The following was published in the latest issue of BERITA [Malaysia/Singapore/Brunei Studies Group Association for Asian Studies] 48 (1) (2022):
On my revisit to Bandar Baru Bangi (New Town of Bangi) in August 2021, I spent hours exploring the town with my assistant behind the wheel. We were also there to see Mrs Hamidah again, a publisher and owner of a romance bookshop I had been interviewing for years. It is an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, a journey through a sprawling and frequently desolate landscape of power, punctuated with bombastic monuments to modernity and progress. The administrative capital Putrajaya, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and foreign university campuses dot this landscape. They were no older than three decades at the time, built rapidly on the coattails of global-neoliberal development. As we head in the direction of Bangi, it was as if we were going back in time to when global manufacturing granted the country a seat amongst Asia’s rising economies not too long ago. Bangi was a jewel in the Southeast Asian Tiger’s crown. When we arrive on its margins, its ‘gateway’, we were greeted by Japanese electronics factories established in the years of the ‘Look East’ policy under the fourth prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, still standing but less lustrous today.
I was fortunate that my assistant Ita* was a native of Bangi and hence perfectly suited to show me around, offering a running commentary that was part personal geography part historical tour. She had lived in the township all her life and had seen the changes that have taken place over the course of thirty years. In many ways, Ita is an offspring of the wealthy New Malay (Melayu Baru) generation that benefited from the New Economic Policy (NEP), a profound redistribution of wealth and resources through affirmative action founded in 1971. Ita was in her mid-thirties and educated abroad, but due to a number of health complications, she had never worked and lived with her parents in an exclusive gated community nearby. Her parents financially supported her, and have purchased for her a newly-built apartment in a high-rise condominium not far from where they live as a type of insurance. As far as Ita is concerned, her parents, although retired, are wealthy enough to support her until the end of their days. Like many newly rich Malays of her parents’ age, they have leap-frogged their way into great wealth in just one generation through generous state-funded education followed by an effortless rise to corporate leadership roles in government-linked agencies and companies.
Bangi today comes across as a microcosm of urban Malay modernity. Though it is a palimpsest of sorts; recast by layers of colonial industry and its afterlife, an industrialising recent past, and a modern religious ethno-scape in the present. I wondered what would come next to remake this malleable landscape. A casual visitor to Bangi will quickly take note of the impressive McMansions in gated communities and clusters of shop-houses mounted with huge billboards advertising luxury prayer garments and hijab, an outcome of decades-long accumulation of ethno-religious capital. An expansive golf course next to a four-star hotel close to the landmark university campus complete the town’s image as a playground for the newly rich. These places signal ostentatious wealth and prestige of a group that redefined its political and economic destiny first as an expression of self-determination, then as difference.
Balancing the worldly affluence is the outsized expression of Islamic architecture scattered around the town. Nestled between the neat rows of more modest middle-class terraces and standalone bungalows are the many large prayer halls (surau) that rival the grandeur of mosques. They are the centre of community life in Bangi and cater to worshippers of competing political allegiances: the moderate ethnonationalist UMNO or Islamist PAS. An opulent sharia court house is situated in the commercial centre. Perched on its roof is a miniature royal blue and white criss-crossed dome reminiscent of the iconic Shah Alam Blue Mosque in the state capital. By mimicking a mosque, the sharia court house blurs the aesthetic boundaries of buildings made for worship and legal arbitration. Here, buildings of Islamic public life should look like mosques.
Before my revisit, I contacted Mrs Hamidah to find out how her bookshop and publishing company, Kaseh Aries, were faring when many businesses were forced to close during the multiple pandemic lockdowns in Malaysia. I was worried about her business closing permanently, as other independent enterprises have. Major chain bookshops have closed their franchises up and down the country and the international book fair in Kuala Lumpur has yet to resume its in-person events. To my relief, she spoke buoyantly about her continued success to sell many books and publish new titles even under stringent economic and logistical restrictions. She was proud to launch three new novels that August, something that small publishers struggle to do even in the best of times. I asked her what the secret to her success was. Profit was never the point she tells me on the phone. It was for the sheer love of publishing popular romance and making women happy. She is thankful that she and her sister, who was co-owner, kept their business model modest. They did not take out a bank loan for capital and that decision has paid off during the harsh economic shutdown.
Several other publishing companies and bookshops have closed down because they have larger overheads. As for Kaseh Aries, they have moved their bookselling operations online almost immediately, and for a few months early in the pandemic, she tells me, their bookshop was the only one that expanded their online presence, taking advantage of the momentary commercial vacuum. The years of trial and error from running their bookselling and publishing businesses have made them much more agile to shocks and changes. It struck me that Mrs Hamidah’s mode of production is made to survive the protracted economic shutdown. It is not one of pursuit for substantial commercial gain nor survival but operates almost as a kind of gift economy, for the sheer love of it. Even though the bookshop had been closed for a number of months during the pandemic, it immediately became a place to reconvene upon its re-opening. Although the annual book fair in Kuala Lumpur had been an important site for generating revenue, Mrs Hamidah tells me that other spaces, not necessarily physical ones, can easily facilitate connections with readers and the dissemination of their books.
*All names have been changed to protect their identities.