Archive for November 2017

For what it’s worth and how we lived and died

28 November 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 27 November 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
A painting was sold for US$450 million?! What nonsense is this? Since when has art been worth anything?
Astounded economist

A long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting was recently sold at auction for the record-breaking price of US$450 million. To my untrained eye, it does not look like it was painted by da Vinci because it lacks his customary otherworldly subtlety, but if it was actually painted by the great Renaissance master, then it really was not one of his best. He must have done it quickly to give to his landlord to cover three months’ unpaid rent, or maybe he did it in his art class at school. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the world’s foremost art experts know more about these things than I do (it is possible) and that it really is a long-lost da Vinci, then US$450 million is not a bad price, considering that it was bought for US$10,000 at an estate sale in New Orleans as recently as 2005.

I can’t help thinking about the people who sold the painting for US$10,000 because I bet they are feeling very, very unhappy right now. It got me thinking, do I have anything lying around the house that might be worth something? I am fairly certain I do not have a long-lost da Vinci, but do I have something that has somehow gained in value despite years of use? You know, like a 2010 Honda Civic.

Several years ago, my mother finally wanted to sell her grand piano and I thought, we’re going to be rich! I immediately started looking for my dream home in Tuscany, nothing fancy, just a palace overlooking Florence. But then I looked on eBay and found that the same pianos were being sold for £50. Old grand pianos for a mere £50? And the seller had to arrange delivery! Obviously, I had to forget about my dream home in Tuscany, again.

Recently, I was idly reading a book about funk music and I saw that a record by an obscure 1980s band from Washington, DC, called Trouble Funk, was now considered to be a very rare collector’s item. I had that album! Back in the 1980s, I had decided that I was going to be a funk music legend like Prince because I too am very “ghetto”. (Bangsar is a ghetto, right?) So I put away all my Kajagoogoo and Flock of Seagulls albums and started studying James Brown instead, and when I heard some music by Trouble Funk, I thought it sounded absolutely terrific (or “da bomb” as we funk people say). So I rushed out to buy its album. And then I rushed back home and listened to it intently and I thought,“meh”, and never listened to it again.

But the Trouble Funk album is now a collector’s item, I had it and it was in pristine condition. I am going to be rich, I thought to myself as I started looking for my Tuscan dream home. For months and months I had to wait impatiently but, eventually, I made a trip to London and I immediately went to a second-hand record shop. I did not want the owner to know that I had a copy of Trouble Funk’s classic double-album In Times of Trouble, so I casually asked him if he had it. “That’s a collector’s item,” he said, impressed by my knowledge. So, I casually asked him how much it’s worth. £15. A mere £15 for a collector’s item? £15 for an album of which one reviewer on said, “This CD was defective because there was no music on the CD!!!” Yet, he still gave it three stars, even though there was no music on his CD, because it is that good. You just have to hold it to feel its epic da bombness. The record shop owner was unmoved as I explained all this to him. “£15 is a good price,” he said. “And what’s it got to do with Tuscany?”

I have since given up thinking that my vinyl collection will yield any treasures. Even my Beatles albums would only be worth something if they were first prints from the 1960s and if there was a photo of John Lennon sitting on them. But, I have been told, I am missing the point. I might not own anything that would be of any resale value but they are of enormous value to me. I wouldn’t part with my Beatles albums for anything in the world because I could not imagine my life without them. Having said that, I have a pristine copy of Trouble Funk’s In Times of Trouble. And if you have a 2010 Honda Civic, then we might be able to find a deal.

Dear Kam,
My father keeps telling me that life was much harder in his day. What was Malaysia like 100 years ago?
Young ’un

I was in the National Archives of Malaysia reading a newspaper that was printed in Taiping, Perak in 1895, because that is the kind of guy I am. The English-language newspaper was not read by what we now might call “locals” because very few non-Europeans could read English and why would they be interested in reports on cricket matches anyway. But if you read it very carefully, you can detect a hint of how the “locals” lived by seeing reports of how they died.

Life was very different and very hard back in 1895 and there were quite a lot of murders. There were no banks or money transfer bureaux, so people had to either carry or bury their hard-earned income. There are many reports of Chinese men being robbed on the roads and sometimes killed, as one poor fellow was, but the murderer was soon found wandering along with an axe in his head. There were also old diseases like beri-beri, cholera and rabies, basic hunger and quite a few suicides, as well as occasional crocodile and tiger attacks. And these are just the stories reported in an English-language newspaper. Who knows what happened in lonely and unpoliced mining camps?

The European readers of an English-language newspaper would have enjoyed seeing stories about the lawlessness of the various natives to whom they were bringing civilisation, but still, life must have been tough. It is fascinating and I will continue my research.

Reprinted with the kind permission of