Friday, June 13, 2014

A MESSAGE TO MALAYSIAN UNIVERSITIES: ON STUDYING THE MONARCHY

The political-economy of the monarchy

by Azly Rahman

 
The issue of the limits of political involvement of the Malaysian monarchy is at centre stage. I believe exciting debates are going on in the country, pertaining to the future of the nature of government evolving as the citizens become more learned of issues affecting their identity in the modern state.

As an educator I am interested in the ‘teachable moment’ of it; especially for Malaysian universities advancing towards world-classism and the nurturing of critical sensibility.

I want to suggest this and share a rational of doing so based on a method of studying the political-economy of the monarchy.

The task for Malaysian universities

Because we are now in the age of transparency and accountability, and that people are to be informed with facts rather than emotions, and that at subsequent general elections the voters need to make informed decision based on the awareness of the world they live in and the political reality they are in, and because the issue of land ownerships, control, and losing control is of interest, I urge the public be made aware of who owns states such as Johor and especially the Iskandar region.

Political-economy as a hybrid discipline linking the relationship between politics and economics is crucial to be used as a framework of understanding who owns what in such states. The idea of finding out the interlocking directorate-ship and the network of controlling interests and to share the findings with the people (using simple terms and better still graphic representations even a 10-year-old can understand) is needed.

Scholars such as Lim Mah Hui, KS Jomo, and Edmund Terence Gomez have done this kind of study in the past (see for example Lim Mah Hui’s study of the ownership of Malaysia’s 100 largest corporations).

I urge think-tanks, NGOs, research units of political parties on any side engage in providing the rakyat/people with such information so that we know who owns what and in what relationship these ownerships manifest themselves and which foreign companies own which property and whose land or even reserved land get sold by who and how much the cost of these properties are.

Most importantly one can then know what are the human consequences of these developments and in what way do they benefit the rakyat.

Here are possible task for universities, especially for the Economics Faculties.

1) Research on the businesses owned by each Royal Household/Palaces; companies they own and their foreign partnership;

2) Research on the businesses owned by the political parties, be they from the Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat and who sits on the board of directorateship of companies;

3) Publicise the remuneration figures of those who heads government-linked companies so as to ascertain the extent of rewards for political patronage;

4) Research on the funding sources of all organisations; be they local or international NGOs;

5) Research on the funding sources of the media companies.

These are some of the topics that should be explored and the findings made public so as to have a more informed society whose members will vote based on an understanding of political economy in issues-based elections rather than one typically emotions-based.

I hope the relevant university faculties are going to take up the challenge of this intense way of looking at the interplay between power, knowledge and economics in a hypermodern society such as Malaysia.

Political economy through WS Rendra

Some time ago, during my undergraduate days, I wrote an analysis of the great Indonesian poet WS Rendra’s play Kisah Perjuangan Suku Naga or The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, Below is an excerpt from the essay available here in full.

Through Rendra’s essay on his creative process, his poems lamenting the theme of human dispossession in an industrialized society, and plays he translated and authored prior to the writing of The Struggle, one can find the prevalence of Marxist themes in the playwright’s work.

Most remarkable is the universality of Rendra’s analysis for the study of underdeveloped societies; poverty is a structural problem when viewed within a larger historical and dialectical materialistic context.

What is political-economy and how useful will it be to study the Malaysian monarchy?

Political economy is a discipline for studying how a particular society organises the distribution of its economic surplus for the benefit of its members.

It goes beyond orthodox economics in that not only the means of economic distribution is analysed; rather, it also recognises that power relations are embedded within these practices. In addition to that, political economy also looks at how human values are altered or stagnated in the process of development.


Historians of political-economy Charles KWilber and Kenneth Jameson, in an essay which analyses the various paradigms of economic development which have dominated the theoretical writings of scholars on development, stated that the political economist is concerned with the enhancement of human values in the “active”, - i.e. human beings as subjects of development - rather than the “passive” sense - i.e. as objects of development - within the overall process of economic growth.

Political economists differ with orthodox economists in their view of what constitutes the means and end in development, in that, traditional economists look on people’s values as means. Since the goal is growth, if people’s values have to change in order to get growth, then society must effect that change.

But for political economist, one goal is to enhance people’s core values. Development becomes the means, not the end, for the end is to enhance what people value. Development or growth is desirable only if it is consistent with people’s deepest values.


Political economy sees the inextricable link between politics and economics; whichever group controls the economic resources and surplus controls the development process. External and internal loci of control over the surplus are crucial topics explored by this form of Marxist analysis.

With regard to the external control, for example if the economy of a particular developing country is controlled by outside forces - international agencies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, transnational business or banking corporations, etc - political economists would argue that the development policies pursued by that country would be influenced by policies made by those international agencies. In addition, the external forces would collaborate with the internal forces.


As such, an alliance is forged; there would be a First World-Third World dependency based upon collaborations between the foreign political-economic elites with those with political and economic powers in the developing country. Within this context, development means the unequal relationship between the developed and the developing country.

Technology, investments, capital, technical skills, and services from the former to the latter in effect not only create a dependency relationship based upon unequal exchanges but also ensure that the primary beneficiaries from such a structural arrangement would ultimately be the political and economic elite for both camps, international capitalists and their ‘friends’, the native comprador-bourgeoisie.

Writers such as Paul Baran, Andre Gunder Frank, and Bill Warren have dwelled on the dependency notion of development in their analyses of the under development of Latin America in particular and the Third World in general.WS Rendra’s The Struggle, albeit dramatically framed after the wayang, is primarily based upon such a framework.


The excerpt from my early writings above I hope have shed some light on the need to look at the issues, individuals, and institutions that make up the system of constitutional monarchy and how a deeper understanding of control of wealth and resources is needed.

Malaysian universities ought to encourage students to explore these fertile areas of research, so as to make citizens understand not just our nature as economic beings about how power comes into play.

Will the universities take up the challenge?

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