No Cowardly Past is a collection of writings, poems, and commentaries by James J. Puthucheary; and some of his friends. This volume was originally published at a hugely important conjuncture in Malaysia’s history. The full impact of the so-called Asian financial crisis was becoming clear and prompted a range of policy responses—both orthodox and heterodox—from the governing classes. At the same time, the crisis ushered in a new kind of politics under the rallying-cry of reformasi. This sought to challenge the assumptions of more than forty years of authoritarian, communal-based rule that had, in the eyes of many critics, served only to entrench the power and interests of a narrow segment of society. James Puthucheary lived long enough to witness those remarkable events. And though terminally ill he was gratified that his writings might find some purchase with a new generation of thinkers and activists who were grappling with issues that had been his lifelong passion.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that James Puthuchearys contribution to a critique of the Malaysian political economy is even more vital today. While the country has experienced major transformations over the past decade, the sediments of political culture and leadership from earlier eras appear all too visible. For the new edition there is one major addition with the inclusion of Jomo’s chapter that analyses the salience of James Puthucheary’s work for recent Malaysian economic development debates. Elsewhere only minor changes have been made here and there. In editorial view, the original collection of his shorter essays, poems and the tributes by others stands as a measure of just how relevant his work remains and how eloquently it speaks to the most pressing problems of the day. The collection is, in short, a testimony to what Dominic Puthucheary rightly calls the ideological imagination for a different Malaysia.
The heart of the book remains the eleven essays brought together here under the heading ‘Liberty’s Bread. The earliest was published originally in 1949 and the latest in 1977. Some were penned while James Puthucheary was in prison, offering an insight into his very considerable powers of deep thought and critical recall. Others were contributions to Fajar, the publication of the University Socialist Club at the University of Malaya in Singapore, to which he was very closely affiliated for a number of years. The writing is engaged and passionate, it is withering in its critique of colonialism and is sometimes reflective when the occasion demands. In other times and in other places, of course, he would have been revered as a public intellectual of the highest order. But all too often he was a prophet without honour in his own land, ‘heretical’ as Charles Hirschman puts it. James Puthucheary’s heresies address three fundamental areas of critical thinking: the structure of the political economy under colonialism; the struggle for a new politics; and the role of universities in society.