Pink diamonds and a pink Lamborghini: Reflections on personal narrative, charisma, and rethinking shame as political affect

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.

Vignette 1:

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.

Vignette 2:
Rosmah MACC

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.

Charisma
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
Dato Vida pink lamborghini
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
Rosmah singing
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

Najib tak malu
Google search results for ‘Najib tak malu’ (Najib has no shame)

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.

Conclusion
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.

Reference:
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.

Further reading:
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.

 

‘Romantic’ sexual violence, mediated intimacy and the single Muslim woman in Malaysia

“Romance imagines peace, security, and ease precisely because there is dissension, insecurity, and difficulty” (Janice Radway, Reading the Romance 1984, p. 15)

Lately I’ve become very interested in how heterosexual Malay-Muslim women talk about romantic intimacy in their pursuit of potential partners, and why sexual violence features so significantly in Malay language romance novels. The public reaction to the foregoing statement is sharply divided: many are ‘shocked’ and ‘worried’ that women relish the depiction of rape in romantic fiction while others are ‘unsurprised’ knowing that sexual violence is a recurring trope of romance fiction found typically in established presses like Mills and Boon and Harlequin.

My latest project engages with these contrasting reactions by bringing together two bodies of scholarship. First, the construction of Malay-Muslim womanhood is narrowly defined along conservative ideas of demure and modest religiosity. It is incongruent with the undercurrent of desire seen in the commitment to reading romantic fiction and explicit violence. What makes this project new and germane is its examination of media practices through which women can safely explore romance, intimacy, and sexuality on their own terms even if it means a fascination with sexual violence.

Second, heterosexual romance is a long-discussed topic in the analysis of popular literature by feminist critics. Since the publication of Janice Radway’s classic 1984 study Reading the Romance, the romance novel has been viewed as a form of escape from the drudgery of domestic life and a romanticisation of women’s subordination in ‘real life’.

Commitment to romance reading is underpinned by the twin complex of ‘deprivation’ and ‘fear’; feeling deprived of romantic attention and pleasure in real life, and management of fear of patriarchal violence (Radway 1984, p. 70). Radway has an explanation for the recurring depiction of men’s sexual brutality in romance novels, arguing that it stems from women’s conflicted desire to deal with it and tame it:

… romance’s preoccupation with male brutality is an attempt to understand the meaning of an event that has become almost unavoidable in the real world. The romance may express misogynistic attitudes not because women share them but because they increasingly need to know how to deal with them. (1984, p. 72).

Female readers’ ways of coming to terms with patriarchy via the romance can also be discerned in their distinction between ‘forceful persuasion’ and “true” rape. While both are non-consensual acts of sexual violence, the former is romanticised whereby acts of violence by the male love interest are re-interpreted when he eventually shows utmost tenderness and devotion towards the heroine. Similar to the fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, there is a kind and loving prince who really exists within the ‘Beast’ and waiting to be rehabilitated by the purity of the heroine’s love.

To make sense of how ‘love’ and ‘romance’ are defined in modern Malay society, I turn to Wazir Jahan Karim’s classic research on discourse of emotions in Malay society (1990). Articulations of intimate and romantic emotions become intensified during courtship and mediated through traditional verse (pantun) and song. Because naked expression of love and desire is subject to moral censure and frowned upon, courting couples send each other lines of verse to convey their most intimate feelings. However, her ethnographic study on traditional Malays demonstrates patterns of male agency and female passivity in the expression of emotions during courtship. My research aims to study contemporary behaviour and female agency in articulations of love and desire in a media-saturated society. I have chosen two modern media practices for this project: committed romance novel reading and mobile dating/matrimonial usage.

What is ‘mediated intimacy’ and why it matters

The project utilises the concept of ‘mediated intimacy’ to examine its role in mate-seeking and romance amongst single, university-educated Malay-Muslim women in urban Malaysia. ‘Mediated intimacy’ is a concept developed by Rosalind Gill (2009) which describes ‘the ways in which our understandings and experiences of a whole range of intimate relationships are increasingly mediated by constructions’ from media culture.

I would propose that ‘mediated intimacy’ becomes a resource for thinking, talking, and practicing romantic ideals in a conservative society where divulging openly about female desire is frowned upon. Thus, narratives from fiction and other media sources become materials and a powerful influence in the way Malay-Muslim women understand their romantic identity.

This project uses Anthony Giddens’s notion of ‘textual romance’ (2013) that draws parallels between romantic fiction and online dating practices whereby intimacy and romantic fantasy are developed with an appropriate degree of distance, both temporal and spatial, and at one’s own pace.

Media practices play an increasingly important role in the reconfiguration of gender roles and romantic expectations of Muslim women who belong to generations that have undergone rapid processes of modernisation and increased access to higher education, white-collar employment, and migration to urban centres (Abu Lughod 2005; Kaya 2009; Chakraborty 2012).

There is a growing body of scholarship on the usage of online dating and matrimonial services by young Muslims in Muslim majority societies. In societies where young Muslim women are socially discouraged and restricted from mixing freely with the opposite sex, online and mobile dating apps have become an increasingly popular medium for connecting in safe and respectable ways (Kaya 2009; Chakraborty 2012; Bajnaid and Elyas 2017).

The proposed project intends to shed light on the affordances and limitations of media practices that facilitate opportunities for emotional intimacy, romance, and marriage for Malay-Muslim women. Furthermore, this project seeks to identify the constituents that make up economies of desire that shape, limit, and enhance discourses of Muslim femininity and its aspirations. The research will be informed by studies that highlight the discerning nature of media consumption amongst Malay-Muslims in contemporary Malaysia (see Fischer 2008; Weintraub 2011; Md. Syed 2013), a society shaped by postcolonialism, neoliberalism, and globalisation much like the work by Randhika Parameswaran on young Indian female readers of Western romance fiction.

The redefinition of romance and intimacy in 21st century Malaysia by Muslim women will throw into sharp relief the transformation of women’s roles from colonial to the postcolonial-neoliberal present (Ong 1990; Stivens 2006). From the emergence of the New Malay Woman in the early postcolonial period to the contemporary Islamic model of femininity, the conflicting forces of modernisation, Islamisation, and neoliberalism have created deeply ambivalent constructions of Malay Muslim femininity.

I am interested in how rising conservatism across Southeast Asia is reshaping modernity and projections of gender in public and private discourses of agency, intimacy, failure and success. I am especially concerned that rising conservatism is contributing to the ‘illiberal turn’ in the economies of desire and notions of modern Muslim gender identities developed in mediated narratives of intimacy in romance fiction and Muslim dating services. I define the ‘illiberal turn’ in Malaysia as the domination in the public sphere of a broadly conservative approach to politics, law, and religious practice, with a tendency to restrict the freedoms and rights of minority groups and women (Peletz 2016).

Early data on Malay romance readers

In a small preliminary online survey I conducted with 87 female respondents in early 2017, nearly half were between the ages 21-25 years old (44.5%), and about a third were still in tertiary education (65.5%). Most were avid readers of romance novels (more than 8 a year, 32.2%):

avid readers chart

I created the survey to identify themes that readers look out for in romance novels. 26 readers chose ‘Husband of parents’ choosing’ aka arranged marriage, 44 chose ‘Love according to Islamic principles’ aka Syariah-compliant romance, most i.e. 60 readers enjoy ‘Love after marriage’ as the main theme’, while 23 readers like ‘Contractual marriage’.

Tema cinta yg digemari

Not being a reader of Malay romance fiction myself, I was certain the four themes above are far from comprehensive. So I let the respondents fill in other themes they enjoy. Note that ‘kahwin paksa’ (forced marriage) appears a few times:

tema cinta yg digemari1

tema cinta yg digemari2

tema cinta yg digemari3

In a question on the socio-economic background and professional status of the male love interest, respondents showed a great variety of high and low status jobs. Business owners, lawyers, medical doctors represented the majority of male characters in Malay romance novels (70-81%), followed by university students (52%) and ustaz or male Islamic teacher and preacher (44%). But in the respondents’ own answers, there are surprising results, such as fisherman, street burger vendors, and farmers:

pekerjaan watak lelaki lain

It’s hard to surmise for now if readers really do enjoy romance between women (much like themselves) and men in low-paying jobs. Novels like ‘Bang Guard Security Hatiku’ (Security Guard of My Heart) and ‘M.A.I.D’ that portray both male and female characters in low status precarious jobs perhaps combine both fantasy and mirror to the socio-economic uncertainty and inequality pervasive in Malaysian society. Such novels not only romanticise economic hardship and inequality but provide a narrative for adaptation and consolation in ‘real life’.

The survey asked respondents qualities of the female heroine they enjoy and perhaps relate to. A few have already stated a liking for ‘strong female characters’ in themes they look for in romance fiction. Others demonstrate a preference for the modest Muslimah which may suggest the cross-boundary quality of romance as fiction vs romance as real life:

Watak perempuan

The early data captures themes and qualities in heterosexual pairings in Malay romance fiction enjoyed by avid readers of the genre. In the research that follows, depictions of rape and other acts of male violence will be discussed with more detail with readers, authors, and publishers. It is tempting to arrive at the same conclusion as Janice Radway, but I believe there are other mechanisms of agency and desire at work amongst Malay-Muslim women. I am less interested in individual novels such as Ombak Rindu and their popularity, but more in themes of violence and inequality and how they fit into ideas of ‘romance’ and ‘intimacy’ readers learn, develop, and adopt for themselves in their own romantic quests.

New piece on New Mandala: Rape and the pantomime of misogyny

I have a new piece up on New Mandala published on 19th February where I try to grips with the violent misogyny in Malaysian politics. It is a mere platitude to argue that these male politicians are misogynistic. What’s more pertinent to ask is, why are they are using their platforms to air these views, why do they need to display their hatred of women so openly.

For better or worse, formal politics has been conceptualised as dramaturgy where politicians are actors who perform an ideological script.1 In Malaysia, the farcical tragicomedy of politics bears exaggerated elements of performance and dramaturgy which is why it may be useful to understand Malaysian politics as pantomime. In a pantomime, emotions are whipped to a frenzy when a villain or hero walks onto the stage. It is a theatrical mode that relies on the hyperbolic qualities of the hero, villain, and fool. It is through re-thinking Malaysian politics as a pantomime that we can perhaps understand its tacit and explicit endorsement of sexual violence against women.

Formal politics as pantomime is a little different from populist politics in that extreme views are attributed to political actors who are otherwise revered in person and for their other public accomplishments. But politics as pantomime shares a continuity with populism in that there is an acknowledgement that politics is artifice because the promotion of populist views may be necessary in spite of the politician’s own personal conviction. As a theatrical form, pantomime is open to a participating audience who may sing, heckle, and laugh. Despite their distance from political actors, there is an emotive register of the Malaysian public who react to the theatricality of Malaysian politics in the arena of public discourse.

Read the rest here.

A Malaysian scholar remembers Stuart Hall

First published in my Malay Mail column on 27th February 2014:

A great intellectual died on February 10, 2014. His name was Stuart Hall, dubbed the “godfather of multiculturalism.”

As the tributes by academics made up of peers and admirers alike came flooding in, I thought about the impact of Hall’s work concerning identity and culture on Malaysians.

I believe that some of us, as postcolonial subjects like he was, too can claim to be moved by his ideas and share his vision. But it is his contribution to Cultural Studies as a discipline that has most influenced me as a scholar.

Earlier this year, I bought a ticket to attend a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in June with the hope to meet him.

I did not know that it would become a memorial for Stuart Hall. Hall, who was an erstwhile director of the Centre, championed the much celebrated (and mocked) “Cultural Studies.”

The political influence and notoriety of the CCCS meant that those of us who wanted to study film, television, magazines, and “trashier” aspects of popular culture often sought sanctuary behind the Centre’s authority. A similar kind of debate about intellectual legitimacy is reignited in academia today in its defence of the Humanities.

What makes Stuart Hall so special and unique? It would not be an understatement to suggest that a great intellectual is chiefly a product of circumstances. A Rhodes scholar at Merton College in Oxford University when the empire was crumbling, Hall knew, as a Jamaican, he did not fit comfortably in the staid and exclusionary protocols of Oxford. His work on identities and culture were as much a searing ideological critique of racism as an attempt at making sense of his status as an outsider trying to fit in.

The 1960s was an exciting time for critical theory and its influence on popular culture. Picking up from where the Frankfurt School had left off, the study of mass media was gaining respectability through its associations with semiotic-based structuralism and psychoanalysis.

At the same time, it was a period of total disillusionment with Soviet communism. The British New Left, to which Hall belonged as a key figure, needed a new focus and vision.

The counter-cultural 1960s was a wellspring of possibilities, both political and cultural, and it was obvious that Hall and his cohorts wasted no time. Rather than remain in critical theory, which was (and is) pessimistic in outlook on why revolutions have failed, Cultural Studies in its departure was committed to social change, offering a more positive programme and tools for successful rebellion.

As a scholar whose research keeps Hall’s memory alive, I find his prose electric. Electric in that its forthright style is a stunning example of both intellectual non-conformism and resistance.

And it is defiance of the established intellectual order that would be his greatest gift of inspiration to generations of scholars dedicated to Cultural Studies.

Resistance to hegemonic ideologies about the myth of the nation and national culture was something Hall wanted people to wake up to and participate in. However, it was the very resistance and postmodernism, particularly the latter’s characteristic demolition of hierarchies between high and low culture that Cultural Studies relied on, that contributed to the depoliticisation of Cultural Studies, much to Hall’s dismay.

Today, anyone can select willy-nilly a particular media text, examine it long enough to unlock their own hidden meanings of resistance and say they are doing Cultural Studies. The meaning of resistance can be decoded into anything and in danger of meaning nothing at all.

While this might have upset Hall to some degree, this is the legacy of openness and unpredictability of Cultural Studies as a discipline that we should welcome during these troubled times in academia.

Why freedom of the press matters

First published on The Malay Mail on 16th January 2014.

The Red Pencil protest on January 4 is more than a political struggle against repressive state legislature led by journalists and activists. It is about the basic right to information to be enjoyed by all and therefore it would be imperative to appreciate where the public is situated in this political struggle. The rest who are not dressed in red should care.

There are three main dynamic entities in the politics of journalism: the state, the professional journalist class, and the reading public. As the ongoing protest against state repression on press freedom in Malaysia continues, readers of the news might not fully appreciate why they should also demand greater press freedom than what is offered in the status quo and why.

We now live in the age of media saturation and excess of information. Lack of media freedom might not seem obvious to the average member of the public who can access the seemingly limitless content on the Internet. What we do not like in the mouthpieces of the government we can turn elsewhere for a different perspective. But this is not enough.

The extent of ministerial expenditure of tax-payer’s money and denial of the public’s right to know is currently a cause for contention. But there are other concerns that deserve the public’s scrutiny: the business deals struck between profiteering politicians and corporations, how much the royalty spends and on what, fraudulent food production practices, and the epic scale of environmental damage and exploitation of natural resources by local and transnational companies and the powers that be who benefit from them. These are but a few out of many pressing issues that the public must know with impartiality and balance.

One should consider beyond the parochial limits of Malaysian party politics and national borders concerning the politics of access to information. Post-Cold War spying and the NSA scandal have also demonstrated that data generated by ordinary users in the border-less ether of the Internet can be mined and exploited. As users, we are also complicit in giving away too much personal information online. The bottom-line is this: we live in a surveillance society where we as the public know little about how much governments and data-mining corporations know about us.

We should not kid ourselves into thinking that greater media freedom in Malaysia will mean that we will have neutral and objective coverage of the news. This will never happen. The professional journalist class and those who work within and for the media have the power to construct news for the public. They are the mediators between events and the public. With the privilege of selecting events for news coverage, they are the gatekeepers of what the public can know. Lack of neutrality in the news, however, does not necessarily diminish relative freedom of information.

The original conception of “the press” existed before newspapers and the professional journalistic trade. It began as pamphleteering and mass printing of ideas to the public, long before newspapers were controlled by the rich and powerful. The basic idea of the press analogous to pamphleteering exists today, in the form of blogging and tweeting. This is the reason why citizen journalism must also be protected from repression and not just professional journalism.

But is a truly free news media really ideal for the public? A truly free news media may indeed open up the news market to independent and alternative media outlets to flourish. In a liberal economy free from state restraint, owners and stakeholders of media outlets are free to define the tenor of their newspapers.

Who will regulate the impartiality and balance of the news media and their commitment to inform the public so that the reading public will be promised consistency and accountability? Is there really an “invisible hand” of the free news media market that will determine ideological equilibrium in news reporting for the public’s benefit?

We must not forget that professional journalism is also a commercial enterprise. Free media also means the freedom to further commercialise media. Media oligarchs are born in the free media market. How can we ensure that a free press regulates itself from the concentration of press ownership? These questions may be getting far ahead of what could actually happen in Malaysia but are nonetheless searching questions to bring to light. In a media culture so bogged down by repression we might not appreciate the value of regulation.

There is another debate that all who demand freedom of the press must engage in: the definition, purpose and extent of state secrets or classified information and the meaning of national security. Rather than during war and emergency when it is (sometimes) justifiably invoked, national security is an all too common reason for the protection of “state secrets” during peacetime and the most easily abused.

The reason why the Printing Presses and Publishing Act (PPPA) continues to exist in Malaysia underscores how central the media is to the consolidation of state power, ultimately undermining the citizenry’s freedom to be informed, to think, engage and criticise. It might appear that we live in an age of seemingly unlimited access to information and democracy of content production. But we continue to know less than political and corporate powers that become powerful by keeping what they know from us.

My 5 cultural highlights of 2013

First published in The State on 2nd January 2014

1. Exhibition of the year. Traces: Ana Mendieta Retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, 24th September – 15 December 2013.

When Cuban artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from her New York City apartment in 1985, it might seem as if it had eclipsed her career. Her artist husband was rumoured to have pushed her out their apartment window during a violent argument. Comparisons between Mendieta’s dramatic death and her oftentimes morbid art were perhaps inevitable. But there was more to Mendieta than a tragic female artist as Traces, a comprehensive introduction to her career, showed. Mendieta was a self-identifying feminist artist who brought the movement’s perennial issues —violence against women and identity—to the centre of her work. At this retrospective of Mendieta’s brief but prolific career, one gets a sense of a woman who was on a primordial quest of finding herself in earth, stone, fire, and blood.

Germaine Greer once commented, disparagingly, about how female artists tended to nearly always use their (often naked) bodies in their artwork. Mendieta was not so different in that respect. Known as ‘earth-body’ art, Mendieta’s nude body merges with the natural world; in mud, into a tree, on grass. In a series of photographs, the outline of her body is eerily imprinted on the ground like an empty ancient burial site, set ablaze with the heart alight last. In another morbid photograph, a white sheet indiscreetly covers a blood-soaked body resembling a post-sacrificial scene. Mendieta has the posthumous power to spur women to take control of their own lives, but more significantly, how their lives will be remembered long after death if they can help it.

2. Film of the year 1: Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)

Most couples would be able to identify with the post-honeymoon romance of Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight; the last of Linklater’s romantic trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Before Midnight has a more melancholic perspective on long-term relationships in contrast to the more hopeful and hopelessly romantic Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It is almost a cautionary tale of two beautiful much-in-love people who seem to be in a blissful ever after. The film is a triumph of sorts. Like its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the film consists of conversations only. Little happens, and yet it tells us nearly everything about the mythical eternal fire of love threatened by an affair, diminishing youth, career let-downs, and parental guilt. Before Midnight and films like it (all talk, where nothing really happens) is a rare achievement in filmmaking for a medium so conducive to the spectacular.

3. Film of the year 2: Hannah Arendt (2012, Margarethe von Trotta)

Prior to Hannah Arendt, there have been few films about the life and work of a female philosopher, let alone a film featuring a woman thinking deeply about an epoch-defining moral problem. Von Trotta’s film reveals only but a glimpse of Arendt’s complex persona and work on morality, when she is faced with the task of writing an essay on Adolf Eichmann’s kidnapping and trial in Jerusalem. Published in the New Yorker in 1953, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a thought piece into the imperceptible abyss of a Nazi officer’s feelings and actions that led millions of Jews to their deaths. With Eichmann obscured far into the background, Arendt and key protagonists—who would influence and reject her writing—play out a more interesting narrative in the foreground. We get to see Arendt, the thinker, encircled by the filmmaker’s over-use of cigarette smoke, the erstwhile youthful lover of Heidegger, and the intellectual provocateur. For a film about the Holocaust and the afterlife of the Second World War, it is highly unlikely to appeal to macho military history aficionados and all the better for it.

4. Read of the year: articles on gender and hyper-employment

There has been much talk about what our over-reliance on media technologies is doing to our everyday existence. For Ian Bogost in his article on The Atlantic, many of us are hyper-worked; being employed in one job while doing a number of other job-related things, (no) thanks to mobile technologies that allow us to do work anywhere, anytime without necessarily getting paid. A number of articles, more notably by Karen Gregory, Robin James, and Gordon Hull, have highlighted the feminised nature of hyperwork. They point to Marxist feminist analysis of preexisting under-valued feminised hyperwork in the hearth: the never-ending work of cleaning, cooking, caring, and secretarial duties in service of higher status and better paid men. Women, they argue, have been the hyperemployed before the the advent of advanced mobile technologies.

Media saturated societies have been blessed (or cursed) with the much feminised skill (or burden) of multi-tasking. Mobile technologies make it easier for us to check emails, listen to music, glance spreadsheets, and play games on the go. Sometimes all at the same time for the restless 21st century media user. The convenience that we gifted by perpetually improving media technologies may one day mean that the line between work and leisure is blurred most of the time. Steven Poole’s essay on the pitfalls of productivity coheres well with the discourse of hyperemployment. Technology-assisted hyperemployment is likely to change how we view paid/unpaid work and gender relations in profound ways in the very near future.

5. Documentary film of the year: The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)

Much ink and talk have been spent on The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary on Indonesian anti-Communist death squads who recall their blood-soaked heydays in 1965. It may be hotly tipped for a variety of awards and recipient of many accolades, but The Act of Killing is a towering achievement in the art of documentary film-making—a source of much debate on ethics and morality in its own right. Oppenheimer encountered his film subjects, a ragtag team of boastful mass murderers, quite by chance. Their openness to discuss their bloody exploits, or heroics in their view, on film take them on a journey of confronting their amorality and twisted heroic delusions. Often mixed with bizarre and fantastical proportions filled with personalised cinematic references. These references where the retired villains adopt with zeal, is where Oppenheimer’s documentary takes a remarkable turn of events. Will the re-enaction of their crimes under Oppenheimer’s occasionally manipulative gaze jolt the men into humanity and repentance? But why should they? Regardless of these difficult moral speculations, Oppenheimer’s ethnographic ethics of engaging with his subjects, in fluent Indonesian, and collaborating with them in the making of the film is enough to get the research geek (like yours truly) salivate in delight.