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  • Charting the Economy: Early 20th Century Malaya and Contemporary Malaysian Contrasts by Sultan Nazrin Shah
  • Ong Wooi Leng
Charting the Economy: Early 20th Century Malaya and Contemporary Malaysian Contrasts, by Sultan Nazrin Shah. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 2017, 234 pp. ISBN: 978 983 47 2014 8

Many of the contemporary socio-economic developments of a country are shaped by the historical progress of said country. Malaysia does not differ much from other colonised countries in that its demographic and economic growth are particularly transpired from its economic development in the past, but as a whole, it has experienced progressively improved socio-economic well-being and infrastructure following independence. Some states in Malaysia are less developed than others, somehow adhering to the historical development that was established by the British in colonial Malaya. For example, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor—previously known as the Unfederated Malay States—on average, continued to record a lower per capita GDP of RM25,226 in 2018, while Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan (the Federated Malay States) had RM40,108 per capita GDP that year. The economic role played by the British would therefore seem to have provided a solid bedrock for continued employment and income generation in post-independence Malaysia.

This volume provides a compendium on the formulation of GDP and the evolution of Malaya's economy between 1900 and 1939. While some estimating of historical data is necessary in measuring economic performance, Sultan Nazrin Shah of Perak, the author of this volume, interprets Malaya's economic trends through linkages between the economic and population development in the past and in the present.

The book is divided into three main sections, discussing (1) the Malayan economy; (2) the methodology in estimating GDP used in the first forty years of the 20th century; and (3) pre-World War II Malaya in comparison to post-independence Malaysia.

The first chapter sets the stage by detailing the numerous obstacles encountered in obtaining accounts about British Malaya. These include: patchy statistical information, where up to 12 administrative units each compiled their own statistical reports;1 unconvincing data quality; and inconsistency in data reporting over time. Taking all these difficulties into consideration, the author manages to carefully estimate GDP values by using data from various government documents, including financial statements of the respective states and population censuses that were available during the colonial period. He then transforms them into a computational format, making several modifications and assumptions along the way. Some proxies are also used where data were not available.

In the second chapter, the author elaborates on the imbalanced development of Malaya in terms of human well-being and capital creation among indigenous communities, despite the observance of progressive economic development through job and wage creation. Given the strategic location and the free port status of the Straits Settlements—Penang, Malacca and Singapore—the British gained [End Page 176] handsomely from its commodity trade, and further expanded its influence over other states in Peninsular Malaya. With the acceptance of British control by the royal families in the Federated Malay States, tin mines were boosted rapidly with strong competition between Chinese societies. Meanwhile, economic activities in the Unfederated Malay States focused on traditional agriculture and fishing—except Johore, whose level of economic development was on par with that of the Federated Malay States, primarily due to its close proximity to Singapore.

Sabah and Sarawak (British Borneo), which supplied timber exports, were administered separately from 1841, and subsequently obtained independence from British rule by joining the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. These states retained control over matters related to immigration, education and the civil service, in contrast to the highly centralised states in West Malaysia.

The workforce in Penang and Malacca continue to be employed in the commercial sector. In contrast, the largest percentage of the Unfederated Malay States' workforce remains in the agriculture and fisheries sectors, and more so in comparison to the rest of Peninsular Malaysia.

Chapter 2 provides a thorough analysis of economic progress made in the period under study. In the early 19th century, tin mining was the main industry in Malaya, contributing over half of world output. The availability of...


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