Penang Monthly Book Review

In view of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Penang Book Prize, run by Penang Institute since 2017, will not be held this year. Instead, this has inspired Penang Monthly to carry a column of short and succinct reviews of some of the most significant nonfiction books published in 2019-2020 which have Malaysia as their backdrop. Here are the eight selected: 

What I Saw in Malaya. Lectures 1934-1938
(Matahari Books)
Review by Laotse Sacker

Kelantan Seen Through French Eyes

IN MARCH 1932, a French woman arrived in Kota Bharu, planning to spend three or four months there. She ended up staying until September… the following year. What I Saw in Malaya: Lectures 1934-1938 by Jeanne Cuisinier gives us tantalising glimpses of what it was that captivated this adventurous ethnologist and that made her delay her departure.

From her base in the town, Cuisinier travelled up and down the rivers, through the jungles and along dusty roads learning the languages and customs of those she met. While basing herself in Malay communities along the way, she was particularly interested in the indigenous peoples, touching briefly on the various Chinese, Thai, Hindu and Japanese communities that she came into contact with. The Malays, she noted, were exquisitely gracious and well mannered. They welcomed her into their communities and generously shared their weddings, festivals, ceremonies, coming-of age rituals and traditional songs, music and dances with her. This munificence was displayed over and over throughout her stay in Malaysia, whether it was a wedding party in a simple village or a raja’s open house event. At an impressive wayang kulit performance that continued well into the early hours of the morning, she guessed there to be over 2,000 people from all stations in life packed into the house and grounds.

The men wore their songkoks in and out of doors, while the girls and women wore either flowers or light scarves that were removed once inside. Children wore little, other than maybe a sarong or a little open jacket, while small children wore nothing at all, unless it might be a little silver caping (modesty plate) worn on a thread round their waists.

Of particular delight to the contemporary reader are some of the rituals and polite exchanges the author recorded as being held between subject and ruler, between host and guest, between market vendor and buyer, and others. Cuisinier noted that how one ought to speak depended on one’s status, age and gender. Here and there she recorded how she got gently corrected when she mixed up her forms of address or in some other way misunderstood the required etiquette. At one point she blundered by remarking on how the locals did not use cutlery when they ate, to which her companion replied, “Can you tell us in how many mouths your fork has been? My fingers, as far as they are concerned, have never touched but my lips.”

This affectionate series of lectures unfortunately only gives us a taste of what this ethnologist and linguist must have seen. Rather like the secrets of the bomoh who requested that she only tell their magic secrets to her favourite child at the hour of her death, the reader can be quite sure much of what she witnessed is lost to us forever.


Behind Barbed Wire: Chinese New Villages during the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960 (SIRD)
Review by Ooi Kee Beng

A Social History of the Malayan Emergency

THE RETURN OF the European colonial powers after the defeat of Imperial Japan in 1945 was not welcome in most parts of Southeast Asia. In Malaya alone were they able to repossess territories with little trouble. However, within two years, things turned sour between the British and their erstwhile wartime allies, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).

In June 1948, the British authorities put the Malayan Peninsula under a state of emergency in response to the MCP having adopted increasingly violent means against them. This Emergency lasted 12 years, but by 1954, the MCP guerillas had largely retreated to the Thailand-Malaya border. The credit for this historically rare defeat of communist insurgency by a colonial power is often given, on the one hand to Gerald Templer, the man who succeeded Henry Gurney as High Commissioner after the latter was ambushed and killed in 1951, and on the other to Harold Briggs, the military commander who had excelled in the Burma theatre and who was recalled from retirement to be Director of Operations in Malaya. Templer also simultaneously succeeded Briggs in 1952, and retired only when Malaya gained its independence in 1957.

Tan Teng Phee’s book is an intriguing expose of the experienced consequences of the Briggs Plan. The Briggs Plan, in summary, was a highly controversial resettlement programme that saw 573,000 of Malaya’s rural population crowded into 480 heavily surveilled “new villages”. According to Tan, 86% of those resettled were Chinese. This radical and sustained effort effectively cut off major means of supply for the guerillas in the jungle.

Much has been written about the Emergency and the Briggs Plan, but what make Behind Barbed Wire extraordinarily interesting are first, that Tan himself grew up in new villages and imbibed stories in his youth from his grandparents about the forced resettlement and the sufferings it entailed. Second, he has been able to assess Chinese language sources from that period alongside both primary and secondary English language material. Finally, his narration is a social history built on in-depth interviews carried out over many months with now-aged survivors of that military intervention in Malayan rural life. This approach captures poignant information not only about the sufferings they endured, but also the various means they adopted to survive and to retain integrity and agency. That achievement alone is a valuable contribution to scholarship about the formative years of Malayan nationhood.


Beyond Debt: Islamic Experiments in Global Finance (NUS Press Singapore)
Review by Frederik Paulus

Malaysian Innovations Help Define Islamic Finance

THE FIRST LESSON in any finance course is the difference between debt and equity, since their respective character is so fundamentally different. Debt refers to a moral obligation between two parties, whereas equity puts them both on the same footing, with a shared interest in the outcome.

Debt will also be the most familiar financial instrument for most, in the form of a mortgage, a car loan or a credit card. This is not by chance, since debt forms the historical basis of the conventional banking system. Today, this is a very visible industry, particularly in global cities like New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong, regular stops on the itinerary of any self-respecting investment banker.

But the concept of debt is controversial, particularly in religion. Islamic finance, which prohibits interest and relies on equity-based instruments, is arguably the most successful alternative system. In Beyond Debt, Daromir Rudnyckyj paints a compelling picture of Malaysia’s efforts to turn KL into the pre-eminent global city of Islamic finance, and by extension how it came to have a significant impact on the industry itself.

Rudnyckyj gives us a front-row seat to the internal struggles of the field, marked in particular by the tension between Islamic economists, who aim to align instruments and practices with the spirit of shariah, and practitioners, who are more often than not trained in conventional finance and try to make the debt-based instruments of conventional finance compliant with the latter. Intriguingly, the practitioners’ efforts are reminiscent of the “regulatory arbitrage” that is rife in conventional finance.

Trying to balance these two opposing forces, the Malaysian government and the regulators, in particular Bank Negara, succeeded in creating a lively ecosystem, where experimentation and knowledge development are proceeding apace. As a result, KL has become a mandatory stop on the alternative itinerary of Islamic bankers, bridging the Middle East with East Asia, geographically and culturally.

Through his skilful and detailed account of its development in Malaysia, Rudnyckyj also shows us how Islamic finance has emerged as a strong challenger to conventional finance, especially since the Global Financial Crisis. Our current pandemic-induced crisis may reinforce this evolution, and Malaysia is well placed to reap the benefits.


The Defeat of Barisan Nasional: Missed Signs or Late Surge? (ISEAS Publishing)
Review by William Tham

UMNO’s Agenda Survives into the Future

STANDING OUT FROM the pack of other books written about the 14th general election, this book is not for casual reading, filled as it is with detailed maps, tables and diagrams outlining the various factors at play in the elections. Over a dozen contributors studied various parameters and the feeling on the ground leading up to the pre-election period – economic realities, the urban/rural divide, ethnic differences in voting patterns, state-by-state differences – in a bid to understand if Pakatan’s shock victory was a case of “missed signs or late surge[s]”. The usual factors, such as Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership of Pakatan, are expanded on, but family pressure, the politics of patronage and state-by-state differences are discussed as well.

What is repeatedly pointed out is the audacity of a Barisan defeat, given the battery of tactics at their disposal: vast legal power, gerrymandering, malapportionment, influence over the Election Commission and outright vote buying. In hindsight, it is even stranger that Malaysia was (despite the implementation of unpopular measures such as the GST) in an economically stable position, which made the change in power even more unlikely.

The editors Francis E. Hutchinson and Lee Hwok Aun have also included the points of view of the defeated parties, in this case representatives from UMNO and PAS, both of which include grudging, if legitimate, considerations of the political situation. The work thus avoids being insular, and paints a broader and less triumphant image, highlighting the challenges beyond. Ultimately, the Pakatan victory was not a sea change in any sense of the word. Rather, the same political realities that propped up 60 years of Barisan/Alliance rule meant that existing power structures and imbalances persisted throughout the two-year experiment in power despite reforms. As contributor Kai Ostwald writes, “the core of UMNO’s agenda survived into the next chapter of Malaysia’s political history”.

In my conversation with Peter Emerson, director of the de Borda Institute, shortly after the political coup in March, he noted that the political turbulence was a sign of a maturing democracy, in which simple alignments are shattered, giving way to new, competing coalitions. The Opposition and Government binary is not so simple. More than half a year later after the coup, with the political crisis still very much unresolved, the simple certainties of the first 60 years of independence have given way to a climate in which studying race, class, religion and individual state politics becomes more crucial.


Bandit Saints of Java: How Java’s Eccentric Saints are Challenging Fundamentalist Islam in Modern Indonesia (Monsoon Books)
Review by William Tham

Between Religious Orthodoxy and Cultural Pride

DESPITE THE FANCIFUL tagline, promising encounters with the “wacky figures from Java’s past”, George Quinn’s pilgrimage travelogue is much more a down-to-earth achievement than it is marketed to be. Journeying across Java, from the busy port at Tanjung Priok to the frigid highlands of Mount Lawu and the island of Madura (not exactly Java, but close enough given its intertwined history), Quinn engages in the alternative, oft-unnoticed narrative of Indonesian Islam – the story of what Clifford Geertz calls the abangan tradition, or syncretic practice fusing Islamic teachings with elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and indigenous Javanese beliefs.

What also came along were saints whose tombs became the site of legend and pilgrimage, a list that grew to include vanishing kings, deviant princes, Madurese queens, the titular bandit saints and of course the Wali Songo themselves, who were said to have brought Islam to Java.

Quinn, interestingly, is an atheist, but he is a curious and sympathetic observer of what emerges as a lively portrait of domestic pilgrimages and the uneasy coexistence of more orthodox Islamic practice (santri), with the old traditions. He straddles the role of an outsider and insider, fluent in both Javanese and Standard Indonesian, delivering a condensed history of Javanese Islam. He covers a lot of ground, from the fall of the Majapahit empire to the efforts of the Wali Songo, from the vicious Dutch Cultuurstelsel system to Chinese immigration, and eventually the violent rise of the New Order.

All that can be a lot to take in, but Quinn effortlessly merges fact and fiction in the style of a storyteller. There are plenty of elements of magic, particularly the chapter “In the Forests of the Future”, with its mix of spiritually charged places and environmental concerns, merging into a study of heritage, conservation and messiahs.

While Quinn notes how the rise of fundamentalism was effectively sanctioned by the violence that accompanied the New Order’s rise to power, which polarised the Muslim community, he eventually paints a more complicated picture. Expanding on the simple abangan/santri binary, he looks at how the political and economic realities resulted in a hybrid situation that exists today.

While the allure of orthodoxy is strong, economic realities mean that the tombs of local saints, including recent figures like the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, become alternative sites of pilgrimage, becoming even more popular with the establishment of tour groups, domestic and foreign visitors, fuelled by rising disposable income.

Bandit Saints is an engaging addition to the literature on Java, and an antidote to the simple polemics of intolerance and fanaticism thrown up by the international media.


Jeopardy of Every Wind: The Biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey (Monsoon Books)
Review by Rosalind Chua

The “Merchant-Mariner” Who Wrote the World’s First Malay-English Dictionary

SUE PAUL’S Jeopardy of Every Wind documents the life of Thomas Bowrey, a 17th century English country trader who makes his name and some riches by trading in India and Southeast Asia. Due to economic circumstances, a nine-year-old Bowrey is packed off to India with a relative and through hard work and no little mental fortitude transforms himself into a capable “merchant-mariner.” Miraculously – given the high attrition rates for Mat Sallehs in the tropics – he not only survives but thrives in his 19 years in the region, amassing a reasonable fortune that allows him to retire comfortably in London.

The first half of Bowrey’s life is told primarily through his various sea voyages, the types of cargo he carried, sold, traded and the relationships he built with various East India Company officials. It is all very detailed due in no small part to Paul’s meticulous research (the back matter takes up a significant chunk of the book). On his return voyage home, Bowrey spends his time jotting down what would become the first-ever Malay- English dictionary, a book that continues to interest language scholars to this day.

As is to be expected, the second half of Bowrey’s life in London is far more sedate given his comfortable financial position. Although he still harbours some plans of returning to Asia to pick up where he left off, his nerves as a seaman ultimately fail him. Instead, Bowrey remains on land and uses his vast trading and seafaring knowledge to become an investor in various trading voyages. These are outlined in great detail. After a period of ill-health, Bowrey eventually passes away at the age of 53, leaving behind a childless widow, a comfortable estate and his one surviving legacy, the Malay-English dictionary.

While Paul is commended for her diligent efforts to produce the first full length biography of Thomas Bowrey, Jeopardy of Every Wind at times struggles to live up to the cover blurb’s hype of a “… maverick merchant-mariner (who)… gained renown in numerous fields.” This is not through any fault of the author as the second part of Bowrey’s life is fairly mundane and filled with a largely underwhelming cast of seafarers, petty officials and acquaintances. While his later brushes with history, including that of “… (the) Worcester, an incident that hastened the union of England and Scotland in 1707 and divides Scots and English to this day”, are as a bit part player.


Kill the Major: The true story of the Allied guerrilla hunt for the last Japanese forces in Borneo (SIRD)
Review by Rosalind Chua

A Balanced Analysis of a Nasty but Effective Officer

MAJOR TOM HARRISSON the anti-hero of Paul Malone’s Kill the Major was an eccentric British army officer tasked with leading a group of Australian, New Zealand and British guerrillas behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Borneo. In the dying days of WWII, this tiny group of only 42 men did reconnaissance for the eventual Australian Imperial Force (AIF) landings while harassing Japanese forces in the process. While the book focuses more on the memoirs of the white Semut operatives, significant respect is paid to the many Sarawakians, including the formidable tribal head hunters, who played a key role in ensuring the operation’s success.

The book’s intriguing title takes its lead from the general distaste and hatred which the Major engendered in many of his fighting men. Harrisson comes across as a bad-tempered, stubborn leader who insisted that his men lived off the land (rather than military rations) and tramped around the jungle barefoot. His brash command style coupled with his well-documented personality quirks rattled his subordinates to the extent that one soldier plotted to murder the Major in cold blood with a Japanese pistol. For readers wondering if Harrisson was really the bastard he is here made out to be, do note that an authorised biography of his life is entitled The Most Offending Soul Alive.

Despite Harrisson’s flaws, Malone presents a balanced and considered analysis of Harrisson’s leadership which not only resulted in considerable enemy losses, in the attainment of important military intelligence and perhaps most importantly of all, in keeping his troops on the ground for long enough after the Armistice to ensure the safety of the Sarawakians in their area. Even after the Emperor’s surrender, Japanese troops continued to loot, destroy kampungs and murder with impunity since regular Commonwealth troops were forbidden from engaging with the enemy. Harrisson was incensed. It is a testimony to his integrity and humanity that he refused orders to stand down and was instead able to convince his superiors to allow his Semut operatives to pursue and capture the renegade Japanese troops.

Since the Semut operation was a side-show to a much larger conflict, it allowed Malone to really dig deeper into the personal relationships between Harrisson and his men and the close bonds they formed with the locals, rather than overemphasise military strategy and bureaucracy. Malone writes with cultural sensitivity, avoiding the usual cultural tropes and taking pains to balance out the experiences of the Semut operatives with that of their Sarawakian allies.


An Illustrated History of the Philippines (John Beaufoy Publishing)
Review by Enzo Sim

A Volume That Illustrates the Uniqueness of The Philippines

THE PHILIPPINES IS, in various aspects, strikingly unique. Notwithstanding its 7,641 islands, the modern country has developed a distinct set of cultural values that are unlike its Southeast Asian counterparts that bear the heavy influence of the ancient civilisations of China and India, as well as subsequent Islamisation.

Jose Raymund Canoy provides an interesting and concise account in An Illustrated History of the Philippines detailing the nation-building journey of the Filipino people. He plunges directly into the realities that have continued to plague the Philippines, chief among which is the mass poverty that exists among a well-educated people.

The book starts off in 1300 AD when the outside world first made contact with the peoples of the islands in the form of exchanges in goods and ideas; of how the spotty cultural contact with the rest of Asia during this period led to the emergence of local polities, the barangay that were ruled by local chieftains, or datu, without much trace of early Hindu- Buddhist influence, such as mega temple complexes and monuments as were found in many parts of Southeast Asia.

Canoy then takes readers through the period of the 1500s to the 1800s, when Spanish explorers arrived at the islands, heralding the Western colonialism that would last until 1946; and leaving an indelible mark not only in the form of Spanish architecture but more importantly, founding the world’s third largest Catholic population today, after Brazil and Mexico.

The switch from Spanish colonialism to US control in 1900 drove further the growing independence movement that had been stirring under Spanish rule. The vivid depiction of the Philippines’ nation-making journey through detailed accounts and lively images makes An Illustrated History a must-read for anyone wishing to know more about this culturally distinct part of Southeast Asia.



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