Five books on Malaysia’s National Passion

by Yvonne Tan

 

Every so often racial tropes by politicians make headlines, sparking heated debates on the topic Malaysians love talking about but never candidly — race. Take for example Mahathir’s incessant blaming of Malays for being lazy which was followed by letters almost always citing Syed Hussein Alatas’ Myth of the Lazy Native when challenging this stereotype. As much as we try to brush off moments like these with band-aid solutions such as telling people simply not to be racist or succumb to “that’s-how-it-is” attitude, race will continue to be a preoccupation of Malaysians as we continue to unlearn the legacies of colonialism. Hence, I present some books (in my humble opinion) I believe we can interject into our discourse of race to continue to question the normalised narratives we know.

 

1) Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory women in Malaysia by Aihwa Ong

We all have a few anecdotes on spiritual possessions which led us to question if we believe in the paranormal. Aihwa Ong in this publication instead analyzes such instances of “kerasukan” or “mass hysteria” through the lens of power relations, work discipline and gender. She goes beyond functionalist approaches such as monopoly of power versus powerless, exploitation versus exploited, coloniser versus colonised but instead centres on “their resistance, retaliation and negotiation shifted according to the institution of successive modes of discipline in production systems and other areas of life” (217).

Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline transverses the colonial history of Malay peasants — in relation to Tamil plantation workers and Chinese rubber tappers — usually composed of local inhabitants and immigrants from the wider Malay archipelago who established cash cropping villages in coastal Selangor before moving onto her fieldwork on post-independence constructions of Malay identity in Kuala Langat. Her analysis of Malay women in transnational electronics factories in “free trade zones” is thought-provoking as she frames mass hysteria as a symptom of rural-urban transition and trauma of industrial labour from the domestic sphere. All in all, it is a one-of-a-kind study of cultural resistance among rural Malays at different phases of their encounter with incorporation into the world capitalist system, setting upon different trajectories of survival and mobility. A shorter version of her research can be found as well in the journal article “The production of possession: Spirits and the multinational corporation in Malaysia”.

 

 

2) Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia by Sunil Amrith

Amrith’s research attempts to draw histories of migration beyond the boundaries of empires in South, Southeast and East Asia according to four main phases: i) from 1850 to 1930 ii) the aftermath of World War II and Asia’s decolonisation from the 1930s-50s iii) “Golden Age” of Asian nationalism from 1950s to 1970s iv) and contemporary globalisation from early 1970s onwards. He takes into consideration the biases of census data within national archives as a starting point for his research but recognizes it as “a repository of its official memory” (p. 13). In order to create a more intimate dimension of the migration experience, Amrith utilizes not only oral history but also on print and material culture as an archive of migration to best capture their lived experience, trauma and dreams. For example, one of the analyses he makes is of remittance centres and communication centres illustrating relationships and obligations to their families as essential to most migrant’s journeys.

 

3) Wage Labour in Southeast Asia since 1840: Globalisation, the International Division of Labour and Labour Transformations by Amarjit Kaur

Although the title might seem heavy, this publication is mostly concerned with how differently gains from economic growth have been distributed between workers and capitalists in colonial and postcolonial periods in Southeast Asia. As cheap labour continues to play a key role in export-oriented industrialisation, this publication concentrates on labour and labour relations in Malaysia and Indonesia which were representative of ‘labour-scarce’ and ‘labour-surplus’ economies.

Adopting a comparative historical approach to the emergence and nature of wage labour, the colonial enterprise thrived on coercion and indentured labour while nation-states continue to utilise migrant and contract labour under a new guise of indebtedness to many intermediaries. As Southeast Asia has been lauded for its remarkable economic growth, Kaur brings the focal point to the mobilisation of the labour force and the role of migrants looking into how the labour force was formed and recruited, wages and conditions of labour, the characteristics of the labour force, and the social consequences.

 

4) Cage of Freedom: Tamil identity and the ethnic fetish in Malaysia by Andrew Willford

This book combines political economy and Lacanian psychoanalysis in analysing Tamil identity situated in Malaysian nationalism. Wilford unpacks the image of the “docile” Tamil — initially the colonial justification for recruiting Tamils primarily as plantation workers — and how this image continues to be utilised in present-day Malaysia. As working-class Tamils left work in the plantation and began to move into urban centres, exploitation continued contributing to lack of socioeconomic mobility and education.

Coupled with “fantasies” of ethnic assertion of their identity through religious rituals such as Thaipusam, a celebration of the distinctively Dravidian god, Murukan, Wilford argues their stereotype as submissive and superstitious people continues to justify their position at the bottom of the system: “The preservation of Tamil identity, and even its “revival,” are of paramount concern in their views, as well as in those of many others I met. Still, there is a pervasive sentiment that “decent” Tamil culture is lost in a sea of government-supported “Western materialism” and the exhibitionism of “low-caste” Tamil ritualism” (50). Mulling over Islamic modernism, Malay nationalism, “Ceylon” or other upper caste cultural alienation, that contribute to the othering of Tamils, Wilford offers an interesting assessment of the Tamil working class within Malaysia.

 

5) Politics of the Temporary: An Ethnography of Migrant Life in Urban Malaysia by Parthiban Muniandy

Muniandy explores on the ground migrant experiences particularly in Kuala Lumpur and George Town, Penang. It is based primarily on fieldwork involving first-hand interviews and observations of migrants from various sectors such as the food and beverage industry, construction, maids and sex workers among others. His fieldwork also included enforcement authorities and employers of migrants as well, spanning between May to August 2012 and August 2013 to January 2014. Muniandy analyses and discusses these experiences through the framework of “politics of temporariness”, to reveal the multiple facets of contemporary migration. Although Muniandy does not claim the book to be an academic text or research report, recognising its lack of objective assessments, the critical ethnographic notes the text presents remain an important archive of contemporary urban life from the margins of society in Malaysia that have been systematically silenced.

 

 

A Brief Inquiry into “Bossku”

by Yvonne Tan

 

As Najib Razak was found guilty of all seven charges, his supporters — also known on Twitterjaya as ‘kluster Bossku’ — gathered outside of Kuala Lumpur High Court chanted “Bebas Bossku”, “Bossku tak bersalah” with the fault lying in “Tun Mahathir Mohamad kejam”. Najib’s daughter (@yananajib) also took to Instagram, posting a picture of the crowd with the caption “A boss has a title. A leader has the people. 28.07.20. Your support means the world to us. Kami sekeluarga tak akan lupa. TQ kerana sentiasa bersama bossku. 😘😘”

 

What started out as a meme then appropriated for a political campaign, has come to encompass a wider “struggle” against the new government(s) emerging. Just as when Anwar Ibrahim was released after getting full pardon, supporters shouted “Reformasi!” as he left the Cheras Rehabilitation Centre in Kuala Lumpur recovering from a shoulder injury on the way to meet King Sultan Muhammad V to formalise the pardon in mid-2018, “Bossku” has become the opposing protest slogan.

 

It seemed as something frivolous and trivial back then, that a meme of Najib looking back at you while riding a black-and-red Yamaha Y15ZR 150cc, also popularly known as Ysuku, could become the rallying cry against disputing Najib’s 1MDB trial. Lest we forget, the Ysuku also has had a registration plate 8805KU spelling out “BOSSKU”. Many have disregarded his support base to be “Mat Rempits”, as they are not a group of people politicians regularly appeal to garner support. Linked to the working class, forming some sort of subcultural identity, Najib and UMNO have somehow managed to gain ‘anti-capital’.

 

Borrowing from Rachel Chan’s terminology of ‘anti-capital’ where non-conformity is celebrated, particularly against socially ingrained habits, [1] one would assume Najib would instead run counter to such countercultural identity given he is the epitome of status quo — royal ties, his father had founded the party that would rule Malaysia for 61 years. Nevertheless, UMNO’s support for Mat Rempits have always been apparent wherein Khairy Jamaluddin and Abdul Azeez have been sympathetic to their cause all the way back in 2009. [https://thenutgraph.com/umno-and-the-mat-rempit/]

 

It did not take long for Bossku to achieve to reach popular culture status riding on this loose idea of slogans surrounding “Bossku”. Utilised in rap music such as Kalam Biru’s “Malu Apa Bossku”, he criticizes the then Pakatan Harapan government for not fulfilling their promises and defends Najib’s credibility, rapping “malu apa bossku, beri fakta bukan palsu”. “Malu apa bossku” is the phrase that started it all in the viral selfie video of Najib’s reply with a man calling out “Boss kita!”

 

Another incredibly popular song with 18 million views at the time of writing, MeerFly featuring Tuju, SoMean, MK I K-Clique “BossKu” was released in April 2019. The song did not reference anything in particular to Najib beyond the hook which goes “Malu apa bossku / Bossku, bossku, bossku, bossku” and its lyrics are typical of popular rap with braggadocious lyrics like “that booty lagi thick dari Nike/ And I’m lovin’ it / Tapau balik macam McD/ Lambo that body bomb terpaksa ghini”. Although devoid of explicit political statements, many in the comments express support for Najib and how the song is a great embodiment of their sentiment, with some mentioning how listening to the song could get them fired.

 

Again, there is an underlying sentiment of rebelliousness against an unjust order by making light of the seriousness of the 1MDB scandal. This sort of underplaying or “trivialisation is a style of discourse dominated by ideas, slogans, intuitions, and other more or less familiar shortcuts, instead of evidence, logic, or coherent reasoning. As a result, we have answers to moral, cultural, social, and other matters before the questions are even posed. There is thus not much use for a dialogue, or a search for truth which the actors can easily find in their trivialized phraseology.” [2] Speaking of the manner it is trivialised, the name “Bossku” or “My Boss” immediately feels like a contemporary, viral version of Chandra Muzzafar’s “protector-protected” bond.

 

It is beyond rejecting a leader such as #NotMyPM, but rather there is an implication that one is not only under Najib, but also secured or safeguarded by him. Hence, such allegations are deemed ludicrous and simply treated as unimportant when operating by the logic of the bond. “Malu Apa Bossku” also suggests a fervent trust in the ruling political figure matched with a deep-seated scepticism against institutions out to get him. The personalisation also ties Najib’s wellbeing to oneself. Muzzafar argues this “protector” rhetoric is propped up by “unquestioning loyalty is something that a Malay protector expects from the Malays and from UMNO in return for what he sees as the political, economic, cultural and psychological protection provided to the community and the party. It is, in other words, a relationship within the community. In itself it cannot be defined as a communal relationship; it is merely a community-based relationship.”

 

Hence, we ask what specific community is behind “Bossku”? With the common trend from “Bossku” as a meme, gaining popularity in rap music and also expressing mat rempit culture, it shows much of Najib’s support base is also the youth, challenging the normative idea that his supporters were only made up of older people who are used to the status quo. Recalling Najib’s predecessor, Badawi and his speech on Islam Hadhari, he also mentioned “the youth… are an invaluable asset with tremendous potential. Their views are very important in formulating national policies […] All parties must be resolute, unwavering and committed in ensuring the success of the agenda to strengthen the Malay race.” [3] Clearly expressing that Malay Muslim youth are a means for maintaining UMNO’s rule, it is only fitting that they represent the hopes of those in power, especially evidenced by the special role carved out for them. “Bossku” is but a glimpse into emerging Malay Muslim identities that are not necessarily considered mainstream, that call for the reinstatement of UMNO and Najib’s innocence. From Bunkface’s first political song “Akhir Zaman” to emerging “Darah dan Maruah Tanah Melayu” heavy metal movement, the unfolding of traditionalistic subcultures that calls for the continued protection of an elite-centered status quo is not limited in the halls of Putrajaya.

 

[1] Chan, Rachel Suet Kay. 2017. Ah Beng Subculture and the Anti-Capital of Social Exclusion. UKM Ethnic Studies Paper Series No. 54 (August). Bangi: Institute of Ethnic Studies. 106 pages. http://www.ukm.my/kita/news/skke54/

 

[2] Bubak, Oldrich, and Henry Jacek. Trivialization and Public Opinion: Slogans, Substance, and Styles of Thought in the Age of Complexity. Springer, 2019, p. 233.

 

[3] Martin, Dahlia. “Identity politics and young-adult Malaysian Muslims.” Eras Journal 12, no. 1 (2010): 1-29, p. 10.