Behind Malaysia's "Miracle": A Veblenian Perspective on Mahathir's Era of Economic Modernization

By Keong, Choy Yee | Journal of Economic Issues, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Behind Malaysia's "Miracle": A Veblenian Perspective on Mahathir's Era of Economic Modernization


Keong, Choy Yee, Journal of Economic Issues


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. …

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