Note: This was a paper presented at the International Conference on Gender and Sexuality in Asia (CoGen 2018) in Monash University, Sunway Malaysia in November 2018. Friends who have followed my research and talks in recent years know it’s a product of years of my fascination with Dato Vida.
In a music video limited to a cotton candy pink colour palette, a middle-aged Muslim-Malay woman in a large tiara over her hijab sings and dances with an unabashed message of female sexual desire and narcissism. She sings to the viewer: “I want you” with “I want” on disco repeat. “I am fun. I am pretty. I am beautiful. I’m a queen. I inspire your desire,” she continues with a glint in her eye.
The singer is Datuk Seri Hasmiza Othman or better known as Dato Vida, a Malaysian entrepreneur of women’s beauty products. Her astronomical rise in Malaysian mass culture is attributed to her eccentric personal style of overstatement jewels and sequins, gaudy make-up, and as the model of her own skin-bleaching products. To little surprise in a society defined by conservative social and cultural mores, her notoriety for extravagant self-promotion and penchant for all things pink and lapidary have attracted public mockery and bewilderment.
On 11 May 2018, large vehicles hauled trolleys full of briefcases stuffed with cash worth millions in multiple currencies, jewelry, hundreds of luxury handbags and watches from the homes of the former Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor. With echoes of the Marcos, the mind-boggling accumulation of status objects in their different residences was met with public shock and outrage. In the months to follow, Najib Razak and Rosmah Mansor were arrested and charged with multiple counts of breach of trust, money laundering and tax evasion, mostly arising from the 1MDB scandal. The couple have pled not guilty to the charges and vehemently defended their innocence. They are embroiled in the world’s biggest financial scandal and subject to global and nation-wide derision typically reserved for disgraced public figures.
My paper reflects on the excesses of Rosmah Mansor, wife of the former Malaysian prime minister, and Dato Vida, the popular Malaysian female entrepreneur, both of whom in different ways embody the apotheosis of the gendered effects of Islamic modernity and post-capitalist modernisation.
For this paper (which still requires so much more research!!), I conducted face-to-face and telephone interviews with middle-aged Malay-Muslim women over the age of 50 who are active in politics and the corporate world (names have been changed to protect their identity). In our conversations, I identify attempts by Rosmah and Dato Vida at legitimacy through personal narrative, charisma, and celebrity as a way of understanding forms of informal power that women who possess the trifecta of ethnicity, religion, and super wealth have.
Max Weber’s concept of charisma has been used to explain Southeast Asian state formation and leadership, but here I wish to utilise it from a feminist perspective as there is a lack of analysis of power, authority, and charisma from a gendered lens. Charisma is understood as ‘the extraordinary and personal gift of grace’ (Weber 1919) that grants particular individuals authority and legitimacy. It is defined by the size of one’s following, it promotes ‘irrational’ devotion, charisma is unstable but a necessary starting ingredient in the ‘objectification’ and ‘routinised’ control of political action. Thus, Weber does not regard charisma as only intrinsic to certain individuals but sees it relationally, in the number of followers, as social exchange and as strategies of ‘routinisation’.
I am not necessarily saying that both women Dato Vida and Rosmah Mansor have plenty of charisma – not least Rosmah, as I will explain further below. Rather, I am performing an exercise in comparing and contrasting the two women who have much in common though one fails while the other succeeds in the sphere of public acceptance. It may help explain how this trifecta of ethnicity, religion, and super wealth protects other transgressive public personalities such as the transgender business woman Nur Sajat and Neelofar from moral opprobrium and leaves others more vulnerable to disrepute.
My research participates in the affective turn in the sociological and anthropological research and the cultural studies of Southeast Asia. For this reason, I am also interested in the paradoxes of Malay-Muslim femininity that they embody – pious yet immodest and over the top – and the affective registers they produce among Malay-Muslim women. I do this by focusing on one particular emotion most closely associated with the Malay community – ‘malu’ – loosely defined as shame or / embarrassment. I consider the ways in which Weberian charisma and the personal narrative interact with notions of ‘malu’ as a powerful form of political affect.
Crazy rich Malays
The expansion of the affluent middle-class Malay class or the Melayu Baru can be considered a direct product of Malaysia’s affirmative action policies to eradicate poverty and transform the traditionally rural Malay community into university-educated, white-collared professionals ready for the capitalist market. Malay women in particular experienced the most dramatic transformation that accelerated their participation in the public sphere as modern and educated workers who must also be family-oriented mothers and wives.
Malaysia’s path towards modernisation converged with resurgent Islam from the late 1970s that sought to redraw gendered boundaries in the public sphere. The emergence of successful female entrepreneurs can be traced to the longer history of Malay entrepreneurship from the 1960s who were predominantly farmers, rural workers, and petty traders in cottage industries (Shamsul 1999).
Shamsul AB argues that the Malay middle-class were themselves not only the vanguards of the dakwah movement but demonstrated ‘tendencies of neoliberalism and its internal contradictions’. I quote him at length here:
On the one hand [the Malay middle-class] is highly in favour of the continued expansion of the market and promotion of aggressive individualism, thus making it hostile to tradition. On the other hand, its political survival depends upon the manipulation of and persistence of tradition for its legitimacy, hence its attachment to conservatism, notably in areas concerning the nation, religion, gender and the family (1999: 104).
Personal narrative – charisma and celebrity
Both Dato Vida and Rosmah Mansor share similarities that demonstrate aspects of feminine excess and transgression. Both women rely on personal narrative to defend their excesses. Dato Vida through her much-publicised narrative of personal struggle from hardship to success and excessive performative piety, Rosmah Mansor through her 2013 autobiography and speeches about her domestic ‘struggle’ when her husband is away. Both are middle-aged women whose looks have been mocked for verging on the female grotesque. Their claim to power and status is disputed to be illegitimate. Dato Vida holds a fake doctorate and has built a corporate empire founded on skin whitening products that are said to contain toxic substances while Rosmah’s ruthless pursuit of power and wealth is now under criminal investigation.
Dato Vida appeals to working-class Malay-Muslim female consumers through the combination of her much-publicised personal story of fortitude as a struggling single mother and her startling sartorial presentation. Keen to demonstrate her wealth and piety, Dato Vida constructs a personal narrative of struggle and prayer that powerfully connects with her female audience. In her research with Bedouin women who follow the lives of Egyptian female actors, Lila Abu-Lughod (1995) states that working-class female audiences strongly identify not with the fame and wealth of female film stars but their desire for repentance and piety.
Hailing from Kelantan, one of Malaysia’s poorest and socially conservative states yet has a tradition of economically resourceful and entrepreneurial women, Dato Vida resists the stereotypes of the passive Muslim woman. She was raised in a family who lost a fortune forcing the young Hasmizah to be entrepreneurial from a young age. Multiple business failures and a family tragedy that resulted in the death of her children became part of her public narrative. Through sheer marketing savvy, Dato Vida has proven to be resilient despite accusations of fraud that would have otherwise decimated the reputation of public figures.
Pn. Marlini, 63, senior corporate trainer, on Dato Vida’s charisma:
Dato Vida uses herself as a marketing tool. I have respect and admiration for her because she is clever, but she is also manipulative. She manipulates women to buy her products. What is truly incredible is that even when her products were found to be unsafe [by the Malaysian Ministry of Health], thousands of women still bought her products!
In the figure of Dato Vida, we find the notion of Islamic modesty stretched and challenged, bringing into focus the conditions for its flexibility when it comes into contact with neoliberal consumption and individualism. She is emblematic of working-class Malay Muslim feminine aspirations, challenging the limits of Islamic morality in her overt assertions of female desire and consumption. Her popularity and success can be attributed to the local socio-economic and cultural transitions that help construct competing Malay-Muslim femininities, each with economic agency and versions of social capital. I would also argue that Dato Vida’s public articulations, self-representation, and connotative associations fill the discursive void in Muslim feminist discourse in Malaysia that remains uncritical of neoliberalism and capitalism.
Due to time constraints, I have less time to elaborate on Rosmah Mansor’s life story in my presentation today. But I will include a response from a Wanita UMNO branch leader whom I will call Pn. Fatimah, 60, who argues that Rosmah Mansor’s attempt at developing charisma is more unstable within her own party. Please pardon the gossipy language:
In UMNO, support for leaders is ‘depan muka’ (by appearances) only. Loyalty is very important, so members are told to defend the behaviour of their leaders. Deviating from the party line can result in loss in favour, ostracisation and expulsion.
[The truth is] nearly all of Wanita UMNO do not like Rosmah but they defend her. They believe that much of the criminal misconduct is her doing, not Najib’s. Najib was too weak [because Rosmah was very dominant]. […]Rosmah has a reputation within UMNO to be indulgent, vulgar but she is incredibly confident, sure of herself and can be really fun.
I also have to state that Rosmah used her autobiography, launched by Mahathir Mohamad in 2013, to defend herself from accusations of living a lavish lifestyle at the taxpayer’s expense. In it she argues that she had money saved since her childhood and had earned millions from selling her recording album to ministers. Her album, however, was never released to the public.
Both women rely on attempts to develop charisma through celebrity, mass mediated means and the power of pop music. Celebrity is a necessary factor in amplifying reputation in the public sphere through mediated means. Turning to celebrity means the reconstruction of personas as ‘intimate strangers’ (Schikel 1986) who combine social and physical distance and affective proximity through media apparatuses. Like charisma, celebrity is a necessary prerequisite for power relations.
Malu and Malay modernity
In this section of my presentation, I insert their personas into debates about the productive role of ‘malu’ or shame, embarrassment or shyness as a way of thinking about how malu may be reinforced or eroded as a consequence of socioeconomic and religious transitions within Malay society.
In the Malay Archipelago, ‘malu’ is been mobilised to reinforce hierarchy and deference towards those with higher social status. To know shame (‘tahu malu’) or have shame (‘ada malu’) serves to instill moral consciousness and virtue in oneself. ‘Tidak tahu malu’ on the other hand is to suggest immorality and brazen impropriety. ‘Malu’ is also gendered; malu compels women to show self-restraint and shyness, wild aggression or amok among men. In anthropological literature, ‘malu’ is regarded a fundamental concept necessary to social cohesion and conformity.
I would argue here that ‘malu’ mobilised as a political affect during the fallout of the Najib administration, his implication in the 1MDB scandal and loss of Barisan Nasional. Perhaps aware that the meaning of ‘malu’ as shamelessness was weaponised against him, Najib began an attempt to rehabilitate himself in a campaign to ‘reclaim’ malu in photo-ops with the caption, ‘Malu apa, bossku?’ (What’s there to be ashamed of, boss?).
Diametrically opposed to ‘malu’ is ‘sombong’. ‘Sombong’ or arrogant is a damning social criticism in the Malay Archipelago (Wikan 1990). To be seen as sombong is enough to discredit and delegitimise power. Thus, accusations of ‘malu’ and ‘sombong’ are mobilised as ‘affective rationality’ (Marshall 1997) that circulate discussions around the personhood and exploits of Rosmah Mansor and Dato Vida. Affective rationality relies on the mass harnessing of similar emotions towards public figures and helps to sanction power.
On Rosmah Mansor:
If we look at previous PM’s wives, they played mainly a supporting role to their husbands. They were more self-restrained (tidak menonjolkan diri). For instance [the former PM] Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s wife. [By contrast], Rosmah appears to upstage her husband, the country’s CEO. She crosses the line and plays a political role by meeting with foreign dignitaries such as meeting the Saudi family [Pn. Marlini].
Pn. Marlini and her female friends do not have any sympathy for Rosmah:
No one I know has any sympathy for her. Rosmah has proven herself to be “too much”; too greedy and has too much desire for the limelight and that is her downfall. She doesn’t endear herself to the people. Instead she is sombong.
At times ‘malu’ can stand in the way of progress. UMNO branch leader Pn. Fatimah likes Dato Vida’s persona because she doesn’t use ‘malu’ as an obstacle to success. She admires her and believes that Dato Vida is a ‘hard worker’ who isn’t ashamed to put herself out there (tak usah malu, tak usah segan) even when she challenges norms and is embarrassing to many people. What’s more important is that she is advancing the cause of Malay entrepreneurs, says Pn. Fatimah.
There are other divergences that pit Rosmah and Dato Vida apart. Rosmah is constructed as a manipulative gold-digger who is accused as the cause behind Najib’s corruption and fall from grace. ‘Gold-diggers’ is a gendered label that mines from a discourse of women’s undeserved social mobility. In contrast, acceptance of Dato Vida’s more deserving wealth and influence is ascribed to her piety and her apparent warmth (tidak sombong), factors that mitigate against accusations of negative shamelessness. Furthermore, her entrepreneurial spirit dovetails with the longer history of the Orang Kaya Baru and the widely-accepted contemporary neoliberal narratives of corporate individualism and capitalist success.
What does it say about a community in which female success is mediated through capitalist consumerism, wanton extravagance, and a public persona that exaggerates aspects of Muslim femininity and piety? And what about female failure?
As Weber argues, charisma is unstable and transient and relies on a number of strategies. I’d argue that women turn to different strategies to develop informal power. They mine cultural narratives of femininity and entrepreneurship; they may struggle to establish legitimacy and use celebrity to amplify their reputation.
I still have much more to research to find more answers including that on the relationship between charisma, celebrity, and malu from a feminist lens. But what I can tentatively say is that malu continues to be a powerful affective tool to rein in behaviour even of the most powerful people. A range of behavioural traits and practices interpreted such as sombong have powerful resonance in a community reconstituted by modernisation, Islamisation, and globalisation. But at the same time, individuals with charisma are able to mitigate the effects of malu as political affect.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1995. Movie stars and Islamic moralism in Egypt. Social Text. 42: 53-67.
Marshall, David. 1997. Celebrity and Power. Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Schickel, Richard. 1986. Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity. New York: Doubleday
Shamsul A.B. 1999. From Orang Kaya Baru to Melayu Baru. In Culture and Privilege in Capitalist Asia, edited by Michael Pinches
Weber, Max. 1919. Politics as a Vocation.
Wikan, Unni. 1990. Managing Turbulent Hearts: A Balinese Formula for Living. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hughes-Freeland, Felicia. 2007. Charisma and celebrity in Indonesian politics. Anthropological Theory. Vol 7 (2): 177-200.
Sloane-White, Patricia. 2017. Corporate Islam: Sharia and the Modern Workplace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.