Archive for 17 May 2017

Stuck forever in 1968

17 May 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 15 May 2017 issue)

Hi Kam,
I have inherited an old set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It’s huge. What the hell can I do with it?

Back in 1968, my father invested in a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and all 23 volumes have been sitting on our family’s bookshelves ever since. Over the years, they have moved with us from Malaysia to England and then back again to Malaysia where they now sit on my bookshelf. I grew up being mightily impressed by the hefty tomes because they promised to contain all human knowledge and the fact that they were in our home suggested that we were a learned family. Obviously, it wasn’t necessary to actually read any of them because their mere presence alone produced a background radiation of cleverness that would seep into me as I slept, like how Peter Parker became Spiderman after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Their presence in our home made me feel superior to our neighbours because we had a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and they did not. But it did bother me that as the years rolled ever further away from 1968 that perhaps my encyclopaedic superpowers might become outdated. My concerns appeared to be confirmed by my consistently disastrous exam results but that still didn’t mean I actually had to start reading any of them. I just needed to sleep more for the effects to truly work.

Now we have the internet and all the knowledge in the 23 volumes of my Encyclopaedia Britannica can fit onto a thumb drive. The internet contains all human knowledge and after a night of frightening ourselves with conspiracy theories and being appalled by the collapse of our nation, we can all go to sleep in the happy knowledge that now all of us are learned people and the cleverness inside the internet will seep into us, like how gamma radiation seeped into Bruce Banner and turned him into the Hulk.

The internet’s powerful radiation of knowledge is so strong that I don’t need to read my Encyclopaedia Britannica anymore and, besides, 1968 is so long ago that it’s all irrelevant anyway, which must be why I have finally started to read them, I started by reading about Malaysia and I discovered an unrecognisably alien country. There is a short piece on Malaysia but the bulk of the story is told under the heading of Malaya with information on East Malaysia being included only sporadically.

Back in 1968, Malaysia is described as a mining and agricultural country, producing a third of the world’s rubber and a quarter of its tin with a sizeable iron ore component that I had never heard of. There is no mention of oil even though East Malaysia had been producing oil for decades. In 1957, the population was a mere 6.3 million, which rose to 7.6 million by 1963.

Britain was easily the largest source of imports at 16% (which must have hurt because the exchange rate was 1:7.35) with China way down the list at 7% alongside Thailand. The main exports were rubber 34%, tin 20% and timber 16%, with 24% of all exports going to America. Economically and therefore, perhaps even culturally, Malaysia was closer to the West than it was to Asia. The Malaysian instinct would have been to look West.

The 1968 Encyclopaedia Britannica paints a picture of Malaysia as a small country with a healthy economy and very strong historical and economic links to the UK but with the latter retreating militarily and with Malaysia rapidly falling into the American sphere of influence. China, Thailand and Indonesia were simply not factors in any equation. Back then, Malaysia’s dependency on a handful of commodities suggested a dangerous exposure to the vagaries of world prices. And there were 192,800 motor vehicles. My Encyclopaedia Britannica will forever remain stuck in 1968 but Malaysia has moved on. Everything has changed since then, or has it?

Malaysia’s economy is much more diversified now, the population has leapt to around 30 million, at least 500,000 new vehicles are registered every year and the percentage of Chinese Malaysians has dropped from 37% to 24%. The UK has ceased to be an economic factor while China could soon be owning as much as the British Empire ever did. Malaysia sits in a radically different world and is itself a radically different country and yet the mindset of those early days of 1968 remains. For many older Malaysians, the cultural world of the West is truly important while Thailand and Indonesia, er, not so much. For me, what happens in faraway New York or London is as cool as the culture of South Korea and Arabia is for younger Malaysians. My old Encyclopaedia Britannica paints a picture of Malaysia as a small country with a diverse population that has strong economic links to the West. I think we still think of ourselves as that even though everything else has changed.

Reprinted with the kind permission of