Behind Malaysia's "miracle": a Veblenian perspective on Mahathir's era of economic modernization.

AuthorKeong, Choy Yee

Thorstein Veblen was one of the most original American socio-economic thinkers. It may be said that he was ahead of his time in explaining many of the theoretical problems of today's economics. In the Theory of the Leisure Class, for instance, his cogent elaboration on the predatory behavior of human economic actions provides an important conceptual point of entry into many of the critical inquiries of global capitalist emulation in contemporary Asian regions. More specifically, his precinct of invidious distinction characterized by wasteful expenditure on symbolic, rather than instrumental functions of economic activities shows that pecuniary emulation of global capitalism is not necessarily akin to economic modernization as commonly perceived by many of the developing Asian countries. Instead, it connotes ceremonial wastes of resources, time and efforts on unproductive processes. Pecuniary emulation occurs when a less advanced nation-state displays its mark of pecuniary strength vis-a-vis the reputable standing of the advanced countries. It may well be that for the less developed nations, invidious displays of monumental structures with marks of superfluous extravagance represent a conspicuous indicator of global distinction and honor, and that the evidence of honorific distinction is grounded on their ability to emulate highly industrialized nations.

Against this premise, the main objective of this article is to re-examine and enrich the continuing relevance of Veblen's expose of human proclivity to emulation and invidious comparison, and to identify and explore various aspects of economic modernization from a developing country perspective based on a case study in Malaysia. Theoretically, this article transcends Veblen's intellectual corpus of invidious distinction of consumer goods at an individual level to micro-emulation of global capitalism at a nation-state level. Empirically, it captures the relevance of Veblen's theory of the leisure class in association with the regressive relationship between economic development and the erratic sequence of socio-economic "progress" under Mahathir's (the former Malaysian Prime Minister) era of economic modernization. By raising the corner Of the veil of Mahathir's economic modernization "miracle," it contributes to an improved understanding of the complex perspectives of various socio-economic and institutional challenges governing the global capitalist emulation processes. This provides some pointers toward harnessing a sustainable mode of production, which is not only industrially serviceable but also, economically efficient and socially beneficial.

Global Capitalist Emulation--A Contemporary Perspective

Pecuniary emulation and invidious distinction take place not only at an individual level as posited by Veblen more than a century ago, but also at the nation-state level in the contemporary world. Causal observation of what is happening around the developing regions reveals that many nations attempt to emulate the industrial west in order to display their marks of pecuniary strength. For example, driven in part by its quest for global esteem and technological capabilities, China has allocated about $100 billion to construct the world's largest water project--the Three Gorges Dam (Sullivan 1995, 269). In order not to lose in the global race, Malaysia is building the largest dam (the Bakun Dam) in Southeast Asia, which cost about $2.4 billion. The completion of the Bakun project will show the world that Malaysia is as capable as the West in developing mega dam technology, an Asian icon of economic modernization.

The same motive of emulation is even more pronounced in the concrete display of great monuments like skyscrapers, which are raised up like dams as more proof of economic modernization and pecuniary prowess. Inspired by the elevated objets d'art of Chicago's aesthetic touch, Malaysia began to intensify its emulation process in order to bring its pecuniary prowess to a higher order. In 1998, it succeeded in unseating Chicago's Sears Tower from its position as the world's tallest building with its own twin towers--the Petronas Towers, which stand 451 meters tall. Since then, architects in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, have all drawn up plans for monuments that will surpass it. At present, Taiwan has excelled in the global emulation race eclipsing the Petronas Towers from its position as the world's tallest building with its own 508 meter, $1.6 billion building, the Taipei 101. Meanwhile, China is continuing work on what may surpass Taipei 101 as the world's tallest monument--the Shanghai World Financial Center, scheduled for completion by 2008.

What may be deduced from the above discussion is that Malaysia's proclivity to emulate highly industrialized countries under the global capitalist race is not unique. However, this should not divert attention from the fact that its incessant quest for predatory emulation tends to give rise to ceremonial wastes and inefficient uses of national resources. While there may be general agreement that global capitalist emulation contributes to socio-economic modernization, there remain significant differences of opinion on how this may be accomplished. In other words, economic modernization, defined within the present context as progressive changes in terms of industrial serviceability, economic efficiency, and social sustainability; is not always at home with pecuniary capitalist emulation. Consequently, in order to come to grips with the full implication of the complex and cumulative socio-economic impacts, limits and quality norms governing the interplay between economic modernization and global capitalist emulation, it is necessary to delve further into the matter. This will be pursued systematically in the following section.

Pecuniary Canon of Taste and Mahathir's Modernization Theory: A Critical Evaluation

Malaysia began its rigorous modernization process in the early 1980s under Mahathir's leadership. Economic progress under Mahathir was so impressive that the World Bank proclaimed the Malaysian economy an "East Asian Miracle" (Khoo 2003, 24). Within this spectrum, this paper will show how Mahathir was able to achieve the "miracle" of modernization under his new global phase Of capitalism. Before proceeding further, it is apropos to point out that Mahathir had a pecuniary canon of taste for expensive, prestigious and honorific projects as he thought this to be "good for the ego" of a developing nation (Gecker 2000; see also Mahathir 1997; Khoo 1992; Jomo 2003). Mahathir's pecuniary impulse of monumental construction also admirably matched his "Vision 2020"--a long-term vision of growth, which aims to transform Malaysia into a fully developed nation economically, politically, socially, spiritually, psychologically and culturally by 2020. Above all, Mahathir's vision of economic modernization is glossed over with his famous jingoistic slogan "Malaysia Boleh" (Malaysia Can). This slogan serves to instill a sense of confidence in the people that Malaysia is as capable as the West. As Mahathir asserted: "Have confidence in our ability, and we should not believe that only foreigners are smart and able. We too are able" (cited in Kim 1999). As he confessed, "[w]e like to think big ... small projects make little impact on the economy" (Mahathir 1997). Soon, Mahathir's mission of producing an economic miracle transcended into a full-blown pecuniary plan for grandiosity; reflected in the public financing of a string of mega projects throughout his political career. Some of the most prominent ones include a $2.4 billion Bakun Dam hydroelectric project; a $2.36 billion Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA); an $8.1 billion new administrative capital (Putrajaya); and the $752 million Petronas Twin Towers. A brief remark about each project follows.

The Bakun Dam is the second largest in the world, after the Three Gorges Dam in China. About 69,640 hectares of forest ecosystem will be completely destroyed when the water is impounded behind the dam. For Mahathir, the emulation of dam technology is considered symbolic of western progress and serves as a catalyst for economic growth and a sustainable solution to enhance the social welfare of indigenous communities (Choy 2004a; 2005a). The country's most ambitious project is the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). The new airport is set to take over the Singapore Changi Airport's designation as the regional hub in Asia. By 2012, KLIA will have a passenger capacity of 45 million and when fully developed will be the largest airport in the world in terms of acreage. The new airport will incorporate forms and systems suggesting advancements and modernization, and bring Malaysia's global esteem to a higher order of distinction. The same motive of emulation has also been kept alive in the construction of the new administrative capital--Putrajaya. The new capital, located about 25...

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