropical, that there aren't concerts and theatres and ballets. But there are other things. The people themselves, the little drinking shops, the incredible mixture of religions and cultures and languages. That's what we're here for - to absorb the country.... Or be absorbed by it.".

Burgess describes this captivation of such a cultural mix "with the fire and smoke of food-sellers, noise of show-booths, of ronggeng music, Chinese opera, Indian drums, brown and yellow faces above best clothes, glistening eyes wide in the shine of the Sultan’s treat".

We're treated to this mosaic of Malaya in its state, depictions of the people from the “Malay mata-mata”, the "Bengali businessmen" to the "Chinese jewelers" to this vast description of "Malay country, washed by the China sea, a State of poor honest fishermen and rice-planters. It was a land which had been tardy in yielding to the kindly pressure of the British, and Chinese and Indian traders had been slow to follow the promise of peace...".

As Henri Fauconnier vivdly and intimately relates in his novel the Soul of Malaya – the soul is its diverse people.
Excellencies and friends…

One important lesson from my study of the country’s economic history is that all of our diverse communities working together have made outstanding contributions to the truly remarkable economic and social transformation that Malaysia has experienced. The immense prosperity and development brought about by their sacrifices, innovations and talents should help inspire current and future generations of Malaysians, and serve as an examplar for other multi-cultural societies.

Let me conclude by taking this opportunity to sincerely thank all those who have helped me make this book a reality - too numerous to mention here, they are acknowledged in it.

But it would be remiss of me not to thank my parents, my mother Tuanku Bainun and my late father Sultan Azlan Shah, who have been a great and continuing source of inspiration, as well as my former Harvard professors Dwight Perkins, Peter Timmer and Joseph Stern.

I would also like to express my appreciation to the OUP team who supported the production of my book, as well as to the management and staff of The St. Regis.

I hope that you will all enjoy reading my book as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thank you all.

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

Install EHM PWA App

Generic Popup