Drama Queens: The Engagement of Sarawak Malay Housewives
Drama Queens: The Engagement of Sarawak Malay Housewives with
Television’s Cosmopolitan Morality
Siti Zanariah Ahmad Ishak
B.A (Hons) (Writing) Universiti Malaya, Malaysia
MMS (Management Communication) University of Waikato, New Zealand
is presented for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
of The University of Western Australia
School of Social and Cultural Studies
Discipline of Anthropology & Sociology
Due to the presence of television, domestic space is no longer so isolated.
Television has allowed housewives exposure to electronic messages concerning
globalisation, modernity and, in the case of Malaysia, a form of Islam which is
promoted by the government. These messages are embedded in different television
genres in locally produced programs. The purpose of this study is to explore how urban
Sarawak Malay housewives engage with television. The context is Kampung Tabuan
Melayu,a working class Malay village in Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching. The life of
housewives in the village is framed by motivational and talk-show television programs
in the early morning; drama serials or imported telenovelas in the mid-afternoon; primetime news in the evening and reality television or television magazine programs at
night. The research examines how these housewives search for images on television of
‘ideal wives and mothers’ and how they use these images as resources to guide their
own role performance in a changing society. The research argues further that this is
possible because free-to-air Malaysian television adopts a cosmopolitan outlook focused
on cultural diversity, emphasising moral values which the women are able to use to
enhance their local social standing.
The ethnographic approach applied in this research enables a detailed
investigation of how housewives interpret television messages. In-depth interviews and
participant observation proved insightful methods in understanding how television
messages permeate the everyday lives of housewives in Kampung Tabuan Melayu.
Moreover, the adoption of a multi-sited fieldwork approach (Marcus 1995) made it
possible to trace the housewives’ mobility and to comprehend their desire for consumer
lifestyle commodities featured on television. Although there are studies of how ethnicity
features in the way women engage with television, insufficient attention has focused on
the way women use television images in their roles and identities as housewives,
mothers, family members and petty business operators. Through its concern with these
latter identities, this thesis offers fresh insight to studies of television reception among
Whilst Kampung Tabuan housewives recognise that television messages are
censored by the government, the first finding of the study is that they willingly adopt
many of these messages as resources to facilitate their moral understanding and
performance of wife and mother roles. Being supplementary income earners is one
means through which Kampung Tabuan housewives fulfil their moral obligation to be
the ‘good wife and mother’ modelled television imagery. They often accomplish this
through their involvement in petty-trading, which also enhances their ability to consume
lifestyle commodities, and to reflect the images of modern women depicted on
television. Thus, the second finding of the study is that Kampung Tabuan Melayu
housewives utilise television imagery - drawn from both locally produced and imported
television programs - in striving to enhance their social status. Through the influence of
television, they do this by seeking to embrace cultural diversity and by acquiring an
identity as modern, middle-class, but ostentatious, women. In short, Kampung Tabuan
housewives seek to redefine themselves through a combination of kind-heartedness and
‘cosmopolitan’ beauty, the core qualities of female characters at the centre-stage of
My argument is that the modern lifestyles and moral guidance sought by
Kampung Tabuan Melayu housewives is modelled on both Western and non-Western
cultural values and popular culture. This reflects the establishment and rise of both
Asian and Latin American cultural industries, alongside those based in the West. Given
the considerable amount of foreign television content on free-to-air Malaysian
television, cosmopolitanism provides a useful theoretical framework for conceptualising
women’s engagement with media messages. In addition, hybridity theory facilitates our
understanding of the way the Malaysian government adapts foreign popular culture in
the Malaysian context. In this study Malaysian television cosmopolitanism is
understood in the context of three occurrences: firstly, through the establishment of
free-to-air government and privately owned television stations in Malaysia, developed
to meet the demands of the nation’s multiethnic population; secondly, through the
existence of diverse, popular culture programs from different countries; and finally
through the process of producing local Malaysian television which has been adapted
from imported programs.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents……………………………………………………………………….iii
List of Abbreviations……………………………………………………………………xi
List of Maps…………………………………………………………………………….xii
List of Tables…………………………………………………………………………..xiii
List of Plates…………………………………………………………………………...xiv
Glossary of Malay Term……………………………………………………………….xvi
Glossary of Malay, Indonesian and Adapted Television Programs…………………...xix
Statement of Candidate’s Contribution………………………………………………..xxi
GLOBALISATION AND THE STATE: HOUSEWIVES’ ENGAGEMENT WITH
TELEVISION IN CHANGING SOCIETY…………………………………………….6
MALAY HOUSEWIVES’ ROLES IN A CHANGING SOCIETY…………………...10
THE IMPACT OF STATE AND ISLAMIC INTERVENTION ON THE MALAY
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES: DRAMA SERIALS, ISLAM AND THE LAW…………16
THE ROLE OF MALAYSIAN TELEVISION………………………………………...21
WOMEN’S VIEWERS AND MORALITY: SOAP OPERA, TELENOVELA AND
DRAMA SERIALS IN THE WORLD CONTEXT……………………………………24
TELEVISION AS RESOURCE FOR THE MORAL GUIDENCE OF HOUSEWIVES
METHODOLOGY: AUDIENCE ETHNOGRAPHY………………………………….41
ENTERING THE FIELD………………………………………………………………42
FIELDWORK ISSUES: WATCHING TELEVISION ACTIVITY AND OFFERING
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES MOBILITY…………………………………………….....47
GLOBALISATION: TELEVISION AND COSMOPOLITANISM………………......59
GLOBALISATION AND THE MEDIA: EXAMINING PERSPECTIVES IN THE
HOMOGENISATION AND HETEROGENISATION OF LOCAL CULTURE……..60
COSMOPOLITANISM AND WOMEN: TRAVEL AND OPENNESS…………........66
TELEVISION AND IMAGINED COSMOPOLITANISM……………………………69
COSMOPOLITAN MORALITY: TELEVISION, NEWS AND MELODRAMA……69
TELEVISION COSMOPOLITANISM: AN ANALYSIS OF FREE-TO-AIR
TELEVISION CONTENT AND THE POLITICAL FACTORS THAT HAVE
SHAPED THE BROADCASTING LANDSCAPE IN MALAYSIA PRIOR TO
APPROACH TO THE INVESTIGATION OF TELEVISION COSMOPOLITANISM
THE GOVERNMENT TELEVISION STATION (TV1) 1963-1969………………….91
CHALLENGES TO THE MULTICULTURAL APPROACH ADOPTED BY TV1
IMPORTED POPULAR CULTURE ON MALAYSIAN TELEVISION STATIONS
THE HYBRIDISATION OF TELEVISION POPULAR CULTURE PROGRAMS
FILTRATION IN MALAYSIA……………………………………………………...111
HYBRIDITY IN THE MALAY MINI DRAMA SERIAL: SEPUTIH QASEH
Inward and Outward Outlooks in Seputih Qaseh Ramadhan………………………....117
CHANGES IN THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND TENSION IN WOMEN’S ROLE
IN KAMPUNG TABUAN MELAYU………………………………………………..121
RURAL-URBAN MIGRATION: KAMPUNG TABUAN AND ITS RELATION
WITH THE DEVELOPMENT IN KUCHING………………………………………123
THE MALAYS: GENDER RELATIONS AND THE ROLES OF WOMEN IN
MALAYA AND COASTAL SARAWAK MALAY PEASANT COMMUNITIES...128
GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC CONDITION OF
THE IMPACT OF MARGINALISATION AND STIGMATISATION ON THE
TABUAN MEN AND WOMEN……………………………………………………..142
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES AND DOMESTIC SPACE…………………………..….148
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES’ ENGAGEMENT WITH TELEVISION………………..151
THE PETTY TRADING ACTIVITIES OF TABUAN HOUSEWIVES…………….158
IMAGINED COSMOPOLITANS: HOUSEWIVES’ PETTY TRADING AND
OVERVIEW OF PETTY TRADING AND THE CONSUMPTION OF LIFESTYLE
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES, PETTY TRADING AND CONSUMPTION…………...167
Permanent Petty Trading……………………………………………………………...180
CONSUMPTION: THE CONNECTION WITH, AND IMAGINATION OF, OTHER
CITY LIFESTYLES, AND THE MEANING OF CLOTHING ITEMS………….….187
TELEVISION COSMOPOLITANISM AND CONSUMPTION: NEGOTIATING
MODERN MALAY HOUSEWIVES’ WOMANHOOD IN DOMESTIC
THE PORTRAYAL OF PHYSICAL AND INNER BEAUTY ON TELEVISION….195
THE WOMANHOOD OF TABUAN HOUSEWIVES: A REFLECTION OF THE
IDEALS OF PHYSICAL ATTRACTIVENESS AND CONSUMPTION OF
IMAGINING MIDDLE-CLASS MALAY PHYSICAL ATTRACTIVENESS……...208
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES’ DESIRE FOR FASHION………………………………219
TABUAN WOMEN’S STRATEGIES OF GOOD MOTHERHOOD: DETACHMENT
FROM A PROBLEMATIC COMMUNITY AND THE ADOPTION OF OUTWARD
LOOKING MORALITY AND VALUES……………………………………...…….229
PREVENTING THE SPREAD OF SOCIAL PROBLEMS: ISLAMIC MORALITY
THE FIRST STRATEGY OF TABUAN GOOD MOTHERHOOD: FILIAL PIETY
THE SECOND STRATEGY OF TABUAN GOOD MOTHERHOOD: THE
ADOPTION OF DIFFERENT CULTURAL RESOURCES FROM
CONCLUSION: MORALISTIC HOUSEWIVES………………………………..…..251
THE DRAMAS OF LIFE: THE CHALLENGES OF CONTEMPORARY
THE COSMOPOLITAN OUTLOOK OF TELEVISION AUDIENCES…………….253
CONTRIBUTION TO TELEVISION STUDIES AND GENDER ROLES………….256
My sincere appreciation goes to the people of Kampung Tabuan, who allowed
me to share their life experiences. To all of the participants in my study, thank you for
your time. A special thanks to the village headman and wife, Wan Alwi and Dayang
Sariah, and sub village headman and wife, Rosli and Doris, and their extended families
for assisting me to obtain data. Thank you to the families in Kuching, Kota Samarahan,
and Sri Aman for allowing me into your families.
I am grateful to my supervisors, Professor Michael Pinches and Dr Richard
Davis for their guidance. Michael’s patience in dealing with the continuous stream of
paper work that was required by my sponsor and the institution that I am attached to is
appreciated. Richard’s thought-provoking recommendations moved my research
forward. Michael’s invaluable feedback, particularly for the final draft was greatly
appreciated. Thanks to postgraduate coordinator Dr Cheryl Lange who provided
assistance during my early candidature. Thank you to Mrs Jill Woodman who helped
me with the administration problems.
I especially want to thank Dr Michael Azariadis and Dr Krystyna Haq from the
Graduate Research School for organising the writing group, research seminars and
support. I want to make a very special mention of Michael for teaching me to write with
clarity. His ability in showing me ways to improve my writing is outstanding. This
thesis was completed because of his commitment in assisting me. My gratitude goes to
the Reid Library for the provision of excellent references and service. Thank you to
Grayme Mill and the computer support team who were there whenever I need technical
help. Thank you to the Graduate Research School and the School of Social and Cultural
Studies for funding of my fieldwork in Malaysia. Thank you to the University of
Western Australia (UWA) for providing exciting public activities and ‘a huge
playground’ for my children. Thanks to Ahmad Nizar, Faizah, Nor Azlin, Florence,
Musdi, Jem and Hamdan for your friendship while we were in UWA.
I owe considerable thanks to the Ministry of Higher Education, Malaysia, and
Universiti Malaysia Sarawak for their generosity in sponsoring my study and granting
extensions due to my ill health. Thanks to both the deans of the Faculty of Social
Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Associate Professor Mutalip Abdullah and,
later, Professor Spencer Empading. Thanks to the deputy dean, Dr Zamri Hassan and
the Communication Studies Coodinaator, Siti Haslina Hussin. My heartfelt gratitude
goes for their support and assistance in the completion of my study. Thank you to all
my colleagues from the Faculty of Social Sciences who gave me moral support during
my final writing stage. To Awang Ideris, Dr Sharifah Sofiah, Nor’ain Aini, and Dr Hew
Cheng Sim, thank you for your comments and suggestions on, and corrections of, my
draft chapters. Thank you to Wiermawaty Baizura for your technical support. Thanks to
Chris of UWA and Dr Lim Kim Hui of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia for their useful
comments on my draft chapters. Thank you to Peter Cullip in re-checking the language
and grammar usage.
To my sisters, brothers, in-laws, niece, and nephews, a sincere thank you for
your love and unwavering support through thick and thin. Thanks to both the Hussin
and Habsah, and Asmawati and Shahrun families for caring for my children when I was
in the field. A big thank you to Ahmaliah and Mohd Natar for managing the financial
matters during my years of entering and leaving Malaysia. My gratitude goes to Alfinah
and Afzan; Zainuddin and the late Asiah; Md Sidin and Norhaya; Siti Hajar and Laham;
Zubaidah; Fadzilah and Megat al-Imran; my parents in-law; the Yaakub family; and
nieces and nephews; Shafiq, Zahidah, and Ada for your many contributions to my
efforts. Thanks to Yon and the late Asiah family for providing accommodation, food,
and transportation during our first 10 months in Marangaroo, Perth. A hearty thanks
(again) to Ahmad Nizar, my husband, colleague, and study-mate, for your love,
patience, undivided support, and constant engagement with my ideas. My thanks and
love go to my beautiful children, Razin, Nur Sabrina, and Nazmi, for being courageous
whenever we need to move to new places and schools during my study period.
List of Abbreviations
Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Malaysian Islamic Youth
Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia (Effort Trust Fund)
Lembaga Penapisan Filem (The Film Censorship Board of
Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party)
Radio Televisyen Malaysia
United Malays National Organization
Violence, Horror, and Sex
Dasar Ekonomi Baru (The National Economic Policy)
List of Maps
Sarawak and Sabah are the two Malaysian states located on the island of
Sub-kampung within Kampung Tabuan Melayu: Tabuan Hilir, Tabuan
Tengah, Tabuan Lot, and Tabuan Dani and their neighbourhoods
List of Tables
The demographic profiles of research participants
Imports of films, animations, and documentaries by Malaysian TV
Programs produced by independent production companies in Malaysia,
1998 – 2000
The occupations of Kampung Tabuan men
Daily time spent watching television
The role of television perceived by Tabuan housewives
Television genres watched by Tabuan housewives by frequency
Aaron’s and Fasha’s approximate monthly household earnings and
Fasha’s lifestyle commodity consumption
Favourite television stations among Tabuan housewives
List of Plates
Mami Jarum is a title of a Malay movie produced in 2002
Madu Tiga is a classic Malay movie produced in 1964
‘India’ is the name given to a Sarawak layer cake. The highest price for
the cake compared to others symbolises the preference for all things
Indian to Kuching Malays. For instance, they imagine the facial features
of Indian in them from Bollywood movies.
The names of popular Western singers such as Lady Gaga are also used
to name Sarawak layer cakes made by women in Kuching.
The eastern entrance to Kampung Tabuan is accessed from the busy
Setia Raja Road that connects the industrial areas and other districts in
Kuching with Pending town centre and Kuching Port.
The northern entrance to Kampung Tabuan. A private boat transports
passengers from business centres back to the village. The simple landing
platform is called pengkalan sekolah.
Reclaimed housing areas of Kampung Tabuan Tengah that are close to
the pengkalan sekolah landing platform.
The wooden bridge pathways that connect the houses in the lowland area
of Kampung Tabuan.
Pokok apung or nypa frutican, (see the far bank of the river), the river,
and boats are the traditional elements of the lives of coastal Sarawak
Malays that are still present in Kampung Tabuan.
One of the marginalised occupations for Tabuan men: a small scale
terubok (Tenualosa toil) fish seller. Hamzah, the seller is in white shirt.
Hamzah’s father, who owns the business, rents a small parcel of veranda
space on the pathway in front of a Chinese grocery shop in Jalan
Tattooing is a traditional practice for the indigenous people of Borneo.
Although it is uncommon and religiously prohibited among the Malays,
this Tabuan Malay man tattooed his arm.
Juliana categorises her collection of over 200 VCDs, including local and
foreign movies, drama serials, and karaoke and music albums. The photo
also shows that Juliana wears the T-shirt of Mickey Mouse. Merchandise
bearing animation characters, particularly from North America and Japan
(see also Plate 10), are easily available in Kuching.
Priyanka’s lounge room has a complete entertainment unit, including
TV, DVD player, radio, and speakers. There are also two framed Quranic
verses hanging on the wall, some of her hundreds of DVDs, and a mascot
of Dorisemon, a popular animation series from Japan on Malaysian TV.
Norish (left) and Dania (right) are doing their seamstress homework at
around 1:00 p.m. before watching popular Indonesian drama serials at
2:30 p.m. on TV 3’s Sinetron slot. Both women are learning seamstress
skills at the Youth Centre in Pending.
Some of living room of a house has been turned into a small grocery
Rita in the furniture shop trying to calm down her grumpy son. She is
caring for her son while organising hoi barang.
One of the main hoi activities is to draw numbers to determine the
members’ turn to receive their pot money.
Maya Karin’s red lips. She is focusing her attention on trying on a crystal
bracelet during a home selling session. The bracelet costs RM300
(AUD100) and is sold through a community rotating credit scheme.
The ritual membuang peraja (throwing away misfortune) is performed
when the bride and groom are on the way to the groom’s house.
Priyanka is wearing a modern Indian costume and a Japanese kimono.
Priyanka in a Javanese costume (left). Priyanka and her groom in
traditional Malay costumes.
Rosli and Doris (photo at left), and Dayang Sariah (photo at right). These
photos were taken during the religious festival Hari Raya Aidil Fitri,
Rita (two photos on the left) and Doris (left), and Betty (right) wearing
baju kelawar (bat dress), or Malay women’s pyjamas, which are striking
in design and colours. They are showing off their collection of baju
kelawar. It is made either from batik or is printed (as worn by these
Because the AIM meeting and the money-borrowing procedures are
conducted according to Sharia principles, all the Tabuan housewives
attending the meeting wear baju kurung and head scarf. Some of the
housewives in the photo would not wear this on other occasions.
Bella Dally in a smock-style maternity dress that I buy for her in Kuala
Prime Minister Najib Razak kisses his mother’s hand for a blessing after
his appointment. On the left is Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor (Photo:
Glossary of Malay Terms
‘A treacherous child’
Bagus agik pakei duit sendiri
‘It is good to spend our own money’
A Malay woman’s loose-fitting traditional dress
A Malay man’s traditional dress
A Malay woman’s pyjamas
The ruling coalition party of Malaysia
Bodo (Sarawak Malay)
Belulut (Sarawak Malay)
‘to parade’ during a wedding ceremony
Cari duit lebih (Sarawak Malay)
‘To earn additional income’
Cerita/rancangan ya kacak
‘The drama/program is good’
Comot-comot (Sarawak Malay)
Indonesian popular music
Diam rumah ajak (Sarawak Malay) ‘just stay at home’
An Arabic loan word meaning a religious and
legal decree or edict issued by a council of
The spirit of co-operation
An Arabic loan word meaning something that is
permitted by Islamic practice
A report of the sayings or actions of the Prophet
The title for a woman who had performed the haj
The title for a man who had performed the haj
The opposite of halal
Saving and buying goods from a community
rotating credit scheme
Hoi duit (Sarawak Malay)
Saving money in the community rotating credit
Hari Raya/ Hari Raya Aidil Fitri
A religious celebration for Malay-Muslims, or Eid
Hari Raya Aidil Adha
A religious celebration for the haj pilgrimage
Tenualosa toli or ‘Chinese herring’
The local Malay name-calling for drug addicts in
A tight-fitting Malay woman’s traditional dress
Malay cake or finger food
A Malay snack
Main hoi (Sarawak Malay)
To take part in the community rotating credit
Maok tau perkembangan
“To know current issues’
Mbiak terbiar (Sarawak Malay)
‘An unattended child’
Coastal Sarawak Malays
Membuang Peraja (Sarawak Malay) To throw out misfortune
The council of Islamic jurists
Orang laut or orang hutan
The names given to Malays from the coastal areas
and interior areas of Sarawak
Pakei isi masa lapang
Pakei pengajaran or teladan
‘To occupy free time’
National ideology of Malaysia
A Malaysian version of a Malay Archipelago
Sik kempang ati
‘Do not have the heart’
Prayer room or musolla (in Arabic), or small
Yang DiPertuan Agong
The Supreme Ruler of Malaysia
‘To teach a lesson’
Glossary of Malay, Indonesian and Adapted Television Programs
An Islamic forum produced by TV3
A reality singing program broadcast on the Astro
station adapted from the Mexican reality program
Anugerah Juara Lagu TV3
A yearly live telecast of Malay popular song
awards broadcast on TV3
A Malay drama series produced in 1965 and
broadcast on TV1
Bawang Merah Bawang Putih
An Indonesian drama serial version of a famous
Malay Archipelago folktale
A TV3 reality program
A Malay drama serial produced in 1998 and
broadcast on TV3
Forum Perdana Ehwal Semasa
An Islamic forum produced by TV1
A historical documentary on Islamic prophets
produced by TV3 and broadcast during the month
A television magazine program produced by TV3
A reality television show adapted from American
A Malay drama serial adapted from a Venezuelan
telenovela entitled Mi Gorda Bella
An drama series produced in the 2000s and
broadcast on TV3
A Malay movie produced in 1955
Adapted from Wheel of Fortune
Loosely adapted from Chips
A Malay drama serial produced in 2011 and
broadcast on TV3, based on a 1957 Malay movie
entitled Pancha Delima
Siapa Nak Jadi Jutawan?
Adapted from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
A drama serial produced from 2006-2007 and
broadcast on TV3
Seputih Qaseh Ramadhan
A Malay mini drama serial produced in 2006 and
broadcast on TV3
Statement of Candidate’s Contribution
The thesis contains the following published work:
Ahmad Ishak, Siti Zanariah 2011, ‘Cultural hybridity: adapting and filtering popular
culture in Malaysian television programmes’, Jurnal Pengajian Media Malaysia
(Malaysian Journal of Media Studies), vol.13, no. 1, pp 1-15.
My interest in studying television using an anthropological approach developed
after I had lived in Sarawak for some years. Born into a Malay 1 family in the state of
Selangor, I came to Sarawak in 1994 to work as a tutor in a newly established
university. As a Peninsular Malaysian resident, I had to obtain a work permit from the
Sarawak Immigration Department in order to work in Sarawak. The permit needs to be
renewed annually. Technically, the process is quite similar to working in a foreign
country. Peninsular Malaysians are not allowed to enter or reside freely in Sarawak, as
they are in the 11 other states in Peninsular Malaysia, or Sabah. The immigration rights
are one of the privileges gained by Sarawak under the Malaysia Agreement, conditions
for the state joining the Malaysian Federation on 16 September, 1963 (Wong, 1995).10
I was still in contact with Kuala Lumpur daily through the media and frequent
phone calls to my family members. I watched free-to-air national television and read
national newspapers. The mass media had very little coverage on Sarawak. Moreover,
little news from Sarawak interests the rest of the nation. Only the government TV
station, TV1, has a slot for the broadcast of news from Sarawak and Sabah at 5:00 p.m.
which is outside the prime time news. I observed and enjoyed the differences between
life in Kuching and Kuala Lumpur but had yet to immerse myself in the community. I
did not even try to speak the Sarawak Malay dialect. By conversing in the standard
Malay language in interactions with Sarawakians, I was identified and maintained my
status as orang Semenanjung (a Peninsular Malaysian).
Although, initially, my research interest was in the field of organisational
communication, my daily observations of the way women in Sarawak engage with
I am formally defining myself as a Malay although I have a strong consciousness of being a MalaysianJavanese, since I am a descendant of Javanese migrants to Malaya in the 1900s. Indonesian migrants
before the formation of Malaysia, such as the Acehnese, Bugis, and Javanese, are identified as Malays.
According to Miyazaki (2000), these ethnic groups are a sub-category of the Malay people in Malaysia.
television in their everyday lives fascinated me. A significant event that led me to
pursue research in this area occurred at my work place, the Faculty of Social Sciences at
the University of Malaysia, Sarawak. A young, female Sarawak Malay clerk named
Mariam appeared on television 2 to make a public plea to locate her father, whom she
had never met. Years before, Mariam’s biological father, a Peninsular Malay, left
Mariam’s pregnant mother, a Sarawak Malay, to return to Peninsular Malaysia after his
army service in Sarawak had ended. I was intrigued with her organisation and use of
television to transmit her plea. I met another woman, Atikah, who had seven television
sets at home. Her collection of television sets reinforced my observations about
Sarawak women’s close engagement with television. Atikah, a Filipino converted to
Islam and married to a Sarawak Malay, owned an Indonesian housekeeping agency. She
has seven television sets in her home, scattered through the bedrooms, kitchen, and
living room. It is uncommon to have such a number of televisions in a house. According
to Atikah, Kuching is a remote place. Television is one of the ways for her to connect to
vibrant lives in other locations and learn Malaysian culture.
The significance of popular culture to Kuching women is reflected in Sarawak
layer cake. The cake was initially homemade but has been commercialised by women
entrepreneurs. The cakes are given unique names and have striking colours (see Plate
1). Sarawak Malay women name their cakes after either classic or contemporary
movies, drama serials, or songs as well as national symbols, such as the national car, the
Proton Saga. I found that the naming of the cakes after popular culture icons is peculiar
to urban rather than pesisir (rural) Sarawak Malay women. I once had a conversation
with Suriati, a staff member in my work place, about a Michael Jackson layer cake that
The program Jejak Kasih, (Trace of Love) was a reality show that helped people find their lost loved
is sold in Kuching. She said women in her village simply named it kek roti (bread layer
Plate 1a Mami Jarum is a title of a Malay
movie produced in 2002.
Plate 1b Madu Tiga is a classic Malay movie
produced in 1964.
Plate 1c ‘India’ is the name given to a
Sarawak layer cake. The highest price for the
cake compared to others symbolises the
preference for all things Indian to Kuching
Malays. For instance, they may associate
themselves with the Indian facial features in
them as a result of the influence of Bollywood
Plate 1d The names of popular Western singers
such as Lady Gaga are also used to name
Sarawak layer cakes made by women in
Although Mariam, Atikah, and Suriati were Sarawak Malay women who
inspired my research topic, I choose to study Malay women in the marginalised worker
community of Kampung Tabuan Melayu. The kampung is located in a busy industrial
and business area of Pending in Kuching city. The settlement is marginalised by certain
local authorities and the population is stigmatised by some sections of Kuching society
as violent, criminal, and drug addicts.
My early observations and the stories of why Mariam and Atikah depended on
television in dealing with problems in their lives made me believe that the social context
of female Sarawak Malay viewers should be a significant part of my audience reception
study. Anthropological methods allow me to explore the social context of women,
including their status, gender relations, the community they live in, and their
connections with the national and the global communities.
GLOBALIZATION AND THE STATE: HOUSEWIVES’ ENGAGEMENT WITH
TELEVISION IN A CHANGING SOCIETY
Anita married Hamzah in 2003 when she was just 17 years old. A year after
that, their marriage took a whirlwind turn. Hamzah became addicted to amphetamines
(locally known as ice) and also became a petty-dealer in drugs. It took almost two
years for Anita to finally decide on whether she would continue to accept her husband’s
involvement in drugs, or whether she would take a stand against it. However, she faced
a dilemma. On the one hand, Anita was excited to receive the cash derived from
Hamzah’s drug-selling. She used the cash to buy electrical goods, fashionable clothes
and even managed to save some for her son’s education. It was rare that either Anita or
Hamzah would receive such large amounts of money, as Hamzah was only working with
his father as a petty fishseller. On the other hand, Anita felt guilty- about the manner
which the extra income was earned, as she was aware that the proceeds from the selling
of drugs was not only a criminal activity but also viewed as haram (prohibited) in Islam.
To further compound her dilemma, she did not want to be seen by people around her as
a disobedient wife 3 if she were to take a stand against Hamzah’s involvement in drugs.
Finally, she decided to fight against Hamzah’s drug addiction and trafficking although
villagers commonly viewed that drug’s influence is a fate that is impossible to refute.
Drug selling and addiction were indeed an issue for the community in Kampung
Tabuan. Drug addiction was regarded as an incurable disease and the presence of
‘kaki batu’ (a local Malay name-calling for drug addicts) was considered a blight on
the community. If it were a husband, their wives’ behaviour would be intensely
scrutinised by the community and even by some of their own families when their
husbands were confined in rehabilitation centres or even imprisoned. In Anita’s case,
some of her family members joined the other neighbours in spreading gossip and
rumours that Anita had found another man in the absence of Hamzah, which made the
matter even worse for Anita and her household.
This is symbolically demonstrated m by a wife kissing both her husband’s knees during the Sarawak
Malay akad-nikah (solemnization ceremony).
A husband’s involvement in drugs is sometimes portrayed in Malay television
dramas as a representation of a ‘bad’ husband that every woman should shy away from.
There are also portrayals of a ‘good’ husband, whose qualities such as kindness, love,
religiosity, and being a pillar of, and role-model for, family values, characterised an
ideal spouse. Anita confessed to having wept when watching the Malay serial drama,
Seputih Qaseh Ramadhan (Qaseh’s True Love). Anita wept for the suffering wife who
was betrayed by her husband, children and mother in-law. The drama was about a
housewife who was imprisoned because her husband had framed her for possessing
illicit drugs. At the end of the drama the truth prevailed; Qaseh’s innocence was proven
and her dignity as a wife and mother restored whilst her husband was duly punished by
the law. From this television drama, Anita recognised the circumstances of her own life,
the torment of the suffering woman, mirroring that of her own.
Hamzah always became aggressive when Anita confronted him about his drug
addiction. Sometimes, Hamzah promised to quit, but he didn’t keep his promise. Anita
secretly sought help from a shaman who she believed could help her to bring Hamzah’s
drug problem under control. After she returned from her second visit to the shaman,
Anita exclaimed, ‘I am powerful! I have the power of Oma Bertha!’ Here, Anita refers
to the paranormal character of Oma Bertha in the spellbinding Indonesian drama
serial, Bawang Merah Bawang Putih (Onion and Garlic). Perhaps with the power of
the charm provided by the shaman, Hamzah in fact did stop taking and selling drugs,
yet only temporarily.
When Hamzah’s habit resurfaced, Anita finally filed a police report. In early
2010, Hamzah was arrested and charged with selling drugs and was sent to a
rehabilitation centre for two years. Anita’s mother in-law, her maternal aunt and some
of her closest neighbours, accused her of betraying her husband. However, Anita’s
mother and father in-law believed that Anita was justified in what she had done. Anita
admitted to everyone that it was she who had filed the police report and felt vindicated
from any blame. Drama serials on television often depicted the triumph of morality over
vice, and in her case, justification for a wife who confronts her husband over his
The issues studied in this thesis are illustrated through Anita’s life story, a
young woman of Kampung Tabuan Melayu in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. This thesis
concerns the processes of globalisation and social change in Eastern Malaysia and, in
particular, the ways in which women in a low status, marginalised community have
engaged with these processes by refashioning themselves, morally and aesthetically,
through their use of television and consumption.
In the first two substantive chapters (3 and 4) I focus on the ways in which
processes of globalisation, evident through the expansion of television, have impacted
in Malaysia. I argue two main points. Firstly, I argue that these processes have an
‘outward’ quality, exposing the people of Malaysia to the cultural world beyond, but
also an ‘inward’ orientation mediated by the Malaysian state and the exigencies of local
circumstance and power relations. As a way of dealing with the dynamic relation
between these outward and inward orientations, I develop the concepts of
cosmopolitanism and hybridity. Secondly, I argue, contrary to common stereotype, that
cosmopolitanism and hybridity, rather than tradition or passivity, characterise the
consciousness and social behaviour of Malay women.
In the subsequent four chapters (5 to 8) I develop these arguments in reference to
lower class Malay women in the marginalised urban neighbourhood of Tabuan in the
city of Kuching, Sarawak. Here I document the ways in which women deal with the
challenges presented by the developmental process and ideology that surrounds them,
and, in particular, by the stigmatisation of their community and the social problems
associated with their husbands and neighbours. It is in this context that I argue that the
women of Tabuan have been able to positively refashion themselves as cosmopolitans,
through their petty trading incomes, their television viewing, their consumer practices,
and the control they exercise over their children’s socialisation.
In making this argument, however, I also highlight a number of significant
tensions and contradictions evident in the lives of the Tabuan women. In large part these
stem from the disadvantage and stigmatisation experienced in Tabuan relative to the
more prosperous, prestigious layers of people in Kuching. These experiences, and the
efforts of Tabuan women in combating them, manifest in tensions between women and
men, wives and husbands, mothers and neighbourhood youth, and finally, across the
community, between those families who can afford to live in moderate comfort, to send
their children away to school, and those who cannot. Yet there are also in Tabuan
elements of a countervailing tendency to valorise local co-operation, and to critique
over-consumption and the greed of Kuching’s wealthy middle class.
Anita is a housewife from Kampung Tabuan Melayu, a generally poor suburban
Malay village in Kuching, a city in the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. Her story, part of
which has been described above, is that of an arduous, six-year battle to deal with her
husband’s involvement with drugs. Unlike Anita, very few women in Kampung Tabuan
Melayu would have the courage to report their husbands’ involvement in drugs to the
police. Neither would they be likely to seek a divorce on these grounds. It is more likely
that women in Anita’s position, as she herself had done, would procure a charm from a
shaman to influence their husband, so that he would stop his involvement with drugs.
Anita also seeks inspiration from television to guide her in making decisions, either
consciously or subconsciously, to solve the problems in her family relationships. In
particular, she draws on different representations of morality which are derived from
both television messages and her Sarawak Malay cultural background. Anita’s story
reflects, to some degree, the three aims of this study. The first aim is to investigate the
everyday challenges faced by Tabuan Malay women in their roles as wives, mothers,
petty-traders and consumers. The second aim is to investigate the ways in which Tabuan
housewives use resources from television to negotiate these roles against the backdrop
of rapid social, economic and political changes in the society. In doing this, I argue that
the women of Tabuan have developed a cosmopolitan outlook largely through the use of
free-to-air Malaysian television stations. This outlook has influenced Tabuan women’s
perception of being a good wife and mother.
MALAY HOUSEWIVES’ ROLES IN A CHANGING SOCIETY
The way that housewives carry out their roles in their families is influenced by
their relationship with their husbands (Turner 1990). Studies concerning women and
men’s roles, for instance in the relationship of men and women as a husband and a wife
fall in the area of gender relations. Studies that focus on women can be benefited from
gender relations’ conceptualisation of women and men’s role. The Malay housewives’
roles from the perspective of gender relations have been established by Western
anthropologists who studied Malay community (Winzeler 1974; Swift 1963; Firth 1966;
Firth, R, 1966). My study which focuses mostly on Malay women concerning
housewives’ roles (and the least degree of gender relations of women and men’s roles)
is developed to examine changes in housewives’ behaviour in relation to their
households and families. The changes are studied due to the impact of television
viewing among the housewives.
The contemporary urban Malay housewives’ roles have their origin in Malay
peasant society. Anthropologists who have studied Malay and other Southeast Asian
communities have conceptualised gender relations through both the husband’s and the
wife’s involvement in the subsistence economy of peasant society. Gender relations
here have often been described as ‘complementarity’ (King and Wilder 2003, p. 263) in
terms of men’s and women’s responsibilities, their rights and duties, and the ‘lack of
[an] exaggerated opposition of male and female ideologies’ (Errington 1990 in King
and Wilder 2006, p. 263). Raymond Firth (1966), for example, asserts that fishing was
the primary economic activity in generating food and cash for Malay families in
Kelantan, with both husband and wife displaying complementary gender roles—the
husband fishes whilst the wife transforms the products into food and cash. Besides
fishing, Malay women across Southeast Asia have a more significant involvement in
rice cultivation when compared to men. 4 Winzeler (1974), for instance uses the term
‘relative sexual equality’ (p. 564) to describe women’s specialised work in certain tasks
in rice cultivation, whilst men work on certain other tasks. The ‘complementary
relations’ of men and women in relation to work has been demonstrated in many
Southeast Asian societies, including Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos,
Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Singapore (van Esterik 1982).
From past research I have identified three different spheres where
complementary gender roles can be found. At the micro level, complementary gender
roles can be found firstly in men’s and women’s involvement in the subsistence
economy; and secondly men’s and women’s role in the organisation of the family. At
the macro level, complementary gender roles are conceptualised through the division of
men’s and women’s roles in public and domestic space. Whilst framing these three
different spheres where complementary gender roles can be found in terms of micro and
macro approaches, they are in practice interrelated (see Carsten 1997; Rudie 1994;
Mashman 1991; Strange 1981 Swift 1963; Raymond Firth 1966; Rosemary Firth 1966).
Nevertheless, scholars who advocate the existence of complementary gender roles in
Malay peasant society have paid less attention to the clarity of its operation in different
spheres of the husband – wife relationship (see King & Wilder 2006 p. 262-279;
Manderson 1983, p. 4-7). In terms of the macro approach, women’s economic
involvement is firmly situated in the domestic activities she undertakes to complement
her husband’s economic role in public space. However, the need to separate Malay
For instance, Swift (1963), who studied Malay communities in Negeri Sembilan, states that the location
of the family’s rice nurseries was decided upon only with the consent of the wife.
women’s economic activities from the domestic sphere has been noted. This has been
brought about by the increased involvement of Malay housewives’ in cottage industries
(Hassan 2008) and micro-enterprises (Masud & Paim 1999). In more contemporary
times, the increase in housewives’ involvement in the informal economy, as distinct
from the domestic sphere, has been neglected.
The concept of complementary gender relations lends itself to a division in the
roles of husband and wife in the organisation of family resources. On the one hand, a
wife’s task is managing everyday domestic duties, including the management of
household finances (Swift 1963; Raymond Firth 1966; Rosemary Firth 1966). On the
other hand, a husband possesses the overarching authority in the family (Raja Mamat
1991). Swift (1963) contends that although the peasant Malay husband may relinquish
his authority to determine decisions related to the spending of household money, his
authority as head of the family is still recognised by his wife.
The ideals of complementry gender roles have been challenged. Stivens (1998)
for example, points out that although women possess economic independence in
relation to how household finances are spent, there is now a tension occurring in Malay
middle-class families due to the insecurity of women having more economic power
because of their participation in the formal economy. According to Healey (1999),
Malay women are not passive receivers in gender struggles and are increasingly resist
male power in the domestic domain. There are few contemporary studies of gender
relations in Malay working class families, especially in relation to the rapid changes
associated with the emergence of the urban working class, modernisation and
consumption (see Healey 1999; Ong 1990).
A complementary gender relationship also applies in the gendered division
between the domestic and public spheres in Malay society (Carsten 1997). As
mentioned above, I refer to this as the macro level of complementary gender
relationship. The community’s formal political, social, ritual and Islamic activities are
primarily associated with men in the public sphere. These activities are essentially
closed to Malay women. According to Manderson (1983), whilst women are not
actively involved in politics and ritual activities, their ‘behind-the scenes roles are often
critical’ (p. 7). The informal nature of women’s involvement is acceptable in Malay
adat 5 (custom) (Karim 1992). In this regard, Malay women are not completely passive
or powerless in regard to influencing public space activities.
Southeast Asian housewives’ involvement in producing food, generating an
income, and managing household money, has contributed to their relative equality in
relation to men (King & Wilder 2006; Errington 1990; van Esterik 1982; Strange 1981;
Stoler 1977). Winzeler (1982) suggests that Southeast Asian women’s status is high
compared to women in South Asian countries and China. Other factors which enhance
Malay women’s power in the domestic domain include the practice of bilateral kinship
and weak state control (Winzeler 1982; Burlings 1965; Hanks & Hanks 1963). Stivens
(1996), who studied the matrilineal society of the Rembau in the state of Negeri
Sembilan, contends that women’s autonomy in that society is due to ‘a greater degree of
economic independence ... [as a result of] women’s considerable property rights and
central cultural importance deriving from the historical reconstructions of matrilineal
culture ...’ (p. 24). Despite this, the assertion of Malay women’s relatively high status
has been challenged by the growing power of the post-colonial state and Islamic
Adat is defined as ‘customary law of the indigenous people of Malaysia and Indonesia. It was the
unwritten, traditional code governing all aspects of personal conduct from birth to death.’
THE IMPACT OF STATE AND ISLAMIC INTERVENTION ON THE MALAY
Manderson (1983) reports that early anthropologists studying Southeast Asian
women were struck by their significant involvement in the domestic and subsistence
economies. She argues that ‘women’s activities – in the fields, in the home, in the
community – all contributed to production; it took Western feminists another century to
draw the same conclusions’ (p. 1). Here, Manderson (1983) contends that Malay
peasant housewives have had a greater involvement in economic activities than many
other peasant women in the 19th century. As mentioned earlier, this autonomy is
supported by the adat (Karim 1992). In Malaysia, Malay women’s economic
involvement, both in domestic and public space, is heavily influenced by government
policy and Islamic ideology. Therefore, the so-called high-status of Malay women
gained through adat is regulated, and in many cases supported by, state policies. Above
all, the government has advanced Malay women’s economic involvement for the cause
of national development (Ong 1990).
Strange (1981) also claims that the relative equality between Malay men and
women ‘was an established cultural pattern before Islam gained strength in the area
during the fourteenth century’ (p. 197). Manderson (1983) states that the way Islam
affects women’s equality with men depends on how Islam ‘has been integrated into
traditional beliefs and customary law’ (p. 3).
The Islamic resurgence which was first popularised by Malay university
students in the early 1970s was in part a protest against Malay women’s adoption of
Western values and morality and the support they were receiving from the Malaysian
government (Nagata 1995; Anwar 1987). The Islamic resurgence especially emphasised
a Muslim woman’s loyalty to her husband. Women were also pressured to wear modest
clothing. The Islamic resurgence during this period led to the establishment of an
influential Islamic social movement known as Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia
(popularly known as ABIM or the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement). Another
strong proponent of Islamic resurgence was the opposition political party known as
Parti Islam se Malaysia (PAS), or the Pan Islamic Party. The tacit alliance between
these two organisations was seen as a threat to the ruling United Malay National
organization (UMNO). In response to this threat, the government established its own
Islamic policy in the 1980s. Camroux (1996) summarises the rationale behind UMNO’s
adoption of an Islamic agenda by arguing that ‘the state has attempted to channel the
Islamic resurgence along a modernizing path linked to the secular objective of Malaysia
becoming a fully industrialized country by the year 2020’ (p. 855).
Mohamad (2004) states that on the one hand, Malaysia endorses Islamic values
that encourage women to focus on motherhood; whilst on the other hand, and in
particular through Malaysia’s secular National Economic Policy (1971-1990), it also
encourages women to participate in the formal labour force. State policy encourages
Malay women to either work full-time, or to generate part-time incomes for their
households. Mohamad (2004) thus implies that Malay women are far from being
constrained by dogmatic Islamic ideology; since the national policy in real terms
promotes women’s participation in the work force. Hence, from time to time, Malay
women are reminded by politicians that domestic duties and involvement in economic
activities are part of their significant roles that represent their loyalty to the nation and
to Islam (New Straits Times cited in Strange 1981; Mahathir Mohamad cited in Stivens
The mass media has been used by the government to disseminate a moderate
Islamic ideology that emphasises a set of progressive and universal human values
(Mohd Adnan 2010). My argument is that given the state’s grip on the mass media in
Malaysia, the so-called Islamic resurgence proposed by the government has been
embedded in the television programming. This progressive and modern Islamic
approach are spread to all levels of society, in particular to the masses who depend more
on television for daily entertainment and information. This contrasts with the Islamic
ideology of ABIM and PAS, which has a stronger hold in urban areas and universities
and whose influence has been limited to the middle class-Malay in Peninsular Malaysia
(Stiven 1998 b; Nagata 1995; Anwar 1987). Ong (1990) mentions the role of the mass
media in propagating Islam, but does not provide any empirical work to support her
Along with promoting Islamic spirituality, including morality and guidance on
appropriate forms of female sexuality, television also promotes Western modernity and
consumer culture. Although there is no scholarly study conducted in Malaysia that
investigates the relationship between television and material consumption, it is
generally understood that television promotes the consumption of modern lifestyles and
consumer goods. According to Mills (1997), for example, rural women in Thailand
were motivated to migrate to Bangkok after watching depictions of modern life and
material consumption on television. Mills (1997) states:
[i]n part this reveals the power of new technologies of representation – [such as]
television and other forms of mass media – over the popular imagination in
Thailand; these now pervasive forms of cultural production invest accumulation
and display of commodities with dominant meanings about “progress” and the
desirability of modern style and attitudes (p. 40).
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES: DRAMA SERIALS, ISLAM AND THE LAW
Stivens (1998) has studied changes within Malay middle class families and
argues that the image of women in their reproductive roles and caring for the family’s
well-being is promoted at the state level. Stivens’s (1998) argument is based on data
gathered from advertisements in Malay women’s magazines. She states that,
[t]he models of the patriarchal father and the new Malay might suggest that the
Malaysian state has been concerned to promote particular versions of
masculinity, the thrusting economic rationalist of corporate Malaysia or the firm
and upright father at home. Yet in spite of this there seems to me to be no clear
state project of masculinity comparable to the developed exhortations about
In line with Stivens’s (1998) argument about the prevalence feminine images
depicted in Malay magazines, women (and not men) on television are often depicted as
the central characters in locally produced drama serials. Historically, women’s
occupation of the role of the central character in drama serials did not always occur in
the early Malay dramas of the1970s and 1980s - where men were more often the leading
characters. 6 In response to this change, I investigate the ways in which Malaysian
television depicts a version of modernity which has been shaped by a cosmopolitan
outlook in both national and foreign representations of women, women’s roles, and the
family. By cosmopolitan outlook I mean Tabuan women adopt universal Islamic
morality, consumer culture, Western modernity and India cult in many aspects of their
everyday lives. Both local and foreign television programs are resources for Tabuan
housewives - as demonstrated in Anita’s case. Tabuan women look for moral guidance
on television programs. Returning to Anita’s story, the paragraph below shows how the
state and Islam combine, through television, to define moral values in the husband-wife
relationship. In addition, foreign drama serials also contribute to shaping the way in
which Anita negotiates her role and identity in the family. Anita gains strength from
television messages to enforce the moral values she sees as lacking in her husband.
For the most part, Anita’s marital problems arise from her husband’s drug
addiction. Illicit drugs have become a major concern of the state, in part because of the
negative impact they have on national development. Islam is used by the state as a
For instance, Malay popular drama serials entitled PJ and Tok Perak are the examples of the dramas that
use male as the leading character (Syed Nong 1988, p.91).
moral basis for the condemnation of those who are involved with illegal drugs. The
Malaysian government clearly articulates its zero tolerance stands on illicit drugs
through media coverage, government advertisements, and through television dramas.
The morality of drug abuse is bolstered by the state’s harsh laws surrounding illicit
substances. Malaysian law and its stand on drugs are known to be one of the toughest in
the world. 7 Malaysians understand that any involvement in illicit drugs is morally
unacceptable because of the government’s strategy of associating drugs with Islamic
morality. The concept of haram and halal in Islamic morality (prohibited and
permissible) can be used to define the appropriate means of earning money for the
family. Any activity related to illicit drugs is unreservedly haram. 8 The fatwa 9
proclaiming illicit drugs to be haram reinforces the states condemnation of illicit drugs.
The proclamation of fatwa strengthens the degree of immorality to which it is
attached. For instance, although corruption is a violation of state law and is haram
under Islamic law (sharia), it is not a fatwa proclamation. Therefore, I would argue,
involvement in corruption is perceived by the public as being less morally
reprehensible, at least from an Islamic perspective, compared to involvement with illicit
drugs. The message from the government concerning the moral implications of using
and dealing in illicit drugs is known to policy makers, scriptwriters, and television
producers; and to ordinary women like Anita. When the theme of drugs appears in
Malay dramas, embedded in the narrative is an implied prohibition emanating from both
the state and religion. Moreover, Malaysian drama serials such as Seputih Qaseh
Section 39B (2) of the Dangerous drugs Act 1952 was amended in 1983 to provide the mandatory death
sentence upon conviction for possession of certain drugs in certain amounts (Amnesty International,
The Fatwa that endorsed drug abuse as haram was issued by the Fatwa Committee of the National
Council for Islamic Affairs at their 3rd meeting on 15 April, 1982 (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia).
Webster’s New World College Dictionary (2010) defines fatwa as ‘a religious and legal decree or edict
issued by a council of religious leaders.’ (in Your Dictionary n.d)
Ramadhan (SQR) raises the issue of illicit drug selling and its effects on families and
reinforces the state’s and Islam’s condemnation of those involved in illicit drugs. The
standard of morality that is promoted by the state and Islam has contributed to the way
in which Anita defines her marriage to Hamzah and motivates her to put aside the blind
loyalty to a husband that is common in Kampung Tabuan.
Moreover, from both Malaysian and Indonesian drama serials, Anita is exposed
to the complexity of the marital relationship. From the Malaysian drama serial SQR,
Anita learns that a husband’s use of illicit drugs constitutes a betrayal of his wife, which
is equal to the more common type of relationship betrayal – the husband having an
intimate relationship with another woman. Qaseh, the protagonist in SQR, is portrayed
in the drama as a traditional wife who is loyal, modest, and patient in the face of the
suffering she must bear. Anita told me that while she sympathises with Qaseh’s
situation, she remains unimpressed with Qaseh’s humility. Through this drama, Anita
decides that humility leads to suffering. However, it is from an Indonesian drama serial
that Anita learns that women can access power through the help of a shaman. There are
injunctions in Islam that prohibit Muslims seeking assistance from shamans. This ban is
embedded in the Violence, Horror, and Sex Censorship Guidelines established by the
Film Censorship Board of Malaysia (LPF); the body which functions to censor locally
produced and foreign popular culture. Horror in the guidelines includes the depiction of
shamans. Due to censorship guidelines locally produced dramas contain few references
to shamans, at least in comparison to foreign drama serials. 10 Despite the injunctions of
the LPF, shamanism is still a theme which is readily identifiable in especially
Indonesian drama serials. The LPF is unable or unwilling to completely censor
unwanted portrayals from foreign drama serials, especially in relation to the central
The censorship policy on horror and mystical depiction has relaxed since 2009 (see Chapter 4 for
characters and the plot of the story. The Malaysian government’s disapproval of
shamans does not dissuade Anita from believing in the efficacy of the shaman’s powers
and attempting to appropriate the shaman’s powers as a way to deal with her husband’s
It can be argued that drama serials have the potential to provide direction to
those viewers who are searching for answers to problems in their lives. Oma Bertha, for
example, is a character who is depicted as being confident and willing to achieve her
goals through the use of a shaman’s power. She is just one example of Anita’s
engagement with female images from imported television programs which are
prohibited in locally made Malaysian drama serials. Qaseh, as has been mentioned, is
portrayed as the typical Malay housewife. Qaseh and Oma Bertha demonstrate that
foreign and local images of women are simultaneously consumed by Malaysian
In trying to make sense of television resources that Tabuan housewives use to
reflect on and facilitate their roles in the domestic sphere, my research takes into
account the cosmopolitan nature of imported television programs. The imported
programs shown on the free-to-air Malaysian television are no longer dominated by the
Western cultural products - in particular from North America since the late 1990s. In
fact, since the 1960s, Malaysian television stations have had a history of purchasing
both Western and non-Western television programs. My study investigates the notion of
whether a cosmopolitan outlook has emerged among Kampung Tabuan housewives as a
result of their engagement with both foreign and local television messages. The
imported media from North America, which has often been studied through the lens of
cultural imperialism (Dorfman and Mattlart 1972; Hamelink 1983; Schiller 1976), is
popularly used to prove the influence of global popular culture in Malaysia (Wang
2010; A. Rahim & Pawanteh 2009; Nain 1996; Karthigesu 1994a). These studies,
however, have neglected the presence of non-American popular culture which has
existed on Malaysian television since the inception of TV1 in 1964.
THE ROLE OF MALAYSIAN TELEVISION
The mass media, including television, has been identified as a potent source of
knowledge for women to participate in Malaysian national development. According to
[t]he key point that need (sic) to be considered here is the role of the mass media
as an important conduit. While the mass media are responsible to help society
informed of any matter of interest, they are also equally responsible to provide
(sic) information on the social progress that is being achieved as well as future
planning and alternatives that need women’s attention (p. 69).
The government broadcasting department, Radio and Television Malaysia (RTM)
established and publically funded two of the earliest television stations in Malaysia,
TV1 and later TV2. RTM also formulated the guidelines for Malaysia’s local television
drama production. These guidelines encouraged a particular portrayal of women that
showcased and promoted their contribution to nation building (Mhd. Bathusha 1998).
According to Anuar & Wang (1996), the Malaysian government envisions the primary
objective of Malaysian television broadcasting to be for the purpose of ‘facilitating or
encouraging socio-economic development and for fostering national integration
amongst the country’s multi-ethnic peoples’ (p. 262). These television stations,
however, remain closely monitored by the government and need to comply with the
state’s broadcasting laws which have been defined by the Film Censorship Board of
Malaysia (LPF) guidelines.
Although this study predominantly focuses on the foreign programs broadcast
by Malaysian free-to-air (FTA) television, the national programs are also investigated
because of the influence these imported programs have had on locally-produced
programs. For instance, Malaysian broadcasting has embraced a range of successful
imported drama serials and reworked them in local productions. During the early years
of Malaysian television, foreign programs being aired on FTA television stations were
more numerous than locally produced programs. This issue is further elaborated in
Chapter 4. However, specific attention is given to the television melodrama genre which
includes dramas, drama serials and movies because Tabuan women talk more about this
genre in their everyday life than any other. Another reason why both foreign and local
programs have been included in this study relates to the method of data gathering. The
methods of data gathering documented what women remember about their television
viewing; and when Tabuan women talk about television content, they most often give
examples from both local and foreign programs.
The role of commercial advertisement is to promote the consumption of goods
and services. Although consumption of lifestyle commodities is identified as one of the
ways to reflect a cosmopolitan outlook by Tabuan women, television advertisements
have not been included within the theoretical framework of this study. One of the direct
roles of commercial advertisement is to increase the sales of products and services to
television audiences. Meanwhile, melodrama genre incorporates an educational role and
has an overtly moral dimension (Abu-Lughod 2005; Mankekar 1995). In this study I
argue that the consumption of lifestyle commodities by Tabuan women is motivated by
their desire to be moral agents, not because of the influence of television
advertisements, but as a result of their engagement with the genre of television
melodrama. In other words, in this study I suggest that therole of television
advertisements is limited to providing informed choices about products or services.
The provision of education and information are believed by Tabuan housewives
to be two of the most significant functions of television. My survey (elaborated on in
Chapter 5) has demonstrated that the most watched television program by housewives
in Kampung Tabuan is the news (83.3 percent or 25 out of 30 informants). In Britain,
Hobson (1981) who studied patterns of television watching among working-class
housewives’ in Britain, discovered that they were watch more ‘feminine programs and
topics’ (p. 109). News, in this study, was considered to be a more masculine form of
television viewing. The survey data arising from my study contrasts with Hobson’s
findings. One explanation may be that television was not regarded as the main source of
information for housewives in Hobson’s study, as it is for the contemporary housewives
of Kampung Tabuan.
In the early days of publically owned and run television stations in Malaysia, the
majority of imported programs came from Britain (Karthigesu 1994b). These programs
were not regarded as a threat to Malaysian cultural identity; rather, they were seen as a
positive symbol of the relationship between Malaysia and her former colonial ruler.
This is in contrast to the influx of Western popular culture in the late 1980s, particularly
from North America, which was thought to be a threat to Malaysia’s sovereignty.
Certain sections in the Malaysian government argued that American popular culture
programs aired on Malaysian television posed a threat to religion, morality and national
identity. American television content was seen as possibly eroding Islamic and Malay
cultural values (Ang 2001). The anti-West discourse in Malaysia was at the time
dominated by government officials, Islamic politicians, and the print media. Other
foreign programs in 2000s that outwardly contradicted Malay-Islamic values were also
criticised. For instance, the Mexican reality television show, La Academia, which was
adapted for the Malaysian context and entitled Akademi Fantasia, was subjected to
fierce criticism due to depictions of intimacy between men and women (Maliki 2008).
The Malays, who hold the balance of power in politics, religion and the media, highlight
the moral threat that was supposedly eroding Islamic and Malay cultural values. Despite
the anti-West discourse in Malaysia, the government was not dissuaded from permitting
all Malaysian FTA television to broadcast a significant number of foreign programs.
This was in fact due to the demands of Malaysian audiences which comprise different
ethnic and class backgrounds.
WOMEN’S VIEWERS AND MORALITY: SOAP OPERA, TELENOVELA AND
DRAMA SERIALS IN THE WORLD CONTEXT
The soap opera is a television genre that appeals more to female rather than male
viewer’s worldwide (Modleski 1984; Morley 1986; Alasuutari 1992). The soap opera
originated in North America and has many variations. In Latin America, Mexico and
Spain they are called telenovela. The term drama serial is used in English for this genre
in countries such as Egypt, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The
soap opera, according to Geraghty (2005),
defines the form by its extended, complex, and interweaving stories; a wide
range of characters, allowing for different kinds of identification; the delineation
of an identifiable community, paying attention to domestic and familial
relationships; and an emphasis, often expressed melodramatically, on the
working through of good and evil forces within family or community... A more
common approach was to see in soap a female-oriented narrative in which
women were central (p. 312-315).
North America’s soap operas demonstrate the above characteristics. Other
countries demonstrate variations of these characteristics according to the local context.
For instance, soap operas from the United Kingdom, Australia and Egypt are created
from a social-realist perspective. Their narratives tend to highlight characters and
situations from working-class backgrounds and everyday experiences; whilst Brazil’s
telenovelas focus on themes that depict the country’s experience of urbanisation and
modernisation (Kottak 1990). Despite these differences, a common feature of North
American soap operas and their variations in other countries is that the narratives and
characters usually focus on femininity.
Ang (1985) conceptualises the ‘feminine pleasure’ viewers derive from
watching soap operas. However, she also highlights, as found in Dutch women viewers
of an American soap opera Dallas, that those viewers who dislike Dallas watch it
merely for the purpose of condemning and ridiculing it. Feminist scholarship has
criticised soap operas for limiting women to traditional feminine roles and the domestic
sphere. Lovell (1981) argues that the denigration of women’s images in the soap opera
genre – in particular as this denigration applies to stereotypical representations of
housewives. Female viewers of soap operas have also been found to use the subject
matter from telenovelas to create real life conversations in the form of gossip and
mutual reassurance in interpersonal interactions (Brown & Barwik 1987; Hobson 1982).
Gossiping and reflecting on soap opera narratives can be of positive value in women’s
lives (Brown & Barwik 1987). Similarly, Miller (1995a) argues that Trinidadian women
viewers of the popular Hollywood soap opera The Young and Restless gain a sense of
pleasure through the local practice of ‘gossiping’ (bacchanal).
In contrast, television serials from foreign countries are also believed to
empower women from lower socio-economic groups and of different ages to embrace
change. Kim (2005) contends that young Korean female viewers are inspired to
‘imagine freedom’ by North American soap operas and movies. In Senegal, Werner
(2006) observes that viewers watch Brazilian and Mexican telenovas and use these to
reflect on their unequal relationships with male members of the family and to
renegotiate traditional values (Werner 2006). Nevertheless, local and foreign values are
often quite different. Perhaps the most volatile difference between Western and Eastern
cultural practices lies in the domain of sexual conduct. Co-habitation, pre-marital sexual
relationships, overt male-female physical affection, illegitimate children, and bikinistyle fashions regularly appear in Western popular culture, but may be prohibited in
Eastern societies because such behaviours are regarded as immoral. Of course women
viewers have the agency to be able to recognise immoral behaviour based on their own
personal and normative cultural and religious practices. Werner (2006) who observed
mainly female Senegalese viewers watching Brazilian and Mexican telenovelas reported
that the women distanced themselves from what they considered to be unacceptable
moral standards. For instance, they made verbal comments like “It’s not good for us!”
(“Baaxul!”), “It’s sinful!” (“Aram le!”), or “It’s not in accordance with our traditions!”
(“Bokkul ci Sunu coosaanl!”) to distance themselves from representation of rich
Christians depicted in the telenovelas’ (p. 465). Kim (2005) contends that young Korean
women viewers are inspired by Western drama serials that portray the freedom of young
Western women to choose their own ways of life. At the same time, these same Korean
women reject the idea of freedom in sexual relationships which is embedded in these
drama serials. In fact, the portrayal of premarital sex, regardless of its origin in either
the Western or Eastern programs, is thought to be inappropriate to Eastern women
viewers. MacLachland and Chua (2004), for example, contend that the portrayal of
premarital sexual relationships in Japanese drama serials is judged by Singaporean
women viewers to be improper in terms of moral conduct. Furthermore, MacLachlan
and Chua’s (2004) study show that moral conduct on television is viewed differently by
married women and single women. Married women favour the stricter censorship of sex
on television, whilst single women are confident that they have the ability to self-censor
(MacLachlan & Chua 2004). The finding of MacLachlan & Chua (2004) might explain
Tabuan women viewers’ support for television censorship by the government.
TELEVISION AS RESOURCE FOR THE MORAL GUIDANCE OF HOUSEWIVES
Viewers interpret television messages differently (Ang 1994). Studies have
shown that the interpretation depending on the viewers’ contexts, such as ethnicity
(Katz and Liebes 1984); viewing practices, for instance, if these are family inclusive
(Morley 1986); socio-economic class (Mankeker 1993; 1999); and whether viewers are
from a rural community (Abu-Lughod 2005; 2002). My study, however, investigates the
way in which women make sense of what they watch, and takes into account if and how
this impacts on their role as housewives. My argument is founded on the belief that
Tabuan women perceived that fulfilling the role of good wife and mother involves
moral decision-making. Tabuan women are wives, mothers, traders, and consumers who
use television messages as resources for assuming the moral responsibility for the wellbeing of their families and for fulfilling the obligation of becoming a dutiful citizen in
response to government policy and associated media messages.
In addition, television is not a monolithic, one-dimensional communicative
device but a media space that contains many different voices. Television has a
polyphonic characteristic. 11 Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) uses the word polyphony in his
work entitled Problems of Dostoyevsky ‘s Poetics. For Bakhtin, polyphony refers to
many discussions occurring all at once, which is what occurs in daily life. Similarly,
there are many discourses on television. None of these discourses are more permanently
primary that another, and none are in a hierarchical relationship with or more or less
important than another. They each gain ‘purchase and prominence’ in relation to the
viewers (in my study Tabuan women) who allow them to gain that prominence and
According to Lewis (1991), television has a polysemic characteristic.
Television messages in this study refer to the reproduction of image that are
accompanied by sound via television sets. In the context of audience reception study,
my research supports the view that the audience plays an active role in interpreting
television message. The audience consistently filters messages that they watch from
television. According to Hall (1980) there are three categories of audiences; dominant,
negotiated and oppositional. These categories explain the degree in which audiences
interpret messages from television. The degree ranges from recognising the producer’s
intention to disagreeing the producer’s intention which are embedded in television
messages. The interpretation of television messages by audiences depends, for instance,
on the audiences socio-cultural background including gender, ethnicity, class, age and
region. Towards the end of the spectrum of active audiences there are ‘passive’
audiences. The passive audience category arises due to the perspective that the media
has power to influence the attitude and behaviour of audiences. One of the reasons for
the powerless audience is the assumption made by an earlier model of communication
that being Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) model of linear transmission of
communication. They argue that the message travels to the receiver in a linear flow
from sender to receiver.
Besides the study that focuses on women’s engagement with television, I also
investigate free-to-air Malaysian televisions in relation to their role as the gateway of
foreign popular culture to public television audiences in Malaysia. The method used for
the investigation is based on the secondary sources. My aim is to establish the claim that
FTA Malaysian televisions demonstrate a cosmopolitan outlook. In addition, I examine
the censorship process enforced by the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia (LPF) in the
production of local Malaysian television programs and in foreign television programs. I
investigate LPF intervention and control in two ways: Firstly, in facilitating the hybrid
process of producing local television programs which include or are influenced by
foreign elements; and secondly, the censoring of foreign television programs. The
focus of my investigation is established in the research questions discussed in the
In light of Malaysia’s rapid urbanisation and cultural globalisation, this study
broadly examines the way in which women use local and imported television messages
as resources to negotiate the challenges they face in their lives. The study consists of
two unequally weighted and overarching questions. Firstly, how do marginalised
worker community in Kampung Tabuan develop strategies that are informed by
imported and local television messages, to deal with the problematic aspects of social
change? Secondly, in what way does television content provide foreign and local moral
resources for housewives to engage in negotiating their role within family relationships?
The study focuses on women’s engagement with television and constitutes an
exploration of cosmopolitanism in Malaysian television. The investigation of the latter
carries less weight than the first central research question. More specifically, my study
has been developed to answer the following set of research questions:
1. How does Malaysian free-to-air television content reflect the Malaysian
government’s response to cultural globalisation?
2. How do Tabuan housewives perceive the role of Malaysian free-to-air
3. What are the television resources that used by Tabuan housewives to facilitate
them in interpreting community problems, economic imperatives, and tension in
4. What types of cosmopolitan images are desired by Tabuan housewives as a
result of their television viewing?
Borneo is a neglected as an area of study on the Malay population (Collins
2004). In particular, studies that investigate the socio-economic changes affecting
Malay women, including research on menopause (Mohamad Diah 2010); factory
workers (Ong 1987); and Malay women’s involvement in politics (Mohamad 2004;
Abdullah 1986) have primarily been focused on Peninsular Malaysia rather than Malay
women in Borneo. This study, however, investigates a specific aspect of social change
among Sarawak Malay women which is linked to urbanisation and globalisation.
Compared with their counterparts elsewhere in Malaysia, Sarawak Malay women live in
unique circumstances. For example, Sarawak has a less urbanised, less cosmopolitan
environment compared with Peninsular Malaysia.
Whilst the Malays are dominant in Peninsular Malaysia, in the state of Sarawak
they are only the third most numerous ethnic groups. According to the 2000 census, the
largest ethnic group in Sarawak is the Iban (603,735); followed by the Chinese
(537,230); and only then the Malay (462,270), Bidayuh (166,756) and Melanau (112,
984) (Department of Statistic Malaysia Sarawak 2009, p. 18-19). In addition to the
majority ethnic groups mentioned here, there are 24 other ethnic minority groups,
including the Kenyah and Kayan. Thus, both historically and culturally, Sarawak
Malays have coexisted with a number of diverse ethnic (especially indigenous) groups.
What is more, according to Harrisson (1970), a significant number of the Sarawak
Malays are in fact descendants of Dayaks 12 who have converted to Islam. It is for these
According to Tan (1994), the term Dayak refers to non-Muslim indigenous groups on Borneo Island.
The majority of Dayaks live in Sarawak, Sabah, and Kalimantan.
reasons it would be difficult to suggest that research on gender relations of the Malay
population in Peninsular Malaysia should necessarily be representative of Malays in
Sarawak. As such, and given the unique circumstances of the Sarawak Malays, this
study is aimed at filling a gap in knowledge that exists in studies on Sarawak Malay
Previous studies on Malay women have focused on women’s socio-economic
status and have emphasised women’s roles in various economic sectors (Omar &
Davidson 2004; Hew 2003; Ismail 2001; Ng 1999; Ariffin 1996; Ong 1987; Daud
1985). Rather than focusing on the role of the housewife, studies have more often
investigated housewives’ involvement in income generating activities. Such research
includes women’s participation in cottage industries (Hassan et. al 2008); microenterprise (Masud & Paim 1999); and informal rotating credit schemes (Ghazali 2003).
Furthermore, official statistics, such as the Eighth Malaysia Plan 2001-2006, reports
only on women who have full-time involvement in the labour force (Government of
Malaysia 2001). These examples demonstrate the importance women in the workforce
have in the development of the country. A great deal of attention has been given to
women’s roles in the economy; however there is a distinct lack of research on Malay
women’s roles as housewives and mothers. Therefore, the significance of my study lies
in its analysis of the challenges encountered by Sarawak Malay housewives in
performing their domestic role and contributing to the wellbeing of their families.
Malaysia’s significant number of audience reception studies show that much of
the research has been conducted on Malaysian youth (Rahim & Pawanteh 2009);
children (Badarudin 1988); ethnic groups (Postill 2006; Barlocco 2009); and a
combination of working women and housewives (Hassan 2009). Although women are
reported to be loyal fans of locally produced and foreign drama serials and telenovela in
Malaysia (Mstar Online 2010) there remains a lack of audience reception research on
women, and in particular among marginalised housewives (see Hassan 2009 for her
research on working women and housewives watching telenovelas). This research,
therefore, contributes to an understanding of how women in this socio-economic class
appropriate television messages in relation to their roles as mothers, wives, consumers
and petty traders.
The presence of foreign programs on Malaysian television is typically
investigated from either a cultural imperialist perspective (Karthigesu 1988; Maliki
2008) or the perspective that the state is exercising excessive control over television
content (Nain 1994). Rahim and Pawanteh’s (2009) study investigated the impact on
Malaysian youth of the global media, including free-to-air and satellite television. Their
findings support the argument that the global media’s promotion of Western values
surrounding sexuality and parent-child relationships threatens Malaysia’s national and
cultural identity. There are also changes relating to the flow of global television
products and a substantial increase in the adaptation of foreign television programs for
local audiences (Iwabuchi 2002; Kim 2008). These changes have presented an array of
new research agendas surrounding television, including diasporic cultures (Gillespie
1998); the imagining of modernity among women in developing countries (Kim 2005;
Ganguly-Scrase 2003); cosmopolitanism (Delwiche 2001; Moorti 2004; Robertson
2010); and consumerism (Mills 1997; Miller 1995a). In line with the emergence of
global television, my study investigates the possibility of a positive impact of foreign
popular culture on marginalised Malay women through the lens of cosmopolitanism.
This study emphasises the role of women viewers as discriminating agents who use
television to further morally justify their own positions vis a vis their husbands and the
Sarawak and Sabah are separated from Malaysia’s other 11 states by the South
China Sea. Sarawak is located on Borneo Island (see Map 1). Borneo is the third largest
island in the world; incorporating the nations of Brunei, Indonesia (Kalimantan) and the
Malaysian state of Sabah. Politically, Sarawak is divided into eleven administrative
divisions. Kuching is the largest of these administrative divisions and Kuching city is
the state capital. The Kuching Division is divided into three administrative districts:
Kuching, Bau and Lundu. In 2006, the total population of Kuching was estimated to be
659,100; whilst the total population of Sarawak was estimated to be 2,357,500
(Department of Statistics, Malaysia Sarawak 2006, p. 24). Sarawak is claimed to have
27 ethnic groups, making it the most multiethnic population in Malaysia (Chang 1999).
Map 1 Sarawak and Sabah are the two Malaysian states located on the island of Borneo
Kampung Tabuan Melayu is located in Pending, a thriving business and
industrial area of Kuching. The settlement provides a pool of unskilled labour to
Kuching city economic development. For instance, the kampung provides manual
workers to Kuching Port. The port, which has been operated since 1960, is as a modern
and international gateway for import-export activities connecting Sarawak with
Peninsular Malaysia and other countries. The biggest cement plant in Sarawak was built
in the 1980s, and in the 1990s the only Free Trade Industrial Zone in Kuching Division
was established about three kilometres away from the kampung. The population of
Kampung Tabuan comprises of a significant rural to urban migrants of coastal Sarawak
Malays. Some of the male population is stigmatised as criminals and drug addicts due to
their involvement in vice activities. Hence, I use the term marginalised worker
community to refer to Kampung Tabuan population (see Chapter 2 for detail
The Sarawak Malay ethnic group, which is the ethnic group at the centre of this
study, is distinct from Peninsular Malays in regard to their origins. Said (1985, p. 4)
contends that ‘while the presence of Sumatran and Peninsular Malays in Sarawak is
undeniable, there is no strong evidence to suggest that mass migration ever took place.’
The Sarawak Malays, therefore, despite the presence of peninsular Malays, have origins
from elsewhere. For example, during the pre-colonial period, when Sarawak was part of
the kingdom of Brunei, Malays from Brunei migrated to regions that were primarily
inhabited by indigenous peoples (Puteh 2005). Harrisson (1970) also emphasises the
common practice of religious conversion of the non-Muslim indigenous population that
now form part of the Sarawak Malay ethnic group. Harrisson (1970) claims that;
The Sarawak Malays do not to any significant degree represent any kind of
evolutionary group, or even relic, of a distinct ‘Malay’ people who ‘came in
from the west’ within any memory, or before. Rather, they reflect the
movements of a few authoritative, aristocratic or able (guru, trader, etc.)
Moslems – not necessarily always from Malaya or elsewhere in Indonesia.
These individuals or small groups converted or led local, indigenous (in Miss
Hahn’s sense ‘aboriginal’) populations, or parts thereof, to embrace Islam,
become Moslem, and thus in latter-day terminology masuk Melayu become
Malay (p. 648).
In fact, after Sarawak joined the Malaysian Federation, the Sarawak Malays were
differentiated from Peninsular Malays by Sarawak State law. The Peninsular Malay
claims Puteh (2005) ‘is not recognised as a Malay in Sarawak for the purpose of
landownership in native areas’ (p. 23). Other than the factors of geographic distance,
origin, and the distinctions in the application of state law, Abdol Hazis (2006) adds that
the history of Sarawak and the unique political context from which this state emerged
contributes to the differentiation of Sarawakian and Peninsular Malays. I argue that
these differences do have implications for how Sarawak Malay women perceive locally
produced television messages from Kuala Lumpur. They perceive, for instance, that
representations of Malayness on television do not wholly represent the Sarawakian
Malay. A degree of ‘foreignness’ can be felt, therefore, when Sarawak Malay women
viewers watch television programs that have been produced in Kuala Lumpur. Thus, in
the case of my research, Tabuan women have developed a cosmopolitan disposition that
draw variously on images, narratives, and moralities from Peninsular Malaysia
alongside Indonesia, Western, India and other foreign sources as well as from their local
This chapter introduced my approach to studying the roles of housewives in the
family and the nature of their engagement with television, and my field-site. My thesis
arises from the dynamic of the housewives’ role, as it has evolved against the backdrop
of economic modernisation and cultural globalisation. I use television as a means to
make this transparent, and to interpret women’s responses to changes in society.
Specifically, television messages are interpreted by women within the context of their
role as housewives alongside education and economic backgrounds as well as their
community status within the wider Kuching society. Thus, four ethnographic chapters
(5, 6, 7 and 8) have been arranged to illustrate how, due to their active engagement with
television, housewives’ roles are affected by television messages. Chapters 2, 3 and 4
investigate the concepts and theories that have been applied to television and the global
flow of media, as well as a conceptualisation of Malaysian television.
Chapter 2 describes the methodology and ethnographic approach used in the
research. Survey and interview are conducted to women respondents. Any information
about men or women’s husband and children is mostly derived from this interview.
However, participant observation is conducted both to women and men.
Chapter 3 explores the concepts and theories related to television, the global
flow of media, and audience reception. In this chapter I particularly focus on the notion
of cosmopolitanism. In order to theorise global-local interactions I investigate the
interrelated concepts of localisation, homogenisation, hybridity and cosmopolitanism.
These concepts are commonly used to explain the impact of global television programs
on audiences; especially in the cases of soap operas, drama serials and television reality
shows. Hybridity is an important concept used when investigating the production of
local television programs. I argue that those scholars who have applied hybridity theory
to the global flow of media neglect the powerful role of the state which filters global
culture in the production of local media. This neglect is particularly relevant in the
context of developing countries where both domestic and foreign television content is
closely monitored by the government.
In Chapter 4, specific attention is given to selected Malaysian free-to air
television stations. It includes a brief history of the establishment of these free-to air
Malaysian television stations and their responses to the global flow of media. The most
influential television stations in Malaysia are the publically owned stations, TV1 and
TV2; and the privately owned station TV3. Due to the commercial and political benefit
of television foreign popular culture, these programs are allowed to be screened on freeto-air television in relatively high percentage albeit protest from Islamic and nationalist
groups. These programs reflect a cosmopolitan outlook. Moreover, my view is that
locally produced dramas, drama serials and reality television programs incorporate
elements of cosmopolitanism because of the requirement by the government censorship
bodies to project multiculturalism, universal morality, Islam and material achievement
modelled from Western modernity.
The discussion in Chapter 5 is centred on my field-site, Kampung Tabuan
Melayu. My argument is that the established system of gender relations which is based
on the prestige of men has eroded in Kampung Tabuan. Men’s prestige both within the
family and community have been negatively affected by the increasing marginalisation
of Kampung Tabuan by the machinations of the market economy, the local state
authorities, and surrounding middle-class Malay communities in Kuching. Tabuan
men’s marginalised social status; in addition to their frequent involvement in petty
crime, drug addiction and glue sniffing, has further disrupted the traditional prestige
system founded on the complementary role of the husband-wife relationship. Although
not all Tabuan men involve in vice, their general good image in the eyes of women and
outsiders has decreased. In contrast to the image of vulnerability of Tabuan men,
Tabuan women have come to possess greater purchasing power for lifestyle goods
stemming from their involvement in petty-trading and their traditional role as manager
of domestic finances. Tabuan women also consider themselves to be more informed and
accept the role of moral guardian for the family. Television is considered to be a valid
source of knowledge for Tabuan women. Women are more exposed to television than
men due to considerable time spent at home whilst men work all day. Whilst my focus
therefore is primarily on changes in the role(s) of Tabuan housewives, one should not
lose sight of the fact that men’s declining social and economic status has had a
significant influence on the nature and performance of these roles.
Chapter 6 investigates housewives roles’ as petty traders. This involvement has
facilitated the acquisition of an imagined modern urban lifestyle, and a cosmopolitan
outlook through consumption. Although their involvement in petty trading yields small
earnings, it has allowed them to imagine their image of mobile business women. They
also imagine middle-class lifestyles through their sporadic consumption. Hence,
consumption is viewed as fostering relationship with the Other. Tabuan women imagine
Kuala Lumpur as a modern and foreign place. Their desire is to visit Kuala Lumpur as
tourists, consumers, or as people who have saudara (kin) in this city. The connection
with kin displays to others their affiliation with the most urbanised and modern place in
Malaysia. The particular image held of Kuala Lumpur, has been influenced by
Chapter 6 demonstrates that an analysis of Tabuan housewives’ roles as moneyearners and money-managers is intrinsic to coming to a more holistic understanding of
their consumption habits. Their involvement as petty traders and money-managers for
domestic finances have allowed them to invest some of their domestic money in
community rotating credit schemes (CRCS). These schemes have dual-functions; they
can be used to save money or to consume lifestyle commodities. In fact CRCSs have
allowed Tabuan housewives to consume more lifestyle commodities than they can
Chapter 7 examines Tabuan housewives consumption of lifestyle commodities
as a way to acquire a cosmopolitan appearance. Some of Tabuan women desire to have
a universal rather than parochial Islamic identity through travelling overseas for haj
(religious pilgrimage). Tabuan housewives attempt to achieve a cosmopolitan outlook
by developing their physical beauty and through fashionable clothes. To model beauty
and urban lifestyles, Tabuan housewives specifically look toward Bollywood actresses,
other Asian culture and representations of middle-class Malay women on television.
The latter is primarily portrayed in Malay dramas and drama serials. With regard to
fashionable clothing, they desire distinctive styles which are popularised by local Malay
and Bollywood actresses and celebrities. The styles, for example, include an integration
of traditional dress baju kurung alongside foreign fashion elements to create a dress
now known as baju kurung-kimono style.
Chapter 8 investigates strategies used by Tabuan mothers to protect their
children from being influenced by petty crime, glue sniffing and drug addiction; all of
which impact on a mother’s relationship with their children. Weeping is used as a
strategy to detach Tabuan mothers from these social problems. One of the more
powerful television messages used by Tabuan mothers is the attempt to reclaim the
traditional, reciprocal mother-child relationship through filial-piety. Tabuan womens’
notion of good motherhood draws on three elements; messages from government and
key public figures; Islam, and in particular its moral code; and a cosmopolitan notion of
motherhood. Tabuan mothers experience these elements through television in the form
of talk shows, drama serials and films. These television programs depict a combination
of Western, Islamic and regional values in raising children.
Chapter 9 discusses the findings of the study. The first finding is that the
messages of locally produced hybrid and imported television programs are willingly
adopted as resources to facilitate a moral understanding of women’s roles as wives,
traders, and mothers. The second finding suggests that Tabuan housewives acquire a
cosmopolitan outlook from the ostentatious middle class images on television,
depending on individual interpretations and circumstances. The contribution of this
study is the contention that Malaysian free-to-air television stations provide both
parochial resources as well as provide resources that promote cultural diversity. I also
suggest that televised melodramas foster the embracing of culture diversity (openness)
by Tabuan viewers.
METHODOLOGY: AUDIENCE ETHNOGRAPHY
The aim of this Chapter is to describe the process of data collection.
Ethnography is employed for the study. According to Gupta and Ferguson (1997) the
ethnographic method is one of the main distinctions that set anthropology apart from
other social science disciplines. Ethnography is a research methodology that ‘is
characterized by an epistemological commitment to explicit and holistic interpretation
from a bottom-up perspective, an empirical interest in first-hand exploration and the
application of multiple, mainly qualitative but also quantitative, methodologies’
(Schroder et al. 2003, p. 34). There is an increasing use of the ethnographic method in
television audience studies (see Postill 2006; Abu Lughod 2005; Gillespie 1998;
Mankeker 1998). The aim of this method of data collection in audience research is to
‘produce a rich descriptive and interpretive account of lives and values of those
subjected to the investigation’ (Morley & Silverstone 1991, p. 149-150).
Traditionally, television audience studies have used a positivistic paradigm for
their theoretical approach, for both data collection and the analysis of the findings.
According to Wang (1997), audience research of various mass media in Malaysia in the
1990s was based on the strong influence of the media on audiences (see Badarudin
1988; Anis & Haneem 1992; Hashim & Md. Yusuf 1991). These studies mainly
employed objective strategies of data collection. The studies used close-ended and
open-ended interviews for data collection, and statistical analysis to interpret the data.
Wang (1997) criticises these studies as being too rigid, in particular in their theoretical
perspectives, due to the emphasis on a positivistic paradigm. She questions whether
there are other perspectives that could be of value in audience research. Accepting
Wang’s criticism of previous studies, I adopt an ethnographic method that mainly
employs participant observation to study a Malaysian audience. Alongside the
ethnographical method, anthropological literature on television and women support the
analysis of the data. To date, few studies of Malaysian audiences have been conducted
using the anthropological approach (see Postill 2006; Barlocco 2009).
The obligation to immerse myself in the community as an ethnographer allowed
me to make observations on the extent to which television is embedded in Sarawak
women’s everyday lives. Ethnography allowed a more holistic view of the impact of
television on viewers’ daily lives. Moreover, the ethnographic method of data collection
was useful in investigating viewers’ associations with television, because both the
media and its viewers are moving towards an increasingly deeper social and cultural
contextualization (Ginsburg 1998; Silverstone & Hirsch 1994; Abu-Lughod 1989).
Viewers have become intimately connected with the soap opera and drama serial
genres, particularly with their advent in the 1980s.
It is important to employ ethnography for data collection in an appropriate way.
Spitulnik (1993), commenting on the superficial use of ethnography, says that ‘most of
this work is based on interviewing audiences in their homes, and critics have argued that
the label ‘ethnography’ is misleading because detailed participant-observation is
minimal, and actual immersion in the daily practices and social worlds of the people
studied is almost nonexistent’ (p. 298).
ENTERING THE FIELD
The fieldwork was carried out from June 2006 to February 2007 in Kampung
Tabuan Melayu, a suburban village of Pending in Kuching. Prior to entering the field, I
obtained human ethics clearance from the Graduate Research School of Human Ethics
Committee. Initially, when I started my fieldwork, I chose to settle not at Kampung
Tabuan Melayu but at Kampung Surabaya Hilir. These are two villages that have
different historical backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. I was attracted to
Kampung Surabaya Hilir because it is one of the earliest Malay villages, established
along the Sarawak River. The river has been developed into the centre of tourism in
Kuching, the state capital.
In addition, May, a subordinate colleague turned friend, was originally from
Kampung Surabaya Hilir. My plan was for her to act as an intermediary between the
people of the village and the village headman. My strategy was to affiliate with May in
order to be accepted by the village. At first, May showed enthusiasm. She shared
detailed information about her family. May was adopted by Melanau 13 parents. Since
her parents did not have any biological children, both May and her sister were adopted
from two different Chinese families, and her brother was adopted from a Bidayuh 14
family. She was happy to have been raised in a family from a different ethnic
background to her birth parents.
I observed that May was cautious when introducing me to her neighbours and
was hesitant in talking about her neighbours’ backgrounds. For example, when I wanted
to know more about her neighbour’s family details, television viewing habits, and the
types of work they did, she was reluctant to reveal anything. I was working under the
impression that these issues would not be sensitive. However, it was possible that May
did not want to upset her neighbours with my ceaseless questioning. She did not even
According to Chang (1999), the Melanau, or ‘people of the river’, originally occupied Sarikei and Miri
Divisions. Chang further says, ‘It was believed that their ancestors came from Bali Island, Indonesia more
than 500 years ago. Another group of Melanau ancestors were the Malays from Brunei when Mukah and
the surrounding areas were under Brunei rule’ (p. 20). Mukah is the Melanau heartland in the Sarikei
division of Sarawak.
According to Foh (1999), the Bidayuh ‘came from Sungkong in Kalimantan about twenty generations
before Krakatau eruption on 27.8.1883. This indicated that the Bidayuh community had settled down in
Sarawak sometime in 1380s already. Initially, they settled around Kuching area. However, in later years,
when they were being attacked by other stronger groups, they moved to the hilly areas in Kuching and
Samarahan Divisions till today’ (p.18-19).
allow me to meet with the village headman to ask permission to do research in the
village. Due to this difficulty with collecting data, I left Kampung Surabaya Hilir. I
learnt that an organisational friendship and a superior-subordinate relationship were of
little help in making inroads into a community. The organisation and the community are
two different places where people have different roles and identities. I began to
understand that the key to gaining entry into a research site was to develop relationships
of personal trust and to convince people of the sincerity of my work.
Although I only stayed in Kampung Surabaya Hilir for three weeks, the
experience of staying in the village was valuable in understanding gender, class, and the
women’s status within Kuching Malay society. In particular, I was able to compare the
everyday issues that concerned the Sarawak Malay elite in Kampung Surabaya Hilir and
the marginalised worker community in Kampung Tabuan Melayu. For instance, social
problems were not obvious issues in Kampung Surabaya Hilir. Another observation
concerns women’s status. Observing May’s response towards my research interest,
another possible explanation for May’s reluctance was her position in the community.
In my opinion, being an unmarried woman in her early 40s, May saw herself possessing
limited credibility as a member of the community. Furthermore, May had less economic
status than many of her neighbours. Assuming that May could assist me in making
contacts with the villagers perhaps revealed my ignorance of the importance of a
woman’s social and economic status in the Sarawak Malay community. A woman who
is single and lacking economic means and resources feels insecure in the community. I
found that married women have more secure positions than single women do in the
Tabuan community due to their roles as mothers and housewives. Being mothers, they
are respected; and being wives, they receive support from husbands and in-laws in their
efforts to improve their household finances. Both social and economic power increases
married women’s status in their community.
I learned about Kampung Tabuan Melayu from Sharifah Ramlah, who stayed in
my house in Kuching while I furthered my studies at the University of Western
Australia. She worked as a dental nurse at the Tabuan Primary School, which is located
in Kampung Tabuan. Sharifah had encouraged me to do my research in Kampung
Tabuan when I arrived to do my fieldwork. She was very confident that the village had
potential as a research site. I had mixed feelings about going to this village. The village
is only ten minutes’ drive from my house. I felt a little dismayed because the house that
my husband and I owned was very close to Kampung Tabuan, but I hadn’t taken any
notice of the kampung. Although I had been staying in Kuching for about eight years, I
considered myself an outsider because of my ignorance of local lives. Moreover, as a
first timer ethnographer, I was anxious when Sharifah remarked that the village was a
‘black area.’ She meant that some villagers are violent, and some are criminals and
She took me to the dental clinic where she worked in the primary school of
Kampung Tabuan. I thought that she was going with me to introduce me to the village
headman because she knew the village quite well. I was surprised when she said she
was not going to take me after I had been waiting for almost one hour in the clinic. I
immediately thought that she was not keeping her promise because I was haunted by the
failure with May. Instead of going with me, she assigned her assistant, Julaihi, who was
a Kampung Tabuan resident, to make the introduction. I was upset and asked her why
she did not go. She refused to reply. For some reason, she did not want to mediate
between the village headman and me. I saw that she was a different person in her clinic
to the friend I knew. I felt that she was acting bossy. I wondered why she had asked
someone else when she did not have much work to do in the clinic. Julaihi introduced
himself and his mission, as directed by Sharifah, to the village headman, Wan Alwi, in a
formal and respectful manner. Julaihi stated that he was assigned by his superior
(Sharifah) to take me to the village. I then explained my purpose and my research
interest to him. To my excitement, Wan Alwi accepted me warmly. When I reflected on
this event, I concluded that Sharifah was quite ingenious in assigning Julaihi to integrate
me into Kampung Tabuan. I learn that although a village lacks the formality of public
and business organisations, I need to understand and follow the bureaucratic procedures
and norms of the community.
I refer to Kampung Tabuan as a marginalised worker community because the
settlement is mostly populated by unskilled workers that serve as manual labourers in
Kuching industrial areas. The village is marginalised by certain local authorities due to
the reputation of the villagers (see Chapter 5). Tabuan men are said to be violent and
commonly labelled as criminals, and the people are known as squatters by the Kuching
Malay population. Although Kampung Tabuan residents are marginalised, Tabuan
men’s occupations play a vital part in the operation and in functioning of the city. The
people of Tabuan experience an insecure, and in some cases impoverished, existence.
The stigmatisation does not apply to women. Married women of Kampung Tabuan are
mostly housewives. Many of them married at a young age (16, 17, or 18 years old) and
therefore lack the academic or vocational qualifications necessary to enter the formal
work force. However, Tabuan women are actively involved in petty trading activity to
supplement their husbands’ earnings and increase their consumption of lifestyles
While I could have stayed in my own house with Sharifah and her family, I
chose to find accommodation in Kampung Tabuan. The wife of the headman suggested
that I stay with Rosli Sibli’s family. Rosli Sibli, a 54 year old, is the sub-village
headman (ketua kaum) of Kampung Tabuan Lot, which is one of four sub-villages of
Kampung Tabuan Melayu. I was accepted as an adopted daughter of Rosli and his wife
Doris, which proved to be a great benefit to me. Another family member who stayed
with them was Betty, a twelve-year-old granddaughter. I received nods and smiles from
the villagers and local authorities when they asked whom I was staying with in
Kampung Tabuan. The men and women in Kampung Tabuan know him and respect his
leadership. Although Rosli is the headman of the one of the four sub-villages, his
popularity as a respected community leader is recognised by all in Kampung Tabuan,
much more so than the bureaucratically elected current Kampung Tabuan headman.
FIELDWORK ISSUES: WATCHING TELEVISION ACTIVITY AND OFFERING
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES MOBILITY
Some villagers mistakenly thought that I was an ‘officer’ sent to help them to
acquire financial assistance from the government. One woman thought that I worked for
a television station and that I would arrange for her to appear in a reality television show
to highlight her poverty and provide her with financial benefits. This suggests that
outsiders are welcomed because they are assumed to have the ability to help them
improve their economic status.
The demographic profiles of research participants
1. Informant #1
3. Informant #2
Housewife and petty
Housewife and occasional
Housewife and seamstress
Housewife and part-time
school bus driver
7. Informant # 3
9. Bella Daly
12. Informant #
Housewife and multilevel marketing
Housewife and cake
Housewife and irregular
Housewife and part-time
14. Teacher Nor
15. Informant #
Housewife and a grocery
assistant teacher, and
burger seller at night
Housewife and a credit
Housewife and petty
Housewife and seamstress
21. Informant #
24. Maya Karin
25. Sofea Jane
27. Hajijah Bt.
Housewife and petty
Housewife and petty
and snack maker
Housewife and seamstress
Housewife and seamstress
Clerk in small company
Housewife and middle
person bakery seller
I conducted a survey of 30 Tabuan women who were mainly housewives (see Table 1).
Some of them were involved in petty trading activity. Two of these housewives were
working full time. There are also other important women key informants (i.e. Anita,
Aleza, Doris, Yatimah, Meilan and Fasha) who I interviewed but not surveyed. These
are the women who I spent considerable time with.
My focus is on women’s roles. I did not invite men to participate in the
interview sessions. However, it is important to note that women’s roles are conditioned
by men’s roles. Hence, a limitation of this study is the minimum access it has to men
respondents concerning men’s roles and their everyday lives, and their engagement with
television. However, information about men was gathered, and perceptions formed,
from their wives or daughters. Similarly, I did not interview children, and therefore,
information about them is also from the perspective of their mothers.
For instance, in the case of a father’s role in nurturing his children, I asked Anita
about her father’s role in helping her to deal with her marriage problem (see Chapter 1).
Anita told me that her father, Awang Osman, did not help her (see also Chapter 8).
Anita recalled that, at one time, her father said, ‘Jangan kau sik merasa’ (it is your life
experience) when she expressed her concerned about Hamzah’s involvement in drugs.
Anita was confused by her father’s philosophical yet sarcastic reaction. She even asked
me what he meant. It took me quite a while to understand the meaning and why Awang
Osman reacted that way. I believe that he was advising Anita to face the problem in a
brave manner but without any strategic tips on how to overcome the problem. He
reacted in such a way to show that life is hard and do not expect smooth sailing. This is
perhaps due to the continuous hardship of Tabuan men’s lives and the village’s violent
A few of the women’s husbands were at home during the in-depth interview
session. Anjali’s husband, for instance, sat together with us and listened to our
conversation without giving much input. He had just come back from long hours of
work. At night, he worked as a security guard in a hotel, and during the day, he had a
part-time job as a goods handler at Kuching Port. In short, some Tabuan men spend
long hours working and therefore the domestic responsibilities are passed to their wives.
Other men were not interested in sitting together or participating voluntarily in
conversation. I conducted formal interviews with three men regarding the history of
Kampung Tabuan. Meanwhile Rosli Sibli, the sub-village headman, and Wan Alwi,
Kampung Tabuan headman, were very informative regarding general information about
One aspect of my fieldwork was television watching activity. I carried out this
fieldwork either alone, with adopted family members, or with Tabuan women. I
watched television in order to make sense of Tabuan housewives views about certain
programs, either in spontaneous daily conversation or during interview sessions. It was
almost impossible for me to watch every television program, especially when a certain
program was being broadcast at the same time as another program on a different station;
also, I needed time to organise and reflect on my experience in the field. I monitored the
popular programs watched by Tabuan housewives. By doing this, I was able to note the
format, the plot (for drama series), and the program’s approach to dealing with issues.
Because Rosli has only one television, I have to take turns watching different television
stations with Betty and Doris, who were avid television viewers. My previous
experience of watching Malaysian television became useful as a reference or
comparison for the current television programs.
Tabuan women concentrated fully on their favourite programs rather than
discussing or commenting on the programs to me. There are three reasons for this
behaviour, which I learned from my interactions with the women. Firstly, they value the
visuals that they watch. When I complemented their big screen televisions, some said,
‘to get a clear picture.’ They explained that the visual details helped them to imagine the
visuals depicted on television. Secondly, in order to understand television messages,
Tabuan women put extra effort into understanding the accents used on the television
stations as well as the usage of the national language because they use the Sarawak
Malay dialect for everyday communication. When I asked why they chose to watch
TV3 (the most watched private Malaysian free-to-air television station) instead of TV1
(a government television channel), one of the common reasons was that the Malay
pronunciation used on TV1 is more difficult to understand than that used on TV3. This
is because TV1 uses the Riau-Johor accent whilst TV3 uses the similar pronunciation of
certain words to the Sarawak Malay dialect as well as Indonesian-Malay pronunciation.
Another reason is that many women were attracted to the depiction of modern and
cosmopolitan lifestyles, which are different from those found in Kuching. Finally, they
had to pay particular attention when watching non-Malay drama serials. Tabuan women
tried to read the Malay subtitles or to understand the story through the visuals because
non-Malay drama serials are rarely dubbed in the Malay language. As a summary, the
way in which Tabuan women watch television indicates that watching television is a
serious activity rather than simply for relaxation or entertainment. Hence, they hardly
talk or do other things while watching television.
The activity of watching television with Tabuan housewives was timeconsuming and it seemed very little could be gained about their opinions and the impact
of the programs on their lives. For instance, when watching drama serials, they
expressed only their hatred, anger, or sadness towards the characters. Moreover,
watching television with them was not a great help in witnessing the moment when
television messages become resources for Tabuan women to solve their daily problems.
I also found that there were hardly any meaningful conversations with them regarding
how they use television messages immediately after watching a certain program. They
did not give their opinions about what they had watched. Instead, they made reference
to television messages in spontaneous daily conversation on other subjects, in places
other than in front of the television. In this, I shared a similar experience with previous
researchers who were unable to gain significant evidence on the simultaneous impact of
television messages on viewers (Ginsberg 1998; Machado-Borges 2006). Couldry
(2003, p. 48) raises the methodological issue of the home as the ‘stereotypical site of
media consumption’ in response to the importance of the ethnographer’s presence in a
definite location. While watching television is performed at home, little can be gathered
in the home about the impact of television messages. In response to the complexity of
how to capture audience reception, Couldry (2003) suggests that the impact of media on
audiences can be gathered outside the home. Therefore, during the later fieldwork, I
concentrated more on activities outside the house.
While in the village, I drove a car, which was beneficial because it allowed me
to participate more fully in the daily routines of Tabuan housewives. Some housewives
are mobile and they go to many places. By offering a ‘taxi’ service, I was able to trace
and participate in the daily lives of the women when they travelled outside the village. I
drove, while they gave directions. Thus, I spent many hours driving to shopping centres,
to the clinic, to school, to pay bills, to visit the market, to the airport, to visit relatives,
and even to a shaman’s house. Some interesting conversations occurred in the car. This
spontaneous conversation included how they use television characters or messages to
reflect upon their daily lives. I also participated in the village’s many social activities,
including a karaoke competition and weddings, as well as other religious and
The ethnographer’s background is an issue in the field because it affects the
process of data collection. Anthropologists have discussed the issue of bringing along
‘children’ to the field (see the collection of articles in Cassell 1987). There are
advantages and disadvantages of taking them. I chose to leave my children with my
brother’s family in my hometown, Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia. I informed the
Tabuan women that I was to make brief fortnightly visits to meet my five-, seven-, and
ten-year-old children, The journey from Kuching to Selangor takes an hour and fortyfive minutes by plane. Another hour is spent travelling from the airport to my
hometown. It is an arduous journey. I should have spent my precious time in the village
doing fieldwork, but I also had to spend time in both airport terminals, on board planes,
and in cars and buses. Sometimes I missed important events in Kampung Tabuan. This
was the disadvantage of being absent from the field.
However, in my opinion, I gained more than what I lost through these trips.
Some of the women took the opportunity to ask me to buy things in Kuala Lumpur,
which was sometimes quite annoying. Instead of spending time with my children, I felt
obliged to battle the traffic jams to visit shopping centres to fulfil their ‘orders.’I did not
decline their requests as I felt that this was one of the important aspects of my research,
which could also be considered ‘multi sited’ fieldwork (Marcus 1995). In this case, I
was tracing their consumption of lifestyle commodities habits, which transcends their
locality. These visits also helped to convey my status and identity as middle class, a
student, a married woman (with a husband studying for his Ph.D. in the same
university), and a mother who looked forward to visiting her children in West Malaysia
to the Tabuan women. This identity connected me to Tabuan housewives in two ways.
Firstly, I was a woman and mother just like them. Secondly, I was connected to the
representation of middle class women on television. In fact, many Tabuan women
thought my life resembled those mobile and independent middle class women they
admire on television. A Tabuan woman once said to me, ‘Your life is just like the
[Malay] drama Cinderella. The airport must be your second home!’
During the period of my fieldwork, I also conducted formal interviews to learn
about the history and the people of the village from the local authority perspective. An
information sheet and a consent form to sign were given to each participant prior to the
interview sessions. I interviewed a former councillor of the city council who was
originally from Kampung Tabuan, the deputy mayor of South Kuching, and the
chairwoman of the Sarawak Women’s Council, which was concerned with the
development of women in Kuching.
These informants were given pseudonyms in order to protect their privacy.
Those appearing in the Table 1 who were not otherwise referred to in the body of work
were given numbers (for instance Informant #1), rather than a pseudonym. The
pseudonyms chosen for informants were mostly names of actors or characters from
foreign and locally produced popular culture as well as common local names. However,
there was a situations where a full name was retained; the name of Chairwoman of
Sarawak Women’s Council. In this case, there is no reputation issue to be protected.
The chairwoman offered a positive statement about Tabuan women which supported the
good image of these women.
These informants were given pseudonyms in order to protect their privacy.
However, there were two situations where full names were retained; the list of
informants in Table 1 and the name of Chairwoman of Sarawak Women’s Council. In
both cases, there is no reputation issue to be protected. The list of informants comprised
their names, age, their birth place, designation and ethnic identification. When these
informants were cited in the text, only then they were given pseudonyms. In the later
case, the chairwoman offered a positive statement about Tabuan women which
supported the good image of these women. The pseudonyms chosen for informants are
mostly names of actors or characters from foreign and locally produced popular culture
as well as common local names.
I conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 Tabuan women. The interviews
were designed with three sections corresponding to my three aims. The first and the
second consisted of a series of structured questions, while the third section was
comprised of open-ended questions. In the first section, my aim was to understand the
socio-economic backgrounds of the women and their families. The questions asked
concerned age, place of origin, number of children, occupation and monthly salary
(including those of the spouse), and ethnic identification. In the second section, my aim
was to develop profiles of Tabuan women viewers. The questions asked included those
about their favourite TV stations, their perceptions of the broader social roles of
television, and the approximate time they spend each day watching television. In the
third section, my aim was to investigate the way Tabuan women situate television
within the context of their daily lives. Here the questions were open ended. Initially, the
first question I asked was ‘Can you tell me the television programs that you watched
yesterday?’ Many respondents struggled to name the programs and, even worse, they
forgot what they watched. The abruptness of the question surprised them and prevented
them from giving their answers. I also found that the question was ‘too dry’ to
encourage them to talk about their viewing experience. I had failed to establish a
friendly environment. Therefore, I changed the strategy by initiating everyday life
conversations, such as complementing their CD collection, asking more about their
children, or talking about break-ins that had recently occurred in the area. Then, I
slowly changed the topic and made a comment about a popular drama on television, and
waited for their response.
During the course of these interviews, I did not focus on a specific genre of
television programs. Instead, I followed the flow of their conversations. For instance, if
a woman was inclined to watch religious programs, we talked more about the elements
of these that related to her daily life. This approach was adopted in light of my previous
failure to elicit any meaningful conversation in relation to my research aim. Previously,
when I wanted to talk about a specific genre, not all the women were able to realise that
ideas from television had become resources to solve their daily life problems. Much of
the time, I depended on their memories to talk about what were the most resourceful
programs. Even with this strategy, not all women were able to talk about what they
watched on television. Because of the diversity of the television programs they watched,
I discussed the many types rather than focusing on specific television genres, such as
drama serials. However, the majority of participants tended to talk about drama serials.
Most of the interviews were conducted in Tabuan women’s houses. Often, the
interviews were disrupted by their children. Some women requested that I conduct the
interviews in my adopted parents’ (Rosli’s and Doris’s) house due to the crowdedness
of their own. The women whom I interviewed were aged between 20 and 55 years, and
most were housewives. I used snowball sampling, whereby I asked for the women that I
interviewed to recommend another informant. I set up one criterion for the women that I
wanted to interview: They must be keen on watching television. The interview lasted
from one and a half hours to two and a half hours. Some of the women felt uneasy and
were worried about not knowing how to answer my questions. Against the backdrop of
informal life in domestic spaces and their relative lack of education, their unease was
related to my formal demeanour with interview papers, pen, a tape recorder, and a
camera. Thus, my first task was to make them comfortable in my presence. The fact that
I am a mother and a wife went some way to building a common understanding of
housewives’ roles. Moreover, the first section, which asks about their backgrounds, was
a great help in establishing friendly conversations. It was important to build trust in the
interview sessions since the conversation and the questions dwell on family members’
everyday personal experiences and problems.
In addition to primary data gathering through participant observation and indepth interviews, I also conducted content analyses of selected television programs and
schedule to illustrate the Malaysian free-to-air television content.
Thorne (2000) describes data analysis as process of unpacking the researcher’s
holistic experience and understanding from the cultural perspective of the subject being
Ethnographic analysis uses an iterative process in which cultural ideas that arise
during active involvement “in the field” are transformed, translated, or
represented in a written document. It involves sifting and sorting through pieces
of data to detect and interpret thematic categorisation, search for inconsistencies
and contradictions, and generate conclusions about what is happening and why.
I use quotations from formal interviews with women, men, local authorities, and
newspaper reports, as well as from my field-notes to support facts and arguments in my
study. The women that I have quoted in this thesis are mostly my respondents and
information on their backgrounds is shown in Table 1. I offer a detailed background of
only some women respondents in order to make sense of their stories. Last, but not
least, selected photos that were taken during fieldwork are included in the study and a
local map was drawn to indicate the village’s location. The anthropological perspective
on women is employed to support the theoretical framework of gender relations and
Many Sarawak Malay women have unique experiences of using television
resources to facilitate or reflect on aspects of their everyday lives. The distinctive
engagement with television, therefore, is best encapsulated through audience
ethnography methodology. In addition, the audience ethnography method has allowed
me to investigate the marginality of Kampung Tabuan and its population, and how their
marginality influences the way they interpret television messages. Although many of
Tabuan women were avid viewers, elucidating their experience was a challenging task.
One of the challenges is due to the nature of television viewing where viewers often use
television messages subconsciously. Nevertheless, the method has contributed to a
deeper level of understanding of women’s roles in the marginalised worker community
of Kampung Tabuan in the era of globalisation and consumer culture.
GLOBALISATION: TELEVISION AND COSMOPOLITANISM
This chapter has two aims. The first is to examine the way scholars have
theorised viewers’ engagement with foreign television programs – programs which have
flourished as a result of globalisation. These are not only imported from the West, but
also from emerging television producers in Asia and Latin America. Of particular
importance in this study is the issue of morality that is contained in foreign news and
melodramas. Cosmopolitanism is also investigated as a quality attributed to people. We
may then talk about ‘cosmopolitan viewers.’ The second aim of this chapter is to
investigate the literature on the phenomenon of hybridisation occurring when foreign
television programs are reworked and consumed by local audiences; thereby promoting
cosmopolitanism. Here, I argue that hybridization does not occur in a vacuum. Rather,
the Malaysian state plays a dynamic role in accommodating global popular culture in
In developed countries, television remains a fundamental part of people’s daily
experience, despite the increasing popularity of the Internet as an electronic medium of
global education and entertainment. Gray (2008) states that many people’s daily
routines are structured by television viewing in that they ‘wake up, turn on the
television, get ready, leave for work/school, go home, turn on the television, sleep’ (p.
2). For example, in Japan 95% of the population watch television for on average 3 hours
and 28 minutes every day (Kamimura, Ikoma & Nakano, cited in Holden 2003, p. 149).
Even more so than the Internet, television is easily accessible to ordinary people
(Castells 1996; Turkle 1995).
The role of television in developing countries has evolved over the years. In the
1960s, the role of television was to foster nationalism. In the 1980s, television was used
to appropriate modernity. In the 1990s, television increasingly allowed viewers to
experience foreign cultures without the need to travel. For example Hebdige (1990)
[w]e are living in a world where ‘mundane cosmopolitanism’ is part of
‘ordinary’ experience. All cultures, however remote temporally and
geographically, are becoming accessible today as signs and/or commodities. If
we don’t choose to go and visit other cultures they come and visit us as images
and information on TV...Nobody has to be educated, well-off or adventurous to
be a world traveller at this level (p. 20).
The presence of foreign programs on local television can be conceptualised in terms of
two possible outcomes: the homogenisation or the heterogenisation of local culture.
GLOBALISATION AND THE MEDIA: EXAMINING PERSPECTIVES IN THE
HOMOGENISATION AND HETEROGENISATION OF LOCAL CULTURE
The term time-space compression was introduced by David Harvey in 1990.
Harvey claims that people the world over, regardless of distance and time, are now
connected by communication technologies. The globalisation process has rested on the
expansion of communication technologies which by their very nature bring into view
and juxtapose different cultural practices, beliefs and symbolic forms. Giddens (1990)
defines globalization as ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link
distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring
many miles away and vice versa’ (p. 64). This definition alludes to more powerful
forces in the form of economic capitalism and the political domination of elites. This
definition is also based on the assumption that global culture from the West is a
dominant entity shaping local cultural practices, beliefs and symbolic forms.
Discussions centred on the impact of globalisation have crystallised around the
theory of cultural imperialism (Schiller 1976; Dorfman & Mattelart 1975, Hamelink
1983; Sklair 1991). During the 1980s and 1990s, the debate on globalisation focused
exclusively on the West’s influence over local cultures, and the global cultural
homogeneity emerging from this process. Schiller (1976) argues that the West, and
here North America in particular, dominates the ownership of the media and the
distribution of popular culture around the world. Mohammadi (1997) refers to Schiller’s
theory of cultural imperialism as ‘the process whereby all global cultures are inexorably
drawn into the sphere of influence of one single capitalist culture’ (p.179).
Time Warner, for instance, was formed in 1989 and is now one of the largest
global communication companies in the world. Since its inception it has marketed North
American lifestyles in everything from personal grooming to fast food (Thompson
1995, p. 160). Hall (1991) has argued that ‘[t]he new kind of globalization is not
English; it is American’ (p. 178). The influence of American culture is also popularly
known as ‘Americanisation.’ Ritzer (1993) coined the term ‘McDonaldization’ to
describe the influence of American fast food culture on the rest of the world. Fung
(2008) suggests that the explicit or implicit propaganda that is advanced by global
media corporations serves the interests ‘of different parties; commercially, advertisers,
and politically, the government’ (Fung 2008, p. 86).
North America’s domination of the global media was perceived as a threat to the
national culture and identity of receiving countries. It is a fear often echoed in the
polemics of governments, nationalists and religious groups (Rantanen 2005). The
tension of the presence of American popular culture in the local context highlights the
influence of Western popular culture on local viewers. Perhaps surprisingly, studies on
audience reception rarely employ or support the theory of cultural imperialism. I discuss
below three such audience reception studies (Wilk 2002; Davis 2004; Miller 1995a)
which attempt to make sense of the impact of American popular culture on local
viewers in a number of different countries.
In Belize, in the early 1990s, the phenomenon of Americanisation was
pervasive. Wilk (2002) observed that ‘[t]here is some objectively measurable increase in
the ‘Americanisation’ of Belizean institutions, customs and language, but it is paralleled
by a decline in British influence’ (p. 181). Soap operas, together with many other
Hollywood television genres including situation comedy, action and detective serials,
were then considered by the public in Belize to be immoral. In Wilk’s (2002) study, the
public, supported by the church, highlighted the negative moral impact on society; in
particular children and youth. In addition, feminists in Belize claimed that, as a result of
the impact of Hollywood television programs, the social standing of women was being
eroded. Mothers were also seen as being helpless in curbing the negative influence of
American television programs on their children.
In the Torres Strait Islands, Davis (2004) discovered that the adornments
adopted by Saibaian men originated from militaristic Hollywood movies, including
Predator and Shaka Zulu. The Torres Strait Islander dance costume designers had
integrated elements of the costumes into films to project ‘a powerful, sensual
masculinity’ (Davis 2004, p. 37). Davis points out that ‘North America, from which
much of the available television content, popular music and culture is produced, is taken
to symbolise an ostentatious self-confidence’ (Davis 2004, p. 37). According to Davis,
the Western influence permeating these films invoked a phrase employed by other
islanders in the Torres Strait: ‘Saibai waza America’ (Davis 2004, p. 37). This implies
that they recognise that Saibaians have been influenced by American images.
Miller (1995a) argues that Trinidadian women who watch the popular
Hollywood soap opera The Young and Restless gain a sense of pleasure through
gossiping (bacchanal). The lifestyles of the characters in The Young and Restless are
constructed around fashion, love, marriage and sexual relationships - emotions and
institutions which, despite their poverty, Trinidadian women in squatter communities
readily identified in their own lives. Bacchanal does not have an accurate English
translation, but its meaning in fact comes closer to ‘scandal’ than gossip. Miller’s
(1995) study illustrates how the local practice of bacchanal has been revived by
American soap operas.
Whilst the above reception studies illustrate the impact of Western images, Wilk
(2002) and Miller (1995a) are as has been indicated dismissive of the theory of cultural
imperialism. This stance reflects that of even the earliest of audience reception studies
which similarly lent no support to the theory of cultural imperialism (Katz & Liebes
1984). Instead, Katz and Liebes (1984) have argued that the American soap opera
Dallas, which was watched by viewers around the world including in Israel, Algeria,
and Italy, was ultimately interpreted through local cultural perspectives. They have
argued that viewers interpreted meaning through their own cultural filters. Wilk (2002)
summarises scholarly opinion which supports Katz & Liebes and the validity of the
local interpretation theory.
Goods are also recontextualized and reinterpreted at their locus of consumption
(Friedman 1990; Lofgren 1990; McCracken 1988; Arnould and Wilk 1984;
Wilk 1990; Belk 1988). I think we need to apply these same critical insights to
the study of television in the Third World. Just as a McDonald’s hamburger
means something very different in Moscow from what it means in Dubuque, so
the drama of Dallas has been found to convey very different meanings to
Israelis, Algerians, and Italians (Katz and Liebes 1984, 1986; Sijl et al. 1988).
Australian aborigines interpret television dramas in ways that would be
unintelligible to those who produced the drama in the first place (Michaels
1988) (Wilk 2002, p. 289).
Other scholars view globalisation as bringing about two simultaneous effects the homogenisation and heterogenisation of local cultures (Hall 1991; Hannerz 1991;
Appadurai 1990). Hall (1991) admits the influence of American popular culture in the
local, but believes that it does not create uniformity. He argues that the way American
popular culture is absorbed into local culture is through ‘recogniz[ing] and absorb[ing]
those differences within the larger, overarching framework of what is essentially an
American conception of the world.’ (p. 28). The diffusion of foreign popular culture in
the local is based on the homogenization of the cultural format, such as in the
uniformity of television genres, tempered by the heterogeneity of the varying
interpretations of the content by local producers and audiences (Adams 2008; Iwabuchi
In contrast to the cultural homogeneity and uniformity so often associated with
globalisation, cosmopolitanism stresses the heterogeneity of culture in the local context
(Held et al. 1999; Tomlinson 1999; Waters 1995). In fact, the terms available to
describe the heterogeneous process of globalisation include hybridisation (Nederveen
Pieterse 2009); glocalisation (Robertson 1995); indigenisation (Appadurai 1990); and
cosmopolitanism (Hannerz 1990). The following section illustrates the way in which
television is conceptualised to mediate cosmopolitanism in the local context. The
investigation starts with a brief overview of the concept and attributes of
The term cosmopolitanism is derived from the Greek words cosmos (the
universe) and polis (city). Cosmopolitanism can be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s
1795 essay, entitled ‘Toward Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch’ (Bohman &
Lutz-Bachmann 1997). Following Kant’s idea of creating a commitment towards
realising ‘citizens of the world’; Kantian political philosophy advocates citizens who
‘live in a world governed by overarching principles of right and justice’ (Vertovec &
Cohen 2002, p. 7). Kant’s philosophy of cosmopolitanism is grounded in a moral
commitment to achieving global peace (Wood 2002; Apel 1997).
The earliest problematic of cosmopolitanism was that it was narrowly
conceptualised in relation to elite and mobile men (Hannerz 1990). The cosmopolitan
was criticised as a rootless person because, as a citizen of the world, he was assumed to
have no loyalty to any nation (Brennan 1997). The idea of ‘demotic cosmopolitanism,’
however, has broadened the understanding of cosmopolitan from the elite to the
working class who have similarly embraced a commitment to engaging with cultural
diversity (Lamont & Aksartova 2002). These cosmopolitans include transnational male
migrants who reside permanently or temporarily in host countries (Sichone 2008;
Werbner 1999). Another type of demotic cosmopolitan is working-class men in a
culturally diverse workplace (Parry 2008; Lamont & Aksartova 2002). Demotic
cosmopolitan points to the everyday experiences of either working-class or middle-class
people, and takes into account what they ‘eat, watch, listen to, shop for and buy, and
dream about’ (Skrbis & Woodward 2007, p. 735). Ong (2009) states that a
cosmopolitan identity can be constructed from ‘consumption habits, pathways of
material/cultural/symbolic goods, even everyday gossip – the many ways in which
culture is deterritorialized and reterritorialized’ (p. 460). Both Ong (2009) and Beck
(2004) employ the term banal cosmopolitanism to suggest that cosmopolitanism can be
acquired from viewers’ engagement with the media.
In relation to the problematic of cosmopolitans presented earlier, Mazlish (2005)
points out the conflicting political interests emerging from one’s commitment to (either)
the global or the local. Cosmopolitanism implies a commitment to a moral universalism
and to humanity as a whole and without distinction. This contradicts the commitment to
a national identity which is expressed more narrowly through patriotism (Nussbaum
1996). The emphasis on a national identity subverts the possibility of adopting a global
An alternative approach to cosmopolitanism, however, advocates national
identity as a way to achieve a cosmopolitan outlook (Calhoun 1997). In other words,
cosmopolitanism is viewed as the attachment to the local and global (Skrbis et al. 2004;
Beck 2002; Tomlinson 1999; Appiah 1998). Cosmopolitan ‘operate[s] at the level of
both the local and the global simultaneously, not as a binary pair but in dynamic
relationship (Meeuf 2007, p. 742). Werbner (2008) argues that the tension between
global and local is not as critical when considered from an anthropological perspective.
From the perspective of anthropology, cosmopolitanism re-establishes the significance
of local culture vis a vis other cultures, regardless of whether these are within or beyond
the geographic borders of the nation state. Werbner argues, for instance, that ‘[f]or
anthropologists, cosmopolitanism is as much a local engagement within the postcolonial
states – with cultural pluralism, global rights movements, ideas about democracy and
the right to be dissent – as beyond their borders’ (p. 6).
COSMOPOLITANISM AND WOMEN: TRAVEL AND OPENNESS
With regards to gender, women have historically been invisible (Stivens 2008)
in discussions relating to cosmopolitanism. Hannerz (1990), for example, consistently
uses the pronoun he in reference to the qualities of the cosmopolitan. The language
used signals that Hannerz is not consciously engaging with issues of gender. In relation
to Hannerz’ work, Nava (2007) points out the distinctiveness of men’s strategies in
‘becoming cosmopolitan.’ She argues that ‘in his framework, the cosmopolitan (who
seems always to be ‘he’) has cognitive and semiotic skills which enable him to
manoeuvre within new meaning systems while remaining culturally and emotionally
detached’ (p. 8). Two qualities that are related to an individual’s attributes, through
which cosmopolitanism can be acquired, are discussed in relation to women as
cosmopolitans. These are travel, and openness toward other cultures (Hannerz 1990).
Travel can be performed in two ways: either physical travel, or travel which is
mediated by electronic technologies. The latter will be discussed momentarily. Physical
travel alone, without any commitment to embracing an attitude of openness towards
other people and their cultures, does not make for a cosmopolitan (Hannerz 1990).
Cosmopolitanism must be associated with ‘a willingness to engage with the Other’
(Hannerz 1990, p. 239).
Historically, men have travelled in the pursuit of power and knowledge. In
relation to the manner in which travel underpins the existence of the cosmopolitan,
Tomlinson (1999) summarises the domination of men and the absence of women:
As Janet Wolff has argued, not only has travel historically been structured by
patriarchy, but both the literature of travel and the metaphors of travel that have
been employed in broader cultural theory are intrinsically gendered (Wolff
1993). The idea of cosmopolitan, then, might have to be ‘reappropriated,’ as
Wolff argues for the case of travel metaphors in cultural theory (the ‘nomad,’
‘mapping’), from this implicitly patriarchal discursive context. (p 187)
With regards to travel as a male-dominant activity, Sichone (2008) situates women
firmly within the conventional gender position of carer for the family, while men are
left to formulate and exercise the strategies that allow them to eventually migrate.
Sichone presents Ishmael, a Somalian refugee residing in the Republic of South Africa,
who marries a woman from Cape Town. Because of this marriage, Ishmael is able to
acquire South African citizenship, which in turn opens the opportunity for him to
migrate to a first world country. Ishmael later leaves his wife and migrates alone to
Britain. Whilst she remains the nameless host who offers herself to Ishmael, she is still
inscribed with a cosmopolitan identity. Hence, Sichone’s study shows that women and
men both acquire cosmopolitanism, but sometimes in different ways. In Sichone’s view,
we should look to remote African villages and congested urban slums to find
the woman who greets the stranger with a tray of food. This woman who has
never left home lives her cosmopolitanism by welcoming the world. (pp. 320321).
Nava (2007) further suggests that women’s relationship to cosmopolitanism
takes a different form than that of men by focusing ‘on the unconscious, nonintellectual, emotional, inclusive features of cosmopolitanism’ (p. 8). She refers to this
as ‘the structure of feeling’ (p. 3). Psychoanalytic theory provides Nava (2007) with a
framework to argue that women have, in fact, a more global outlook than men. She
states, for instance, that ‘women display a greater sense of inclusivity, both reflexive
and emotional, and [are]in general more hospitable than men’ (p. 9). However, scholars
working from a psychoanalytic perspective, despite the fact that they have asserted that
women have an innate emotional connectedness to difference, do not offer an
explanation for this connectedness. Both Julia Kristeva 15 and Virginia Woolf, 16 for
example, suggest that women are more open than men toward accepting the idea of a
global world, without an explanation as to why. Kushner (2004) in his study of US and
Caribbean male migrants, similarly accepts the existence of women’s welcoming of
strangers, yet does not explore this in any depth. In a similar way, Sichone’s (2008)
study demonstrates that the researcher uncritically accepts women’s hospitality to
strangers as ‘natural.’ As a result, the scholars highlighted in this section perpetuate the
conventional gender stereotype of women, albeit one that facilitates ideas about the
connection of women to a culturally diverse world.
Julia Kristeva, in her book entitled Nations without Nationalism (1993), mentions that women are more
‘world oriented’ than men (cited in Nava 2007, p. 72).
In Virginia Woolf’s book entitled, A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas (2000), she made the
claim in relation to patriotism: ‘As a women I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a
woman my country is the whole world’ (cited in Nava 2007, p. 234).
TELEVISION AND IMAGINED COSMOPOLITANISM
Television also has the ability to facilitate cosmopolitanism (Beck 2006;
Hebdgie 1990). Urry (2000) highlights the significance of global television in
contributing to what has been termed banal globalism. From a distance, television, in
the form of drama serials, music videos, and reality shows, exposes audiences to world
affairs and diverse cultural forms. World affairs, including sporting events and the
coverage of natural disasters, are broadcast live and often simultaneously to audiences
around the globe. Urry (2000) contends that events such as these provide a means of
virtual travel ‘to the variety of ‘others’ across the globe’ (p. 3). Rantanen (2005) raises
the question as to whether cosmopolitanism, rather than being conceptualised more
narrowly as the exclusive domain of intellectual and aesthetic elites, could become a
mass movement. Hannerz (1990) also suggests that cosmopolitanism can be acquired
from the mass media, including foreign books and film. But he also raises an interesting
point in arguing that the degree of cosmopolitan influence deriving from personal
encounters is greater than that deriving from the mass media. Some scholars have since
argued that a cosmopolitan outlook requires both virtual and real experiences.
Appadurai (1996), for example, claims that, ‘[t]oday’s cosmopolitanisms combine
experiences of various media with various forms of experience – cinema, video,
restaurants, spectator sports, and tourism’ (p. 64). The experience of unfamiliar cultures,
as suggested by Appadurai, is accessible through the cultural practices of modernity that
are routinely performed in the daily lives of urban people in developing countries.
COSMOPOLITAN MORALITY: TELEVISION, NEWS AND MELODRAMA
The media, and in particular television, has a role to play in conveying diverse
forms of morality (Ong 2009; Silverstone 2006). This assertion contradicts the
traditionalist view from sociology and anthropology which has criticised television for
being ‘morally cretinous, because it is the bastard of the media it claims to expose….
Once a critical force, it has become facile and useless . . . about nothing other than
[itself]’ (Tester, cited in Ong 2009, p. 449). However, cosmopolitanism has been useful
in conceptualising viewers’ engagement with the media, despite the criticisms emerging
from sociology and anthropology. Indeed, there have recently been an increasing
number of studies which have analysed the consumption of world news on television
which has permitted viewers in the local context to foster a cosmopolitan outlook
(Robertson 2010; Ong 2009; Hoijer 2004). Chouliaraki (2008) uses the term ‘ecstatic
cosmopolitanism’ (p. 375) to describe the shared feeling of suffering and empathy
distant viewers experience when watching the television news. Chouliaraki argues that
cosmopolitan citizenship can be attained through sensitivity to human suffering. In fact
Boltanski claims that suffering is ‘routinely appropriated in American popular culture’
(cited in Kleinman & Kleinman 1996, p. 2). Examples may include coverage of events
including ‘natural disasters, political conflict, forced migration, famine, substance
abuse, the HIV pandemic, chronic illness of dozens of kinds, crime, domestic abuse,
and the deep privations of destitution’ (Kleinman & Kleinman 1996, p. 1). Research on
news broadcasts and audience reception demonstrate that expressions of pity
(Chouliaraki 2008) and compassion (Hoijer 2004) often structure the relationship
between sufferers and spectators. This research further reveals distinctions in gender
and age when measuring expressions of compassion (Hoijer 2004). For instance,
Hoijer’s study of violence in news broadcasts in Norway and Sweden surrounding the
Kosovo War showed that ‘[w]omen react with compassion more often than men, and
elderly people much more often than younger people’ (Hoijer 2004, p. 519). Given that
news broadcasts can generate a cosmopolitan outlook through sharing in human
suffering, the following section explores how a cosmopolitan outlook might be
cultivated from viewers’ engagement with foreign melodramas.
Melodrama is used in the soap opera genre, which includes telenovelas from
Latin America and drama serials from Britain. These genres incorporate similar
melodramatic features (Barker 1997; Lozano & Singhal 1993) which, according to
Brooks, are characterised by the following:
[t] he indulgence of strong emotionalism; moral polarization and schematization;
extreme states of being, situations, action; overt villainy, persecution of the
good, and final reward of virtue; inflated and extravagant expression; dark
plottings, suspense, breathtaking peripety . . . . (cited in Feuer 1984, p.4).
These characteristics are also shared by films that fall outside the soap opera genre. In
particular, Bollywood movies depict heroes, villains, and the conventional ‘happy
ending’ narrative (Thomas 1995). Bollywood movies are consumed worldwide,
especially in diasporic Indian communities, such as in the United Kingdom (Gillespie
1995) or Malaysia (Seneviratne 2001); as well as in Bangladesh (Wahid 2007) and
Nigeria (Larkin1997). In addition, Feuer (1984) claims that sitcoms and ‘cop shows’ on
American television have been influenced by melodrama popularised by the soap opera
(p.4). In television drama series in Egypt, another obvious melodrama characteristic is
the depiction of ‘strong emotion in the everyday interpersonal world’ (Abu-Lughod
2002, p. 117). It is clear that melodrama characteristics are used by soap opera
With regards to the soap opera, I ask whether a cosmopolitan outlook can
emerge through women’s engagement with this genre. Although television melodrama
is associated with globalisation and modernisation, there are a lack of studies that
conceptualise cosmopolitanism in relation to soap operas, telenovelas, drama serials,
and movies that are broadcast on television. For example, whilst Lopez-Pumarejo
(2007) has studied the presence of a telenovela cable channel in Israel, he makes no
mention of the concept of cosmopolitanism. However, he did note that the popularity of
Latin American television drama serials in Israel promotes ‘tolerance to others’ race,
religion, culture and sexual orientation’ (p. 200). Lopez-Pumarejo (2007) associates
good race relations as part of the creation of national identity in a modern country.
Locally produced television melodramas have also been identified as providing
a narrative framework to advance the project of state development and modernisation
(Abu-Lughod 2005; Lozano & Singhal 1993) and a way for women to acquire
modernity from locally produced television melodramas (Abu Lughod 2002) or
imported ones (Werner 2008; Kim 2005). Geraghty (2005) then poses the question:
‘How [do] soaps play a role in the processes of globalization and modernization?’ (p.
318). In answering this question, Geraghty points to the portrayal of characters in
American and British soap operas whose (wealthy and successful) lives are played out
in public space. She also asserts that soap operas and telenovelas in particular, have
traditionally tackled sensitive issues such as ethnicity. Moreover, Latin American
telenovelas confront a range of social issues depending upon the countries that produce
them (Geraghty 2005; Barker 1997). Therefore, imported television melodramas present
a diversity of sensitive and perhaps even taboo issues to its viewers in other countries.
These emerge from the diverse cultural backgrounds of the production houses and the
fact that many of the issues in question concern the family and women.
In the following section, my focus is on hybridity theory that allows cultural
diversity, as a foundation of cosmopolitanism, to exist through the assimilation of
imported programs in the local context.
The argument for cultural purity, which implies that culture is static or fixed, is
now viewed as being irrelevant (Werbner 1997). According to Tomlinson (1999), the
widely accepted view of culture is that it is ‘fluid, dynamic, protean, ever changing –
and at no point in history fixed, established, static’ (p. 144). Hybridity also symbolises
political power and has the potential to be an ‘empowering, transformative, dangerous
or transformative force’ for the local culture (Werbner 1997, p. 4). Hybridisation, of
course, relates to the processes through which culture is adapted or changed through
‘fusion.’ Hybridity takes many forms and has been studied in various disciplines. For
instance, in post-colonial studies, the adaptation of colonial languages has produced
hybrid languages, which are termed pidgins and creoles.
Hybridity is an element of cosmopolitanism in that it requires the ability to
empathize with others and to celebrate diversity (Held 2002; Kahn 2006). Although the
notion of a hybrid culture does not necessarily need to be invoked when conceptualising
cosmopolitanism, hybridity underpins the very existence of global cultural
commodities. Transnational television networks (McMillin 2001) and world pop music
(Shim 2006) communicates the knowledge, symbols and images which facilitate
hybridity in the local milieu. Global cultural commodities provide people with access to
global experiences. Cosmopolitanism relies on the openness of people to, and
acceptance of, diverse cultural experiences.
The work of Bhabha (1994) has been seminal in refining the notion hybridity. In
Bhabha’s (1994) study of post-colonialism, the notion of hybridity is linked to a
discourse of race. Racial mixing, for instance, was viewed by imperial powers as being
negative. However, Bhabha’s work demonstrates that the colonized subject can gain
access to power in the new cultural site at the nexus of the coloniser’s and the
colonised’s merging cultural practices. Bhabha (1994) terms this new cultural site the
‘third space.’ In another study, Garcia Canclini (2005) contends that the process of
hybridity offers an escape from the marginalisation of Latin America’s shanty towns, as
some residents have successfully adapted and commercialised traditional arts and crafts
for tourist consumption. Altogether, hybrid culture can potentially bestow power to
subaltern groups to create a new, more empowered political culture (Bhabha 1994;
Garcia Canclini 2005).
Cultural critiques in post-colonial studies such as the above have subsequently
led to hybridity being celebrated in popular culture. The process of globalization, for
instance, has had a significant impact on modern pop music; a music genre in which can
be found many examples of hybrid cultural forms, as attested by the volume and nature
of research undertaken in this area in Asia alone (Shim 2006; Dujunco 2002; Roberson
2001; Lockard 1995). Lent (1995) provides the example of the eclectic Japanese pop
group Shang Shang Typhoon. Lent (1995) states that ‘Shang Shang Typhoon, mixes
Western rock, jazz, and reggae with Japanese enka ballads, folk, Okinawan melodies
and Buddhist festival song’ (p. 5). Tomlinson (1999) points to the example of youth
hip-hop music to demonstrate the notion of hybridity. Shim (2006) argues that in the
world of pop music, hybridity facilitates ‘new practices of cultural and performative
expression.’ (p. 27). The Korean popular music industry for instance represents the
interaction of ‘local cultural agents and actors . . . with [new] global forms, using them
as resources’ (Shim 2006, p. 38) to produce dynamic, localised cultural commodities
that can be exported to other countries.
As has been previously mentioned, power struggles are often an unintended byproduct of hybrid culture. Tomlinson (1999) argues that hybridity is not a ‘simple form
of anarchic, unregulated culture’ (p. 146). Power struggles inevitably occur at the point
at which imported cultural resources come into contact with local cultures. According to
Kraidy (2002), the use of critical hybridity theory is useful in highlighting the political
potential of hybridity. He argues that ‘[p]olitically, a critical hybridity theory considers
hybridity as a space where intercultural and international communication practices are
continuously negotiated in interactions of differential power’ (p. 317). He further argues
that ‘if hybridity consists merely of observing, cataloguing and celebrating multicultural
mixture, the inequality that often characterizes these mixtures is glossed over’ (Kraidy
2002, p. 318). What Kraidy is suggesting is that hybridity is not simply a politically
neutral phenomenon; rather, those that occupy hybrid spaces are inherently engaged in a
It should not be assumed that in the confluence of cultural resources the
‘powerful’ does not simply absorb the ‘less powerful’ entity for the former’s benefit.
Nederveen Pieterse (2009) argues that power relations are dynamic and transformable.
He states that ‘hegemony is not merely reproduced but refigured in the process of
hybridization’ (p.75). Hence, there is always the potential for power to be reconfigured
within a new hybrid cultural site (Nederveen Pieterse 2009).
This is not to say, however, that hybridity cannot be garnered to serve the
interests of dominant sectors within the state (Chow 1993). In criticising Bhabha
(1994), Chow argues that ‘Bhabha’s word ‘hybridity,’ in the masquerade of
deconstructing anti-imperialism…[revives] an old functionalist notion of what dominant
culture permits in the interest of maintaining its own equilibrium’ (p. 35). Ahmad
(1995) illustrates this view by arguing that transnational corporations, as hegemonic
economic and cultural powers in their own right, clearly gain financial benefits from the
process of hybridity.
I argue that the role of the Malaysian government’s censorship bodies is to filter
and manage the process of hybridity. In this case, the reconfigured process of cultural
synthesis is mediated by the state’s political interests. My argument is supported by
Shim (2006), who has demonstrated that the emergence of Korean media centres
emerges the recent relaxation of government policy on imported popular culture. In the
Malaysian context, Frow’s (cited in Pieterse 2009) contention that the flow of global
cultural commodities is unregulated is not always true. He claims that ‘[i]n popular
culture, mixing of elements and styles may pass unnoticed, be taken for granted or
welcomed’ (cited in Nederveen Pieterse 2009, p. 116). Both Nederveen Pieterse (2009)
and Frow do not take into account state intervention in the formation of new, ultimately
hybrid, cultural spaces.
My contention is that the Malaysian state’s censorship organisations, and some
sectors of the political and religious Malay elite, enact mechanisms to filter hybridity.
Promiscuity, revealing clothing, and offensive lyrics from especially heavy metal and
punk music are, for example, stringently censored. Meanwhile, foreign cultural
elements that do not contradict the core values of Malay-Islamic culture are permitted.
Details of the nature of censorship in Malaysia, most significantly the active role of the
state’s censorship bodies in shaping the hybrid process, are further explained in Chapter
4. Through this process the state attempts to protect the ‘purity’ of local culture from the
cultural ‘contamination’ of the West. In fact, the maintenance of the so-called purity of
Malay culture is an important source of hegemony for Malay-Islamic political
domination of Malaysia’s plural society.
Hybridity is employed by the Malaysian government in the service of the nation.
Locally produced popular culture programs are encouraged by the government as long
as they incorporate, for example, moderate interpretations of Islam, Western modernity
and other ‘suitable’ elements from imported popular culture. These portrayals reflect
Malaysian government policies, for instance, on bilingual languages. For Malaysians,
the Malay language is for the purpose of national identity, whilst other languages allow
citizens to connect to a global, more cosmopolitan identity. The English language is
stressed because of its importance for Malaysian citizen for their involvement in
business and education at the international level. However, other languages such as
Mandarin, Tamil and Arabic are encouraged as these languages reflect Malaysia’s
multicultural society. Mandarin and Tamil are languages which allow ethnic Chinese
and Indian Malaysians to retain their cultural identity. Meanwhile, Arabic remains the
language of Islam, the religion of the Malays. Language, therefore, is viewed by the
Malaysian government as integral for the development of the nation, as well as to relate
Malaysian citizens with other cultures in the world. Language in this way has a
significant role to play in contributing to a hybridised Malay culture. The Islamic
Development Department of Malaysia (JAKIM) is one such government agency
involved in promoting hybrid values (Mohd Adnan 2010). The department takes the
role of the advisor for television and movie scripts concerning Islamic issues. For
instance, the department co-produces a youth television magazine on entitled
Reflections which is delivered in the English language. It depicts progressive and
talented young Muslims who speak English and who are able to mingle in Malaysian
Tomlinson (1999) argues that, in the age of globalisation, the emergence of
hybrid cultures has in fact been reinforced by deterrotarialisation. He states that:
[T]he idea that globalised culture is hybrid culture has strong intuitive appeal
which follows directly from the notion of deterritorialization. This is because the
increasing traffic between cultures that the globalization process brings suggests
that the dissolution of the link between culture and place is accompanied by an
intermingling of these disembedded cultural practice producing new complex
hybrid forms of culture (p. 141).
Deterritorialization is a process that has been brought about by globalisation and occurs
when ‘production, consumption, community, politics and identities become detached
from local place’ (Kearney 1995, p. 554). Thompson (1995) further identifies the role of
the mass media in conveying symbolic forms to distant locales. Thompson claims that
‘the development of new technical media may also have a profound impact on the ways
in which individuals experience the spatial and temporal dimensions of social life’ (p.
22). Connell and Gibson (2004) highlight an example of deterritorialisation that is
evident in the consumption of cultural commodities on television when they argue that,
‘[t]he ‘third world’ is now very much a part of the ‘first’, whether in terms of
the content of television, music and literature consumed by audiences, or in
terms of the populations of most major cities, now polyglots of indigenous
peoples and diverse migrant groups’ (p. 342).
The existence of national and international television has meant that the ‘Third World’
is virtually connected to the ‘First World.’ Appadurai (1990) also highlights the role of
communication and information technologies in repositioning and reimagining local
Garcia Canclini (2005) uses the notion of deterritorialization to point to the
weakening of Western hegemony. He presents an example from Latin America,
focusing on emigration in two locations in Mexico: Tijuana and Aguililla. Canclini
(2005) demonstrates in this study the rise of subaltern cultures at the centre of
globalized culture. Tomlinson (1999) evaluates Garcia Canclini’s work, stating that ‘the
example of Tijuana provides…. a place where identity is complexly forged out of a
‘local’ experience dominated by its relationship with other places: the rest of Mexico,
North America, the wider world – it is a ‘delocalized locality’’ (p. 140).
The emergence of new centres of television production has altered the global
flow of cultural commodities which were previously dominated by Hollywood. The
success of media centres including Japan (Iwabuchi 2004), Korea (Shim 2006), India
(Ganti 2002) and Brazil (Kottak 1990) allows buyers to choose from a more diverse
range of television programs.
Hybridity in television programs can also be used as a form of protest or
resistance. Kahn (2006), for example, demonstrates that foreign dances of cha-cha and
samba in Malay films have been used to represent anti-colonisation. Kahn also claims
that in post-colonial Malaysia, Malay hybridity has created the foundation for a
cosmopolitanism outlook. Kahn (2006), for instance, demonstrates that the 1955 Malay
film entitled Penarek Becha, (Trishaw Driver) juxtaposes Malay ‘authentic culture’
with Western ‘cosmopolitan culture.’ The year the film was produced coincided with
the emergence of a heightened nationalism in the lead up to Independence in 1957. The
cabaret-cum-night club scene in particular represented an unmistakable element of
hybridity. Kahn (2006) states,
Ghazali and his friends are seen dancing a cha-cha with the hostesses. The music
ends and Ghazali returns to his table and calls for another dance, this time a
samba. Instead a young man stands up and announces that the next act will be an
exhibition of Inang Baru to be performed by five male and five female dancers
and a lead singer backed by a small Malay orchestra. Before the exhibition is
allowed to proceed, Ghazali shouts out his displeasure, insisting again on samba.
But he is politely rebuffed and the exhibition goes ahead, much to the delight of
the rest of the audience, although when the camera pans to Ghazali he is looking
angry and disgruntled (p.163).
Kahn (2006) argues the film symbolises ‘a plea for the decolonisation of Malay culture’
(p.163) through the presentation of a Malay dance called inang baru. The Malay dance
called inang baru was fashioned after the South American samba and cha-cha. Kahn
(2006) contends that Malay ‘authentic’ culture embodied in inang baru is in fact
hybridised. He states that these dances are ‘from older traditions of music and dance
that were indigenised from Arabian sources, and subjected in turn to further outside
influence –Portuguese, Latin and North America’ (p. 166). In short, the hybridised
nature of Malay dance is used by Kahn to support his claim for the existence of
cosmopolitanism in Malay culture.
Other research has brought to our attention the political project of resisting
nationalism and supporting the identity of regionalism through the accommodation of
imported popular culture (Abu-Lughod 2005; Moorti 2004; Mandel 2002). These works
discuss the process of adaptation of foreign values in local programs. The resistance to
nationalism occurs when producers of adapted television programs have the intention of
projecting messages that support an identity which is not limited to the insular
nationalism of the government in power (Moorti 2004). The question of whether
resistance to insular nationalism by producers of television programs is associated with
a rejection of censorship is not discussed in the works above. Due to the pervasive
belief that hybridity can only occur in an unregulated environment, studies of hybridity
in popular culture that include the role of government censorship bodies has rarely been
undertaken (Frow 1992).
Moorti’s (2004) study, for instance, points to the way that popular British quiz
shows, and Hollywood game shows, 17 are adapted for Indian television. The copyright
for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for example has been bought by Indian television
stations and produced locally. The result has been a cultural fusion between Western
and Tamil culture. Moorti’s (2004) study shows that the Tamil version of Who Wants to
Be a Millionaire? has added to the creation of an emerging Tamil vernacular identity,
rather than a pan-Indian national identity. For instance, on the one hand the clothing of
the hosts and contestants predominantly consists of jeans, t-shirts and sneakers. On the
other, one of the requirements of the show is that the participants demonstrate their
fluency in Tamil by refraining from using English loan words. The fusion created by the
producers is not intentionally aimed at resisting Indian nationalism; rather, it is a
commercial response to the demand of global popular culture by local audiences.
However, due to both Tamil and Western influence, the audiences are exposed to
messages that do not support the maintenance of a pan-Indian identity. Moorti (2004)
stresses that ‘commodities become the access route for the expressions of vernacular
This particular television game show is a version of the popular Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
program, renamed Kaun Banega Crorepati.
nationalisms, bypassing national discourses of Indian-ness’ (p. 550). In this case,
indigenisation as a form of hybrid culture challenges the national identity.
Mandel’s (2002) research on the production of a drama serial from Kazakhstan
investigates another example of ‘cultural fusion.’ The production of this drama serial in
Kazakhstan was overseen by a British film crew who were involved in the production of
the well-known drama series Crossroads. The production of this successful
Kazakhstanian serial synthesised two cultural styles. The format of the show mirrored
the glamorous lifestyles of the Hollywood Santa Barbara and Tropicana soap operas;
whilst the content was centred on ‘past and present politics, genres, ideologies, and
nationalism’ (Mandel 2002, p. 223) and local development issues. Mandel (2002) states,
for instance, that ‘[t]he intertextualities of the products broadcast as Crossroads are
variously understood by producers, sponsors, and audiences to be vodka, information on
a new tax law, or a fashion statement’ (p. 223). In other words, both Moorti’s and
Mandel’s studies show that the popularity of these locally produced programs in India
and Kazakhstan, at least in relation to audience reaction, are celebrated as they
symbolise a desired Western modernity (Moorti 2004; Mandel 2002). These studies also
confirmed the successful indigenisation of Western commercial cultural resources. For
example, Moorti (2004) shows that the local reproduction of a popular Western
television game show has enabled viewers in Tamil Nadu to become both cosmopolitan
and vernacular subjects, bypassing the pan-Indian identity.
Abu-Lughod (2005) also highlights the influence of Western culture in locally
produced drama serials on Egyptian television. This indigenisation emerges from the
personal background of the writer of the drama serials. Abu-Lughod explains that whilst
‘her [al-‘Assal’s] political and social concerns are passionately focused on Egypt, her
political vocabulary is international; she is well aware of foreign literature, film and
media; she has grown children who work in Finland and France’ (p. 123).
who produced a drama serial entitled Mothers in the House of Love, states that,
In the retirement home itself, they started a class for teaching English, because
one woman had been an English professor; another woman who had been a
silversmith opened a small silver workshop and taught women the skills needed
for this work. They participated in the eradication of illiteracy by teaching
neighborhood girls to read and write. They also gave classes on household
management, and even agriculture. (Abu-Lughod 2005, p. 39).
Al-‘Assal advocates a socialist-feminist ideology in the narrative of the drama (AbuLughod 2005). The messages she promotes for women in this production focuses on
education and skills development within the family which can be transformed into an
income. The writer promotes an ideology which allows women some independence and,
despite their old age, encourages them to take on more dynamic social roles. Western
ideology is a vehicle which has the potential to contest women’s traditional roles and
men’s authority in a patriarchal society. Although the Egyptian government promotes
women’s’ education, it is used to maintain a national culture and tradition which
preserves patriarchy. The Egyptian government’s ideology is in contrast with Al‘Assal’s Western ideology of women’s development.
Abu-Lughod (2005) justifies her research on ‘cultural fusion’ by arguing it
provides a window through which to ‘view particular configurations of power,
education, and wealth in particular places –like an agricultural village in the heart of the
tourist industry in disadvantaged region in Egypt in the 1990s’ (p. 127).
Although Abu-Lughod’s (2005) work does not directly utilise the theory of
hybridity, it does bring into focus the political power relationships that play out within
the local culture. From the perspective of individual rights, for example, Al-‘Assal’s
ideology is based on values that promote the democratisation of women’s rights and the
relinquishment of men’s control over women. This shows that the indigenisation of
foreign cultural values can be used to resist state and religious ideology. Most
importantly, these studies (Moorti 2004; Mandel 2002; Abu-Lughod 1997; 2005) have
demonstrated that hybridity might not only be used in the service of the state, as in the
case of Malaysia, but also to challenge the hegemony of the state.
Other than the work of Kahn (2006), content analysis studies of television
programs that specifically employ the notion of hybridity as a conduit to facilitate
cosmopolitans are scarce. Moorti (2004), Mandel (2002) and Abu-Lughod (1997;
2005) do not utilise the concept of hybridity. Rather, they label this phenomenon as
cultural fusion, or indigenisation, both of which are terms not clearly defined. My view
is that indigenisation is a form of hybridity. Moorti’s (2004) and Mandel’s (2002)
studies, for instance, focus on the media text in order to demonstrate the
‘indigenization’ of Western global culture. In relation to television, cultural fusion or
indigenisation are terms that refer to the process by which Western cultural products are
adapted by media producers for commercial purposes and local consumption.
Indigenisation is celebrated because it provides ordinary citizens with access to images
and values of modernity (Mandel 2002). Indigenisation also simultaneously enhances
cosmopolitan identities by offering and alternative to, and in some cases challenging,
national interests and identities (Moorti 2004; Abu- Lughod 1997; 2005).
Studies often ignore the role of censorship bodies, the state, or television
proprietors, in imposing their authority to expurgate the content of television programs.
Taking this into account illuminates the process of hybridity and the manner in which it
is being used by the state’s elite to maintain political power. This shows that hybrid
culture not only benefits subaltern groups, but can also benefit the state.
Globalisation has brought foreign television programs into the homes of
ordinary citizens in the developing world, affording them a degree of global
connectivity which has the potential to transform their lives. Debate has centred on the
impact these programs have on the local culture. There are two opposing perspectives;
one which argues for the homogenising affect that especially Western culture has on
non-Western, ‘traditional’ societies – sometimes referred to as the theory of cultural
imperialism. The second perspective argues for the heterogenising impact on local
culture. Proponents of this view point to the essentially dynamic and adaptive nature of
socio-cultural systems which selectively appropriate foreign cultural elements. Overall,
audience reception studies of foreign popular culture on television have not been
convinced by the theory of cultural imperialism. In this chapter, cosmopolitanism has
been explored as a means to explain the heterogenising impact of foreign television
programs on local culture. The popularity of foreign television drama serials and
international news broadcasts indicates local viewer’s openness to difference. In
addition, the usefulness of the concept of hybridity is that it can bring into focus the
critical issues emerging from the process of integrating foreign images and values into
locally produced television programs. This chapter, therefore, has reviewed the
published literature which examines the capacity of hybridity to weaken or strengthen
the authority of the state. This literature review has also highlighted the dearth of studies
which analyse the role of the state’s censorship bodies in intervening in the
This chapter has also identified the fact that travel has traditionally been the
privilege of white, professional and elite men. Their ability to travel and ‘consume’
difference has enabled them to acquire a cosmopolitan outlook. Women, however, have
traditionally been excluded from this privilege and thus from this pathway to becoming
cosmopolitan. Yet the existing literature does illustrate that women are capable of
acquiring a cosmopolitan outlook through their inherent feminine qualities. For
instance, emotion and empathy are important qualities that allow for an interconnection
with the Other. International news in particular has been demonstrated to nurture a
moral connection with distant sufferers. My study proposes that openness to differences
will occur through the viewing of foreign melodramas in the local setting. Television
has enabled women viewers who lack mobility to engage – through foreign news and
television programs including soap opera, telenovela, Bollywood movies, and drama
serials – in a form of virtual travel.
TELEVISION COSMOPOLITANISM: AN ANALYSIS OF FREE-TO-AIR
TELEVISION CONTENT AND THE POLITICAL FACTORS THAT HAVE SHAPED
THE BROADCASTING LANDSCAPE IN MALAYSIA PRIOR TO 2006
Television stations in Malaysia were established in response to the political and
economic needs of the time. On the one hand, the public television stations, TV1 and
TV2, were established for the purposes of national development and racial unity after
Malaysia gained independence from colonial rule (Karthigesu 1994b). On the other
hand, the first private television stationTV3 (and later the other private TV stations) was
established in response to cultural globalisation and trade liberalisation (Badarudin
1997). The state was at the forefront of planning and decision-making in the
establishment and objectives of these television stations (Nain 1996; Karthigesu 1995).
As briefly mentioned in the Chapter 1, Malaysian media scholars (e.g: Anuar & Wang
1996; Ibrahim 1989) identify television as a tool used by the government to instil
national identity and pursue its development plans. Indeed, television has become
instrumental in fostering a sense of national belonging in post-colonial countries (AbuLughod 2002; Anderson 1991).
The presence of foreign television programs has been studied from perspectives
other than cosmopolitanism. Some scholars, for instance, have looked at the role of
foreign television programs in the project of nation building (Rahim & Pawanteh 2009;
Nain 1996; Karthigesu 1994b). Despite the association that has been made in media
studies between Malaysian television and the nation-state project in Malaysia, I argue
that FTA Malaysian television stations demonstrate a cosmopolitan outlook. In this
case, cosmopolitanism is defined in terms of a dynamic relationship between the global
and the local (Meeuf 2007; Tomlinson 1999) as outlined in the Chapter 3. In large part,
television cosmopolitanism in Malaysia has been brought about by what appear to be
two contradictory political ideologies in relation to broadcasting; ‘inward looking’ and
‘outward looking.’ For example, since the establishment of TV1 in 1963 significant
proportion of its content have been foreign programs. At the same time, Tunku Abdul
Rahman (Malaysia’s first prime minister from 1957 to 1970) was striving to establish
Malay political and religious hegemony in the Constitution. Malay supremacy was
enacted in the Malaysian Constitution18 through a bargaining process with other ethnic
groups. Another example can be taken from the Mahathir administration (1981-2003).
Whilst at the time the government was perceived to be virulently anti-Western,
Malaysian television, both private and public, continued to air a significant proportion
of Western programs; a fact that has been highlighted by Malaysian media scholars
(Karthigesu 1994a & 1994b; Hashim 1995; Nain 1996; Shriver 2003; Postill 2006). It is
also clear that non-Western foreign programs, such as those from Taiwan, Hong Kong,
India, and Japan, have existed since the inception of TV1, the first government owned
public television station in Malaysia. Moreover, in the 2000s, there has been a steady
flow of Latin America telenovelas screening on Malaysian television (Hassan 2009).
The aim of this chapter is to investigate the dynamic interplay of what I have
termed the ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ outlooks in Malaysian television broadcasting. These
two outlooks become evident in the context of three factors: firstly, the political and
economic circumstances which shaped the development of both free-to-air government
and privately owned television stations in Malaysia; secondly, the continued presence of
a significant number of popular culture programs from different countries; and finally,
local productions of imported popular culture programs. Here, I shall use the term
The Federal Constitution of Malaysia was established in 1957 when Tunku Abdul Rahman was the first
Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaysia. The term chief minister was later changed to prime
minister. In 1963 the Constitution was amended as a result of another two Borneo states, Sabah, Sarawak
and Singapore joined Malaysia Federation.
hybridisation of television popular culture to refer to a process in which the values
embedded in foreign television products are adapted, filtered, critiqued and finally
absorbed into locally produced popular culture programs broadcast by FTA Malaysian
APPROACH TO THE INVESTIGATION OF TELEVISION COSMOPOLITANISM
In 2006 there were three types of television offered in Malaysia; television
which was government or privately owned (FTA television stations); satellite television
and cable television (or the pay-TV stations) (Syed Ali 2005). The six FTA television
stations are owned by two bodies; the government owns TV1 and TV2, whilst the
private organisation Media Prima Bhd. monopolised TV3, 8TV, NTV7, and TV9.
Media Prima Bhd. established TV3 in 1984 and only later acquired the other three
stations which were initially owned by various other private companies. In 2005, Media
Prima Bhd. acquired a 100% stake in NTV7 and TV9; and in 2007, in 8TV (Media
Prima n.d.). In 1996, a Malaysian satellite television company called Astro was
established. It transmitted transnational television including HBO, the National
Geographic Channel, and CNN. In addition to these global channels, Astro also
provided three domestic channels for national viewers which air both locally produced
and imported programs. These channels are Astro Ria, Astro Wah Lai Toi, and Astro
Vanavil. These stations serve the three main ethnic viewer groups in Malaysia: the
Malays, Chinese, and Indians.
Because Prima Bhd., has a monopoly over all FTA private television stations
there are grounds to claim that there may be limited freedom of speech available across
the Malaysian television landscape (Nain 1996). Nevertheless, the purpose of my study
is not to investigate television as a medium to provide a robust political democracy. My
primary concerns, however, are related to the large percentage (compared to locally
produced programs) of imported popular culture programs being screened on Malaysian
FTA television stations. In fact since the establishment of TV1 in 1963 almost 50% of
broadcasting time has been filled with imported programs (Karthigesu 1994b). Twenty
years later, Karthigesu (1994b) conducted a one-week content analysis of programming
on TV1, TV2, and TV3. He found a ratio of 41.9: 48.2: 9.9 of broadcast time,
consisting of locally produced programs, imported programs, and others (station
announcements, advertising etc.) (p. 198). Since the 1990s FTA television has broadcast
slightly more locally produced programs, however the screening time for imported
programs is still significant. Nain (1996) conducted a content analysis study of one
week’s airtime of TV1, TV2 and TV3 during 1994 in order to determine the ratio of
local to imported programs. He found a ratio of 55.9: 44.1 of airtime comprising locally
produced in relation to imported programs (p. 169). Media Guide (2006) provides an
insight into the airing of local and imported programs during this time. The airing of
local programs was concentrated on publically owned TV1 and the privately
ownedTV3. These are the two mainstream FTA television stations. The numbers of
imported programs were significantly greater on TV2, NTV7, and 8TV. The latter
television stations aired 66 %, 63% and 92% of non-Malay languages programs
respectively (Media Guide 2006, p. 91).
It has been argued that the existence of imported programs has been detrimental
to both the national identity of Malaysians (Karthigesu 1994a; A. Rahim & Pawanteh
2009). In contrast, I would argue against this for two reasons. Firstly, whilst from the
viewpoint of cultural imperialism Western values are believed to contaminate local
identities (Ang 2001), the agency of viewers enables them to interpret media messages
in different ways and also to actively filter television messages (Mankeker 1993;
Secondly, media studies have tended to investigate citizen-identity in a nationstate from the perspective of a single national cultural identity (Morris 2002). Imported
popular culture programs on television are feared due to their perceived effect of
challenging one’s national identity. From a democratic, cosmopolitan perspective,
citizens construct multiple identities and have multiple loyalties, which are derived from
cultural diversity and international organisations within and between communities
(Osler 2005; Held 1995). Although national and ethnic identities are the often dominant,
there is of course the possibility of other forms of identity. According to Morris (2002),
The identities felt to be threatened by imported media are commonly conceived
of as territorially-based national or cultural identities deriving from membership
in a political state, a stateless notion, or an ethnic group. The many other
identities that every person simultaneously holds – gender, family position,
occupation and so on – tend not to come into this discussion (p. 279).
Therefore, imported television programs might be used by citizens as a resource
to define some aspects of their identities. Morris (2002) claims above that the way in
which imported television programs influence identities, other than national or ethnic
identity, are under studied. Above all, imported television programs aired on Malaysian
television are no longer dominated by a single cultural industry; that being North
America. Contemporary foreign television programs in Malaysia have more recently
been imported from countries within Southeast Asia, other parts of Asia, Europe and
The following section focuses on the inception and development of FTA
Malaysian television stations. Particular attention is given to the government’s
multicultural policy for television and the commercialisation of private stations.
THE GOVERNMENT TELEVISION STATION (TV1) 1963 – 1969
This section discusses the inception of the first Malaysian television station,
TV1. Within the first 6 years of its establishment (1963-1969), TV1’s program content
was not strictly regulated by the government. According to Nain (1996) ‘[t]he early
organisation of Malaysian television was a compromise between foreign expertise,
norms, practices and values, and local ones’ (p. 168). Although TV1 was established by
the government, it was not employed for the parochial purpose of Malay nationalism.
Rather, in the early years, public television was developed to serve and maintain the
existence of a multicultural society. In addition to this, the establishment of a television
service in Malaysia was engineered to allow Malaysians to connect to an increasingly
globalised world. 19
In support of my argument concerning the desire to establish a global, outward
vision for Malaysian television viewers in the early days of TV1, I draw from a book by
Karthigesu (1994b), entitled Sejarah Perkembangan Televisyen di Malaysia (19631983) (The Historical Development of Television in Malaysia). Here, Karthigesu
presents a rich description of the early history of, and imported content screening on,
TV1. 20 However, Karthigesu’s approach is to argue that television’s primary role was
for the purpose of nation building.
Television Malaysia, or TV1, was established on the 28th of December 1963
under the auspices of the Ministry of Information (in fact a division of The Ministry
known as Jabatan Televisyen, or the Television Department). The establishment of TV1
was based on The Blue Paper Report which had been prepared in 1960 by a cabinet
Marshal McLuhan in his book ‘Understanding Media’ published in 1964 introduces the concept of the
global village due to the presence of electronic communication that simultaneously connects many parts
of the world.
For other works regarding government broadcasting in Malaysia see Abu Bakar (1998) and Adhikarya
committee of 16 public servants (Karthigesu 1994b). Five recommendations came out
of the Report which was designed to direct the foundation of a future national
broadcasting service. Two of these recommendations concerned technical aspects; one
concerned commercial advertising; one was a recommendation which related to the
language used in television broadcasting, and the final one the need to create a national
television service (Jones Report, cited in Karthigesu 1994b). In regards to language use,
it was recommended that television should cater to the major ethnic groups’ interests by
providing programs in both Malay and Chinese, as well as English (primarily for the
benefit of the Malaysian elite). The Tamil language was only later included. The
language ratio suggested was 45:30:20:5 made up of Malay, English, Chinese, and
Tamil language programs respectively.
Due to the specific multilingual broadcasting requirements of TV1, the
government appointed the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as advisor to oversee its
new station with regards to technical requirements, the structure of television
programming, and staff recruitment (Jones Report, cited in Darussalam 1988). The
reason why the Malaysian government chose Canadian advisors over other foreign
expertise was that they wanted to learn from Canada’s experience as a country which
broadcasts in multiple languages. 21 At least Canada was then broadcasting in both
English and French on their television stations in Toronto and Montreal respectively.
However, Karthigesu (1994b) suggests that the Canadian advisors did not have
experience in multilingual broadcasting from a television station. The Brickenden
Report (cited in Karthigesu 1994b) stated that multilingual broadcasting merely needed
more staff than monolingual or bilingual broadcasting. In his view, Brickenden
Another significant reason for choosing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that is not related to
multilingual interests is that Canada is a developed country member of the Colombo Plan of the
commented that there were insufficient Malay language films to fill Malay broadcast
time (which as has been mentioned had the largest share of airtime). However, another
Canadian advisor, E.C Mutimer, who later trained local Malaysian television producers,
had a more optimistic solution to this problem suggesting that multilingual broadcasting
provided an opportunity for local producers to create new and much needed programs in
different languages – including Malay (Karthigesu 1994b). Moreover, G. H. Jones, one
of the earlier Canadian advisors, pointed out that Malay or English subtitles could be
provided for Chinese and Tamil language programs which could then fill Malay airtime
(Karthigesu 1994b). In the end, the government’s desire to implement multilingual
broadcasting, with a fair representation for each ethnic group, remained unfulfilled in
the 1960s. This was due to a lack of expertise and financial resources to produce enough
local television programs in different languages to fill Malaysian television airtime.
As a result of the inability to fill Malay language airtime, TV1 ended up
broadcasting more English language programs, which were readily and cheaply
available on the global market. Karthigesu (1994b, p. 55) analysed total broadcast hours
for one week, from 6th –12th January 1964, and found a ratio of 48.8: 48.1: 3.1 for
locally produced programs, imported programs, and government and station
announcements respectively. The locally produced, multilingual programming were
comprised of English 16.2%, Malay 14.8%, Chinese 14.8%, and Tamil 3.0%. Although
these figure show an altogether shorter broadcasting time for locally produced
multilingual programs than the planned ratio in the Blue Paper, this figure is still
significant enough to demonstrate the willingness of Television Malaysia to produce
multilingual programs. Karthigesu (1994b) also demonstrates that the majority of the
imported programs were produced in Britain and North America. The imported
programs that were not in English included a Japanese drama series, which was dubbed
in Malay language, and movies in Mandarin and Cantonese from Taiwan and Hong
With regards to Malay language programs Karthigesu (1994b) points to the
work of Ahmad Merican, the most prolific and creative producer of Malay musicals.
Merican had a vision of producing new styles of traditional music and dance drawn
from a variety of ethnic groups. His aim was to show the work of Malaysian artists and
how Malaysian and foreign music was composed and reworked by mixing cultural
elements. For instance, Merican himself composed Latina music for the lion dance
troupe (a traditional Chinese dance) which was broadcast on television. In short, even
given the domination of television programs, TV1 demonstrated openness to diverse
foreign popular culture as well as allowing local producers to create programs that
contained dance performances set to hybrid music forms.
In fact, Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, in his desire to include more
sports, entertainment, and documentary programs from foreign countries, was placing
an emphasis on the entertainment value of television (Karthigesu 1994b). Similarly, in a
1964 speech, the Minister of Information Senu bin Abdul Rahman, stated that television
functioned both to create a ‘social revolution’ for the purposes of national development,
and to connect Malaysian citizens to the rest of the world (Karthigesu 1994b, p. 57).
CHALLENGES TO THE MULTICULTURAL APPROACH ADOPTED BY TV1 AND
However, not all sections of Malaysian society supported the open, inclusive
approach to television programming taken by TV1. In fact, the conservatives had solely
anticipated that the establishment of TV1 would contribute to the project of nationalism,
included fostering loyalty to the nation and promoting ethnic integration. Karthigesu
(1994b) reports that in 1962 the Deputy Minister of Information specifically assured
conservatives that television would not become a ‘tool to disseminate foreign values
and cultures’ (pp. 43-44). Television programs were closely monitored by conservative
politicians and parochial sections of the middle class who occasionally voiced their
opinions in the parliament or newspapers. For instance, in 1965 a local television drama
called Awangku Sayang was criticised by the University of Malaya Student Association
because it included taboo issues such as pre-marital sex and pregnancy outside of
marriage; issues then considered inappropriate for public discussion in Malay-Islamic
society. Their protest was taken seriously by the Minister of Information and
screenings were postponed so that the producer could revise the content (Karthigesu
Criticism was also directed at TV1 in light of its perceived ineffectiveness in
containing the bloody Malay-Chinese riots in 1969 (Karthigesu 1994b; McDaniel
1994). One of the expectations built into the establishment of TV1 was that it would
promote multiculturalism in Peninsular Malaysia. However, the 1969 riots led
government officials to believe that television had failed to fulfil this objective. There is
an inherent contradiction then in the anticipated roles of television in Malaysia during
the 1960s. On the one hand, TV1 was expected to support the formation of an inclusive,
pluralist society. However, on the other hand TV1 was expected to be used to establish
the political and religious hegemony of the Malays. For instance, it was widely claimed
that TV1’s locally produced programs were being broadcast in support of the Malay
ruling political party (UMNO) during election campaigns (Karthigesu 1994b). Of
course most of this criticism came from non-Malay ethnic groups; who presumed that
TV1 would be used in bipartisan fashion and not as a political tool by the ruling party.
There were two implications for the development of Malaysian broadcasting
arising from the ethnic riots of 1969. Firstly, there was an assurance from the
government that the preservation of multicultural society would be upheld by the
addition of another television station. Far from abandoning hope in television to be used
as an instrument of ethnic integration, a second government owned television station,
TV2, was established in 1969. The catalyst for the creation of TV2 was the intense
racial violence sparked by the political instability of the shared power arrangement
between the Malays and the Chinese in West Malaysia. The Malaysian government, in
an attempt to bring Malaysia’s diverse ethnic minorities to the centre of public life,
decided to broadcast programs on TV2 in languages other than Malay, Mandarin,
Tamil, and English. TV1 was then free to take on the role of serving the interests of
Malay Muslims and espousing government messages for Malay viewers. Through TV2,
multicultural values were promoted in Malaysian society by ensuring the cultures and
languages of each dominant ethnic group in the country were represented on television.
Of course many other ethnic groups were still not receiving any representation on
television despite some significant minority groups, such as the Iban in Sarawak and the
Kadazan in Sabah, having their languages broadcast on radio.
The second implication of the riots for Malaysian broadcasting is that the
government began to more systematically regulate broadcasting. TV1, TV2, and
Malaysian radio were managed under a department in the Ministry of Information
known as Radio dan Television Malaysia (RTM). The government strengthened its
commitment to more stringently monitor programs and information being broadcast on
these channels. These changes were due to the government’s renewed focus on nation
building. The operation of RTM was guided by a nationalist broadcasting policy
established in 1971, which was formulated to:
Explain in depth and with the widest possible coverage, the policies and the
programmes of the government in order to ensure maximum understanding
by the public.
Stimulate public interest and opinion in order to achieve changes in line with
the requirements of the government.
Assist in promoting a civic consciousness and foster the development of
Malaysian arts and culture.
Provide appropriate popular education, general information, and
Aid national integration efforts in a multi-ethnic society through the use of
the national language (Nain 1994, p. 185).
The 1971 broadcasting policy was overtly aimed at fostering loyalty to the state through
the efforts of a paternalistic government. In fact producers were advised to revisit their
approach to creating programs to ensure they were not being influenced by Western
cultural values (Lowe & Kamin 1982). The previous tendency among policy makers to
favour the importing of programs from North America was now being countered by
efforts to diversify the origins of television programs. However, as Lowe and Kamin
(1982) point out, a globalised outlook was not totally absent from TV1 after the ethnic
riots in 1969:
A concerted effort [was] made not to allow imitations of the fast paced action
dramas of most U.S. imports. To counter-balance this bias, drawing room
dramas [were] imported from England. A series like the commercially-produced
Australian soap opera, The Sullivans, [was] transmitted so that audiences [were]
fed a varied diet (p. 14).
Despite local producers being pressured to serve national interests and identity
in their film making, Lowe and Kamin (1982) 22 have report that TV1 and TV2 were
also being guided by unofficial political philosophy that was unrelenting in its support
for a multicultural society. Two principles remained in place which promoted
One such rule is that local programmes should reflect the multi-racial
composition of the population. In general, this presents few problems. As far as
possible, cameras would focus on shots showing mixed audiences. . . . Coupled
with this are also the requirements that there should be no stereotyping. There
Jaafar Kamin, co-author of the monograph ‘TV Programme Management in a Plural Society’ is a
Controller of TV Programs at the Malaysian Department of Broadcasting.
should also be no insinuations of colour or race. For a time this rule was
followed pedantically. (Lowe & Kamin 1982, p. 7)
By the end of the 1970s, however, RTM was beginning to receive heavy
criticism from diverse sections of Malaysian society. These sections wanted television
to stringently fulfil the dictates of nationalism. The criticisms that appeared in
newspapers and that came before the parliament challenged the place of Malaysian
television as a balanced medium for the service of both Malay-Islamic identity, and a
multicultural society. In this sense, by the close of the 1970s, there came into existence
a clear debate focused on the the role of television in Malaysian society.
The nationalists were especially critical of the purported lack of morality they
felt was inherent in both local and imported programs (Karthigesu 1994b). Religious
groups wanted more Islamic programs and in particular reproached locally produced
programs which they claim presented inaccurate teachings of Islam (Karthigesu 1994b).
Some opposition and government politicians even put pressure on Malaysian Television
to eliminate all vernacular programs (Karthigesu 1994b). Moreover, the government
continued to use television to bolster its own political power by censoring dissent.
Clearly the criticisms being thrown at RTM emanated from a number of sectors within
Malaysian society. These criticisms demonstrate what I have termed an inward outlook,
which was bolstered by the parochialism and propaganda of the ruling party.
However, there was at the time a counter to those on the right in the form of an
elite, urban, educated Malaysian middle-class who was simultaneously asking
Malaysian television to be more liberal. This view was echoed by former Prime
Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman who declared that:
[t]he quality of Malaysian television has dropped to the lowest point before the
eyes of the progressive minded of the Malaysian people. . . . Everyday we are
told about the government’s achievements. In my opinion, if we are bombarded
and forced to listen to too much about something, sooner or later we will lose
interest in it (Tunku Abdul Rahman 1978, p. 123).
According to Karthigesu (1994b) whilst it was under the control of the Ministry
Malaysian television lost its capacity to produce fair, balanced, and progressive local
programming. As a reaction to the government’s tight control over Malaysian television
broadcasting, there was a suggestion in 1977 by the newspaper The National Echo that a
private television station be established.
The private television station TV3 was established in June 1984 in response to
the trade liberalisation that occurred in Malaysia during the early 1980s. During this
time, Malaysia, like many other countries in the world, experienced a pronounced
economic slowdown. In response the Malaysian government began to sell-off some
government enterprises. Rather than establish another public television station, which
could possibly be an economic burden for the government, TV3 was planned from the
beginning as a privately owned station. The nature of Malaysian privatisation, as was
the case with TV3, was in accordance with a ‘policy of seeking private investment in
public enterprises’ (Means 1991, p. 99). Essentially, this meant that ownership of TV3
was granted to several stakeholders who had strong connections to the political parties
that formed the ruling coalition government. Hence, it has been argued that TV3 was
never a purely commercial enterprise, but rather continued to be used to disseminate
government ideology (Nain 2003).
However, since TV3 stakeholders also had a fundamental interest in making
profit, they relied heavily on imported popular culture programs to satisfy those
Malaysian viewers who wanted the latest and most popular entertainment media from
abroad. The appeal of TV3’s imported programs was their ability to connect viewers to
global events and popular culture. Prior to TV3’s launch it was publically announced
that the ratio of imported to local content would be 70:30 (Robinson, cited in Foo 2004,
p. 141). One month after TV3’s inception, the station broadcast a live telecast of the Los
Angeles Olympic Games. Karthigesu (1995) reports that TV3, in a full-page newspaper
advertisement exhorted its viewers to tune into TV3 if they wanted all that was new on
American television. For instance, in an advertisement for a new television series
entitled ‘Murder in Space,’ TV3 boasted that Malaysians were privileged to witness a
murder scene in America even before the Americans themselves were able to view it on
their televisions (New Straits Times, cited in Karthigesu 1995).
Karthigesu (1994a) contends that in the late 1980s RTM was drawn into
competition with TV3 to attract viewers. Since the arrival of TV3 there had been
increasingly stiff competition with RTM to gain an audience share. At the time, TV1
and TV2 were gradually losing viewers to TV3, and as a result advertisers were also
being lured to TV3. These situations influenced not only TV3, but also RTM, to use
imported programs to increase audience ratings for their shows (Karthigesu 1994a).
Seeing TV3’s popularity increase over time, RTM gradually allowed TV1 and TV2 to
broadcast more entertainment and commercial programs; albeit still with a stricter
degree of censorship. Moreover, in regards to locally produced programs, TV3
developed a high quality magazine program in 1985 called Majalah 3 (initially called
Berita 3, or Magazine 3) (Yassin 2004). Majalah 3 became TV3’s flagship program
and in fact still screens today. In the late 1990s, and with 2.2 million viewers, TV3 also
received the highest ratings for a local drama serial called Cinderella. The drama
portrayed a cosmopolitan, middle class Malay business woman living abroad. With such
programming TV3 increasingly gained popularity which was evidenced by its high
ratings. In light of this trend, it became clear to RTM that its effort to provide ‘quality’
home-grown programs, rather than the more popular foreign programs, was not
appealing to many viewers who were increasingly turning to commercial television
(Utusan Online 2006).
The public and private television stations had different approach toward cultural
diversity at both the national and global levels. The public stations, TV1 and TV2,
demonstrated their commitment to multiculturalism through their broadcasting policies.
TV3, however, as a commercial broadcaster, lacked a similar commitment to
multiculturalism because the station’s main objective was profit-making (Karthigesu
1995). However, through its commercial interests TV3 was committed to providing for
its viewers imported popular culture. Nevertheless TV3 remained obligated to respect
Malaysia’s sensitivity to cultural diversity by adhering to specific broadcasting rules
and Acts, particularly the Content Code, Special Licence Conditions, and the
Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998 (Ahmad 2007).
During the early years of TV3 in the 1980s global popular culture was almost
exclusively found in television programs imported from North America (Karthigesu
1995). However in 1986 this situation changed when television programs from more
diverse origins began to emerge. It was during this year that TV3 broadcast its first
telenovela from Brazil, Isaura la esclava. In 1988, the station screened Oshin, the first
drama serial from Japan. This drama series was popular in Malaysia and in other
countries. The popularity of Latin American telenovelas among Malaysian viewers led
TV3 to screen them in the prime 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. time slot from Monday to
Thursday. Drama serials from the Philippines and Korea were also screened during the
telenovela time slot. At this time TV3 also established another drama serial slot called
Sinetron from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. to screen drama serials exclusively from
IMPORTED POPULAR CULTURE ON MALAYSIAN TELEVISION STATIONS
The second argument supporting the notion of Malaysian television
cosmopolitanism is the substantial proportion of imported programs broadcast on all
FTA television stations (with the exception of TV1 after the establishment of TV2).
Because locally produced television programs could only be created under a number of
restrictions, television stations imported programs from overseas to satisfy the need of
viewers for more liberal entertainment. Foo (2004) points out the double standard
applied to local productions and foreign programs. For instance there have been many
instances in Malaysian broadcasting history where locally produced dramas and
television magazine programs have been banned by the LPF. However, the same rigid
censorship restrictions applied to local productions have not been applied to imported
programs (for specific cases see Yassin 2004, p. 160-161). The latest case involved a
Malay drama serial screened by TV3 called Sakti Delima. This television series was
banned by the LPF after four episodes. 23 The LPF states that the drama contained
superstitious elements that were in conflict with Islam (Mohd. Faizal 2011). Sheila
Rusly, the producer of Sakti Delima, argues that the LPF did not have a balanced
approach to local productions because Indonesian drama serials in particular contained
elements of superstition but were nevertheless allowed to be screen on Malaysian
television (Mohd Faizal 2011).
Sheila Rusly, the producer of Sakti Delima, questions why it was banned after initially being allowed to
air. She submitted her serial to the LPF, and the serial passed and was allowed to air. There was no
explanation by the LPF why this permission was revoked. I presume that there are two reasons for the
LPF revoking the earlier permission. Firstly, the LPF initially overlooked the restricted elements due to
its relaxed approach to mystical and horror films since 2009 (Abd. Muthalib & Eddy Yusof 2009).
Secondly, there was pressure from certain sections of society after LPF’s relaxed its approach due to the
influx of locally produced mystical and horror movies and films. Putri Umno, the young women’s wing
of the ruling party UMNO, urged the LPF to restrict this type of fiction (Mustaza 2009). An Islamic MP
from the opposition political party PAS brought a similar issue before the parliament (Utusan Online
2010). The pressure had thus reached its climax, and the LPF was required to take action. Coincidently,
Sakti Delima was again on the air in early 2011, however the series was again highly criticised and
The impact of these unwritten policies regarding the different freedoms given to
local and imported programs allowed Malaysian viewers to understand, recognise, and
in most instances respect diverse cultures and values. For instance, the female
respondents in my field location of Kampung Tabuan had little formal education but
were well aware that local Malay drama serials and movies were rigidly scrutinised by
the government. The respondents viewed locally produced dramas and programs as
being ‘safe’ and educational. Many women television viewers in Kampung Tabuan
turned to pirated, imported CDs and programs because they contain more open
depictions and storylines. Tabuan women provide an example of Malaysian viewers
who consume both locally produced and imported popular culture programs with an
awareness of cultural difference.
In 1993, Georgette Wang, a professor of communications from Taiwan’s
Chengchhi University, conducted a study of seven Asian countries, including Malaysia,
which examined the ratio of local to imported productions among the top 20 television
programs in each country. The study found that, ‘Malaysia was the only country whose
television viewers preferred imported programs to locally produced ones’ (The Straits
Times cited in Foo 2004). Moreover, in interviews with 200 teenagers conducted by
journalists from The New Straits Times in 1995, it was discovered that 128 teenagers
provided unfavourable responses when questioned about locally produced shows. The
newspaper published verbatim quotes from some of the teenagers, including the
predictable, artificial, biased, over-dramatic, lousy and simplistic;
condescending, sometimes they make me want to throw out [sic]; very poor
quality and underestimating Malaysian viewers’ mentality; bordering on
amateurish but getting there; some are good but some are just plain stupid (The
New Straits Times, cited in Foo, p. 176).
I argue that the relaxed approach to allowing a substantial number of imported
programs to air on Malaysian television is also a way for the government to fulfil the
needs of each ethnic group, with their different values and religions. In this way,
alternatives to the collective national identity in Malaysia are provided by imported
programs. With the presence of imported popular culture on television, viewers are
exposed to different standards of morality and even to controversial issues that are
forbidden in locally produced television programs. Other non-Malay, indigenous
Malaysian viewers, including the Iban in Sarawak (Postill 2006) and the Kadazandusun
in Sabah (Barlocco 2009), recognise the cultural differences that exist between Malay
and imported drama serials.
The government’s vision for an outward looking, pluralist Malaysian society
aligned with the values inherent to imported popular culture from the West in late
1960s. During this time there was a one-way flow of British and North American
popular culture to developing countries (Nordenstreng & Varis 1974) like Malaysia.
Simultaneously the influx of Western television programs in RTM was pragmatically
justified for economic reasons. For instance, at the time there were limited funds and
few experienced local film makers. In addition, most of the low budget, low quality
imported programs was inexpensive to buy, and it was more cost effective to air them
than it was to produce local programs (Karthigesu 1994b).
The broadcast of Western imported programs was more acceptable to urban
Malaysian audiences when compared to other vernacular and non-Western imported
programs. Karthigesu (1994b) reported that in the 1970s Malay nationalism was
running high after the ethnic riots of1969 and there was Malay-Muslim pressure to
remove all Chinese and Indian television programs from the mainstream station (TV1)
to (TV2). Meanwhile, Western imported popular culture continued to be broadcast on
both TV1 and TV2.
Although RTM depended heavily on North America and Britain for purchases of
imported programs, RTM also tried to ensure that imported programs brought the
educational benefits of universal values rather than being shown purely for
entertainment. According to the 1971 Deputy Information Minister, Sharif Ahmad:
It is why we stopped screening movies such as Garrison’s Gorillas, where the
Germans are always depicted as losers. The film glorifies a certain race. Mission
Impossible and the like are also unsuitable for Malaysian audiences. We prefer
to air movies such as Law of Plainsman, where an Indian is appointed as a
sheriff. This program shows equality. (My own translation from the Malay
language) (Cited in Karthigesu 1994b, p. 109)
Thirty-five years after Sharif Ahmad made this statement, TV3 continued to
claim that their imported drama serials have an educational role to play for the family.
This claim was made when TV3 was defending itself from criticism relating to the
broadcasting of the Indonesian serial Bawang Merah Bawang Putih, or BMBP (Mohd
Faizal 2006). Some sections of Malay society claimed that the serial would divert
Muslim believers from the true teaching of Islam. Whilst Santokh Singh, the then senior
manager of TV3, claimed to have understood the sensitivities of Malay viewers he
nevertheless suggested that BMBP represented Indonesian culture and beliefs rather
than those of the Malays, and therefore urged TV3 viewers to keep an open mind
(Mohd Faizal 2006).
Imported Chinese drama serials and movies, first from Taiwan and later in the
1980s from Hong Kong, ended the monopoly of Western imported programs. These
were originally broadcast to cater for ethnic Chinese viewers, but have since also
become popular among non-Chinese viewers. It was also discovered that the most costeffective way to fill Malaysian TV airtime was to import programs from Chinesespeaking countries. According to Karthigesu (1994a), Chinese-Malaysian viewers’ taste
was ‘for both Western action-oriented programs and similar programs from the Chinese
world of Hong Kong and Taiwan’ (p.85). Thus, TV3 introduced a segment called
Chinese Belt that aired Chinese drama serials from 7:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays.
On the one hand, Karthigesu (1994b) has established two standpoints (as
explained in the previous paragraphs) to explain the presence of imported popular
culture on Malaysian television stations. His two standpoints relate to firstly market
forces, and secondly the financial gain desired by television stations such as RTM and
TV3. On the other hand, I have argued that the Malaysian government has permitted the
presence of imported popular culture on Malaysian television stations because they see
it as serving the needs of different ethnic groups and thus strengthening
multiculturalism. On the surface, Khartigesu’s claims seem to weaken my substantive
argument that public television serves the government’s commitment to
multiculturalism. However, Karthigesu’s arguments for the presence of imported
popular culture are developed from the intrinsic worth of financial gain.
Simultaneously, however, imported popular culture on Malaysia’s television stations
reflects the existence of a multicultural society. The extrinsic worth in absorbing
imported popular culture is that it assists in fulfilling the Malaysian government’s vision
to engineer a pluralist, ethnically inclusive state.
In addition, Bollywood movies are broadcast on Malaysian televisions due to the
existence of Indian-origin population. For instance, the editor of Malaysia’s influential
English-language newspaper The Star claims that ‘60 percent of Malaysians are fans of
Bollywood’ (Seneviratne 2001). Even though Chinese and Bollywood shows were
initially targeted at non-Malay viewers, they have also become popular among the
Aziz, who compiled 1998 statistics related to imported programs on Malaysian
television (see Table 2), found that the total number of programs from English speaking
countries was 5,704 (cited in Yassin 2004, p. 114). After North America, imported
television programs originated from countries which included Hong Kong, Japan, and
Indonesia. In 1998, these countries contributed 4,050 programs to Malaysian television.
During the same year locally-produced Malaysian films, documentaries, drama series,
and telemovies numbered only 174 (Aziz cited in Yassin 2004, p. 113) (see Table 2).
Imports of films, animation, and documentaries by Malaysian TV stations, 1998
Programs produced by independent production companies in Malaysia, 1998-2000
From the early1990s, and primarily due to the rise of exporters of television
programs other than North America, Malaysian television stations increasingly bought
television programs from these countries. During the 2000s, for instance, Malaysian
viewers were captivated by the Korean drama serial Winter Sonata and the Mexican
telenovela Rosalinda. Both are among the highest rated to date for imported drama
serials, recording 1.2 and 1.1 million viewers respectively (Tengku Bidin 2003).
Unsurprisingly, TV3 is bolder and more active in selecting imported drama serials for
broadcast than are the government stations. The government stations demonstrate more
caution when purchasing imported drama serials because they are accountable to
national interests. For instance, TV3 screened the Indonesian drama serial Bawang
Merah Bawang Putih (BMBP) in 2006 fully aware that, because of the presence of a
pari-pari, (angel character) 24, the series would trigger controversy among Muslim
viewers (Mohd Faizal 2006). In fact, before TV3 decided to buy BMBP, RTM initially
had an interest in the purchase but rejected the serial because it knew it would offend
the sensibilities of its Muslim (i.e. Malay) viewers. RTM’s decision reflects the tension
that exists in serving both conservative and liberal viewers. Maintaining political
integrity was deemed to be more important than commercial success. BMBP went on to
become a national hit with ratings of 2.9 to 3.1 million viewers, exceeding Winter
Sonata and Rosalinda in the early 2000s (Mohd Faizal 2006).
THE HYBRIDISATION OF TELEVISION POPULAR CULTURE PROGRAMS
Finally, the cosmopolitan outlook of Malaysian television can be illustrated
through the process of hybridisation which has occurred between imported popular
culture, and local programs. A cosmopolitan outlook comes into existence through
hybridisation. According to Wang (2010) the number of adapted programs broadcast on
Malaysian television is increasing. In the case of Malaysian television, hybridisation
occurs when locally produced popular culture programs are encouraged by the state to
incorporate moderate Islam, selected appropriations of Western modernity, and other
elements deemed suitable from imported popular culture into the production of local
Muslims believes that pari-pari (angels) should not be depicted.
popular culture programs. Meanwhile, imported popular culture programs are filtered
and monitored to eliminate material which is thought to be unsuitable for Malaysian
audiences. My argument is that government censorship bodies which edit foreign
programs and censor local adaptations of foreign programs are two significant forms of
The term adaptation (as distinct from hybridisation) is commonly used to
describe the process through which global programs become localised. The term
adaptation means ‘to change (something or yourself) to suit different conditions or
uses’ (Cambridge International Dictionary of English 1995, p. 14). Hybridisation, on
the other hand, is a term originally used in biology. A hybrid refers to ‘a plant or animal
that has been produced from two different types of plant or animal, esp. to get better
characteristics, or anything that is a mixture of two different things’ (Cambridge
International Dictionary of English 1995, p. 696). In post-colonial studies, hybridity
symbolised power (see the discussion on hybridity in Chapter 3).
In response to globalisation, the Malaysian government enforced hybridity in
popular culture to produce a ‘third space’ (Bhabha 1994). This third space created the
opportunity for a new cultural identity formed from the complex interplay of an inward
and outward outlook. Taken from this view, the government’s censorship policies are a
pro active strategy to confront the effects of globalization.
The adaptation of imported popular culture is practiced in two ways. Firstly, it is
carried out through the purchase of copyright (Wang 2010). In such cases, the format of
the original programs is retained. However, these programs are modified to reflect the
local culture through, for instance, the incorporation of local actors, languages, and
settings (Moorti 2004). The purchase of copyright from foreign culture industries has
occurred globally. Malaysia purchases the copyright to programs including Who Wants
to Be a Millionaire?, or Siapa nak Jadi Jutawan?; Wheel of Fortune, or Roda Impian;
and American Idol, or Malaysian Idol; and a popular and controversial Mexican reality
program called Akademi Fantasia, or La Academia. The latter was adapted in 2003 by
the Malaysian Satellite television Astro (Maliki 2008) and is still airing on Malaysian
television. The first Malay version of a Venezuelan telenovela was Mi Gorda Bella
(Manjalara in Malay title) which screened on TV3 in 2007 (Ghazali 2007).
The diverse origins of imported popular culture are celebrated. Since the late
1990s Malaysian television stations have benefited from a growth in global popular
culture from other than English speaking countries. For instance Malaysian audiences
are exposed to adapted programs from United Kingdom (Siapa nak Jadi Jutawan?),
North America (Roda Impian and Malaysian Idol), Mexico (Akademi Fantasia) and
Venezuela (Manjalara). In such instances the LPF does not interfere in the production
decisions taken by local television stations. In this sense, the government does not
enforce any preference for the particular origin of imported cultural elements to be
shown on Malaysian television as long as they have been through a process of adaption.
The second process of adaptation occurred when the local culture industry
incorporated certain foreign values in the production of its local programs. Wang
(2010), refers to this form of adaptation as ‘cloned’ or ‘copied’ television programs (p.
28). This process does not involve the acquisition of copyright. Karthigesu (1994a)
Local artistes now have to dress, sing, sway and rock in Hollywood style. Local
drama writers have to incorporate a certain amount of violence and sex so that
their dramas will catch the attention of the audience trained in the Hollywood
model. (p. 88).
In the 1990s Karthigesu observed that locally produced musical and drama programs
needed to incorporate representations of Western culture if they wanted to attract the
interest of Malaysian audiences. For instance, North American popular culture depicts a
far greater degree of freedom and creativity with regards to costumes and actor
behaviour, which seems to appeal to certain Malaysian viewers, but not the nationalists,
who strongly uphold Malay-Muslim cultural identity. Whilst criticisms of these
‘unsuitable cultural elements’ are given voice by concerned Malay-Muslim citizens in
the editorial columns of newspapers or are debated in the parliament, these views have
never caused the government to prohibit the production of adapted television programs.
The government often reacts to this criticism by ‘counselling’ the program directors if
some concerned citizens or politicians are of the opinion that the program may be
violating certain codes or offending local cultural sensibilities. Because of this foreign
culture elements adapted to the Malaysian context have generally flourished. They also
inevitably follow global popular culture trends patterned on MTV, action dramas, game
shows, drama serials, reality TV shows and telenovelas.
Some copied programs are recognisable. For instance, the police drama Chips has
been adapted in Malaysia to Gerak Khas, or Special Force, and SWAT to Skuad Elite.
According to Wang (2010) 80% of adapted programs are in the form of copied
programs (Wang 2010, p. 30). These action programs have less depictions of overt
sexual behaviour, and tend not to be too controversial. In fact, they promote a
favourable image and highlight the service of the Malaysian police task force and offer
an insight into their work and life which are rarely seen by the Malaysian public.
FILTRATION IN MALAYSIA
The filtration of popular culture in Malaysia of both locally-produced programs
and imported popular culture is pervasive. The most prominent of the five regulatory
censorship bodies that monitor and filter popular culture content is the LPF (The Film
Censorship Board of Malaysia). The LPF is the authority whose regulations all
television producers, filmmakers, and program importers must abide by. The LPF was
formed by the Malaysian government under Section 3 of the Film Act (Censorship) of
1952 (revised in 1971) (Foo 2004). With regards to the preservation of national identity,
the LPF censors those elements of popular culture which might contradict national
aspirations and Malay-Islamic values (Abdullah 2001). With regards to fostering good
relationships between countries, the LPF censors those elements that are perceived
disrespectful to foreign leaders (Abdullah 2001).
The LPF board’s chairperson, deputy chairperson, and its 63 members are
recommended by the Ministry of Home Affairs and appointed by the Supreme Ruler of
Malaysia, or Yang DiPertuan Agong. The Yang DiPertuan Agong is the highest patron
of Islam and protector of Malay customs in Malaysia. To ensure that the LPF’s
decisions conform to government policy, the majority of its appointees are retired
Malay senior civil servants (New Straits Times cited in Foo 2004, p. 114). The LPF
draws on a substantial number of rules, policies and guidelines to vet television
programs, including the Federal Constitution, Internal Security Act, Printing Presses
and Publications Act, Seditious Act, Police Act, Penal code, Defamation Act, Official
Secret Act, Broadcasting Code of Ethics, National ideology (Rukunegara), Islamic
(Sharia) law as well as recommendations from various government organisations (Foo
2004, pp. 123-124).
The LPF in-house censorship guidelines are known by their acronym VHS
which refers to violence, horror, and sex. These three elements are censored if the LPF
authority finds any images, offensive scenes or conversations deemed offensive to
Malay-Islamic culture. Sexual references are a significant element of popular culture
shows, and are a major concern of LPF and certain sections of the Malaysian public
alike. Malaysian attitudes towards open references to sex are more conservative than in
Western countries. For the LPF, physical intimacy (for example, bedroom scenes,
kissing, and hugging), revealing clothing, and open discussions about sex are generally
prohibited. Because sexual references frequently occur in imported popular culture
shows it is difficult for them to be completely censored. For instance, it is impossible to
censor women characters attired in a revealing manner. This example illustrates the fact
that LPF censorship of imported popular culture shows is often limited. Foo (2004)
highlights an interesting newspaper report about the LPF censoring a sexual reference in
the film Nine Months. The word ‘penis,’ spoken by Hugh Grant when he wanted to
know the sex of his child, was censored by the LPF. Foo (2004) regards this is an
extreme case of misjudgement between what is a stated fact and sexual conversation.
The second regulatory censorship body includes government agencies such as
the Religious Department and the Ministry of Home Affairs, both of which must be
consulted by local producers before filming can begin. For shows that involve sensitive
issues; such as those associated with religion, crime, and law, producers must seek
approval for the script.
The third regulating body is the television station itself. Each station has a
policy of allowing its producers to self-censor. Most conform to this in order for their
work to be bought and broadcast on television. For example, although all television
stations are careful when depicting or discussing racial issues, TV1 and TV2 are stricter
in their handling of these issues. The preference of TV3 is to portray urban, modern,
and wealthy lifestyles and to limit the depiction of poverty in society due to its target
urban demographic. Wealth is depicted through expensive houses with elaborate
furniture, luxury cars, Western overseas education, and fashionable clothes. Thus, it is
common to watch Malay dramas with a plot that revolves around wealthy, urban and
The fourth regulating body is the laws governing the mass media. Since the
spread of satellite television and the Internet in Malaysia from the mid-1990s, the
government has shifted its attention from the regulation of conventional broadcasting
(i.e. radio and television) to the regulation of new and more diverse technologies of the
communications and multimedia industry. The communications and multimedia
industry refers to the Internet, conventional broadcasting and mobile phone
technologies. The creation of new mass media technologies led the Malaysian
government to repeal the Telecommunications Act of 1950 and the Broadcasting Act of
1988. Whilst in existence these governed conventional telecom operators and
broadcasters respectively (Kitley & Nain 2003). 25 The government then proclaimed the
Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998.
On the one hand, these new communications and multimedia technologies have
re-positioned Malaysia’s television industry, allowing it to embrace dynamic
convergence technologies such as the 3G mobile television service which allows users
to view programs on their mobile phones. On the other hand, these advances in
technology have not lessened the degree of government control over the broadcasting
industry (Kitley & Nain 2003).
The fifth regulatory censorship body is the prime minister of the ruling Malay
political party (UMNO) who speaks on behalf of the ruling coalition party Barisan
Nasional. UMNO enforces the highest level of censorship and is capable of overriding
all the other previously mentioned.
According to Kitley & Nain (2003) [t]the Communication and Multimedia Act of 1998 (C&C Act)
speaks a new language. The Act is written in the globalised language of the cyber sphere, the language of
information and communications technology. Familiar words such as television, radio and broadcasting
are not mentioned in the Act. It speaks of ‘network facilities’ and network service providers,’ and of
‘content applications service providers’ (p. 88).
Despite the official regulatory censorship body, there is an informal monitoring
body consists of members of the public as well as opposition political figures.
Criticisms of imported television programs often come from Malay politicians and
religious leaders. These critics are often supported by the print media – which is again
owned or managed by people who have a close relationship with UMNO. This sort of
criticism can be used to advantage by the government in its role as censor. For instance,
many of the critics of imported television content derive from the ranks of UMNO,
PAS, and government-run Islamic agencies and departments who garner support from
conservative sections of the public.
However, not all criticism of foreign films results in action. The council of
Islamic Jurists, or Mufti, has suggested that Bollywood movies should be limited due to
their negative influence (Seneviratne 2001). In this case, the then Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad was asked whether Bollywood movies had contributed to a highprofile rape case (Utusan Online 2001). He responded by suggesting that there should
be a detailed study to justify the claim (Utusan Online 2001) and that he disagreed with
the recommendation by the council to boycott Bollywood movies. Ironically, during the
same press conference, Mahathir condemned the negative influence of lyrics in Western
songs on Malaysian youth. Another criticism which did not result in any censorship
action being taken was directed at one of the most popular imported drama serials
among female Malaysian viewers, the Indonesian production Bawang Merah Bawang
Putih, which aired from 2006 to 2007 on TV3 during the 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. timeslot. A Member of Parliament named Rahmah Idris raised the issue during the UMNO
General Assembly, 26 arguing that Bawang Merah Bawang Putih was becoming an
addiction for women, who because of it were neglecting their household duties. Idris
The UMNO General Assembly is held annually. It is a political gathering of UMNO members to
address the challenges faced by the party.
urged the Ministry of Information to look into the matter. A local newspaper reported
Our women are so engrossed in watching the drama serials that they cannot go
anywhere and those at work don’t pick up their telephones. (New Straits Times,
18th November 2006).
HYBRIDITY IN THE MALAY MINI DRAMA SERIAL: SEPUTIH QASEH
In the following section, I further explore the cosmopolitan outlook of modern
Malaysian television through a locally produced Malay mini-series that was broadcast
on TV3 in September 2006. The drama, Seputih Qaseh Ramadhan (SQR) was first
mentioned in Chapter 1 and was chosen for analysis in this section because it was one
of the most popular dramas watched by Tabuan women during the course of my
fieldwork. As a locally made Malay drama production it contained appropriate (i.e.
moderate) Islamic values and promoted multiculturalism and Western modernity. SQR
conformed to censorship guidelines and did not invoke any public criticism from its
viewers. Since SQR was set during Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims, the drama
depicted the religious practices of Muslims in the fasting month.
Qaseh is the female protagonist in the Malay drama serial Seputih Qaseh
Ramadhan. Qaseh is a young, naïve, an ordinary young woman who marries Ridzuan,
the son of a wealthy business woman. Ridzuan’s mother Umi opposes their marriage.
Whilst trying to protect her husband from charges of drug possession, Qaseh provides a
false confession to the police and is imprisoned for several years. When she is finally
released, she is unable to see her husband and children again because Ridzuan has
married another woman. Qaseh’s story is of a loyal, suffering wife and mother who has
been abandoned by her ungrateful husband and mother in-law. However, with the
assistance of her best friend, an Indian woman who was her former neighbour, Qaseh
starts a new life. She also receives the sympathy of her lawyer Johan, who helped Qaseh
to prove her innocence. Johan falls in love with Qaseh, but she does not accept his
proposal of marriage. The story ends when Qaseh dies after being diagnosed with
Inward and Outward Outlooks in Seputih Qaseh Ramadhan
Throughout the drama Qaseh was dressed in baju kurung and loose headscarf –
traditional dress which symbolises an uneducated, rural Malay woman. In fact it is
uncommon to see an urban Malay woman in other television dramas wearing authentic
traditional Malay attire. 27 In the role of wife and daughter in-law, Qaseh was afforded
stereotypical Malay-Muslim woman’s qualities: blind loyalty to a husband, nonassertiveness, naivety, and humility. Qaseh also takes a firm stance against the lure of
an extramarital relationship. Although Qaseh’s appearance is typical of an uneducated
rural woman, she nevertheless demonstrates confidence in managing her life in different
contexts: alongside her wealthy mother in-law, in an urban law firm, and in her
friendship with her Indian neighbour. As a mother, Qaseh shows her assertiveness and
fights tirelessly to get her children back.
The main characters in SQR are depicted as having different lifestyles. In
contrast to Qaseh’s working class background, Maria, Ridzuan’s second wife, wears a
blonde wig and Western fashions. Maria is depicted as speaking English in some
conversations and dines in upmarket hotels. However, her husband Ridzuan is depicted
as a devout Muslim who observes all the religious practices of Ramadan. Qaseh’s best
I consider the baju kurung and a loose headscarf, which exposes part of a woman’s hair, to be an
authentic traditional Malay costume. Today, Malay-Islamic women commonly wear the Arab-style hijab,
which covers the hair, neck, and shoulders.
friend, Dewi, wears a sari to demonstrate her Indian ethnicity. In fact it is uncommon in
Malay dramas to have people of different ethnicities form close friendships.
Based on both her appearance and personality it is clear Qaseh is not being
portrayed as a cosmopolitan woman. She has no broad vision for humankind as is
commonly attributed to cosmopolitans. 28 Qaseh is a humble wife who represents an
authentic Malay woman. Although Qaseh’s character illustrates more of an inward
outlook, she still embraces ethnic difference in her relationship with Dewi. An outward
outlook, however, can be detected through both the juxtaposition of the different
lifestyles of the supporting characters, and through the hybridisation of Malay, Islamic,
and Western values which are contained in the drama. Another example of an outward
outlook is the portrayal of Maria’s character Maria epitomises the hybrid identity which
straddles Western and Malay ways of life, elements of which have given birth to
ostentatious Malay middle-class lifestyles.
The government, through its agencies and departments including the LPF and
JAKIM, monitor the adaptation of foreign popular culture in the local production of
Malay dramas aired on Malaysian televisions. For instance, the adaptation of cultural
elements, such as in the drama serial Seputih Qaseh Ramadhan, is used to enhance the
government’s ideology on Islam, multiculturalism and national development. The
government’s intervention in the drama’s hybrid process that my study has pointed out
adds to the existing practices of ‘borrowing’ in Malay culture. Whilst Kahn (2006)
demonstrates that Malay hybrid culture is used by a non-government interest; a Malay
film director in the wake of anti-colonisation movement of Malaya, in 1950s.
A cosmopolitan man attribute includes having a stance towards a world problem. Turner (2007)
stresses this point through an example of an Indonesian artist, Dandang Christianto. He (Dandang
Christianto) said, ‘I am concerned with suffering anywhere in the world . . . yesterday Kosovo, today East
Timor’ (p. 79).
In addition, Kahn (2006) also contends that Malay culture is cosmopolitan
through the recognition of hybrid elements that exist in Malay culture through a
continuation of social processes that have always characterised Malay culture. His
further contention is that hybridity is the process which breeds cosmopolitanism.
Free-to-air Malaysian television stations are sites of cultural diversity. Their
openness in embracing other cultures reflects a cosmopolitan outlook. Western
programs, including movies and dramas series, are aired on FTA Malaysian television
stations in significant numbers. The entertainment needs of the Indian and Chinese
ethnic groups in Malaysia have resulted in Bollywood and Chinese movies, and dramas
from Hong Kong and Taiwan, becoming increasingly popular among Malaysian
viewers. In addition, the non-Western telenovelas and drama serials from Latin
America, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Thailand have emerged since in
the middle 1980s. The least degree of foreignness characterises popular foreign
programs adapted to the local environment.
This chapter has demonstrated the tension brought about by foreign programs in
some sections of Malaysian society. There are different opinions within Malaysian
society regarding the impact of imported programs, especially in terms of the values
they transmit to Malaysian audiences. The inward looking nationalists have consistently
pressured the government to more strictly monitor both imported and locally produced
programs. Although imported programs are monitored and censored by several
government bodies, this does not mean that imported popular culture is rejected in a
wholesale manner, for there are some elements that are highly valued in Malaysian
society. The FTA public and private television stations embrace selected Malay,
Islamic, Western, Southeast Asian, Asian and Latin America values, balancing
government control with the need to gain commercial benefits by serving viewers from
diverse ethnic groups, classes, and educational background.
CHANGES IN THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND TENSION IN WOMEN’S ROLES IN
KAMPUNG TABUAN MELAYU
Kampung Tabuan Melayu (popularly known as Kampung Tabuan) expanded
rapidly in the 1980s as a settlement of coastal Sarawak Malay migrants, particularly
from the suburban areas of Kuching and Kuching Division, as well as Malays from
other coastal areas in Sarawak. The capital city of the state of Sarawak is Kuching. 29
Coastal Sarawak Malays (Melayu Pesisir) are also known as orang laut (people of the
sea) or orang hutan (people of the forest). Both terms have negative connotations as
they commonly refer to ‘backward people’ from the coastal areas and the interior of
Sarawak (Puteh 2005). Within the Sarawak Malay community, coastal Malays are
thought to hold a low status. This labelling is prevalent among the small number of
more established Kuching Malays who have resided in the city since the pre-colonial
period, and who gained power and privilege during the Brooke family rule from
This Chapter has two aims. The first aim is to investigate the factors that have
contributed to tensions within women’s roles in Kampung Tabuan. The primary factor
contributing to this tension is the marginalisation of coastal Sarawak Malays, in
particular men, in Kampung Tabuan stemming from urbanisation. For example, one of
the negative impacts of rapid urbanisation has been the involvement of Tabuan men and
youth in illegal activities, including theft, drug addiction and trafficking, and gambling.
Despite the existing low status of coastal Sarawak Malays in general, Tabuan men’s
involvement in crime, high rates of under-employment and their relative poverty have
Kuching is the name of the capital city of the state and the name of one of eleven divisions in Sarawak.
Kuching Division encompasses three districts, namely Kuching, Lundu, and Bau.
led to their stigmatisation in Kuching. Here, stigmatisation is a contributing factor to the
marginalisation of the residents of Kampung Tabuan.
The stigmatisation of Kampung Tabuan settlement and the population occurs
within two levels. The first level is in the broader context of Kuching society. Due to
their involvement in crime, sometimes aggressive behaviour and status as squatters
within their village, Kampung Tabuan settlement is labelled by outsiders as being
populated by unpredictable and violent people. Most of the Tabuan residents whom I
met were aware of the negative image attached to their community. In some cases it is
an image which contributes to feelings of shame, isolation and anxiety. The second
level of stigmatisation occurs from within the community, in instances when villagers
themselves employ the same stereotypes to condemn those in the community who are
directly involved in crime and as a result tarnishing the village’s reputation. In other
words, villagers reproduce the label within Kampung Tabuan community. This chapter
describes both levels of stigmatisation of Kampung Tabuan by outsiders. The type of
stigmatisation occurring from within the community is detailed in Chapter 8, where
Tabuan mothers engage in the process of enacting stigma to abjectify those in their
neighbourhood who are the carriers of social problems.
The second aim of this chapter is to examine the impact of the marginalisation
of Kampung Tabuan on women’s roles, specifically the impact it has had on the role of
housewife in the village. In addition, the television viewing among Tabuan housewives
is identified as a source of learning and support in negotiating social and economic
change in the community.
The following section provides a brief historical background to the expansion of
Kuching town during British rule. This short period was characterised by rapid
urbanisation from which new settlements emerged, including Kampung Tabuan. These
new urban migrants created a pool of unskilled labour to further fuel Kuching’s
development. Kampung Tabuan became a settlement housing rural-to-urban coastal
Sarawak Malays migrants who were seeking employment in Kuching. Based on
previous research on Malay communities in Peninsular Malaysia (Raymond Firth 1966;
Rosemary Firth 1966) and the Sarawak Malays (Harrisson 1970), I examine coastal
Sarawak Malays in the context of the peasant economy in order to explain the economic
and social changes that shaped the lives of coastal Sarawak Malays have experienced.
The primary focus of this historical exploration is on coastal Sarawak Malay women’s
roles as mothers and wives.
RURAL-URBAN MIGRATION: KAMPUNG TABUAN AND ITS RELATIONS WITH
THE DEVELOPMENT OF KUCHING
The Sarawak River basin was the centre of three generations of Brooke family
rule in Sarawak. The Brooke family’s administration lasted for 100 years, from 18411941. On the 11th of September 1941, Sarawak fell under the control of the occupying
Japanese Army. After the Japanese surrender in 1946, Sarawak again came under the
administrative control of the Brooke family. However, due to their inability to manage
the economic and political situation in Sarawak after World War II, Vyner Brooke
ceded Sarawak to the British in the same year. In 1963, Sarawak gained independence
from Britain by joining the Federation of Malaysia.
During the 17 years of British rule Kuching experienced rapid development
(Reece 1982). During this period, community development projects, such as the
building of schools and hospitals, the installation of a public bus service, the expansion
of Kuching airport and its runway, and the establishment of postal and
telecommunications services, were improved and expanded as a result of increased
government funding allocated to public services (Porrit 1997). Commercial
development in the forestry, industrial, and mining sectors also contributed additional
capital to infrastructure in Kuching town. For instance, Kuching Port at Tanah Puteh,
which is located close to Kampung Tabuan, was built under the 1955–1960
Development Plan (Porrit 1997).
Kampung Tabuan is situated within the industrial and commercial area of
Pending suburb. In 2006, Kampung Tabuan had an estimated population of 10,808. 30
The village, or kampung, is located to the south-east of Kuching city. It is a suburban
village of rural migrants of coastal Sarawak Malays from different coastal regions of
Sarawak. In order to collect basic demographic data (see a detailed discussion about the
survey in Chapter 2) I conducted a three-part survey of 30 Tabuan women. Of these 30
women, 56.6% (17 participants) identified their birth place as being either Kampung
Tabuan, Kuching or elsewhere in the wider Kuching Division. The remaining women
originated from either Samarahan Division (a neighbouring division close to Kuching)
or another division in Sarawak. Those women who identified Kampung Tabuan as their
place of origin were the second generation of earlier rural migrants.
The Department of Statistics Malaysia conducts an official census every ten years and the latest was in
2000. According to the 2000 census, the Tabuan Melayu population was 9,544. The population in 2006
was calculated based on the rate of increase of the Sarawak population of 2.1% per year.
Sub-kampung within Kampung Tabuan Melayu: Tabuan Hilir, Tabuan Tengah, Tabuan
Lot and Tabuan Dani, and their neighbourhoods
Tabuan Lot 31 emerged as a suburban settlement of Kuching city in the early 1960s. It is
one of four villages that exist within a larger settlement known as Kampung Tabuan
Melayu. In other words, it is a village within a village. The other three kampung in
Kampung Tabuan Melayu are; Tabuan Hilir, Tabuan Tengah, and Tabuan Dani. These
villages are located on the banks of the Tabuan River (see Map 2). The oldest village,
Tabuan Hilir, was established in the 1900s. Kampung Tabuan Melayu is distinct from
any of the previously established Malay settlements in the Sarawak River basin that
have existed since the 1800s. Kampung Tabuan is a more recent settlement further to
the south-east of the Sarawak River basin.
According to Rosli Sibli, the village headman of Tabuan Lot, the first settlers of
Kampung Tabuan were in fact not Malay at all but Iban. The new settlement, Kampung
Tabuan Hilir, was later granted to the Malays as a gesture of friendship. However,
during the 1960s, Kampung Tabuan Lot saw an influx of Sarawakian Malays who had
become dislocated from other areas of Kuching town. This dislocation was primarily
due to the enactment of the Town and Country Planning Ordinance (1952) and the Land
Ordinance (Control of Subdivision) of 1954. Both these enactments were aimed at
achieving more systematic and controlled township development in Kuching (Porrit
1997, p. 255). For instance, some of the land in Kuching town was appropriated by the
British administration in order to develop commercial and government office
complexes, as well as to increase the proportion of available residential land. As a
result, those who had occupied the land in Kuching town that the government wanted to
develop were forced to leave. This is precisely what happened to Sulaiman’s family,
one of the earliest families to settle in Tabuan Lot. He was seven years old when, in the
early 1960s, about 10 families, including his own, were ordered by the government to
I spent more time doing participation observation in Tabuan Lot than in the other villages of Kampung
move out of their squatter residences in Bukit Sabun. Bukit Sabun was appropriated by
the government in order to develop a planned housing estate – and so any squatters
living in the area were evicted. These families, however, did receive permission to
relocate; although according to Sulaiman, they did not receive any form of
compensation or were not automatically entitled to a title of land elsewhere. The
squatters were ultimately directed by government authorities to relocate further south of
Kuching town across the Tabuan River.
In a similar manner to the development of Kuching city centre, the flow of
migrants to Kampung Tabuan from other divisions of Sarawak has steadily increased
since1960s. These were, for the most part, non-skilled male workers looking for job
opportunities in the newly emerging and fast-developing Kuching urban centre. 32 The
early development projects in Kuching town under British rule accelerated with postindependence development under the Malaysian Federation. This further created job
opportunities for migrants in Tabuan Melayu, who were by now increasingly finding
employment in the security services, transportation, and small-scale business sectors.
Traditionally, however, public servants under the Brooke administration had
been sourced from established Sarawak Malay families who resided in villages in the
Sarawak River basin and Kuching town area. This privilege had raised their socioeconomic status above that of the more recently arrived coastal Malays. According to
Puteh (2005), for instance, the more established Kuching Malays ‘have always prided
themselves as being at the pinnacle of Malay culture’ (p. 25). He adds that Kuching
Malays differentiate themselves from coastal Malays through ‘sophisticated elevation in
dress, dialect, education, economic status, and social etiquette’ (Puteh 2005, p. 25).
The Local Authority Ordinance was passed in 1948 to give the Governor of Sarawak the power to form
local authorities for governance and administration purposes. Kuching Municipal Council emerged as the
first local authority in Sarawak in 1956. Despite its then recent establishment, many significant
community projects were carried out in late 1950s (Porrit 1997).
THE MALAYS: GENDER RELATIONS AND THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN MALAYA
AND COASTAL SARAWAK MALAY PEASANT COMMUNITIES
Because of the economic structure of traditional Malay communities in
Peninsular Malaysia, many anthropologists had initially come to the conclusion that the
Malays typically constitute a peasant society. This is evident, for instance, in studies
undertaken in Malay fishing communities in Kelantan, North Terengganu (Firth,
Rosemary 1966; Firth, Raymond 1966), and Langkawi Island (Carsten 1997). Peasantry
is a term which refers to communities that make a living from either fishing or
agriculture (Scott 1985; Swift 1965). A peasant economy is one which demonstrates
‘relatively simple, non-mechanical technology; small-scale production units; and a
substantial production for subsistence as well as for market’ (Firth, R 1966, p. 5). A
peasant economy, therefore, is one that does not typically depend on foreign markets.
Because of the nature of their economic activities, scholars have associated coastal
Sarawak Malays with peasantry (Said 1985; Ishikawa 1998); in particular fishing and
petty riverine trading 33 (Said 1985).
The Kampung Tabuan community can also be identified as a ‘peasant society’
because of its ‘hierarchical arrangement’ (Xaxa 2010, p. 86) when compared to the
wider society. Kampung Tabuan has a lower social status compared with other Malay
communities in Kuching. This has been acquired through the work they are involved in
where the type of work that characterising peasantry is manual labour (Xaxa 2012).
Most of Kampung Tabuan dwellers work as manual labours for the service industry,
construction and manufacturing in Kampung Tabuan’s neighbourhood city centres,
including Kuching and Pending.
Riverine Malay petty traders exchanged beads, salt, and brass for Dayak rice and jungle products
upriver, as well as for sago with the Melanau (Lockard 1987). This traditional barter trade had gradually
diminished by 1900 due to the presence of Chinese commercial traders (Lockard 1987).
In Malaya during the 1940s, the subsistence economy of the coastal Sarawak
Malays – unlike the fishing communities in Kelantan and Terengganu – was more
diverse. For example, coastal Sarawak Malays participated in a variety of aquatic as
well as land and swamp-based economic activities. 34 The most significant
anthropological study of the everyday lives of coastal Sarawak Malay men and women
was conducted by Harrisson (1970). 35 According to Harrisson, fishing took place at
riverbanks, river mouths, and offshore. Land-based economic pursuits included rubber
tapping, the cultivation of coconuts, rice, bananas, and tapioca on plantations, and the
collection of edible produce from jungles and swamps. The latter included mangrove
wood, nipah (from the nypa tree), bamboo, rattan, and seasonal jungle nuts, including
illipe and chestnut. Most of these activities were seasonal and primarily undertaken for
subsistence, with only a small surplus for sale. Harrisson reported that women assisted
men in rice cultivation and the gathering of palm leaves and jungle fruits.
Harrisson suggested that at the time of his research women in coastal Sarawak
Malay villages spent 90% of their time performing their duties as housewives and
mothers. He reported that a great deal of their time was spent at the ‘washing-place.’
At the present time, then, a very large part of most women’s lives is spent
around and largely inside the house, or in the immediate vicinity, with the
maximum ordinary range as far away as the village well or washing-pool, where
almost every day there is intense activity on their own laundry. . . . This
washing-place is the centre of feminine communal activity. Hours are spent
there, in gentle massage of sarongs and vests, while all the topics that women
talk about are talked about and talked about again. The idea of getting anyone
else’s household to take in your laundry is unthinkable (except in the period
after childbirth) (Harrisson 1970, p. 349).
Depending on the geographical environment of the village, every village specialised in two or three
This published research was the result of fieldwork from 1958 to 1968, during which Harrisson
investigated eight Malay villages in the Lundu and Kuching districts of south-west Sarawak.
According to Harrisson, laundry is not merely a woman’s chore for it allows them to
socialise with others from their neighbourhood. The washing-place exists as a public
forum for women to meet and discuss issues that they find important in their daily lives.
In respect to woman’s role as mother, Harrisson (1970, p. 351) contends that,
[a]lthough Malays by no manner of means think of women merely as potential
mothers, in Sarawak this motherhood role is elevated to an exceptionally high
position among them. Being a Malay ‘housewife’, in usually a simple home with
a simple diet and a family largely working away and used to simple things
anyway, is not a quarter so onerous as being a Malay ‘mother’. Yet no one is so
sorry as a Malay non-mother, who will eagerly adopt other children including
Chinese by purchase ($80-$160; 1952-6).
Motherhood is highly regarded in Sarawakian Malay society and the presence of
children is an asset for the family. The preoccupation coastal Malay women often
display in caring for their children and performing household duties is directly related to
the status they gain by raising children.
The considerable amount of disposable time women have to devote to their
children and to household chores is also a consequence of the emergence of
consumerism in Sarawak during the British administration in the 1960s. Harrisson has
claimed that prior to this housewives were engaged in the time consuming tasks of
‘weaving, mat and basket-making, and preparing special foodstuffs, spices pastes and so
on’ (p. 354). These were laboriously prepared for consumption in the home. However,
at the time of Harrisson’s study, these items, including ‘clothing, cooking-fats,
illuminants and many items of food’ (p. 354), could be easily and cheaply purchased.
During this period of rapid socio-economic change in the 1960s, women in
ethnic communities, such as the (urban) Chinese and (high status) Kelabit, took the
opportunity to gain more education and become more involved in the formal economy
(Harrisson 1970). In contrast to these ethnic groups, coastal Malay women lacked the
self-determination to embrace these same opportunities and remained trapped in what
Harrisson considered to be devalued activities within the household. The substantial
amount of time spent at home was thus criticised by Harrisson, who argued that coastal
Malay women do not contribute to the economic or social development of their
communities. Harrisson was astounded that coastal Sarawak Malay women were able to
spend a day without doing anything ‘beneficial.’ For instance, he argued that:
It astonishes, it bewilders, it infuriates educated Chinese or European females of
my acquaintance (including my understanding wife) to see and hear the way in
which a Malay woman can and does spend her day in the delta, if no reason for
spending it otherwise operates. For it is true enough that most of those good
ladies are perfectly capable of ‘spending all day doing nothing’ (in my wife’s
sense of that, to use her uncomplimentary term) (Harrisson 1970, p. 357).
He also makes the observation that coastal Malay women never read books at
home – commenting that ‘we have not seen an adult woman read a book here in over
ten years’ (p. 352). Harrisson‘s assumption was probably that book reading and
education more generally are indicative of a progressive society and as a means to
empower individuals to embrace change in society. Whilst Harrisson suggests that both
Malay men and women were comfortable in a subsistence economy, there was some
evidence to suggest that some of the women in his study wanted to change their life
conditions to gain higher levels of education and participate in the workforce. He
claimed, that ‘women want to live new and different lives’ (Harrisson 1970, p. 356).
However, he cites Islam as of the primary reason for Malay women’s inability to grasp
the opportunities being taken by women in other ethnic communities. In this regard, he
blames the conservatism of Islamic teaching and religious institutions, dominated by
men, who failed to inspire women to seek social and economic advancement. What is
clear is that at this time no direction or policy initiatives were implemented by either the
British administrators, or local religious authorities, to advance rural Malay women.
It was not only Malay women, however, who found the transformation from
subsistence to market economy to be problematic. Men similarly found this to be
challenging as they had typically maintained lives where they would ‘work on the basis
of satisfying fairly simple needs, with [the] occasional ‘spree’ within the sane moderate
limits of cash expenditure (Hari Raya, [religious celebration for Muslims] clothes,
kids)’ (Harrisson 1970, p.168). In short, Harrisson argued that during British rule the
livelihood and lifestyles of coastal Sarawak Malay still centred on subsistence
production and they had not begun to adapt to, or plan for, a market economy.
In another community study of coastal Sarawak Malays, this time in the frontier
region of the western border of Sarawak and Kalimantan (in Indonesia), Ishikawa
(1998) has argued that this peasant community had been marginalised through the
introduction of a market economy. Their exclusion stemmed from an inability to
participate in commercial agricultural production during the Brooke family’s rule. He
Their exclusion from capitalist agriculture led to further differentiation within
the Malay ethnic category and the class structure. This economically
marginalised population on the fringe of state territory then became culturally
stigmatized, being pushed to the outer rim of the ethnic category “Sarawak
Malay.” (Ishikawa 1998, pp. 1-2).
Ishikawa’s study adds support to the argument that the emergence of a market
economy in Sarawak led to the economic marginalisation of coastal Sarawak Malay
communities; not only in relation to other ethnic groups, but also between Sarawak
Malay communities. The market economy further entrenched the unequal relationship
between the established Kuching Malays and the rural coastal Malays (Ishikawa 1998).
In contrast to Ishikawa’s (1998) claim, Harrisson’s (1970) view was that the
marginalisation of coastal Malays was primarily due to their lack of self-determination;
their incapability to cope with socio-economic change; and a lack of assistance from
political and religious authorities to advance their position.
The following section investigates the particular situation of Kampung Tabuan
and the dynamic commercial and industrial area of Pending. The development of
Pending has depended on the cheap, unskilled labour provided by men such as those
from Kampung Tabuan.
GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC CONDITION OF KAMPUNG
Kuching is divided into two city municipalities: the North Kuching City
Municipal Council (NKCMC) and the South Kuching City Municipal Council
(SKCMC). The NKCMC is the administrative centre of the state of Sarawak and
predominantly populated by the more established Sarawakian Malays. The SKCMC is
where most of the business and industrial areas are located and contains a high
proportion of ethnic Chinese. Kampung Tabuan Melayu is situated approximately five
kilometres from Kuching city centre and within the SKCMC. The size of the SKCMC,
in terms of land area, is about one sixth that of the NKCMC. However, the population
density is higher in the SKCMC. 36 Pending is the SKCMC’s town centre and is largely
reserved for commerce and trading. The types of service providers that exist in the
SKCMC include printing companies, couriers, and legal and banking services. These
businesses support the industries located in the SKCMC, which are shipping and
manufacturing. As a major industrial and commercial area, the SKCMC provides many
blue-collar work opportunities.
The settlement of Kampung Tabuan is ringed by the Tabuan River to the north
and the west (see Map 2). The village is surrounded by industrial and business areas, as
Based on the Department of Statistics Malaysia, Sarawak, 2000 census, the population of the North
Kuching City Municipal Council was 152,475. The South Kuching City Municipal Council had a
population of 163,134 (Department of Statistics Malaysia, Sarawak 2009, p. 11).
well as planned and unplanned 37 residential settlements. The planned settlements
generally consist of low-cost public housing properties and commercial housing areas.
The unplanned settlements refer to the villages. To the north is the Pending town centre
and to the east is a highway (see Plate 2). Close to the eastern entrance of the village is
an industrial area that includes a large, privately-owned cement plant. To the south-east
there is a Free Trade Industrial Zone. The southern border of Kampung Tabuan opens
onto the planned and unplanned residential areas populated by Ibans, Malays, and
Chinese. To the north is the older entrance to the village, which is located across the
Tabuan River (see Plate 3).
Plate 2 The eastern entrance to Kampung Tabuan is accessed from the busy
Setia Raja Road that connects the industrial areas and other districts in Kuching
with Pending town centre and Kuching Port.
I use the term planned settlement to refer to houses built by the government or commercial developers,
while the term unplanned settlement refers to the individual efforts to build houses on land with acquired
titles or without land titles (those without land titles are hoping that the government will later grant them
titles having occupied the land and built their house). The unplanned settlements are often known as
kampung or village.
Plate 3 The northern entrance to Kampung Tabuan. A private boat transport passengers
from business centres back to the village. This simple landing platform is called
pengkalan sekolah (the school landing).
Kampung Tabuan is located 3 kilometres from the only Free Trade Industrial
Zone in Kuching Division. Established in 1991, it was named the Sama Jaya Free Trade
Industrial Zone (Kuching Port Authority n.d.). It houses four multinational and a
Malaysian owned electronics factories. These five factories employ an estimated 3,000
workers. Most of the production workers are young, single females from across
Sarawak and many reside in workers’ hostels situated within the industrial area. The
majority of married factory workers live with their families in areas outside the
industrial zone, including Kampung Tabuan. In all, Kampung Tabuan is strategically
located close to both thriving services businesses and industrial areas.
The earliest settlers to Kampung Tabuan were initially squatters who settled on
non-arable, littoral marshland located along the muddy riverbank of the Tabuan River.
Even though part of this riverbank has been reclaimed (see Plate 4), flooding still occurs
in lowland areas of the Tabuan Melayu settlement, especially during high tide. The
houses that are situated on marshlands close to the riverbank, and particularly in those
areas that have not been reclaimed, are only able to avoid tidal flooding because they
have been built on tall stilts. These houses are connected to each other by long wooden
bridges, which also act as pathways to those parts of the village that are situated on
higher ground further from the riverbank. The wooden bridge pathways are used by
pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists (see Plate 5).
Plate 4 Reclaimed housing area of Kampung Tabuan Tengah that is close to the pengkalan
sekolah landing platform.
Plate 5 The wooden pathways that connect the houses in the lowland areas of Kampung Tabuan.
By modern standards the environment of Kampung Tabuan Melayu is
unattractive and unhealthy. It is because of this that Kampung Tabuan had, and still has,
very little value in terms of property development. In addition, because of the nature of
the natural environment surrounding the village, the government has difficulties in
providing basic facilities, including proper bitumen roads to connect each house, rather
than the wooden bridges, and a proper sewage system. Furthermore, most of the title
deeds held in the sub-villages of Kampung Tabuan only provide enough land for a
house plot and some residents have yet to receive their title deeds. Hence, the
unfavourable geographic environment of the settlement, and the uncertainty surrounding
land ownership, are two of the reasons why Kampung Tabuan is stigmatised as
squatters or ‘man with no land’ and marginalised by outsiders. However, from the
cultural perspective of coastal Sarawak Malays, the littoral marshland is a familiar
environment that, in the past, has provided them with much of their daily food
requirements, wood for building, nypa leaves for shelter, and a river for water
transportation (see Plate 6).
Plate 6 Pokok apong or nypa frutican, (see the far bank of the river), the river, and boats
are the traditional elements of the lives of coastal Sarawak Malays that are still present
in Kampung Tabuan.
Most riverbanks in Sarawak, including the Sarawak and Tabuan Rivers, are
littoral marshland areas. On the banks of the Tabuan River grow lush and abundant
nypa trees, locally known as pokok apong. 38 The inner part of the trunk of the apong is
edible and prepared as a delicacy during festival times. Nypa sugar, or gula apong, can
be extracted from the flower of the tree and is an important ingredient in traditional
cakes and other foods. Its fruit can also be pickled. Tabuan has a central place in the
history39 of Kampung Tabuan. In the Malay language the word Tabuan means bee. 40
When Kampung Tabuan was first established in the 1900s, the settlement took its name
from the abundance of bees in the area that were attracted to the flowers of the pokok
The earliest settlers built their houses in Kampung Tabuan in the hope they
could later claim an official title of ownership to the land they had come to occupy.
There was an abundance of uninhabited marshland nearby which sparked a process of
chain migration to the area. Through the arrival of relatives the settlers stamped their
own kinship networks onto the new environment. Some of the first generation male
settlers were successful in obtaining title deeds to land or purchased land to build their
house from property owners with valid title. Where possible, parents often allowed their
eldest child to build a separate dwelling on the property. The rest of their married or
unmarried children generally lived with their parents or, if financially capable, purchase
or rent their own house.
Kampung Tabuan is dynamic in terms of the flow of people settling in and
leaving the village. New arrivals are drawn to Kampung Tabuan for the low rent and the
work opportunities in nearby industrial areas. Some earlier landowners claimed
The scientific name is Nypa frutican Wurmb.
This is Awang Nusi’s (the village headman) account of how Kampung Tabuan Melayu was named.
Tabuan is a common name that has been adopted for neighbourhood areas in other villages, as well as
commercial businesses and residential areas.
unoccupied land and built smaller houses which are now tenanted. Generally, new
arrivals to Kampung Tabuan have little education possess limited work skills. They are,
however, suited to the type of manual work available in the service, shipping, and
manufacturing businesses located close by. Those leaving the village often do so
because of conflicts with neighbours, or their circumstances change such that they can
afford to reside elsewhere. In fact evidence suggests that the second generation are
increasingly experiencing upward social mobility. Greater access to education has
meant that they are able to gain better jobs and earn enough money to leave Tabuan
Melayu. Nevertheless, some relatively well-off families still live in Kampung Tabuan
because they have inherited their parents’ houses, or they are caring for their elderly
parents. Some of the families who have been living long term in rented houses have
been able to afford to buy their own land from earlier settlers and build a house in the
Table 4 below outlines a sample of Tabuan men’s occupations. The data was
gathered from the previously mentioned survey conducted with their wives. Men are
typically the breadwinners of the family, and their occupation is a significant indicator
of the family’s social status within Sarawak Malay society.
The occupations of Kampung Tabuan men
Category of Work
Manual workers in private companies,
including goods handler for companies in
Kuching Port, semi-skilled painter, welder,
Company driver/delivery driver/dispatcher
Van taxi owner-driver
Earnings per Month
RM 700 – below RM 1000
(AUD 150 – AUD 266)
RM 1000 – RM 1800 (AUD
333 – 600)
Driver of large lorries
Bank marketing officer
Owner of small-scale businesses
Plate 7 One of the marginalised occupations for Tabuan men: a small scale terubok fish
seller (Tenualosa toli). (Hamzah, the seller is in white shirt). Hamzah’s father, who
owns the business, rents a parcel of veranda space on the pathway in front of a Chinese
grocery shop in Jalan Gambier, Kuching.
Many of the married men that I surveyed worked as delivery drivers around the
city and in the broader Kuching Division. Most drive small lorries and deliver goods
such as mineral water to offices. Security guards working for private companies
generally earn the least money, followed by unskilled manual workers. There are,
however, a handful of Tabuan men who, relatively speaking, are better paid. They
include cooks, technicians, and mechanics.
Most Tabuan men work in the private rather than public sector. The lowest
wages are paid by smaller private businesses. Large private companies offer slightly
higher salaries and other work benefits and offer more social prestige, social security
benefits, and a stable income. It is a privilege to work in more established local
The total number of husbands included in the survey was 29. This is because one of the women who
took part in the survey was widowed.
government agencies such as the Kuching Port Authority, South Kuching Municipal
Council or more established private organisations. According to Rosli Sibli, only four
Tabuan men are chosen by the Kuching Port Authority to work full-time as manual
workers in the Kuching Port Authority. To secure even a manual labour job in such
organisations, it is a common yet unofficial practice for the applicant to obtain a verbal
recommendation from an important person in the community, such as a Member of
Parliament or a person with a higher post in the organisation. Given the poor reputation
of the village it is difficult for Tabuan men to acquire a recommendation from
influential figures in Kuching. The way some of these local government agencies treat
applicants from Tabuan men is an example of marginalisation of Tabuan men. Their
right to have an equal opportunity with others to work in these organisations are
On the one hand, Tabuan men are marginalised economically and socially. They
are generally employed by informal sectors and are lowly paid, and some of them are
casual workers. In terms of social standing, Tabuan men have a reputation for violence
in the eyes of Kuching population, primarily because of their involvement o in crime
and other illegal activities. On the other hand, it is argued in this study that Tabuan
housewives are not so much affected by the negative image as compared to the violent
image of Tabuan men. Tabuan housewives are also sustained from economic
deprivation of daily expenses due to their roles and activities. They achieve these in
three ways: firstly, as managers of domestic finances; secondly, as supplementary
income earners; and finally, through their engagement with television. These women’s
roles and activities are confined within the kampung. Meanwhile, Tabuan men are
marginalised because they have to venture outside the kampung and work in the wider
Although this research does not focus on men’s roles, women’s status in the
family and the community is conditioned by the nature of the relationship they have
with their husbands. Thus, the nature of housewives’ roles, to some extent, is
conditioned by men’s ability to maintain their position as breadwinners of the family,
their effectiveness as leaders in the public domain, and their capacity to deal with social
problems within their community.
THE IMPACT OF MARGINALISATION AND STIGMATISATION ON THE TABUAN
MEN AND WOMEN
My own experience serves to highlight the use of derogatory terms by middleclass Kuching Malays and administrators when speaking of the people of Kampung
Tabuan. For instance, when I told a middle class Kuching Malay, a director of an
education foundation, that I intended doing research in Kampung Tabuan, he frowned
and bluntly asked: ‘Aren’t the people over there criminals?’ A male colleague at my
university was only slightly more restrained: ‘They are bad people, aren’t they?’
Kuching Malays associate Tabuan men with brutality, terror, and crime. Tabuan men
are accused of committing murder, assault, being involved in gang activities, vandalism,
and stealing. The story of a police car being pelted with stones by Kampung Tabuan
residents in the past is still told in the village. Kampung Tabuan residents are also
referred to as the ‘people living on land without titles.’ According to a former South
Kuching City Municipal Council councillor, Jolhi Sebi, a local English-language
newspaper had recently labelled the village a ‘slum area.’ He was infuriated by the label
and made a complaint to the newspaper. Joli stated in my interview that while he admits
that there are squatters and criminals in the kampung, the label was still offensive.
Plate 8 Tattooing is a traditional practice for the indigenous people of Borneo. Although
it is uncommon and religiously prohibited among the Malays, this Tabuan Malay man
tattooed his arm.
The village’s negative reputation is fuelled by the involvement of a number of
the Kampung’s men and youth in petty crime, drug addiction, and violence. According
to a newspaper report on perceptions of safety in South Kuching City Municipal
Council, 50% of the respondents felt unsafe because of the high crime rate (Majlis
Bandaraya Kuching Selatan 2008). 42 Another newspaper article inferred that Tabuan
residents are particularly violent when it stated that ‘The shopkeeper was not sure
whether to go ahead and lodge a police report on the matter because for one thing he did
not really have the heart to do it, and he feared retaliation by the boy’s family and the
villagers’ (The Borneo Post 2008).
There are three types of social problems prevalent in Kampung Tabuan. The first
and most common are stealing and extortion. The latter includes physical intimidation
and vandalism. For instance, Balang’s family was a victim of extortion by male
members of a neighbouring family in Kampung Tabuan. Balang was forced to pay
money to a man whose younger brother was killed when Balang accidentally hit the boy
This is a news report that was posted in the SKCMC website. The news further reports that in a sixmonth period, there were official police reports tabling 52 break-ins and 32 car thefts.
while driving his school bus. Petty theft occurs frequently and includes stealing sound
systems, televisions, and valuables from cars and houses. In addition, my own
experience provides evidence that stealing and breaking into vehicles is common. A few
women that I interviewed were distressed because their husbands’ cars, their houses, or
their relatives’ homes had recently been broken into. If there are no items of any real
value present, thieves will take anything, including slippers, shoes, and even cups and
saucers. It is known that drug and glue addicts and the unemployed commit these thefts.
Outside the confines of the village, a number of Tabuan men not only engage in petty
theft, but also commit more serious crimes, including stealing luxury cars and
committing burglaries in commercial premises.
The second type of social problem in Kampung Tabuan is drug and glue
addiction, and the trafficking of drugs. Drug addiction is mostly confined to men and
male adolescents. The most common drug is syabu (methamphetamine), commonly
known as ice. Glue addiction commonly occurs among youth aged between 12 and 14
years. It is a cheap and readily available substance. The third most common social
problem in the village is alcoholism. It is the primary catalyst for fights between Tabuan
Many teenagers residing in Kampung Tabuan, both boys and girls, drop out of
school at a young age. Tabuan teenage girls tend to engage in unprotected sex and as a
result become pregnant as early as 15 years old. These girls are commonly forced into
marriage by their parents. Interestingly, the sexual behaviour of teenage girls is not
considered by villagers or the local authorities to pose any serious threat to the
community, at least when compared to the problems created by glue and drug addiction
and the crime associated with these practices
At the time of this study, the Deputy Mayor of South Kuching, Hadi Bujang was
particularly unhappy with the residents of Kampung Tabuan. In this instance his
disappointment was related to the unreceptive attitude of Tabuan residents towards
government development projects. He said that:
There is something not quite right. It is about the attitude of the people over
there. They are not showing a proactive manner to the development programs
that the government initiates for the village.
Part of the deputy mayor frustration arises from what he sees as a lack of
initiative and enterprise within the community. I talked about this with Rosli Sibli. It
was his opinion that the residents, who themselves are frequently locked in disputes
over property boundaries, had become disillusioned with the South Kuching City
Municipal Council (SKCMC) because the granting of title deeds had recently been put
on hold. In addition, according to Rosli, the local authority is unable to build a proper
bitumen road because the villagers do not want to surrender some of their land for road
construction. SKCMC then put the blame on villagers due to their failure to provide
adequate physical infrastructure for the village.
Wan Alwi, the village headman, also believes this is an issue and believes that
some Tabuan men neglect their responsibilities as breadwinners for the family. He was
disappointed with the attitudes of such men and believes they simply lack the
motivation to earn a decent living for themselves and their families. On the other hand,
he applauds those Tabuan women who are working to support their families, especially
when their husbands are involved in crime, alcoholism or drug addiction. At one of our
interviews he drew my attention to a man and his pillion passenger who was passing by
on a motorcycle:
Wan Alwi: Look at that man.
Wan Alwi: The man with the long hair does not have a proper job. Some men do not
work hard enough to feed their families. Women in turn have to work hard.
Zana: Perhaps these people do not know how to manage their lives, including how
to find jobs. Perhaps they need help.
Wan Alwi: The problem when we help is that they will depend on us and continue
to ask for more assistance. When I help one family, the tendency is that 20 more
families will come and demand the same aid that I provided for the first family.
Wan Alwi believed that some men in the village were capable of gaining full-time
employment but instead relied on financial assistance from the government. 43
Of course Tabuan women feel their role as ‘good mothers’ is also affected by the
social problems which embroil their sons and husbands. Often Tabuan mothers try to
protect their children from the social problems which beset the village. This includes
prohibiting them from mixing with their peers, sending them to schools outside
Kampung Tabuan, and encouraging them to work away from the village during school
vacations. These measures seem never enough to alleviate their anxiousness for their
children’s future. Securing a promising future for their children is a way to maintain
filial piety: the reciprocal relationship of parents-children (The detailed is in Chapter 8).
Similarly, Tabuan housewives worry that their husbands might also become be tempted
to stray into serious gambling, alcohol and drug addiction. In response to this fear, some
women visit a shaman to ask for a pugei (charm) to increase their husband and
children’s loyalty towards the family and to encourage them to spend more time at
home. Besides visiting a shaman, although rare, some Tabuan women report their
husbands’ unlawful activities to the police.
There are a number of financial assistance programs that the poor can apply for, including from the
Department of Social Welfare. The purpose of these programs is to give financial assistance for
education, disability, serious illness and elderly care. However, the amount of money is small. For
example, a family in which the father is bedridden receives RM 200 per month (about AUD 65.00). Other
government agencies that provide financial assistance include Islamic agencies such as Majlis Zakat
Islam Sarawak (the Islamic Tithe Council of Sarawak) and Baitulmal Sarawak (Islamic Wealth
Management). The financial aid is distributed in the form of cash or government trust shares. The
Ministry of Rural Development also has a program called PPRT (a housing scheme for poor people),
whereby poor people are eligible to have a house built for them. The role of the village headman and the
sub-village committee members is to recommend and facilitate the allocation of resources from the
government to the village. They often make recommendations to the Department of Social Welfare as to
whether or not claims are genuine.
Tabuan women whose husbands are involved in a variety of social problems
naturally feel a keen sense insecurity and fear. One thing they are fearful of is financial
insecurity. Added to this is the fact that single mothers and widows within the
community often endure accusations of immorality. Widowed women and single
mothers whose husbands are in prison or drug rehabilitation centres are stigmatised.
Widows, for instance, are commonly accused of flirtatious behaviour. Other women in
particular believe that widowed women and single mothers have the potential to ‘steal’
There are Tabuan women who have lost confidence in those whose role it is to
ensure the safety of the community, namely, the village leadership and the police. This
lack of confidence is exacerbated by the fact that the police regularly avoid entering the
village. According to Tabuan women, the police are reluctant to investigate crimes in
the village because these activities are so well entrenched in the community that they
feel any attempt to change the situation would be futile. Tabuan women express their
criticism of village leaders who are perceived not to be fulfilling their duties. Most of
the criticism levelled at Kampung Tabuan’s community leadership is directed at the
village headman who, according to many women, does not take the issues of social
disorder seriously. Anjali, a housewife, is dissatisfied with the lack of solutions to these
social problems. Anjali voiced her disdain of the village headman (ketua kampung)
when she said that:
There is no meeting. The Ketua Kampung should gather ‘brothers and sisters’ in
a meeting. But [there is] no meeting. He should consider some of our brothers’
and sisters’ opinions. . . . Even I tried to help my neighbour. I experienced a
winding road to meet the state representative. I did meet him. I told him that my
neighbour [an Indonesian permanent resident] needs a house to stay in. My
neighbour’s husband was in jail. The state representative didn’t listen to me
because the Ketua Kampung did not support me.
Whilst Tabuan women’s involvement in community and religious leadership is
rare, there are some exceptions. The following is an example. Korina is a Tabuan
woman who, because of the mismanagement of previous committee members,
successfully challenged the patriarchal management of the surau (prayer room, or
musolla) committee in the sub-village of Tabuan Dani. Korina’s involvement in the
public life of men was motivated by her perception that men in positions of religious
leadership were at the time failing the community. Korina is a 32-year-old wife and
mother, and an active member of a lobby group that represents the people of Tabuan
Dani who were unsatisfied with the performance of the previous surau committee.
Korina explained to me that the previous committee mismanaged surau finances, which
had been collected from various fund-raising activities. The previous committee also
failed in its duty to conduct appropriate religious activities for the surau. In the elections
for the 2006 committee, Korina was appointed secretary, which is unusual given that
women generally do not occupy what is considered to be a relatively important position
in surau committees. Korina’s appointment stemmed from the fact that she is well
known for being proactive in the welfare of Tabuan Dani’s residents. Korina’s and
Anjali’s experiences are examples of confident women who took action against the
ineffectiveness of patriarchal institutions.
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES AND DOMESTIC SPACE
Housewives commonly hold a lower status than ‘career women.’ For example,
as homemakers, the primary chores of Tabuan women include the laundry and
childcare. Traditionally, housewives have been associated with a lack of selfdevelopment (de Beauvoir 1949; Friedan 1963; Oakly 1974). My examination of the
roles of Tabuan housewives, however, demonstrates that in this capacity they are able to
acquire a degree of financial autonomy through their positions as financial managers of
the household and their involvement in petty trading. In addition, the presence of
television at home has been a source of moral guidance (including government
messages) in dealing with social problems within their community, and of information
on the latest trends in consumption.
Although many Tabuan housewives own a washing machine, ‘doing the
laundry’ (nyesah pakaian) is always given as an example by Tabuan women of the most
arduous of domestic chores. For this reason, the modern electric washing machine is
perceived to be one of the most important domestic appliances a Tabuan woman can
possess. Other than this, however, I did not hear any complaints from Tabuan
housewives about being overburdened by home duties. For those who have young
children, their daily routine includes sending their children to kindergarten and
collecting them up at noon. Because their cuisine is simple, and they frequently buy
cooked food from neighbouring food stalls, the least time consuming of tasks for
Tabuan is cooking. Furthermore, they commonly cook just once or twice a day, in the
early morning and evening. This covers meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some
husbands bring their lunch to work and have dinner at home. The poorer families spend
less time cleaning the home because their houses are small. Extended families who live
in the one house may also share the chores. Rarely do they have a garden or vegetable
patch to care for. In all, the simplicity of their tasks as homemakers has left them with
surplus free time.
In managing the money that is provided by their husbands, one of the most
important roles assigned to Tabuan housewives is manager of domestic finances. With
the limited money earned by their husbands, they have to make critical decisions about
spending, including balancing the necessities for the family and the desire to spend for
lifestyle goods. In the first instance, Tabuan housewives’ primary managerial task is to
budget for household expenses. This includes spending on the necessities; including
food, paying instalments for goods bought on credit, utility bills, motor vehicle
repayments and repairs (especially in the case of husbands who are owner-drivers or
van-taxi operators, or own motorcycles), school expenses and spending for festival
seasons. The most costly expense is generally the husband’s motorcycle or car, as well
as television sets and washing machines. Most Tabuan housewives now have three
electrical devices that are considered necessities: the television set (including the DVD
player), the fridge and the washing machine. Nevertheless, both television sets and
washing machines need to be replaced when they become old or breakdown; so many
Tabuan households are continuously paying instalments for these electrical appliances.
If they are careful in budgeting money for household necessities, Tabuan women
may also have the privilege of spending on lifestyle commodities. The consumption of
lifestyle goods allows them to project a desired identity. However, it is a challenging
task for Tabuan women to find the resources to spend on both necessities and lifestyle
goods. In the second instance of spending of lifestyle goods, they have to carefully
manage household money. Participating in rotating community credit schemes is one
way for Tabuan women to afford lifestyle goods, as well as through their occasional and
continuous earnings from petty trading. The detailed is in Chapter 6. Some Tabuan
women put considerable effort into saving money to achieve their consumption
ambitions. There are Tabuan women who like to travel to Kuala Lumpur for vacations,
sightseeing, shopping, or visiting relatives. Travel to Kuala Lumpur, however, is
considered an expensive activity; yet it provides them with a connection to a
cosmopolitan lifestyle. There are also women who like to spend money on emulating
the latest fashions and personal grooming habits of celebrities.
It is possible then to identify three types of domestic financial manager in
Kampung Tabuan. Firstly, there are those who have an absolute say in the spending of
the household income. In this instance, their husbands give carte blanche consent to
determine household spending patterns, including both for necessities and, if there is
any surplus, for lifestyle commodities. It may be the case that some of these women
disregard their husband’s protests about their spending decisions (one such case is
mentioned in Chapter 7). Some Tabuan housewives attempt to gain greater control of
domestic money through pugei (charm). More often, the Tabuan housewives who chose
to do this have ‘problematic’ husbands who spend their earnings on gambling,
womanising, or alcohol. The second type of domestic financial manager is one who
negotiates with her husband in managing the household finances. The third type of
domestic financial manager is the housewife who has no financial power because
household budgeting is dominated by her husband. In this category there are many
husbands who do not provide enough money for spending on necessities.
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES’ ENGAGEMENT WITH TELEVISION
The government’s development ideology is embedded in locally produced
television programs. The National Economic Policy (NEP) introduced in1972 44 has
become the policy foundation of Malaysian state policy to date. Through television
viewers are exposed to government messages relating to national development. It is a
policy which has had a significant influence in the domestic unit (Ong 1990). These
messages emphasise the maintenance of a harmonious multicultural society,
modernisation, the promotion of women’s participation in the formal economy, and the
preservation of Malay and Islamic values. This information is a source of knowledge for
The goals of the NEP were to eradicate poverty and restructure the Malaysian economy. An important
aim was also to eliminate the identification of ethnicity with economic prosperity.
Tabuan women, and they employ it to become ideal mothers and wives. The
government also incorporates into local television production its ideology of Western
modernity and Islamic revivalism (see Camroux 1996).
The survey that I conducted among Tabuan housewives shows that they spend a
significant amount of time every day watching television (see Table 5). Some
participants claimed that they are not particularly keen on watching television and
estimated the average amount of daily viewing time to be 1 hour. Since Tabuan
housewives spend a lot of time at home there is plenty of opportunity for them to watch
television. The greatest time spent on watching television was 6 hours and this was
recorded for three of the participants. According to Sidney et al. (1996) youth who
spend more than 4 hours per day watching television are prone to health problems.
George Garbener’s (1976) classic study on heavy television viewing demonstrates that
the more viewers are exposed to violence on television, the more accepting they are of
violence in the real world. Both studies suggest that significant amounts of time spent
watching television have an influence on people’s physical health and perceptions of the
world. There were 10 Tabuan participants (33.3% of the total sample) who spent an
average of 4 to 6 hours each day watching television. However, most participants
(40%) spent an average of 3 hours each day watching television.
Daily time spent watching television
During the course of my fieldwork it became evident that women find
inspiration in television messages. In the survey, I asked participants to rank the role(s)
of television according to four categories (see Table 6). I presented three roles that
television might perform; to entertain, to inform, and to educate. Alongside these roles,
I added another: ‘social activity.’ 45
The Role of Television perceived by Tabuan housewives
Very Important=1, Important=2, Least important=3, Not important=4
26.6 (8) 46.6 (14)
The findings suggest that the most important role of television for Tabuan
women was ‘to inform’ (76%). The next most important role was ‘to educate’ (50%).
The least important role of television was ‘to entertain’ (46.6%). Finally, the role
considered to be least important was that of ‘social activity’ (90%). These findings were
consistent with the responses to another survey that asked participants to choose the
most watched television program (see Table 6). The most watched television program
was the Malay news bulletin (83.3%). The second most watched television program was
Malay dramas (73.3%). The least watched television program was musical
entertainment (26.6%). In my conversations with Tabuan housewives, the role ‘to
inform’ related to the importance of keeping abreast of current local, national and
international issues and events. One Tabuan housewife, Khairina, claimed she watched
the news to understand what was happening across Malaysia. However, she was also
My aim is to find out if television viewing is regarded as a social activity among family members and
interested in natural disasters that occur globally and the wars in Muslim countries
which are frequently depicted on television. Tabuan housewives emphasised that
without television at home they became ‘bodo’ (stupid) – a derogatory term meaning
ignorant, or which is used to describe someone acting irrationally. They claim that
without television, they would be ignorant of what is happening beyond Sarawak.
Television genres watched by Tabuan housewives by frequency
Malay News Bulletin
Malay Magazine TV
Malay -Islamic forum
Interestingly, television’s educational role was commonly attributed to both
local and foreign television dramas. Engagement with these programs was treated as
part of a broader learning experience. Tabuan housewives assert that the role of
television drama is pakei pengajaran or teladan, which means ‘to teach us a lesson.’ In
relation to television drama serials, Tabuan housewives take a special interest in issues
surrounding domestic conflict.
Drama serials produced in foreign countries enrich their ideas and inspire
solutions to problems associated with their roles as both wives and mothers. For
instance, Balkish claims to have learnt to acquire an attitude of patience from Hikmah,
an Indonesian drama serial. In the drama, the daughter Ana has strong religious
convictions and is dutiful and humble in the face of family and marriage problems.
Another Tabuan woman, Bella Dally, was engrossed with a Chinese drama serial set
during the dynastic rule. I was curious to know why.
Zana: Do you really like to watch Chinese drama serials?
Bella Dally: It depends on the story.
Zana: Why do you like to watch this particular drama serial?
Bella Dally: I want to know the story about a dignitary who has four concubines.
He loved the youngest woman; there was also jealousy and competition among
Both Balkish and Bella Dally have their own reasons as to why they engage with certain
themes in foreign drama serials. This engagement is informed by what they want or
need to know, not only in terms of reflecting on their own lives, but also to inspire them
to overcome their problems in their family and community.
Tabuan housewives are well aware that television programs that are broadcast in
Malaysia are censored by the government. This has in fact strengthened the perception
that television has an educational role to play in their lives. Tabuan women recognise
the government’s intervention role through censorship and therefore do not denigrate
Malay dramas, unlike urban viewers, who often condemn Malay dramas (as discussed
in Chapter 3).
Confident that television programs have been ‘cleansed’ of any undesirable
elements, Tabuan housewives feel that watching television is a healthy activity for their
children; especially when compared to playing outside or mixing with their peers in
Kampung Tabuan. Nevertheless, Tabuan housewives also have a strong sense of selfcensorship. For example, Bella Dally said, ‘It is true that television has all; it depicts
good and bad values. Do not follow the bad ones.’ A keen interest in values comes
naturally to Tabuan women who have not lost sight of the so-called ‘sacred’ role of the
mother in Malay culture (this will be elaborated on further in Chapter 8). Becoming a
guardian of good values and promoting correct behaviour are intrinsic to being a ‘good
mother’. As a result of their exposure of foreign and locally produced drama serials and
movies on television, Tabuan housewives are exposed to diverse value-systems. Tabuan
housewives are able to make comparisons between local (Malay) and foreign popular
culture. For example Rani, another participant in the study, contends that both
Indonesian and Filipino drama serials include more cruelty than Malaysian drama
serials. Juliana, however, feels that foreign drama serials and movies have more
interesting plots and better-looking actors. She has a collection of about 200 pirated and
original VCDs and DVDs (see Plate 8). In my survey, 90% of the 30
participatingTabuan households owned a DVD player. These were used by the family to
watch movies for karaoke, or simply to listen to music. Other than television, Khairina
watches a diverse range of uncensored movies from pirated DVDs which would
generally not be broadcast without some form of censoring. She watches these at night
with her husband and mother in-law after her children have gone to bed. Similarly,
Amor, Khairina, Priyanka, and Salehah watch pirated movies on DVD.
Plate 9 Juliana catalogues her collection of over 200 VCDs, including local and foreign movies,
drama serials, and karaoke and music albums. The photo also shows that Juliana wears the Tshirt of Mickey Mouse. Merchandise bearing animated characters, particularly from North
America and Japan (see also Plate 10) are easily available in Kuching.
It is common for Kampung Tabuan residents to arrange their lounge room in
such a way that the television has central place, often close to a framed verse(s) from
the holy Quran (see Plate 10). This arrangement may imply that Tabuan housewives
identify television – as an informational and educational resource – as an instrument for
moral guidance in the same way as are the Quranic verses that hang on the wall and
symbolise an Islamic identity.
Plate 10 Priyanka’s lounge room has a complete entertainment unit, including television, DVD
player, radio, and speakers. There are also two framed Quranic verses hanging on the wall.
Some of her hundreds of DVDs, and a mascot of Doraemon, a popular animation series from
Japan on Malaysian television.
The lounge room, complete with religious artefacts, is where Tabuan
housewives spend much of their time. Most Tabuan women have completed their
household chores by mid-afternoon (or postpone such activities during this time), to
watch their popular drama serial airing on Malaysian FTA stations (see Plate 11).
During this time, the station broadcasts a number of drama serials from countries such
as Latin America, the Philippines and Japan. Since early 2005, a drama serial slot called
Sinetron on TV3 has also broadcast drama serials from Indonesia. The most popular
local Malay drama serial, which at the time of this study was broadcast on Sundays, was
Plate 11 Norish (left) and Dania (right) doing their seamstress homework at around 1:00
p.m. before watching popular Indonesian drama serials at 2:30 p.m. on TV 3’s Sinetron
slot. Both women are learning seamstress skills at the Youth Centre in Pending.
THE PETTY TRADING ACTIVITIES OF TABUAN HOUSEWIVES
Tabuan women often need to negotiate with their husbands if they want to enter
the formal economy. Some receive encouragement from their husbands if he feels they
can cope with paid work and not neglect their primary roles as wives and mothers. In
my study there were a relatively small number of husbands who refused to allow their
wives to work. Still, Tabuan women are commonly unable to participate in the formal
economy. The reasons for this include a lack of educational qualifications and skills,
lower wages compared with men, and the general competition for available work.
Petty trading is a more realistic option and it is encouraged and supported by the
government. The Ministry of Rural and Regional Development provides initiatives to
improve the earning capacity of families in the lower income category nationwide. 46
Some of these initiatives allow women to apply for grants or loans to set up small-scale
business ventures. In Kampung Tabuan there is a very active national trust body called
In Sarawak, the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Agriculture are
the two state bodies that provide monetary assistance to lower income earners so that they can become
involved in small-scale entrepreneurship.
Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia (or AIM - Malaysian Effort Trust Fund) 47 which is comprised
wholly of women members. This trust was set up by a non-government body to help
less privileged men and women to establish their own small-scale businesses.
In part because of such schemes petty trading is at the centre of the economic
activity of Tabuan housewives. This sort of income generating activity affords women
the flexibility to maintain control over household duties and earn an income to
supplement that of their husband. Many Tabuan women traders are therefore part-timers
or trade for a limited time each day. There are predominantly three types of trading
activities: retailing, food vending, and tailoring.
In terms of retailing, Tabuan housewives act as middle sellers who buy goods in
large quantities outside Kampung Tabuan, including from Kuching city, Kuala Lumpur,
and the border towns of Sarawak and Kalimantan (Indonesia) for resale within the
community. The items they sell include ready-made garments and textiles; products via
catalogues (commonly known as multilevel marketing); bakery products (especially
those for which the expiry date is close so that the price is marked down); and seasonal
and jungle fruit and vegetables. Whereas retailing is often sporadic, grocery trading is
often a more permanent venture and is conducted on a larger scale than other forms of
petty trading. Tabuan women who run grocery stalls sell staples such as rice, sugar,
cooking oil and flour; albeit in small quantities. If Tabuan consumers want to buy these
items in bulk, they buy them in Kuching. In terms of shop space it is common for
traders to annexe part of their living rooms or adds separate structures that are attached
to their houses.
AIM is a trust body that operates nation-wide to assist underprivileged men and women to access credit
for which they would not otherwise qualify at a bank. In Kampung Tabuan, a representative officer from
AIM administers all aspects of the program. Currently, there are approximately 20 members each in both
Kampung Tabuan Tengah and Kampung Tabuan Hilir who have taken out loans under this scheme. The
members are required to make repayment instalments on the money they have borrowed at weekly
Plate 12 Part of a living room of a house has been turned into a small grocery shop.
Food vending always flourishes during the festive seasons. Some Tabuan
housewives, for instance, make and sell festive biscuits and cakes for customers both
within and outside the Kampung. The most popular cooked food sold by Tabuan
housewives is nasi lemak (coconut rice), burgers, banana fritters, fried noodles, and kuih
(finger food). 48 Some women supply middle sellers but most make and sell the food in
front of their house, or they organise their children to sell their products around the
village. Rather than being an activity that takes up the whole day, the selling of homemade food tends to be limited to a certain time; breakfast, lunch, tea time, or dinner.
Of all the trading activities, home-cooked food vendors receive the lowest
profits. This is because the price of cooked food in Kampung Tabuan is relatively less
than the same food sold in other Malay villages around Kuching city. For example, I
bought a doughnut for 20 cents from a 12-year-old girl who was selling door-to-door.
The same product was sold for 30 or 35 cents outside Kampung Tabuan. These prices
are a reflection of the villager’s purchasing capacity.
Kuih is a type of traditional food that is cut into small portions and eaten as a snack.
Tabuan housewives have also been successful in providing seamstress services
from their homes (see Plate 11). In fact, Tabuan housewives have being praised for their
excellent seamstress work by the Director of the Women’s Bureau of Sarawak,
Norjanah binti Haji Razali. 49 It is an important service since traditional dress for men,
women, and children are made by the seamstresses within the village. Their service is in
greatest demand during Hari Raya and before the start of the first school term. Villagers
wear traditional dress during festival: baju Melayu for men and boys, and baju kurung
or kebaya for women and girls. Whilst school uniforms are often bought ready-made
from established businesses, there are some mothers who prefer to buy the fabric and
have them made by Tabuan seamstresses. Many parents cannot afford to pay cash in a
department store. A seamstress will allow a close friend to pay for the school uniforms
The residents of Kampung Tabuan are unskilled migrants and who have settled
in the village from other areas within Kuching city and the greater Kuching Division.
Those within the community are labelled by outsiders as being prone to violence,
substance abuse and crime, and lack of initiative and enterprise. They are also
recognised as being property less and inhabiting valueless land in what is undoubtedly
an inhospitable geographic environment. Because of this the population receives little in
the way of infrastructure development from the SKCMC and the police are reluctant to
take a stand on public order in the community. However it is not only outsiders who are
contemptuous of Tabuan men. The women of the village have little faith in the ability of
community leaders and male dominated institutions to find solutions to the social ills
I interviewed Norjanah binti haji Razali on 28 January, 2010 about the role of the Sarawak Women’s
Council in relation to Sarawak women’s development.
which plague the village. These same social problems have a direct affect on the
wellbeing of their children, in particular sons. The presence of crime, drug addiction,
alcoholism and violence threatens to disrupt the stability of traditional family roles and
values. Although Tabuan housewives have been affected by a similar process of
marginalisation as men, they have found opportunities and strategies to gain greater
financial autonomy. Their position as supplementary income earners is fully supported
by the government. What is more, Tabuan housewives are interpreting television
messages in such a way that facilitates their embracing of globalisation, consumption,
IMAGINED COSMOPOLITANS: HOUSEWIVES’ PETTY TRADING AND
This chapter has two aims. The first is to examine the involvement of Tabuan
housewives in petty trading. There are different ways of practising petty trading among
the housewives and differences in their degree of involvement. I argue that petty trading
has allowed for the consumption of lifestyle commodities. With this in mind, I
investigate Tabuan housewives in relation to their roles of trader and consumer. I also
investigate Tabuan housewives’ social-trading networks and conceptualise them as
market spaces for selling goods and services and for acquiring lifestyle commodities.
The second aim of the chapter is to investigate these processes of petty trading
and consumption as a means for creating the modern self (see Besnier 2004). Petty
trading is conducted with an objective in mind, this being the accumulation of capital
for the consumption of lifestyle commodities. My research confirms that the spending
patterns of Tabuan housewives reflect the emergence of a consumer culture among
these petty traders. According to Slater (1997),
[c]onsumer culture denotes a social arrangement in which the relation between
lived culture and social resources, between meaningful ways of life and the
symbolic and material resources on which they depend, is mediated through the
market (p. 18).
Miller (1998), in his theory of shopping, argues that consuming goods has allowed
women to create a particular sense of self and to structure their relationships with
others. In the case of Tabuan housewives, the money they posses and the role of trader
they perform has allowed them to consume, if not as much as middle class women but
not as little as what Gerke’s (2000) terms as ‘lifestyling’ (p. 137). Gerke (2000) defines
lifestyling as ‘the display of a standard of living that one is in fact unable to afford’ (p.
Following from Habermas (1987), Miller (1995b) contends that consumption is
an integral aspect of modernity. Miller points out that in consuming goods one is ‘living
through objects and images not of one’s own creation’ (p. 1, emphasis added). In
relation to cosmopolitanism the consumption of goods connects consumers with images
that transcend national boundaries. Gerke (2000), for instance, found that lower-middle
class Indonesians consume global food, drink, and branded fashion from North America
to demonstrate their preference for modern, urban lifestyles. This type of consumption
may lead to connection with the Other. According to Delanty (2006) ‘the cosmopolitan
imagination occurs when and wherever new relations between self, other and world
develop in moments of openness’ (p. 27). Besnier’s (2004) ethnographic research in the
second-hand marketplace in Nuku’alofa, Tonga unearths a process whereby traders in
the market sell overseas goods from their diasporic relatives who reside, for instance, in
North America and New Zealand. Besnier uses his field site to highlight the
performative nature of modernity, cosmopolitanism and identity. I use Besnier’s (2004)
work as a basis to examine Tabuan women traders in the context of what Ong (2008)
and Beck (2004) have termed banal cosmopolitanism (see Chapter 3).
In addition, this chapter illustrates the response of the housewives to television’s
depiction of modernity, which is part of the cosmopolitan project of Malaysian free-toair television. The imagination of cosmopolitans is due to Tabuan housewives’ ability to
emulate certain characteristics of middle class women depicted on television – mobility,
economically independent and opportunity to socialise with wider society. The outward
outlook is demonstrated when Tabuan housewives involve in the activity of
consumption and trading. Therefore, this chapter is to highlight the ‘moment of
openness’ to others (Delanty 2006, p. 27) that characterised Tabuan housewives’
cosmopolitan imagination. This chapter does not discuss the selected modelling of
television cosmopolitanism images by Tabuan women in any detail as this question will
be dealt with further in Chapter 7. Many of the housewives traders mentioned in this
chapter will be discussed again in Chapter 7 on their connection with cosmopolitan
OVERVIEW OF PETTY TRADING AND THE CONSUMPTION OF LIFESTYLE
In interviews with the housewives of Kampung Tabuan it was clear that most
characterised themselves primarily as diam rumah ajak (staying at home only) or
surirumah (a housewife). They accept their primary status as housewives. Nonetheless,
the term ‘housewife’ in Malaysia, and I would argue in other parts of Southeast Asia
(see for example Illo 1995 in the Philippines), has a broader application than what it
suggests in the West. In the Malay context, the notion of a surirumah (housewife) has
been inherited from peasant society. It refers to both full-time housewives, and
housewives who are to some degree or another involved in food production or incomeproducing activities. As in times past, their involvement in petty trading is today not
conceptualised as being a part of the formal economy, because their business ventures
are not subject to regulation by the government, such as the requirements to obtain
licences and to pay taxes.
Manderson (1983) provides historical evidence from the local chronicler,
Mohamed Ibrahim in 1871, who noted that Malay women were actively involved in
food production for the family. A number of more contemporary studies have since
provided evidence which demonstrates the involvement of Malay women in activities
that generate additional income, or in producing rice for the family in Kelantan (Rudie
1994); Terengganu (Strange 1981; Firth 1966) and Kedah (Carsten 1998). According to
Li (1989), Singaporean Malay women who contribute financially to the household
through their involvement in the formal economy primarily provide a supplementary
income to that of their husband. Her earnings rarely contribute to core household
expenses. The earnings of Malay women, whether through their involvement in the
formal or informal economic sector, are secondary to their husband’s income.
Furthermore, Malay women are often responsible for managing the money
earned by their husband (Firth 1966). Although the management of household finance
includes budgeting and spending, studies undertaken on the spending habits of Malay
housewives has only focused on that of essential commodities for family consumption for instance, in an urban community in Singapore (Li 1989); or in a rural community in
Malaysia (Ong 1987). Feminist studies of gender and consumerism neglect women’s
participation in consumption (Casey & Martens 2007; Schroeder 2003). In the
Malaysian context, and more particularly in relation to the rise of the middle class in the
1990s, studies have highlighted the increased consumption of luxury goods and services
(Talib 2000). Only in recent years have studies begun to focus on Malaysian women’s
consumption of lifestyle commodities. One such study (Yusof & Duasa 2010)
investigates decision making processes between husbands and wives in Peninsular
Malaysia in their spending on household items and lifestyle goods.
In the 1960s, the consumption of commercially manufactured goods was
beginning to influence patterns of family consumption among south-west Sarawak
Malays in Kuching Division (Harrisson 1970). The conspicuous consumption of luxury
items commonly occurred during the Muslim religious festival of Hari Raya, but in fact
that was in the interests of the family (Harrisson 1970). In the latter years of Harrisson’s
study villagers began to buy sewing machines which might be considered a luxury (or
convenience) item. The purchase of a sewing machine is an example of the acquisition
of a relatively expensive item that could also be used to generate additional income.
Harrisson implies that at the time the sewing machine was symbolic of a luxury good.
Harrisson (1970) further notes that purchase of personal lifestyle commodities, such as
American-style sports shirts and jewellery, were undertaken by young men and women,
but not housewives.
Although Ong’s (1987) work did not focus on consumption, she observes that in
a rural area in Selangor, West Malaysia, money was spent on television sets and
expensive furniture. These two luxury commodities were desired by young men and
women who, because of their jobs in multinational factories, could afford them. The
housewives in Ong’s (1987) study assumed the role of household managers who
diligently pool money from their husbands’ earnings, their own earnings, and their
children’s cash remittances, to spend on essentials and if at all possible luxury goods for
their families, rather than for themselves.
The following section investigates the specific nature of petty trading and
consumption among the housewives of Kampung Tabuan. I explain how petty trading
and the consumption of lifestyle commodities leads to Tabuan women’s attempted
engagement with modernity.
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES, PETTY TRADING AND CONSUMPTION
Petty trading refers to those activities that are conducted by the women within
the village that lead to the accumulation of financial resources. Tabuan housewives
demonstrate differing degrees of involvement in petty trading. Most are involved
periodically or part-time, for instance during the evenings, on weekends, or during
festival seasons. However, more time is devoted to business activities if they are
involved in enterprises such as in grocery selling or sewing from home. The items
traded are typically seasonal fruits, vegetables, and home-cooked foods; as well as
lifestyle commodities, such as ready-made dresses, other garments, personal beauty
products, handbags, jewellery (gold, crystal, and silver) and furniture. There are
fundamentally two forms of petty trading: a social-trading network, which is more
mobile and permanent (often home-based) trading. Both are explained in more detail in
the following section.
Besnier (2004) highlights three characteristics of trading-consuming activities at
the second-hand marketplace, called a fea, in Tonga. He also comes to the conclusion
that a fea ‘embodies all the complexities and contradictions that arise in the construction
of modernity and of the traditional order’ (p. 9).
First, the definition and control of modernity in this highly stratified society are
a privilege of the elites, yet the marketplace is dominated by the non-privileged
and socially marginal, busy claiming a stake in how modernity is to be defined
and incorporated in the local context. Second, the (relatively) shabby
appearance, indecorous character, disorderly social composition, and
geographical marginality of the fea contradict the dominant association of
modernity with cleanliness, order, hierarchy and centrality. Finally, the varied
ways in which participants orient themselves to modernity display its multiple
layered natures, which is at once moral, psychological, material, interactional,
and political, despite dominant local understandings of modernity as a
reasonably unified phenomenon (p. 9).
Besnier contends that the fea is a place where traders and consumers practice
modernity. The term practice highlights the ‘tentative, developmental, performative, and
constructed nature of [an] activity’ (Besnier 2004, p. 8). In the case of Tabuan
housewives, I investigate modernity as a self-reflexive project that creates self-identity
through trading and consuming. According to Gauntlett (2008) the self-reflexive project
of self-identity is ‘an endeavour that we continuously work and reflect on’ (p. 107).
Here, I shall illustrate an example of the interplay of Tabuan household earning
and spending on a lifestyle commodity. Fasha, a Tabuan housewife and trader provides
an example of the selling and buying of hair care treatments. 50 Fasha was not happy
with her natural hair, which she claimed was jaek (ugly) because it is full of body and
wavy. She insisted she would rather have long and straight hair. Although she is happy
with the look of her newly acquired straight hair, she complained that it is expensive to
Fasha goes to a hair salon twice a year to straighten and sometimes colour her
hair. She also buys relatively expensive hair care products. Every six months, she
spends RM 250 on straightening, hair care products, and hair colouring. Altogether she
spends 37% of her total net RM132 monthly income (RM41) on her hair.
Fasha’s husband, Aaron, has a take-home income of RM1000 (AUD333).
Aaron’s major expenses are the van instalments and petrol, which leaves him with only
RM300 (AUD100) per month for household spending. Fasha’s take-home income is
RM220 (AUD73). The income came from selling weekend breakfasts and snacks on the
school bus. After spending on the food ingredients, her net earnings are RM132
Although the spending of housewives on hair care is not as common as their spending on clothing items
and gold jewellery, I chose Siti’s case because of her focus on one type of lifestyle commodity.
Moreover, Siti’s revelation on her family’s earnings and her consumption are reliable and consistent with
Aaron’s and Fasha’s Approximate Monthly Household Earnings and Fasha’s Lifestyle
Aaron’s take-home income
Aaron’s net earnings
Fasha’s net earnings
Total net household earnings
Fasha’s hair care per month
Fasha’s hair care spending as a percentage of her earnings
Fasha’s hair care spending as a percentage of total household earnings 9.4%
Fasha’s earnings were not intended to erode her husband’s responsibility for the
provision of money to support their family. The earnings of Malay housewives are
typically used to purchase minor household goods (Abdullah Yusof & Duasa 2010; Li
1989). According to Li (1989) in her study of urban Singapore Malay households:
The idea that the husband should be the one to provide for the needs of his wife
and household can be seen to operate in the household’s budget even where
husband and wife are both working. The husband’s wage is used for essentials
such as rent, utilities, education, the monthly order of rice, oil, and milk, and
major consumer goods such as the refrigerator, furniture, and television set. The
wife’s income is used for items that are perceived as supplementary, such as her
own and the children’s clothing, smaller consumer goods, or goods in her own
domain such as a washing machine and special kitchenware, children’s tuition,
snacks for the children, and to augment the food budget if it runs short at the end
of the month (p.18).
A husband’s earnings are spent appropriately on household essentials and his children’s
needs, not, unless the money is a gift from the husband, on his wife’s (Li 1989). Tabuan
housewives too are not obliged to be responsible for the provision of household
essentials. Tabuan women commonly say that, in relation to the money they reserve for
their personal spending, bagus agik pakei duit sendiri (it is good to spend with our own
money). Even if a Malay husband spends money on his wife’s personal non-essential
wants, she will not feel comfortable in taking the money from his earnings. According
to Li (1989), this feeling emerges from a ‘sense of debt and dependence’ (p. 22). Li
explains that Singaporean Malay women feel that way because ‘[t]he wife fears she
could be criticized for demanding, and then spending, money that someone else has
laboured to earn’ (p. 22).
Hence, gendered norms in relation to economic responsibility in the Malay
family influences the way Tabuan housewives use their money for two competing
requirements: supplementing the household budget and consuming lifestyle
commodities. The amount that Tabuan housewives spend on household essentials
depends on individual circumstances and preferences. For instance, Balkish (nickname
Bibi) is a home seamstress who has saved almost all her income for over ten years to
assist her husband in building their own house. In contrast, Sofea Jane and Zulaikha
prioritise the money they earn for their personal consumption. They earn money but it is
spent on themselves rather than on the household. In contrast to Balkish’s commitment
to her husband, another Tabuan housewife, Sofea Jane, saves most of her earnings to go
for haj. Although she desperately needs to renovate her old kitchen, rather than
spending all her personal savings, she pooled money from her own savings, her
children’s savings, and her husband’s savings to pay for the renovations. In addition, the
spending decisions of Tabuan housewives are also influenced by the amount of their
husbands’ incomes, and, if applicable, their children’s remittances.
The characteristics of Tabuan housewives petty trading has affinities with both
Geertz’s (1963) and Dewey’s (1962) classic studies of petty trading in Indonesia.
Although these studies were conducted in different economic settings –the former was
conducted in urban towns, whilst the latter was conducted in a rural peasant community
– both demonstrated that petty trading was shaped by social and cultural influences
rather than the more homogenous (and anonymous) business practices that are
associated with the free market economy. Risk avoidance was one of the features
highlighted by Geertz (1963) since the profits associated with these businesses are low.
In the case of Tabuan housewives, a further feature of petty trading is the involvement
and support of close kin. For instance, a father in-law provides an annex space in his
house for a grocery shop run by his daughter in-law.
Malaysia’s National Economic Policy has encouraged women from rural and
underprivileged backgrounds to become involved in the economy through the provision
of micro-credit schemes (Masud & Paim 1999). The involvement of Tabuan
housewives in petty trading, however, differs somewhat from other Malay women’s
involvement in small-scale marketplace entrepreneurship. Malay housewives in
Kelantan state, 51 for instance, dominate trading at the Kota Bharu market (Rudie 1994).
Kelantan Malay women have also been successful in the formal business sector through
their common involvement in wholesaling, retailing, and manufacturing (Idris &
Shahdan 1991). The authors also show that the objectives of Kelantan Malay
businesswomen are to create wealth and reinvest it in order to generate even more
profit. In comparison to Kelantan Malay businesswomen, the petty trading of
housewives in Kampung Tabuan is generally motivated by the desire to earn extra
money to spend on personal lifestyle goods. Moreover, unlike Kelantan Malay
businesswomen, Tabuan housewives have yet to extend their trading to the busy
marketplace in Kuching city.
In this regard, Tabuan women explain their involvement in petty trading as
either cari duit lebih (to earn additional income) or pakei isi masa lapang (to fill in free
time). This suggests that the housewives see themselves as supplementary rather than
Kelantan is one of the Malaysian states located in eastern Peninsular Malaysia.
primary income earners for their families. The first of these responses was typically
given by Tabuan housewives who were endeavouring to supplement their husband’s
inadequate earnings. The second answer was typically given by Tabuan housewives
whose husband’s earnings were sufficient to meet the basic needs of the household.
This implies that such women have more liberty to spend on personal lifestyle
I use the term ‘socio-trading network’ to refer to the activities of buying and
selling that utilise for this purpose social networks among Tabuan housewives. They
encourage their friends, neighbours, and relatives to buy from them rather than from
anonymous others. In fact the aim of many Tabuan traders is to maintain cash flow,
favours and mutual obligation among their social network with sometimes little concern
There are two modes of buying and selling which exploit social networks. The
first is through community rotating credit schemes (CRCS). In these schemes, members
accumulate money to buy more expensive goods. It is a process that will be explained in
the following section. The second type of social network trading occurs when Tabuan
housewives both buy and sell goods from each other both for daily essentials and
lifestyle commodities. Tabuan housewives are simultaneously consumers and sellers for
certain types of goods that are traded in the village. For example, Aleza is one of
Yatimah’s regular customers. She buys her home-cooked food. In turn, Yatimah buys
garment from Aleza. Regardless of the value of the items being traded, the selling and
buying activities are often the basis for the development of long-term relationship
between members of the network.
In order for Tabuan housewives to be able to maximise their chances of selling
goods, they depend on cultivating a sense of mutual obligation among those in their
social network. This has been a recognised practice in rural Malay society when
organising social and religious activities in a spirit of ‘co-operation’ (gotong-royong)
among neighbours and close friends. The concept of gotong-royong is, for example,
commonly demonstrated in the organisation of wedding functions. However, the
concept of gotong-royong has evolved in the urban setting of Kampung Tabuan.
Through CRCSs, Tabuan housewives utilise social networks as much for economic
reasons as social ones.
Mutual obligation is facilitated through housewives’ discipline in controlling the
price of certain goods. For instance, Tabuan traders commonly set a relatively low price
for the food that they produce and sell. As such, the products that are sold in the village
are kept at a minimum so that members of their networks can afford to buy them.
Another way to enable their members to afford more expensive goods is to offer
payment through instalments. In setting a lower price sellers are demonstrating
compassion for their customers. In the Sarawak Malay dialect, they talk about sik
kempang ati (not having the heart) to sell the food at the standard retail price. This is an
important characteristic of trading in Kampung Tabuan; through the recognition of a
common or shared economic status a sense of unity prevails. The traders who do not
follow this convention are said to display behaviour that is sik patut (inappropriate). In
daily conversation, the phrase sik kempang ati is used to empathise with a person who is
CRCSs are another type of social network trading that allows Tabuan
housewives’ to participate in the consumption of lifestyle commodities. CRCSs are well
known and still practised in many communities in developing countries, such as the
Philippines and Indonesia. It is the collective action of a group of people who agree to
meet for a defined period in order to save and borrow money together. Geertz (1963)
explains the activity thus:
The basic principle upon which the rotating credit association is founded is
everywhere the same: a lump sum fund composed of fixed contributions from
each member of the association in turn. Thus, if there are ten members of the
association, if the association meets weekly, and if the weekly contribution from
each member is one dollar, then each week over a ten-week period a different
member will receive ten dollars (i.e., counting his own contribution). If interest
payments are calculated, by one mechanism or another, as part of the system, the
numerical simplicity is destroyed, but the essential principle of rotating access to
a continually reconstituted capital fund remains intact. Whether the fund is in
kind or in cash; whether the order the members receive the fund is fixed by lot,
by agreement, or by bidding; whether the time period over which the society
runs is many years or a few weeks; whether the sums involved are minute or
rather large; whether the members are few or many; and whether the association
is composed of urban traders or rural peasants, of men or women, the general
structure of the institution is constant (p. 243).
CRCS acts in much the same way a bank does: people deposit money for a certain
period. The underlying features of such payment arrangements are mutual obligation,
trust, and co-dependence by both members and the leader (who acts as an organiser and
seller). CRCSs draw on the community’s cultural disposition toward mutual aid.
In Kampung Tabuan, a CRCS is known as main hoi, literally main means ‘play’
and hoi means ‘a cycle of time.’ Thus, main hoi translates to the doing of an activity
which has to be completed in one cycle of time. In women’s groups main hoi is
managed by a so called trustworthy leader. Success in main hoi depends on the trust
between its leader and the group’s members. Some members are involved in main hoi
on an ongoing basis, whilst some members’ participation is sporadic. Because of this it
is crucial for a leader to continually recruit new and trustworthy members. This activity
fosters trust among women within the community, and permits the consumption of
goods which might normally be too expensive to acquire through cash. The practice of
arisan, which occurs among the the Modjokuto community in Java, shares similarities
with main hoi in Kampung Tabuan in that it has both consumption and a communal
motives rather than just a communal motive. Geertz (1963) has argued that the motive
behind arisan ‘is not the money you receive, but the creation of rukun (communal
harmony) . . .’ (Geertz, 1963, p. 243).
Technically, there are two types of main hoi: hoi duit and hoi barang. Hoi duit
means ‘doing an activity for a certain period to save money.’ Similarly, hoi barang
means ‘doing an activity for a certain period to save money to buy goods.’ In Kampung
Tabuan, Rita is one of the women who has, since 2002, been successfully organising
both types of main hoi. Rita is the eldest daughter of Rosli and Doris. She married when
she was 15 years old and has 6 children aged between 5 and 25 years. Her husband,
Awang Osman, is a sub contractor who installs awnings on commercial buildings. Rita,
Awang Osman and their children family live in a house only a few metres from the back
of her parents’ house.
Plate 13 Rita is in the furniture shop, trying to calm down her grumpy son. She is caring for her
son while organising hoi barang.
For hoi barang Rita collects money from the network’s members each month.
Each month, a member of the network takes her turn to purchase goods of her own
choice from the pot of money. The most common goods purchased through hoi barang
are gold, crystal jewellery or furniture; such as beds, wardrobes, sofas, and display
cabinets. However, most of these goods, except jewellery, are for family consumption.
Rita’s role is to collect the monthly payments and identify the jewellery or furniture, the
cost of which equals the value of that contributed by the network members. There is of
course some benefit for Rita who, as the middle person in the purchase receives a
commission from the shop owners when she makes the purchase on behalf of the
network member. Rita also arranges for the goods to be delivered to her customers in
Kampung Tabuan. The value of the discount received from the shop owner is profit for
Rita. She also provides other forms of support to her close network members, including
providing interest free loans and how to pawn gold.
As the organiser of CRCS for hoi duit, Rita acts as the ‘banker’ who saves the
members’ money. The way hoi duit is organised is similar to that of hoi barang. Rita
decides on the sum of money that is to be collected every month from her network
members. Prior to the collection of the money, members in the group will draw numbers
to determine their turn to receive the pot of money. Number one will have the first turn;
number two will have the second turn, and so on. However, the organizer or ‘leader’
must also participate in main hoi duit, and the number one allocation is always given to
her as her privilege. She is the first person to receive the pot of money. Therefore, the
activity does not seem at first to yield any clear monetary profit for the leader, certainly
no more than the other network members. However, Rita points out that the benefit is
she is able to invest the large sum of money she has collected before she hands it to the
recipient at the end of the month.
When a member complains about the turn they receive from the draw for the pot
of money, there may be some form of compromise among members, who may elect to
exchange their turn. In the negotiations, there will be stories to be shared among
members explaining why they need the money at a particular time. The stories allow
each member to get to know the life situation of the other. This is especially the case
with new members. At the end of the time cycle that is agreed, either monthly or
weekly, the leader will hand the pot of money to the recipient. The typical amounts that
the members receive for yearly main hoi are RM300 (AUD100) or RM500 (AUD166).
When I ask why they participate in main hoi duit, Tabuan housewives have a
common answer; monetary gain. As Maya Karin said to me, ‘I will never have the
chance to hold such a large sum of money if I do not participate in main hoi duit.’
Thus, main hoi duit is a way for women to possess a large sum of money at one time to
spend how they wish. The spending can be for daily use for their family, or for nonessential lifestyle goods. For instance, Maya Karin told me that she spent the pot of the
money for the Hari Raya celebration, buying new dresses for herself and her children,
and preparing special food for her family. Without the money from main hoi duit she
believes that she would not have been able to celebrate in such style. Rita, on the other
hand, saves money from main hoi duit to spend on travel to Kuala Lumpur.
Plate 14 One of the main hoi activities is to draw numbers to determine the members’ turn to
receive their pot money.
There are two consequences associated with the social-trading networks, main
hoi duit and main hoi barang. Firstly, consumption becomes a significant way to
establish and consolidate social relationships among housewives in Kampung Tabuan.
Secondly, Tabuan housewives perpetuate the village’s communal values by choosing to
buy from local community networks. This form of trading allows for the creation of
relationships with others (Grumpert & Drucker 1992). Miller (1987; 1998) sees the
desire for goods as a way for people to escape poverty and to express love for one
another. This notion, as demonstrated by Tabuan housewives, contradicts the long-held
view that materialism is problematic. This view holds that the more people become
concerned with acquiring material possessions, the less concerned they become with
Most Tabuan housewives are typically locked out of accessing loans because
they have no guarantors or permanent jobs. The social networks provide them with
economic purchasing power that they would not otherwise have if they were
dependent on conventional financial institutions. Tabuan women’s social-trading
network is an example of the process of modernity being able to operate in a marginal
Permanent Petty Trading
Permanent petty trading shows more commitment from traders and the degree of
involvement is more consistent. This form of petty trading requires more time, capital,
and business skill. An example of this type of trading is the seamstress business,
grocery shops and permanent cooked-food vendors; but includes any form of petty
trading which is practiced consistently. Rita, for instance, can be considered a
permanent petty trader because she has been involved as a permanent leader of main hoi
for many years. I applied Besnier’s (2004) framework of modernity to analyse Tabuan
housewives’ involvement in trading and consumption. Tabuan housewives’ trading
ventures are a process of creating the modern self because trading requires they learn
management skills and to possess knowledge of the latest trends in goods, services and
Tabuan housewives’ involvement in permanent petty trading depends on their
ability to efficiently manage their primary task as housewives; the availability of startup capital; having adequate family support; an entrepreneurial inclination and
opportunities. In the following section I present five case studies of Tabuan housewives’
permanent petty trading activities.
Fasha is 36 years old and began her married life 17 years ago in possession of
one single bed and a few boxes of personal belongings. Since her wedding day she has
lived with her parents-in-law. Her husband, Aaron, is the owner-driver of taxi-van. In
2005, Fasha still did not possess a washing machine, which for many Tabuan
housewives is considered to be a household necessity. In that same year Aaron bought
his own taxi-van and as a result began to increase his earnings. Fasha’s petty trading
earnings now help with meeting the cost of household necessities (Fasha’s activity was
described in the earlier section). In order to maximise her profit Fasha has to know and
monitor the precise cost of the ingredients she uses in her cooking. As also mentioned,
Fasha’s major lifestyle commodity spending is on her hair care.
Sofea Jane is 40 years old and has 11 children. She makes kuih kering (dry cakes
or snacks) daily and runs a seamstress business during festival seasons. When she first
established her business ventures her motivation was to earn some extra money for
household spending. Presently Sofea Jane has to travel to the market in Kuching to buy
her ingredients for kuih kering. Her husband works as a goods handler at Kuching Port.
Her financial condition has improved since some of her children began sending her
remittances. For the past 11 years she has been saving her earnings from selling homemade snacks to perform the haj in Mecca. She often imagines her journey on the
aeroplane and performing the rituals in a foreign country. Since she is illiterate, Sofea
Jane worries that she won’t be able to travel and perform the appropriate rituals in the
Yatimah is 50 years old has been making and selling kuih (traditional finger
food or cakes) from her home for the last 15 years. Her husband works as a lorry driver,
delivering goods to boarding schools around Kuching. Although Yatimah no longer has
a pressing need to earn money to spend on household necessities, she continues making
and selling kuih so that she can travel to Kuala Lumpur twice a year. Every morning at
6:00 a.m Yatimah sends the kuih she has made to two regular stalls which sell them for
her. Yatimah talks about making kuih and reflects on a Malay film:
I always remember Sarimah in one of her films. She was poor. Sarimah made
kuih to earn money. Her son Jamil went to school in KL [Kuala Lumpur]. Jamil
did not know Sarimah worked so hard. She made sacrifices for her son. The
other son studied overseas. Sarimah’s house did not have electricity, so she had
to use pelita [oil lamp] at night when making kuih.
Yatimah reflects that her work as a kuih maker is similar to Sarimah’s in the film
(entitled Dia Ibuku - She is my Mother). Dia Ibuku is a Malay film which was produced
in 1980. In the film Sarimah 52, was a single mother who worked hard to support her
sons after her husband was killed in a car accident. In the film Sarimah had three jobs;
she was a rice farmer and rubber tapper during the day and a kuih maker by night.
Sarimah was portrayed as a dedicated mother who saved money to provide an education
for her two sons. Yatimah identifies strongly with the poor but beautiful Sarimah.
Moreover, Yatimah associates her image of a kuih maker with Sarimah in the film,
believing that, since it is depicted in the movie, a kuih maker carries some prestige.
Zulaikha’s husband works as a taxi-van driver. Because Zulaikha (47 years old)
resides with her relatively well-off parents-in-law, she similarly has no pressing
Zulaikha: I have opened a small grocery shop, which is attached to our house, in
order to fill in my time. Without the shop, I do not have much to do other than
watch television and take a nap in the afternoon. If I sleep too much or sit in
front of the television all day, I worry that I will get sick.
Zana: What about looking after your children and husband, and cooking?
Zulaikha: I have two sons. The eldest is in Polytechnic Secondary School, and
the youngest is 15 years old. They are very independent. They prepare their own
lunches. I cook once a day, in the morning, and that is for lunch and dinner.
Sometimes my mother in-law cooks for everybody. If we do not feel like
cooking then we buy cooked food from stalls.
Zulaikha and her in-laws share meals, which mean that she alone does not have to
manage all the cooking and chores. Consequently, she feels that being a full-time
Sarimah is one of the queens of the Malay silver screen. Awa resembles Sarimah in appearance.
housewife would not by itself provide her with enough productive work to fill her day.
Her opinion regarding the ideal housewife reflects the government’s ideology on
women and work.
Zulaikha has, in fact, been involved in many kinds of smaller petty trading
activities other than as a grocer during the course of her married life. She established her
small grocery shop two years ago, despite the fact that some Tabuan women had argued
there were already too many grocery shops in Kampung Tabuan Tengah. Nevertheless,
Zulaikha has done well and was enthusiastic about expanding her grocery shop to
increase the variety of items she has for sale. She has even applied for credit to do this
by joining the Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia (AIM). Zulaikha borrowed RM5000
(AUD1600) from AIM in order to buy more stock for her shop. She diligently attends
AIM’s weekly meetings to learn how to better manage her store and perhaps repay the
loan sooner. The profit Zulaikha makes from the grocery store is diligently deposited in
the bank. With the savings she plans to go for the haj to Mecca.
Zulaikha’s story is one example of a Tabuan housewife’s entry into petty
trading. Because her shop is open seven days a week she spends more of her time
managing the grocery shop than doing home duties. I observed that she particularly
enjoys interacting with her stock suppliers who are Chinese and Pakistani. Besides
taking care of the business transaction, she laughs and chats with them when they come
to deliver goods to her shop. With Zulaikha’s customers too she often takes the
opportunity to keep abreast of the latest news. The grocery shop business allows
Zulaikha to interact with a variety of people in the confines of her own commercialdomestic space.
Kareena is 32 years old and has five young children aged between 1 and 15
years. Kareena’s story is different from Zulaikha’s in that she had been encouraged by
her husband to devote more of her time than she would like to the business. The latest
venture is a meat and poultry delivery service for local food stalls and cafes around
Kuching, as well as for Kampung Tabuan customers. Kareena’s routine is to pick up
meat or poultry ordered by her customers at the wholesale store in Kuching and deliver
it to them. Since the time she was married, Kareena has juggled her duties as
homemaker and mother with her involvement in petty trading. She feels anxious in
having to cope with the dual roles of housewife and business owner.
Kareena’s husband previously worked as a driver for a wealthy SarawakianChinese businessman but now works as a security guard at a government office. His
employer has a great influence on Kareena’s husband entrepreneur skills. Kareena says
that it was her husband who pushed her to become an entrepreneur:
I married when I was 16 years old. My husband is very strict. People said that
sixteen was a tender age and that I could easily be influenced….and my husband
is a great influence. I learnt [entrepreneurial soft skills] from him. He would be
infuriated if I said I couldn’t do it. When I said that I didn’t want to learn how to
drive, he was infuriated. Any job that I say ‘I can’t do’, like going to a particular
shop or going to the bank, he becomes furious. ‘You have to do it.’ ‘You have to
learn,’ he says.
Despite her protests about her husband’s strictness, she has learned many skills
and become a confident trader. She now owns a van and has borrowed money from
AIM to expand her business. Both demonstrate some degree of confidence in growing
her business, unlike many other Tabuan housewives involved in petty trading. Whilst
some would like to expand their business, they are hesitant to borrow money from AIM
because of the fear they may not be able to meet the repayments. Kareena told me that
borrowing AIM money was her idea and her husband encouraged her to do so.
She told me that on one occasion when she was parking her van, she accidently
hit another car. This accident left a tiny scuff mark on Kareena’s van. The man, whose
car was also slight scuffed, was outraged and demanded a cash payment from Kareena
but she refused to pay. The man threatened to call the police, but she said to him: ‘report
this accident to police if you want - they won’t listen to you!’ She then left the scene as
she was in a hurry to get to the bank. This sort of assertive behaviour is uncommon
among Malay housewives, including those in Kampung Tabuan. The story that Kareena
told me demonstrates both her confidence and desperation in facing the everyday trials
of a housewife turned trader.
While Kareena’s husband discourages her from spending money frivolously,
she disclosed to me that she likes to donate money to the unfortunate featured on the
television reality program Bersamamu (Together with You). Without her earnings from
her small business she would be unable to donate money to this program.
Besnier (2004) contends that the practice of buying and selling in the fea is
characterised by a reconciliation of the traditional and modern self. These two
contradictory orders are manifested by the fea participants in several ways. Firstly,
modernity is reflected in buyer-seller interactions. The interactions are personalised and
sociable compared to anonymous and impersonal business transactions. Secondly,
buyer-seller interaction uses English as the lingua franca of business in the fea; defying
the common practice of English being used by only elite groups. Thirdly, foreign
fashion is appropriately worn in the fea. Fourthly, ‘being modern’ is demonstrated by
resisting the colonial discourse that ‘Tongans are lazy.’
Through their patterns of spending the housewife traders of Kampung Tabuan
have demonstrated a similar reconciliation of the traditional and the modern orders, as
shown by Besnier (2004). For instance, Besnier claims that impersonal transactions are
a practice of the traditional economy. This contrasts to a more personal and sociable
(i.e. modern) trading environment which emphasise customers’ loyalty and mutual
obligation. Kampung Tabuan trading also demonstrates personal business transactions,
particularly among social-trading networks.
Kampung Tabuan traders also differentiate between business conversation and
ordinary, everyday interactions with neighbours. Although Besnier (2004) uses the
English language as an indicator of modernity, I use the diversity of communicators as a
way to show the modern self. As previously mentioned, Tabuan women traders are
required to meet wholesalers and distributors from different ethnic backgrounds during
their business transactions. Some of them also attend AIM meetings. This means that
their contacts are more diverse than those of most mothers and housewives. Kareena
would not have displayed such urgency and confidence when the minor car accident
occurred had she not been emboldened by her many years of dealing with her business
contacts. In other words, traders must, in order to survive in business, consciously apply
communication strategies, such as assertiveness and persuasion, in the business setting
Modernity is characterised by standardisation. For instance, traders such as
Fasha who are involved in food selling have to differentiate between food preparation
for the business, and for the family. Food preparation for the business necessitates the
accuracy of measurements, as well as the consistency of presentation. In contrast, food
preparation for the family is inconsistent in quality, size, and presentation.
Besnier investigates the colonial discourse which was used to stereotype all
Tongans as being lazy. The British also created a colonial discourse of the ‘lazy Malay’
(Alatas 1977). However, as Zulaikha notes, her involvement in petty trading is
motivated by her awareness that doing ‘nothing’ at home – since she has spare time – is
‘wasting’ time. Zulaikha demonstrates a moral responsibility, which conforms to both
the expectations of women in a peasant economy, and the government’s development
philosophy that women should earn an income. Still, there are many other Tabuan
housewives who choose to be full-time housewives, despite having free time.
CONSUMPTION: THE CONNECTION WITH, AND IMAGINATION OF, OTHER
CITY LIFESTYLES, AND THE MEANING OF CLOTHING ITEMS
In this section I explore the meaning of Kuala Lumpur to Tabuan women and
their desire for the urban lifestyle(s) of the Other. They want to be connected with the
people and goods of Kuala Lumpur. This desire reflects Tabuan women’s imagined
connection with modern and cosmopolitan lives. I also outline briefly the way in which
television depicts images of Kuala Lumpur. One of the more significant lifestyle
commodities for Tabuan housewives is ready-made clothing. Tabuan traders acquire
clothing from various places outside Sarawak, including Kuala Lumpur. I illustrate the
meaning of the lifestyle commodities, particularly clothing items, sought by Tabuan
As well as being the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (popularly known
as ‘KL’) symbolises for Malaysians development and modernity. 53 For economic
reasons, including the presence of foreign labour and goods, Kuala Lumpur is a place
that can be considered a cosmopolitan city parallel to neighbouring Singapore.
Most Malay popular culture genres, including TV dramas, films, and musicals
are produced in Kuala Lumpur. Tabuan housewives enjoy watching TV3 for depictions
of wealthy, middle-class lifestyles of Malays in Kuala Lumpur. One such drama series
is Sembilu Kasih, (Thorny Love), a story about a wealthy Malay family who own a
luxury home replete with swimming pools, expensive cars and chauffeurs. This type of
Kuala Lumpur can also refer to any place in Peninsular Malaysia if the name of the place is unknown.
subject matter is in fact common in Malay dramas aired on TV3. They also feature
scenes depicting corporate work places where ‘professionals’ appear in smart Western
dress, as well as contemporary city shopping complexes, hotels, and luxury restaurants.
The majority of the characters in these Malay dramas reflect cosmopolitan, middle-class
people who are mobile, wealthy and highly educated; and as such do not represent the
ordinary Malay. 54
Images of this sought are immensely attractive to Tabuan housewives. They
enjoy watching representations of cosmopolitan lifestyles on TV3 more than other
programs on the government channels (TV1 and TV2). The government channels tend
to present a more balanced portrayal of Malays, depicting both urban and rural lifestyles
in their dramas. This contention finds support in the answers provided to my interview
questions. For instance, when I asked ’what is your favourite television channel?’ 23 of
a total 30 respondents (or 76.7%) responded with TV3 (see Table 9). When pressed
further during more informal conversations the typical answer was ‘cerita/rancangan
ya kacak’ (the dramas/programs are good). Priyanka explains that in saying the dramas
are kacak she means that the situations and people depicted on TV3 drama serials are
‘real.’ In contrast to the popularity of TV3, only one respondent chose the longest
established government television channel, TV1. TV2, another government channel,
was chosen by 5 respondents because, according to those housewives, the channel
offered dramas as good as those aired on TV3. As Table 9 shows, TV7 and Astro were
the least watched stations. 55
The Iban have been critical of Malay dramas because they depict the Malay wealthy urban lifestyle
(Postill 2006). They see the Malays benefiting from government support (Postill 2006), unlike
themselves, who largely live in deprived conditions in the rural areas. Similarly, the Kadazandusun in
Sabah view urban Malay lives on drama serials as not representing their rural life experience (Barlocco
There is a reception problem for TV7 in Kampung Tabuan, and Astro is the paid satellite station.
Favourite Television Stations among Tabuan Housewives
No. of Informants
The lifestyle aspects of the Other that Tabuan housewives desire are affluence
attractive people, a choice of modern commodities and affordable shopping
destinations. When I asked what the housewives thought about the people and places in
Peninsular Malaysia, Hasliah who has never been to Kuala Lumpur thought that Malays
living there are generally wealthier and have a better quality of life than those in
Kuching. A young woman named Neelofa 56 expressed her view of the appearance of
men in KL:
Neelofa: What do guys in KL look like?
Neelofa: Hmm . . . They’re tall, lean, and fair-skinned, aren’t they?
Zana: Not really. Some do have the features you mentioned.
Neelofa: I think they are all good-looking.
I assume that Neelofa’s assumption about men’s appearance in Kuala Lumpur is what
she imagine from the characters in Malay drama serials and movies. There are many
instances that Tabuan women see their family members in Malay drama serials and
movie characters. Amor sees her mother in-law in a well-off woman character in Mami
Jarum, whilst Meilan sees Zed, Rita’s son in a handsome and well-off male character in
Kuala Lumpur is only accessible to Sarawakians by plane travel. There are
several domestic airports connecting Kuching with other cities in Sarawak, however
Kuala Lumpur and other destinations in Peninsular Malaysia, together with direct
Neelofa is 19 years old had at the time just completed her upper secondary school certificate and was
looking for a job. Her mother initially thought I was an employee of TV3 (see Chapter 2 for further
flights to foreign countries, are classified as ‘international departures’ and thus leave
from the international airport. First time visitors from Peninsular Malaysia to Kuching
who want to return to Kuala Lumpur, for instance, often become confused when
ushered to the international departures gate. Whilst the nomenclature has been applied
for technical purposes, it perhaps reinforces the symbolism of Kuala Lumpur as a
foreign or international destination.
Tabuan people often use travel to Kuala Lumpur to visit family to show that
they are connected to modern and cosmopolitan people. If they do not have that
connection, some visit their ‘adopted’ relatives. For example, Yatimah told me that her
visit to Kuala Lumpur always starts with sightseeing and then visiting her ‘adopted
relatives.’ The primary reason, however, was to buy wholesale garments to be sold in
Kampung Tabuan. A visit to Kuala Lumpur demonstrates Tabuan women’s social
status, in that they have connections with Kuala Lumpur. Many Tabuan housewives
prioritise visiting Kuala Lumpur if they have the opportunity, the money, and the ability
to access the knowledge necessary to travel there. In the case of Meilan and her
daughter Diana (whose detail backgrounds and their relationships will be explained in
Chapter 8) the opportunity to visit Kuala Lumpur came when Rita invited them to join
with her family’s trip. Meilan was willing to pawn her only precious asset, her gold
necklace, to purchase the air ticket. Meilan’s aim, firstly, was to visit her daughter who
works in a factory near Kuala Lumpur; and secondly, to go shopping and sightseeing.
Tabuan housewives are often unable to purchase special dresses for weddings or
religious celebrations directly from Kuala Lumpur. Instead, they acquire these from a
social-trading network. Clothes purchased within a social-trading network provide a
connection to Kuala Lumpur through the seller who has travelled to the city. When
Aleza sold a dress to Julia she told her that the dress was bought in Kuala Lumpur by
her grandfather, Rosli. However, Rosli’s motive for visiting Kuala Lumpur was not
solely to buy dresses for resellers in Kampung Tabuan. Rather, his primary motive was
to visit relatives in the state of Johor. A ‘visit to relatives’ was an integral topic of
conversation in business transactions. Julia felt special in having obtained a dress from
Kuala Lumpur, even more so because she had bought it from a family with relatives in
Peninsular Malaysia. The dress that Julia bought from Aleza is called baju kelawar (or
bat dress). It is a popular dress among Malay women and is often worn at home in the
evenings. Julia has a collection of seven baju kelawar. Another Tabuan housewife,
Chae-rin, bought ready-made dresses from Kuala Lumpur – rather than from sellers in
her social-trading network in Kuching – because she thought Kuala Lumpur offered
more choices in design.
Although social-trading networks are critical in enabling the purchase of
lifestyle commodities, Tabuan housewives also ask relatives with connections in Kuala
Lumpur to purchase goods. Anita, for example, asked her sister-in-law to buy a stylish
fabric for her called kain brokat. Anita told me that her sister-in-law is a singer in a
nightclub in Kuala Lumpur. She proudly told me her sister-in-law’s occupation, feeling
that the job represented an affluent and glamorous city lifestyle (and therefore her sisterin law would know the most fashionable fabric design). Other lifestyle commodities
from Kuala Lumpur are also sought after by Tabuan housewives. Bella Dally, motivated
by a television advertisement, wanted me to purchase for her a CD player in KL so that
she and her five-year-old daughter could listen to recorded verses of the Quran.
Although Bella Dally is not overtly religious, she talked a lot about raising her daughter
with Islamic values. Here is the conversation in response to my failure to purchase the
CD player in Kuala Lumpur:
Bella Dally: I saw it in the ad on television. It must be sold in Kuala Lumpur.
Zana: Kuala Lumpur is a big city. If you had told me where to find it, I might
have been able to buy it for you.
Bella Dally: It must be there because I saw it on television.
I was often asked by Tabuan housewives who have never been to Kuala Lumpur
whether goods are cheaper in KL than Kuching. In fact, since they incur extra transport
costs when shipped from Peninsular Malaysia, goods are generally more expensive in
Sarawak. Their concern with price is further evidenced in day-to-day conversations
between Tabuan housewives who exchange information about where to find the
cheapest necessities. The concern regarding price assists the women in maximising their
spending on personal, non-essential items. Despite Jalan Masjid India (Indian Mosque
Street) in Kuala Lumpur being a famous and affordable shopping destination for
Tabuan people, they also regularly visit popular shopping destinations at the two border
towns of Tebedu (about 35 km south of Kuching) and Serikin (about 40 km south-west
of Kuching) on the Sarawak and West Kalimantan (Indonesian) border. These two
destinations have, since the late 1990s, been developed by the Sarawak state
government. Indonesian traders sell cheap products to Sarawakian consumers, including
garments, batik sarongs, textiles, wooden furniture, household items, and food items.
Although not well known to Tabuan people, Amor and her husband, Jihob, told me
about Bukit Kayu Hitam, a town on the border of Malaysia and Thailand. Both Amor
and Jihob talked about opening a second-hand clothing store in Kuching to sell jeans
and shirts from Thailand.
Tabuan sellers and consumers are able to afford lifestyle products such as
fashionable dresses through social-trading networks. These fashions symbolise what is
both modern and cosmopolitan. The choice of lifestyle commodities is influenced by the
image of the affluent city of Kuala Lumpur (for example Anita and Julia); the Islamic
connection (for example Bella Dally); and the pleasure of obtaining commodities from
other countries (for example Amor and Jihob).
The primary strategy of Tabuan housewives seeking to acquire a modern selfimage and cosmopolitan outlook is through economic participation as traders and
consumers. Their social networks are particularly important in this regard as they
provide a means for affording expensive lifestyle goods, and create a marketplace for
those selling goods bought often in Kuala Lumpur or in Sarawak. Their consumption
includes clothing items, jewellery, personal care items, furniture, and electronic devices.
Kuala Lumpur is imagined as a foreign place that is different from Kuching. The city is
regarded as a model for the affluent lifestyles that Tabuan housewives aspire to.
Television has contributed to the construction of cosmopolitan images of Kuala Lumpur
as a prosperous place, a shopping haven, an Islamic centre, and a travel destination.
Some Tabuan women and men talk about lifestyle commodities from the border towns
with Indonesia and Thailand to consume outside goods. Tabuan women’s trading and
consuming activities as well as imagining their connection with Kuala Lumpur and its
affluent people and lifestyles allow them to acquire a banal cosmopolitan outlook.
TELEVISION COSMOPOLITANISM AND CONSUMPTION: NEGOTIATING
MODERN MALAY HOUSEWIVES’ WOMANHOOD IN DOMESTIC
While Tabuan housewives may be less exposed to first-hand experiences of
globalisation and modernisation than working women, they do witness these processes.
Housewives observe the diverse lifestyles of people from other countries through
television (Abu-Lughod 2005; Silverstone & Hirasch 1994). The aim of this chapter is
to analyse Tabuan housewives’ construction of modern womanhood through their
engagement with television, and through the consumption of lifestyle commodities.
This process has an influence on women’s roles and the relationship they have with
their husband and other family members. According to Ong (1990) ‘Malay womanhood
is defined by adat but always within the Islamic construction of their relation to men’
(p. 261). Masculinity, however depends ‘on a man’s economic power and moral
authority over women in his household’ (Ong 1990, p. 261).
Islam has a significant influence on shaping the women’s roles and identities of
Malay women in many ways. Peletz (1996) for instance, claims that Islam has
contributed to the view that rural Malay women are perceived as subordinate to men
because of their excessive and emotionally unstable passion and the fact that they
require the protection of men. Under the influence of Islam, middle-class Malay women
typically wear the headscarf and dress modestly (Mouser 2007; Stivens 1998; Nagata
1995). Islam also contributes to the tension experienced by Malay middle-class women
in fulfilling their roles as good mothers and housewives, and working women (Ong
1990; Stivens 1998). Research also suggests that contemporary middle-class Malay
womanhood has been conditioned by the experiences of the Islamic resurgence of the
1970s (Anwar 1987). However, I argue that housewives from the marginal community
of Kampung Tabuan challenge each of these stereotypes of pervasive Islamic influence,
and use global and local television content, and the consumption of lifestyle
commodities to construct notions of cosmopolitan womanhood.
Urry (2000) contends that a cosmopolitan outlook exists in global television.
Global programs as well as the local adaptation and hybridisation of foreign television
programs, results in the transmission of cultures across geographical borders. Three
significant themes emerge from the engagement of Tabuan housewives with television;
beauty, Islam and fashion. These themes offer specific pathways for Tabuan housewives
to connect to global cultural diversity.
THE PORTRAYAL OF PHYSICAL AND INNER BEAUTY ON TELEVISION
In Malaysia, foreign drama serials from the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea,
Japan, and Hong Kong, and telenovelas from Latin America, draw an enormous
numbers of viewers. Moreover, Bollywood movies have their own loyal fans base and
are a staple of Malaysian television. These dramas, telenovelas and movies have the
characteristic of melodrama. According to Singer (2001), melodrama invokes the
emotions of viewers. Women viewers intimately engage with televised melodramas 57
due to this genre’s ‘placing of strong emotion in the everyday interpersonal world’
(Abu-Lughod 2002, p.117). Williams (1998) explains that a television melodrama will
stir the emotions of its viewers if:
emotional and moral registers are sounded, if a work invites us to feel sympathy
for the virtues of beset victims, if the narrative trajectory is ultimately more
concerned with a retrieval and staging of innocence than with the psychological
causes of motives and action, then the operative mode is melodrama (p. 42).
The term ‘televised melodrama’ is borrowed from Abu-Lughod (2002, p.117) to refer to drama serials,
telenovelas, and Bollywood movies broadcast on Malaysian television.
The way in which melodrama invokes feelings of sympathy is through the
suffering of the protagonist. However, my view is that physical appearance plays an
important role in constructing sympathy for the good character and loathing for the evil
character. Tabuan housewives often weep and relate their personal experiences to the
suffering of the beautiful, kind, and innocent protagonist in the drama. Bollywood
movies, for instance contain story lines which are based on the polarity of good and evil
characters. Physical attractiveness is linked to the good character – the beautiful or
handsome hero. Tabuan housewives talk about the physical attractiveness of
Bollywood actors and the positive characteristics they display, such as kindness,
patience and loyalty. For instance, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, the handsome male and
beautiful female Bollywood actors respectively, always play the roles of good
characters and are greatly admired by Tabuan housewives.
Scholars agree that the media disseminates popular images of women’s beauty
in society (Berry 2007; Goodman, Morris & Sutherland 2005). In turn, some viewers
who are attracted to these images consume personal care products or clothing items to
model their appearance on the female characters in television dramas. Avid Tabuan
viewers also in fact, model the good morality of these protagonists. Tabuan housewives
recognise the beauty of foreign women in these drama serials. For instance they talk
about beautiful Bollywood, Filipino, and Korean actors. The beauty of Bollywood
actors influences many Kampung Tabuan women and in general Sarawak Malays more
than the beauty of others. In addition to watching Bollywood movies on television, the
housewives also buy VCD movies.
Indian actors who appear in Bollywood movies represent a particular type of
male and female physical beauty desired by many Tabuan housewives. The physical
features they admire the most are their dark skin and sharp nose. Tabuan housewives
demonstrate their familiarity with Bollywood images in the local context through
business transactions with male Pakistani or Indian traders who share similar physical
features with the Bollywood images. In Kuching, the Pakistanis and Indians are often
textile traders and restaurant operators. In Sarawak, the Indian ethnic group includes
Tamils and Sikh/Punjabis; but there are also Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. In 2000 the
population of this group numbered 3, 851 (Monthly Statistical Bulletin 2000). Besides
the influence of Bollywood movies, the prospect of marrying an Indian or South Asian
man in Malaysia contributes to the desire for Bollywood beauty among Sarawak Malay
women. Harrisson (1970) notes that in the past, mixed marriages were embraced in
[m]ost can and will at once say that one grandparent or at least greatgrandparent, was something ‘else’, a Sea or Land Dayak, Javanese, Bugis from
the Celebes, Dusun and so on. The top Malay today is proud of his non-Malay
blood, just as the wife of the Malay headman of Santubong is called Mem
Melayu 58 by virtue of her near-white status through a Scottish father (p. 159).
In his book The Malay Dilemma, the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir
Mohamad, encouraged mixed marriages as a way to produce hybrid Malay citizens who
embody the competitiveness necessary to live in a modern society. 59 However, in an era
of televised melodramas, an imagined association with the Other can be acquired
through the consumption of lifestyle commodities.
Traditionally, according to Schiller (1882) ‘[p]hysical beauty is the sign of an
interior beauty, a spiritual and moral beauty’ (in Dion, Berscheid, & Elaine 1973, p.
285). In psychology, the correlation between perceptions of beauty and positive
personality traits has long been tested. For instance, participants in Dion, Berscheid, and
Mem is a Malay word that presumably comes from the English word, ma’am. Mem is respectful form
of address for an Anglo-Saxon lady.
For an analysis of Mahathir’s ideas on Malay mixed marriages see Crinis, V. D. (2008), The silence
and fantasy of women and work. Unpublished doctoral thesis. University of Wollongong, Wollongong,
Elaine’s (1973) study were of the opinion that ‘attractive individuals would be more
competent spouses and have happier marriages than those of lesser attractiveness’ (p.
288). The stereotyping of beauty and positive personality traits is embraced by the
advertising industry, where popular culture celebrities are often recruited as endorsers
(Till & Busler 2000). These studies demonstrate the widespread acceptance of the
relationship between physical attractiveness and a good personality. Tabuan housewives
also accept this correlation, and use it as a model to express what they see as being two
essential qualities of womanhood.
Bollywood movies reinforce the perception that physical and inner beauty is
inseparable. The classic Malay text, Syair Bidasari, portrays Siti Bidasari as embodying
the quintessential beauty of a Malay woman. In addition to physical beauty, Siti
Bidasari has a pleasing personality which is described as being ‘manis lakunya bersajasaja, sempurnalah bahasanya dengan budi’ (soft-spoken, polite, and graceful)
(Mohamad Tuah & De Run 2004, p. 15).
The traditional physical attractiveness of Malay women is depicted in classical
Malay texts such as the Hikayat Panji Semirang and Syair Bidasari. In these texts
women who have a fair complexion are those of royalty or nobility. Today, according to
Mohamad Tuah and De Run (2004), fair skin is perceived as one of the primary
characteristics of Malay women’s beauty. Their study reported that of 100 young, urban
men and women respondents surveyed across all social strata in Kuching, 73 chose fair
skin as the primary characteristic of Malay physical attractiveness. An example of
preferred light skin can be seen in the popular practice of Sarawak Malay families
adopting baby Chinese girls in 1960s. According to Abidin & Salleh (2002), who
studied the life of Sarawak Malay villagers:
‘[t]he light colouring and more delicate features of the Chinese girls, we think,
are factors of some importance in many cases, making the child probably more
marriageable in a community with more females than males, and thereby
incidentally attracting a son-in-law into the house’ (p. 12).
Mohamad Tuah and De Run (2004) study demonstrates that the fair skin of traditional
beauty does not represent a single beauty image desired by men and women in Kuching.
Although statistically the desire of the Other beauty is small (27 out of 100
respondents), but the number is existed. The dark skin beauty thus co-exists with the
more established traditional beauty of fair skin.
Other models of beauty for Tabuan women are those of middle-class Malay
television presenters, celebrities, and actors. Most of these are fair skinned and therefore
possess a different type of beauty from that of Bollywood actors. Middle-class Malay
beauty, particularly as depicted on TV3 programs, has transformed ‘traditional’ notions
of Malay beauty toward one that is more modern and cosmopolitan. The latter include
characteristics of traditional beauty; an outwardly artificial beauty afforded by the
consumption of lifestyle goods and services, and personal qualities which include a high
level of formal education, independence, as well as preferably being the offspring of a
mixed marriage. One such journalist and news reader on TV3, Azrinaz, ended her
television career in 2005 to marry Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei 60 (The
Australian 2010). Azrinaz’s Cinderella story resembles the plot of the movie Pretty
Woman. However, Azrinaz’s Cinderella story differs in that she climbed the social
ladder by using her intellect and looks, and married a Malay but non-Malaysian. 61 The
racially mixed offspring of a Malay and non-Malay are preferred actors in Malay
dramas and as television presenters. This is a phenomenon which more commonly
Azrinaz Mazhar Hakim won the award of Young Potential Journalist of TV3 in 2000 and the Alumni
Award in 2002 from the institute where she studied. Azrinaz divorced Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on 16
June 2010 (The Star Online 2010).
Stories describing the beauty of Malay TV personalities are quite common. These intelligent
celebrities, including actors, commonly marry either non-Malaysian, or rich, elite Malaysians of mixed
heritage. In another case, Wan Zaleha Radzi, one of the most recognised and talented middle-class female
Malay broadcaster, journalist, and equestrian of the late 1980s, was reported to have had a long time
romantic relationship with a member of the Malaysian royalty, before finally marrying an Australian.
occurs within Malay elite and middle-class groups. Non-Malaysians also sometimes
appear in Malay dramas and movies. One example is, Hetty Sarlene, a Malay actor from
Singapore who starred in the popular Malay drama serial Sembilu Kasih (Thorny Love).
THE WOMANHOOD OF TABUAN HOUSEWIVES: A REFLECTION OF THE
IDEALS OF PHYSICAL ATTRACTIVENESS AND CONSUMPTION OF LIFESTYLE
In this section I discuss three primary case studies that illustrate the way in
which Tabuan women engage with television images. These include Fasha and Aleza’s
imagination of Bollywood beauty; and Maya Karin’s imagination of middle-class
Malay beauty. Foreign images are desired by Tabuan women to satisfy their appetite for
a connection with Others beyond their community. The construction of modern
womanhood, modelled on televised melodramas and the physical appearance of actors,
is a resource that can be employed to deal with the challenges faced by Tabuan women
in a modern and globalised society. Although most of the data presented were gathered
from 2006 to 2007, I also include data gathered during my brief re-visit to Kampung
Tabuan in 2010. It was during that time I learnt about Aleza and her fascination with
Bollywood beauty. I include the data here to show that the desire for Bollywood beauty
is not just a short-lived trend but a set of images which have had a long term influence.
I was introduced to Fasha (see Chapter 6) by Dayang Sariah, the wife of the
village headman. According to Dayang Sariah, 36-year-old Fasha spends several hours
a day watching television. Fasha comes from an impoverished family which is much
poorer than her in-laws. Her husband, Aaron, previously worked as a driver in a leased
taxi-van. Recently, however, he has managed to buy his own taxi-van and is now an
owner-driver. Fasha is a modest woman who suffers from severe and incapacitating
Fasha remembers vividly the narrative 62 of the popular Malay drama series
Neraca-Kisah Benar, or True Story, which was broadcast on TV3. Neraca-Kisah Benar
tells the story of one housewife’s desire to acquire lifestyle commodities. The producer
of Kisah Benar claims that the story-lines which appear in the series are adapted from
peoples’ real life experiences. The series aims to highlight immorality and virtuosity
and the consequences following each have on the characters’ lives. This series focuses
on educating viewers for the purpose of state development and is similar in format to
drama series which serve this purpose in other Asian countries. In India, for instance, a
soap opera entitled Hum Log has been produced by Doordarshan, a government-owned
television channel. It was produced as a way for ‘the state [to] bring about effective
transformation through the mediation of television in order to aid the tasks of social and
economic development’ (Das 1995, p. 172). In Neraca-Kisah Benar, either the producer
of the series, a cleric, or a religious or police officer, depending on the theme of the
episode, makes an appearance at the end of each episode to explain the moral of the
story. The morality promoted in the series endorses the values of the Malaysian
There are two significant themes which emerge from the conversation below;
the consumption of lifestyle commodities and the various images of Indians held by
Fasha. In our conversation, Fasha gives her account of an episode of Neraca-Kisah
Zana: What is the story about?
Fasha: It is about a wife who likes to buy household items from an Indian doorto-door seller who sells goods like carpets, curtains, and textiles. This housewife
pays by instalment.
Zana: What happened then?
Fasha: She keeps on buying goods even though she does not have enough
money. Zana: Then . . .
Fasha: I was horrified.
I was unable to find the title of the episode that Fasha refers to.
Fasha: She pays her debt with her body.
Zana: How do you know?
Fasha: Her husband is curious because she buys a lot of expensive stuff, and he
only gives her a little money. Her husband catches her with the Indian seller at
Zana: What a shame!
Fasha: That’s why I don’t buy any goods from Indian sellers. I don’t want to be
trapped in debt. I’m scared.
This episode taught viewers that an excessive consumption of lifestyle
commodities, at least when undertaken beyond one’s ability to pay, is dangerous. This
message is reinforced in a story-line which highlights the fact that excessive debt may
lead people into immoral behaviour. What is so influential is that the housewife in the
drama is portrayed as lacking purchasing power; dependent on her husband for money;
and weak and unable to resist the temptation to consume goods that are, in reality,
unaffordable. However, an awareness of the disastrous effects of excessive
consumption and chronic debt contradicts the market economy philosophy that is
promoted by the Malaysian government. In this episode Islamic morality, also
supported by the Malaysian government, prevails. It is clear that the drama supports the
Islamic values of frugality and fidelity, especially among housewives. This episode
presents an example of what Stivens (1998) argues is the existence of a ‘destabilised’
Malaysian modernity characterised by both Islamic and Western influences (p. 91). She
contends that modernity is ‘located within a cluster of tension surrounding the role of
religion in the modern Malay world and its relationship to capitalist ‘progress’,
development and ‘tradition’’ (Stivens 1998, p. 91).
Viewers are free to negotiate these competing values which span a continuum
between moderation (i.e. Islam) and unrestrained consumption (i.e. capitalism). Even
though Tabuan housewives are relatively poor, and although they lack credit purchase
schemes supported by commercial banks, they do have ways to consume beyond their
immediate financial means (see Chapter 6). The depiction of a housewife in the drama
purchasing luxury goods via an instalment method of payment accurately reflects
Tabuan women’s strategy for consuming lifestyle commodities. Because community
rotating credit schemes (CRCS) are a ‘safe’ and widely accepted way for Tabuan
women to purchase lifestyle commodities which would normally be out of reach, Fasha
disregarded the messages in the drama about the danger of excessive consumption and
debt. For Fasha, the key message in the story was the character of the Indian seller.
Fasha believed that the Indian trader had deliberately led the naïve housewife into a
position where she was unable to repay her debt. Because of this, Fasha came to despise
the Indian seller, whom she imagined to be the villain of the story. This is a common
reaction among Tabuan housewives, who embrace innocent and evil characters as the
fundamental and most compelling elements of television dramas. This image of the
Indian seller has been conditioned by her experiences in dealing with Indian and
Pakistani traders selling textiles, dresses door-to-door in Kampung Tabuan. Indian and
Pakistani sellers are known for their pushiness in trying to persuade housewives to
purchase their goods through instalments. Thus, the drama reinforces Fasha’s belief that
Indian sellers are pushy, inadvertently causing Fasha to avoid buying goods from them.
Whilst Fasha is not particularly interested in carpets, textiles or curtains (as
portrayed in the above drama), she still has her own preferences for spending on nonessential goods. The story of Fasha’s consumption of lifestyle goods in Chapter 6 is
continued here. She embraces modern womanhood by keeping up with the latest in
hairstyles which are modelled by women on television and especially female Bollywood
actors who have long, straight hair. Perhaps because traditional Malay beauty depicted
in classical Malay texts is associated with wavy hair, straight hair depicts a more
modern beauty. Compared to other Tabuan women, Fasha’s hair care regime is
relatively expensive. Fasha buys expensive shampoos and conditioners to maintain her
preferred hairstyle. The use of these products enables Fasha to follow, in a modest way,
the latest trends in hairstyles shown on television. In Fasha’s case, having a fashionable
hairstyle has influenced the relationship she has with her in-laws, who have a similar
focus on contemporary fashion. Both of her sister in-laws colour their hair and share a
similar interest in following the latest hair trends. According to Fasha, her neighbours
also admire her two handsome brother-in laws. Fasha’s husband, however, is recognised
as being the least attractive of the brothers. Fasha is proud of her attractive brother inlaws and showed their photos to me as proof of their good looks.
Fasha, her husband and their three children, live in the main house which
belongs to her parents-in-law. She longs to have her own house but cannot afford it.
Balang, her father-in-law, owns four self-built wooden flats located at the back of the
main house. In two of these accommodates his daughter Misma and her family, and his
son Wael and his family. He has tenants in the other two flats. Balang operates two
school buses and is considered prosperous by Kampung Tabuan standards. Balang and
his wife, Sita Dewi, play favourites with their children, which has resulted in the
siblings and in-laws becoming divided into two arguing factions.
There is competition among the siblings in Balang’s family in gaining affection
from their parents, be it in receiving material support, or being able to stay in the main
house. These siblings use their physical attractiveness to engage in competition with
each other to win their parents’ attention. Fasha acknowledges this and it has placed
pressure on her to improve her appearance. In fact Fasha’s appearance is one of the
bases for her right to live in the main house. Nevertheless there is the threat that
Balang’s daughter Misma, who is their favourite daughter and a fashionable, well
groomed and confident housewife will persuade her father to relocate Fasha and Aaron
to one of the flats. Fasha hopes that in the future her parents-in-law will allow her and
her husband Aaron to build their own house next to the main house.
There is another dimension to Fasha’s attachment to Indian images that differs
from her relationship with the Indian sellers she so often tries to avoid. Fasha desires
Indian feminine beauty modelled on Bollywood movies. Even though Fasha is not an
Indian, she prefers to associate her dark skin with Indian ethnicity. Her nickname,
‘Tambi,’ is a Sarawak Malay word that refers collectively to South Asians who have
darker skin. In fact, Fasha is more comfortable being called Tambi than being called by
her real name. Nicknames are common among Sarawak Malays, and the names are
assigned by others according to the individual’s looks, character, or obsessions (Puteh
2005). The word Tambi has a positive connotation because it is associated with goodlooking actors and colourful Bollywood movies. In one of my conversations with Fasha,
she used the word Tambi to explain to me how Aaron ran to chase the lorry that hit his
taxi-van which was parked in front of their house. Fasha said, ‘the way Aaron ran was
just like a Tambi in a Bollywood movie!’ By this, Fasha meant that in the act of
pursuing the lorry driver, Aaron looked to her to be athletic, handsome and heroic. By
comparing this incident to a typical scene in a Bollywood movie, she sees a
cosmopolitan association in a relatively ordinary event.
Another Tabuan housewife, 19 year old Aleza, thinks about Bollywood-style
beauty in a different way. She wants to re-marry someone who looks like a Bollywood
actor to reinforce her image of a modern and trendy young woman. Aleza’s former
husband, Roberto, works as a welder with Aleza’s father. Aleza is a seamstress and
occasionally sells ready-made garments. Aleza’s nickname is ‘Amoi.’ The nickname
‘Amoi’ derives from a Chinese (Hakka group) word and is used by Malays to refer to
Chinese girls. Aleza is a loyal fan of Bollywood movies, telenovelas from Latin
America, and drama serials from Indonesia and the Philippines. She often watches a
collection of programs from the Philippine drama serial Pangako Sayo she bought on
DVD for RM70 (AUD 26) in 2006. Aleza told me that she weeps every time she
watches these episodes.
Aleza’s family also appreciates the beauty of Bollywood actors. During my visit
to Kampung Tabuan Lot in February 2010 Aleza told me she was in the process of remarrying. I was invited to attend the akad-nikah (solemnisation) ceremony. On the day
of the ceremony, Aleza invited me for the make-up and dressing session in the groom’s
home. Although I really wanted to know the reason why she had divorced her previous
husband, it would have been inappropriate to ask her at that time. However, in a very
spontaneous way and without being asked, Aleza suddenly said, ‘He was shabby, Kak
Zana.’ I was perplexed by her statement, and I did not know to whom she was referring.
I replied, ‘who?’ Aleza bluntly said, ‘Roberto, my ex-husband.’ Under the
circumstances, with the solemnisation ceremony due to begin in about half an hour, I
could only respond with a blank look. Aleza continued, ‘I will explain to you later.’
Aleza’s family members – her mother, Rita; her younger sister, Ila; her cousin,
Betty; and her grandmother, Doris – had hinted at Aleza’s divorce and spoke of her
future husband the day before I attended the ceremony. In recalling my previous
conversations with Rita and Doris, I could now understand why Aleza referred to her
former husband as ‘shabby.’ The dark skin and sharp nose of the groom, Putera, are
perceived by Aleza as the key features of Bollywood physical attractiveness. Aleza’s
extended family also agrees that Putera is far better looking than Roberto. This was
expressed indirectly by Doris when I visited them. Putera’s two-year-old daughter from
a previous relationship, ‘Baby,’ was also present. Doris said, ‘look at Baby. Isn’t she
pretty? She has a sharp nose. She looks like a Tambi. Her father looks like a Tambi too.’
Doris too approves of Indian beauty by associating both Putera and ‘Baby’ with Tambi.
Through the influence of Bollywood movies, dark skinned men or women are said to be
equally as good looking as those with overtly fair skin. Hence, along with the more
traditional desire for fair skin, the more contemporary desire for ‘Bollywood skin’ has
now become part of the aesthetic code which determines beauty among Tabuan Malay
Tabuan housewives have other connections with Indianess. One introduced
herself to me as ‘Bibi’ (real name Balkish) which is the nickname she favours and is
known by in the village. In Malaysia the name Bibi is commonly given to Indian
Muslim women. Although both Fasha and Balkish have taken nicknames associated
with Indianness, Bibi’s case is different in that she is proudly a descendent of MuslimIndians on her mother’s side. Nevertheless, Bibi has fair skin, and the only apparent
Indian feature is her sharp nose. Although Bibi is no longer an avid fan of Bollywood
movies (she was during the peak of Bollywood movies popularity in Malaysia in the
1990s) she is still proud to be associated with Tambi. Now, however, she identifies
more with Islamic images drawn from religious programs on television, particularly
those from Indonesia which are broadcast on TV2. Bibi now wears a headscarf
whenever she ventures out of the house which is an uncommon practice among her
neighbours in Kampung Tabuan.
In Kampung Lintang Tengah, Petra Jaya (a suburb in North Kuching) I met a
mother of five Atikah (see Preface). Atikah, a Filipino Muslim convert, has given the
nickname ‘Kajol’, to her 10-year-old daughter. Kajol is the name of a popular
Bollywood actress. Ten year old ‘Kajol’ is made to resemble Bollywood Kajol by
keeping her hair long to the waist. With encouragement and money provided by Atikah,
Kajol now possesses a collection of approximately 300 Bollywood movie DVDs.
Despite the fact that Atikah is proud of her Filipino cultural identity, she has chosen to
strengthen her association with the Sarawak Malays by assigning a Bollywood image to
Like Atikah, Kareena (see Chapter 6) demonstrates a keen desire to be indirectly
associated with Bollywood actors. She told me, for instance, that she repeatedly
watched the Bollywood movie Dushman as a way to grieve for her absent sister, who
now lives in Kuala Lumpur:
Have you seen the Hindi movie about a serial rapist? Kajol starred in the movie
and played the roles of both the twin sisters. I repeatedly watched the film on my
VCD player and I cried. When the twin sister was killed, I cried. The story was
sad. The sister was raped and killed with a big block of ice by the rapist, but the
other sister lived. The story about these twin sisters is similar to the relationship
I have with my elder sister. I imagined her when I watch the story. My sister’s
face looks just like a Tambi. In the story, Kajol’s short hair style made her look a
lot like my sister. This made me really upset and I cried.
Kareena was reluctant to give me any further information about her sister and any
similar tragedy that might have befallen her, although this was hinted at during the
interview. In my opinion, since Kareena is unable to afford the airfare to visit her sister
in Kuala Lumpur, she uses Dushman as a way to connect with her absent sister. Kareena
grieves through Kajol’s physical attractiveness and suffering, which she likens to that of
her sister. Kareena values Bollywood beauty all the more through seeing her sister in
IMAGINING MIDDLE-CLASS MALAY PHYSICAL ATTRACTIVENESS
Tabuan housewives’ use of cosmetics, as modelled by television celebrities, is a
way to achieve modern womanhood. Thirty-nine year old Maya Karin spends her
money on cosmetics rather than necessities for the household. Maya Karin believes that
her spending on cosmetics serves an important purpose for her family. Since Maya
Karin’s earnings alone do not provide enough money for her to purchase the cosmetics
she desires, she has had to convince her husband that having a modern appearance is
more important than spending money on a greater variety of foods for the family. In a
conversation that took place between Maya Karin and her husband, Eduardo, it is
evident that both are engaged in a struggle over the appropriate use of limited household
Eduardo: We’ve been eating salted eggs a lot.
Maya Karin: What’s wrong with that?
Eduardo: Rather than buying make-up or lipstick, you should spend the money
on some good food.
Maya Karin: Aren’t you happy with my appearance? When someone in Tabuan
asks, ‘Who is that woman with the reddest lips?’ people will answer, ‘Oh, she is
Eduardo’s wife.’ I am sure that will make you proud of me.
This conversation took place when both Maya Karin and Eduardo were arguing about
their current financial difficulties. 63 The family’s total monthly earnings are only
sufficient to provide for the most basic necessities. Eduardo works as a security guard
for a private company and the couple have eight children, five of which are still in
school. Maya Karin puts aside RM100 (AUD33) every month to pay for the instalments
on her television set (she recently bought a new 42-inch flat screen) and washing
machine. Instead of this expensive flat screen television, Maya Karin could have bought
a more conventional set. Maya Karin chose to invest in what she felt was a lifestyle
commodity. She felt it important to own the latest technology to ensure a better quality
of picture and audio, to establish a desired social status, and ultimately to connect with
middle class Malay beauty. Nevertheless, she is often unable to keep up with the
monthly payments and, as a result, is always overdue in paying either her utility bills or
the instalments for her electrical goods.
Despite her financial burdens, Maya Karin was still hoping to buy a new DVD
player to replace her old one. On several occasions when I followed her to Kuching city,
Aleza told me about the conversation. She was told by Chae-rin, Maya Karin’s close friend.
she stopped at a few electrical goods stores to check on brands and prices, and whether
or not there were discounts available. The family enjoys watching movies, video clips,
and karaoke, and listens to music on a DVD player. Maya Karin is a fan of the
Indonesian dangdut, a style of music where women vocalists sing and dance with
sexually suggestive movements. The women wear tight dresses and a lot of make-up, at
least compared to those singing other Indonesian or Malay music styles. Realising her
family uses more electricity than other tenants for her television and DVD, she has
asked her landlord if she can pay her electricity bill individually rather than share with
the four other tenants. (In fact she decided to pay her own bills after she received
complaints from her neighbours that she was using more electricity than them). Rather
than limiting her television or DVD viewing, Maya Karin was willing to pay more
despite the fact it placed her under financial stress. In short, Maya Karin’s argument
with Eduardo about the appropriate use of their limited household money, her strong
desire to have the latest technology in television sets and DVD players, and her
determination to pay her own electricity bill demonstrates her willingness to shoulder
the financial burden of consuming lifestyle commodities.
The image of womanhood Maya Karin desires is demonstrated in her
conversation with Eduardo. Maya Karin wants to be recognised as a modern woman
who is attractive, independent, and moves freely in public space. Ong (1990) states that
Malay married women emphasise sexual attractiveness by wearing tight-fitting
traditional dress on special occasions. This way of dressing is culturally accepted for
married women, but not for unmarried girls, who are supposed to be modest (Ong
1990). This is due to the culturally sanctioned responsibility of the wife to enhance the
sexual relationship she has with her husband (Paletz 1996; Karim, cited in Ong 1990).
The colour of Maya Karin’s lipstick is striking and uncommon (see Plate 15).
Therefore, women’s images depicted on television are perceived by Maya Karin as
encouraging individuality. In Egypt, Abu-Lughod (2002) argues that Egyptian drama
serials ‘provide a model of a new kind of individuated subject’ (p. 117).
Plate 15 Maya Karin’s red lips. She is focusing her attention on trying on a crystal
bracelet during a home selling session. The bracelet costs RM300 (AUD100) and is sold
through a community rotating credit scheme.
Our conversation regarding Malay television dramas reveals that Maya Karin’s
favourite character portrayal is that of an independent working woman. Maya Karin
admires Inspector Aliza, a dedicated and brave police inspector, in Gerak Khas,
(Special Operation). Maya Karin told me that she asks her children to watch their
favourite English comedy series, Mr. Bean, at a neighbour’s house so that she can watch
Gerak Khas. Furthermore, her favourite dramas are those where the plots develop
around the themes of family, marriage and work. Maya Karin and I talked about two
Malay dramas with different portrayals of women. She likes the drama entitled Mya
Mysara better than the drama Seputih Qaseh Ramadhan (SQR). Both dramas star her
favourite Malay actress, Fasha Shahrizan. According to Maya Karin, her lack of
interest in SQR is due to the fact that it involves the story of a kind, patient, yet naive
wife, who is abused by her husband and mother in-law. Moreover, the character of
Qaseh, a traditional Malay wife, appears as an innocent woman in simple traditional
dress. This portrayal of the wife does not fit with the image of the ‘modern woman’
with which Maya Karin wants to be identified.
Maya Karin chooses to expose herself only to the television images of women
that she prefers. Because Maya Karin likes the three-episode drama Mya Mysara, she
always watches reruns. The protagonist in the drama, Mya, is an independent woman
who, after the completion of her masters’ degree, wants to determine her own future and
choose her own husband. Mya runs away from home because she does not want to
accept the arranged marriage organised by her wealthy father. She begins her new life
as a junior salesperson in a photographic business owned by an old Chinese
businessman. The scene that Maya Karin remembers most is when Mya cannot use her
credit card because her father has cancelled it. Maya Karin also explains, in great detail,
how Mya learned business strategies from her Chinese employer. Maya Karin focuses
on Mya’s business experiences rather than the conflicts that abound in Mya’s wealthy
family. For instance, Maya Karin did not dwell on the conflict surrounding Mya’s
sister’s marriage. Maya Karin’s interest in, and knowledge of, bank accounts, ATMs,
and credit cards in real life is greater than other Tabuan housewives, many of whom do
not even have a bank account. Maya Karin has a bank account and an ATM card
because her sons send remittances from Pulau Pinang (a state in Peninsular Malaysia)
via electronic funds transfer. Maya Karin often goes to ATMs in Pending or Kuching to
withdraw the money. The way that Maya Karin manages her funds electronically sets
her apart from other Tabuan housewives. Maya Karin enjoys the portrayals of modern,
middle-class women who are educated, involved in business, and who demonstrate
diverse interactions with people from different ethnic and social backgrounds. The
drama highlights Mya’s ability to overcome problems in both her business and personal
life. The drama also highlights the type of money transactions typical of modern, urban
Ganguly-Scrase (2003) found that young women in North Bengal, India,
perceive that a modern woman’s independence is demonstrated through her ability to be
mobile ‘through driving and shopping, unchaperoned by older women or male
guardians’ (pp. 561-562).’ Independence in this example is associated with mobility,
confidence and capability. Independence and modernity are linked in these three
qualities to produce a form of womanhood which Maya Karin aspires too. Maya Karin
uses this as a way to negotiate her right to spend as she pleases with Eduardo.
Despite the fact that her involvement in petty trading and part-time work is
sporadic, Maya Karin’s primary role as a housewife does not restrict her to the home. In
fact she spends most of her time outside the house. In the role of manager of household
finances she must purchase the family’s necessities and pay the utility bills. Despite the
fact that husbands sometimes perform these tasks, Maya Karin feels it is important that
she has control over paying the bills and electrical goods instalments. She has a strategy
for paying these which enables her to manage the limited cash she has more efficiently.
For instance, on one occasion the electricity bill was two months overdue and a
disconnection warning had been issued. At the same time, Maya Karin had to pay the
television and washing machine instalments. To ensure the electricity supply would not
be disconnected, she negotiated to pay half of the electricity bill, and then, with the
electrical goods dealer, negotiated to pay only the television set instalment on the
promise she pay a double instalment for the washing machine the following month.
Although this strategy prolonged the payment schedule for her electrical goods, it
allowed Maya Karin and her family to maximise their consumption.
When asked about her son who had just completed the higher secondary school
examination, Maya Karin said, ‘My aunt lives in Pulau Pinang. So, I ask my son to go
there to find a job in a factory. My two other elder sons work in Pulau Pinang too.’ Her
sons show their loyalty to their parents by sending monthly remittances, and she is
expecting her third son will follow suit. Maya Karin has been successful in raising her
sons because they have at least completed secondary school and have steady
employment. Her sons have also managed to keep out of trouble by not becoming
involved in drug or substance abuse or any other illegal activity in Kampung Tabuan. In
the manner she has raised her children Maya Karin gains some standing in the
community. She also effectively manages the household budget, a task made more
difficult in juggling funds for the necessities and lifestyle goods. Fortunately, she does
not neglect her family and is not drawn into unmanageable debt.
Fasha, Aleza, Bibi, Kareena, Atikah, and Maya Karin select resources from
television and transform into strategies to deal with the issues that arise in their daily
life, or to connect or disconnect with their husbands, family members, and neighbours.
Maya Karin and others acquire the habit of consuming material goods which are made
fashionable and hence desirable through television. Through this form of consumption
they create a womanhood which is at once reflect their modern and ostentatious middleclass images, and cosmopolitan. The remaining sections in this chapter demonstrate two
ways through which housewives connect with the Other; Islam and fashion. The variety
of paths to foster connections with outsiders is facilitated by dramas as well as other
Malaysian FTA programs. Hence, women are free to choose images and ideas to model
that suit their needs.
Islam permeates Malaysian television in both overt and covert ways. Islamic
images on television emphasise the form of Islamic morality that is practiced in
Malaysia; fraternity or brotherhood with Muslims in other countries; and a connection
with the Middle East, the geographical heart of Islam. There are two weekly popular
Islamic programs broadcast on Malaysian television; al-Qulliyah (The Lecture) which is
broadcast on TV3, and Forum Perdana Ehwal Semasa (Grand Forum: Current Issues)
which is broadcast on TV1. The purpose of these programs is to teach a moderate
Islamic morality which is supported by the Malaysian government by highlighting its
application in everyday, routine experiences. Islam is also depicted daily on the
television news and is evidence for Malaysia’s enthusiastic connection with other
Muslim populations and nations. For instance, TV3’s prime time news bulletin at 8:00
p.m. generally allocates three out of five minutes of international news to report on
current affairs in Islamic countries.
There are also two significant months in the Muslim calendar where TV3
produces special programs. The first is the popular Islamic documentary Jejak Rasul,
(Prophet’s Steps). 64 This documentary is an historical exploration of Islam in the
Middle East. TV3 provides the scripts and presenters, and sends crew members to do
the filming overseas. It has received an overwhelming response from Malay viewers
and the program is considered one of the best locally produced documentaries.
Although the program is broadcast only during Ramadan each year, the impact of the
program lasts longer since it can be accessed online, through VCDs, and reruns. The
second special program is coverage of the haj pilgrimage. It is broadcast by TV3 and
the government television stations. In Malaysia, apart from the primary celebration of
Jejak Rasul is produced by TV3 since 1995 up to the present. The collection can be bought through
Hari Raya at the end of Ramadan month, another religious celebration is Hari Raya
Haji, or Hari Raya Aidil Adha. The focus of the latter celebration is the haj pilgrimage
to Mecca and Madina in Saudi Arabia. 65 TV3 and TV1 send its correspondents to
Mecca and they broadcast almost daily. Depending on the slot available and the value of
the news each day, these reports can last from 1 to 5 minutes. The climax of the month’s
reporting is the broadcast of the grand day of the haj celebration on the 10th of Zulhijjah
(based on the Islamic calendar) when rituals are performed in Padang Arafah in Mecca.
During the 2010 haj season, 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world gathered
during wukuf (congregation) in Mina, Mecca (News bulletin TV1 2010, 8:00 p.m-8:30
p.m). These two programs; Jejak Rasul and reports of the haj season depict powerful
images of the Arab landscape, buildings, and people, which reconnect Muslims viewers
with the history of Islam.
The most desired yet costly form of consumption for Tabuan women is
performing the haj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In discussions they point out that travel,
meeting other Islamic devotees from around the world, and performing religious rituals
are all attainable from participating in the haj. The once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage,
however, is only compulsory for Muslims who can afford it. At present, younger men
and women in Malaysia, particularly from the middle-class group, can now afford to
perform the haj. However, performing the haj almost always places a strain on Tabuan
women. Accumulating the money necessary to finance the journey is a lifelong
aspiration. The cost increases each year, for example in 2006 it cost approximately RM
15,000 (AUD 5,000) to finance the trip for one person. Nine of the 30 Tabuan
housewives who participated in my survey expressed a keen interest in participating in
the haj. Although few Tabuan men and women are able to fulfil this religious
A total of 25,620 Malaysians went on the pilgrimage in 2007 (Utusan Online 2007).
obligation, women such as Zulaikha, Sofea Jane, and Korina are slowly saving money
in the hope of going on the haj in the future.
It is unclear whether the Kampung Tabuan headman, Wan Alwi, has performed
the haj. Whilst he uses the title Haji, some Tabuan residents question his right to do so.
This shows that Haji is still highly regarded as carrying religious status. 66 In the
standard Malay language, women are given the title Hajah and men are given the title
Haji, used in front of their names. In Kampung Tabuan, both women and men are called
Haji, followed by their name, upon their return from the pilgrimage.
Sofea Jane (see Chapter 6) uses Islamic resources from television to construct a
modern Malay-Islamic womanhood. She has, for example, watched many scenes in
Indonesian drama serials where female characters wore an elaborate, embroidered white
praying robe and she has decided she would also like to have one. The idea of wearing it
as a more ‘proper’ robe than the ordinary one for praying is influenced by Indonesian
drama serials. She said about her wants:
Once I touched the robe at a shop in India Street [in Kuching] and I almost
bought it. The style is quite similar with what I saw in Indonesian serial. It costs
RM70 or RM80 (AUD25 or AUD29). Then I had second thoughts. I felt that I
had better not buy the expensive one at the moment while I still needed the
money to buy more important goods.
Praying robes commonly used in Malaysia are plain white rather than the embroidered
Indonesian style. The simple robes that Muslims in Malaysia commonly wear are in line
with the Islamic teaching that encourages simplicity and modesty.
Since Sofea Jane is illiterate, television has a stronger influence on her than print
media. Television and radio are her primary sources of knowledge. Without television,
Sofea Jane’s knowledge would be limited to unquestioningly reproducing the
community’s values and norms. In fact, the convenience of watching television at home
In the past, the haj was often performed by men to gain religious and social prestige (Peletz 1996).
has reduced the importance of the preachers in the village surau (small mosque).
According to Rosli, the religious classes and preaching gatherings, for example, in the
Tabuan Lot surau, have never drawn large crowds.
Besides her favourite television dramas, Sofea Jane and her husband watch the
religious forum every week. These religious forums often discuss issues surrounding
proper Muslim behaviour. When we were talking about her favourite religious program,
Forum Perdana Ehwal Semasa, Sofea Jane told me that her husband had asked her to
‘smile more,’ especially to him. She then told me more about the conversation she had
with her husband. Sofea Jane said:
My husband told me, if you smile, your face will glow and you will look
beautiful. My husband continued by saying that it is even better if a husband
comes home from work and his wife offers him a drink with a smile. Even if a
woman has an ugly face, when she smiles, she tends to look beautiful. I know
smiling is important because when you smile at other people, you make them
happy. If people are happy, then you do sedekah [a good deed].
Through the program and the ensuing discussion with her husband, Sofea Jane was able
to imagine an Islamic perspective on the importance of smiling. Sofea Jane believes that
firstly, the program taught her that in Islam a wife’s role at home is to serve her
husband. Secondly, Islam encourages women to show their beauty with a smile, without
depending on products promoted by consumerism. Thirdly, Islam is concerned with
fostering good relationships among all human beings. Finally, in Islamic morality a
smile is specifically related to the concept of reward. Sofea Jane’s understanding is that
the message embodies different values that relate to Islamic belief, universal humanity,
and Islamic morality that emphasises fostering good relations in the community.
The pinnacle of Islamic modern womanhood for Sofea Jane is arrived at whilst
performing the haj. Sofea Jane has been diligently saving her earnings from selling
home-made snacks for almost 10 years to achieve this dream. She sees Islam as a
religion that encourages her to be kind to her neighbours and show respect to her
family. Moreover, Sofea Jane believes that embracing an Islamic morality is a form of
power for parents because it encourages children to listen to their advice. Sofea Jane
believes that obedient children will inevitably be successful in their studies.
Whilst the primary aim of the haj is to perform religious rituals, reflecting on
this aspect of pilgrimage is uncommon when returning to Kampung Tabuan. Rather, the
pilgrims are keener to talk about their intercultural experiences with Muslims from the
Arab nations, Africa and Indonesia. Sixty-five-year old Haji Chinta and her husband
had returned from the haj about two years before I was undertaking fieldwork in
Kampung Tabuan. They are well-off family, owning more than four small houses and a
several taxi-vans. Upon returning from the haj, Haji Chinta related her experience with
one of her tenants, Chae-rin, 67 in witnessing a Malaysian man who passed away while
performing the haj and was buried in Mecca. Haji Chinta’s concern was that the body
was ‘thrown’ into the grave by the Arabs, which shocked her because in Malaysia the
body is handled with respect. On hearing this story, Chae-rin admitted to me that she
was amazed by the differences in the Islamic rituals practiced by these people.
TABUAN HOUSEWIVES’ DESIRE FOR FASHION
In this section I examine Tabuan housewives desire for foreign fashions,
including pyjamas, maternity dresses, and ‘fused dresses’ for both special occasions and
daily wear. Although Punjabi dress and salwar kameez have undoubtedly been
popularised by Bollywood, this section does not discuss specific television programs or
film genre. The reason is that Tabuan viewers tend to model contemporary fashion on
popular celebrities. Clothing is seen as the individuals’ (public) presentation of self, ‘to
identify themselves, to define who they are both to themselves and to the outside world’
(Mandel 2002, p. 221). Mandel further notes that in the former Soviet Union, Western
Chae-rin told me the story in one of our casual conversations when we talked about her landlord.
style clothing was worn as a symbol of resistance to the establishment (Mandel 2002).
Tarlo (2007) claims that educated Muslim women in London who wear fashionable
Islamic dress embody cosmopolitan lifestyles lived at the intersection of ‘fashion,
religion, politics and aesthetics’ (p. 144).
The dress code for women appearing on Malaysian television permits stylish
clothing yet stipulates that women must cover most parts of the body. The styles of
clothing in North American television programs was received with hesitation because it
was perceived as being too revealing by conservatives in Malaysia. For example the
secretary-general of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM), an organisation
which is considered to be a moderate Islamic group, said that:
The women in Mike Hammer wore dresses with plunging necklines that show
their cleavage. Their skirts or shorts reveal their buttocks. Such scenes are
dangerous to morals and detrimental to Islam. (The New Straits Times, cited in
Foo 2004, p. 14).
Clothing styles are critical in the recognition of ethnic diversity on Malaysian
FTA television. News presenters, for instance, wear ethnic dress in celebration of the
major religious festivals. There is also Tabuan women’s desire to wear non-traditional
clothes on special occasions. In a wedding ceremony, a Malay bride might wear the
clothing of a different cultural group or a white Western wedding dress. In my opinion,
the practice among the Malay of wearing Western wedding clothes began before the
emergence of free market consumer culture. It is a tradition associated with the colonial
past and thus symbolises modernity. In addition, perhaps this tradition is extended by
wedding planners by providing brides with other cultural group’ attires. The decision to
wear non-traditional dress during a wedding ceremony is made by the bride and groom,
with the bride typically wearing more outfits than the groom. The choice to wear I
believe depend on at least women’s appreciation of cultural differences.
Priyanka is a 24-year-old Tabuan housewife whose husband is a lorry driver.
When making plans for their wedding day, Priyanka and her husband decided that she
would wear a white wedding gown and the groom would wear a formal, Western style
for one of the traditional rituals of the Sarawak Malay, membuang peraja (throwing
misfortune away) (see Plate 16). International costumes are worn for the photography
session in a custom called belulut (to parade). During the belulut Priyanka wore an
Indian Hindu wedding gown, a Japanese kimono, and a Javanese dress (see Plate 17 and
Plate 16 The ritual of membuang peraja (throwing misfortune away) is performed when the
bride and groom are on the way to the groom’s house.
Plate 17 Priyanka is wearing a modern Indian wedding gown and a Japanese kimono.
Plate 18 Priyanka in a Javanese costume (left). Priyanka and her groom in traditional Malay
During religious celebrations, men and women normally wear traditional Malay
dress, especially on the first day of Hari Raya. In the photo (Plate 19), Rosli Sibli wore
a traditional costume called the baju Melayu. However, neither Doris nor Dayang Sariah
wore the traditional baju kurung or baju kebaya, which must be worn with a sarong.
Instead, best friends Doris and Dayang Sariah made a promised to each other to wear a
blouse and trousers for the communal prayers at the surau. They did this in order to
avoid too much embarrassment should only one of them be dressed differently. This
attire is modern and perceived by some Tabuan women as the dress of the ‘rich.’ The
style has in fact been adopted from Bollywood movies and is of northern Indian origin,
popularly known as the Salwar Kameez.
Plate 19 Rosli and Doris (photo at left) and Dayang Sariah (photo at right). These
photos were taken during the religious festival Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, 2007.
Anita often talked about the kimono-style dress that was fashionable at the time
(in late 2006) and was first worn by a singing finalist in the popular TV3 singing
competition Juara Lagu, (Song of the Year). This style fuses Japanese kimono and
traditional Malay baju kurung. It was popularised by the lead character in the hit Malay
movie Nana Tanjung.
Anita (see Chapter 1) is a fashionable young woman who has a collection of
Indian, Western, traditional and fused dresses such as those in the kimono-style. In what
follows I continue with Anita’s story from Chapter 6. However, rather than focus on
the meaning of fashion and the influence of Kuala Lumpur, I want to now illustrate
how Anita is influenced by fashion trends of celebrities on Malaysian television. Anita’s
story illustrates how she utilises Islam and urban, cosmopolitan fashion to construct a
particular version of modern womanhood.
On one occasion Anita and I went to a newsagency to buy magazines and
newspapers. My eyes scanned a multitude of entertainment magazines and newspapers.
Anita excitedly held out the Malay magazine Mingguan Wanita (Women’s Weekly).
The magazine featured a popular female singer wearing a kimono-style dress. Anita said
excitedly, ‘look here Kak Zana, Misha 68 is wearing the dress. Look how beautiful it is.’
Anita’s eyes were gleaming with admiration. I was amazed at her ability to single out
the magazine, buried in over 30 publications on display. Anita was clearly alert to visual
images and colours in her search for style and fashion. I was unable to do this because I
read the printed titles and subtitles on magazines rather than focus solely on visuals
because I was trained in the academic world. Anita finally bought the dress she saw in
the magazine and wears it during outings and special community and family gatherings.
Due to the change from a traditional to a modern lifestyle, Tabuan women have
also become concerned with the clothes they wear in the evening. In Malay dramas
which depict ‘bedtime scenes,’ representations of women in urban families include the
wearing of batik pyjamas (kaftan); while rural women do not wear any particular type of
clothing which can be called a pyjama. The common dress for women at night is simply
a clean t-shirt and a batik sarong. In addition, batik evening wear is dominated by a long
dress called baju kelawar, (or ‘bat’ dress). It is called a bat dress because the design
includes flared sleeves resembling bat wings (See Plate 20). In Chapter 6 I had
mentioned that Julia bought seven baju kelawar so that she could wear a different one
every night of the week.
Misha is a well known Malaysian singer.
Plate 20 Rita (two photos on the left) and Doris and Betty (on the right) wearing baju kelawar
(bat dress), or the new Malay women’s ‘pyjamas’ which are striking in design and colours.
They are showing off their collection of baju kelawar. It is made either from batik or is printed
design (as worn by these women).
Plate 21 Because the AIM meeting and the money-borrowing procedures are conducted
according to sharia principles, all the Tabuan housewives attending the meeting wear
baju kurung and head scarf. Some of the housewives in the photo would not wear this
on other occasions.
Traditionally, pregnant Malay women wear only the baju kurung, which was the
traditional, everyday attire for Malay women before the arrival of the Western-t-shirt
and blouse. The maternity dresses that have evolved in Malay society are based on
Western styles. There are now many styles to choose from, such as loose dresses that
cover the whole body (from wrist to ankle) for practising Muslims, or knee-length,
sleeveless, or short sleeve dresses for others. The following description of Amor
demonstrates how the desire for modern, ‘fused’ and international clothing significantly
underlines Tabuan women’s claim to modernity and cosmopolitanism. Amor (see
Chapter 6), who is particularly concerned with keeping up with the latest fashions, was
pregnant during the time of my fieldwork and for months had been looking in vain for a
smock-style maternity dress. She asked whether Aleza could make a smock, but was not
happy with the design she produced. Amor searched in several clothing stores and when
I asked of the outcome she reported only that they were, ‘too expensive,’ ‘ugly’ or
‘there were none that I liked.’ When she discovered I was soon travelling to Kuala
Lumpur, she persuaded me to look for the dress that she wanted by drawing the exact
style on a piece of paper, complete with her preferred colours. Amor was confident that
I would find the dress in Kuala Lumpur. However, I had doubts as this maternity smock
is of a very specific Western style. 69 When I was in Kuala Lumpur she texted me
several times to enquire about my progress. Initially reluctant to use my time in Kuala
Lumpur to search for a maternity dress, I was relieved to discover the exact style Amor
wanted after searching just two shopping complexes. Amor was delighted when I
returned to Kampung Tabuan with the dress (See Plate 22).
Smocking is a type of British influenced sewing technique that was included in the secondary school
domestic science curriculum in Malaysia.
Plate 22 Amor in a smock-style maternity dress that I buy for her in Kuala
This chapter has discussed some of the diverse paths underprivileged women
can take in constructing a particular version of modern Malay womanhood. They are
beauty, Islam and fashion. Tabuan women’s choice is facilitated by Malaysian FTA
television. The consumption of symbols, images, ideas and fashions from television, as
well as spending on lifestyle commodities are integral components in the process of
acquiring a sense of modern and cosmopolitan womanhood for Tabuan housewives.
The modern self is ‘autonomous, bounded [and] self-activating (Abu-Lughod 2002).
Modern middle-class Malay womanhood, modelled from television, encourages at one
time a sense of individuality and the freedom to connect with the globalised world
through the diverse morals and values depicted in the foreign drama serials, the beauty
of Bollywood and Malay middle-class actors, Islamic universalism and performance of
haj, and international and fused women’s fashion. In addition, modelling middle-class
lifestyles and the global connection have added the cosmopolitan outlook among the
housewives. Islam’s influence on Malay womanhood as underline by previous scholars
is conformed as one of the womanhood paths (see Mouser 2007; Stivens 1998; Nagata
1995; Ong 1990; Peletz 1996) but is less acquired by Tabuan housewives compared
with the significantly desired Bollywood beauty and fashion.
TABUAN WOMEN’S STRATEGIES OF GOOD MOTHERHOOD: DETACHMENT
FROM A PROBLEMATIC COMMUNITY AND THE ADOPTION OF OUTWARD
LOOKING MORALITY AND VALUES
This chapter has two aims. The first is to investigate the ‘inward outlook’
demonstrated by Tabuan mothers when dealing with social problems. In particular,
Tabuan mothers are fearful of the affect these social problems may have on their
children. As mentioned in Chapter 5, the male residents of Kampung Tabuan are
stereotyped by more privileged Kuching Malays, and the local authorities, as being
violent and prone to engaging in crime. Within Kampung Tabuan, stigma is also
employed by Tabuan mothers to segregate their children from those ‘corrupt’ villagers
who are known to be involved in illegal activities. In addition, mothers reflect on the
Islamic resources they have absorbed from television to react to the social problems in
their community. The second aim of this chapter is to investigate Tabuan mothers’
desire to adopt morals and values from beyond the local community to protect their
children from being adversely affected by the social problems which exist in the village.
In relation to both these aims, my argument is that Tabuan mothers utilise Islam as a
resource to manage the challenges presented in daily life; listen to government messages
concerning the family; and emulate a cosmopolitan outlook which is modelled from
television. Combined, these provide a set of moral resources which can be transformed
into courses of action to assist them in achieving good motherhood.
This Chapter uses the cosmopolitan outlook framework that was established in
Chapter 2. In this chapter, the ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ outlook which exists among
Tabuan mothers will be investigated. Both outlooks are significantly facilitated by
Islamic doctrine, morality and values. In this sense Islam has two important dimensions.
Firstly, Islamic beliefs refer to a set of guidlines for devotees. For example, the concept
of halal and haram serves as guides for Muslims. These refer to an inward outlook.
Secondly, the outward outlook stems from Islamic morality, which is often universal,
for instance, Muslims are encouraged to embrace ethnic diversity (see Quran verses of
al-Hujurat 49:13; ar-Rum 30:22; al-Mumtahanah 60:8). These Quranic verses are often
used to support the Malaysian’s policy on ethnic diversity within the nation and
between countries (Abd. Majid 2011; Muslim, Musa, & Buang 2011).
Motherhood in Malay culture is ideally associated with a kind, nurturing and
caring female homemaker (Stivens 2010), regardless of whether or not she is a fulltime
housewife or working mother. These qualities are globally understood and emerge from
feminine roles of mothers (Kinnick 2009; Stivens 2010). However, both mother and
father are equally important in the creation of a functional family unit. The ideal nuclear
family is headed and protected by the father and strengthened by ‘the mother as a warm
and supportive helpmate’ (Stivens 1998 b, p. 108). Malaysia’s National Population and
Family Development Board highlight the stress that social problems place on families in
many nations, including Malaysia (Stivens 2006, p. 359). The idea that the mother is
responsible for the moral guardianship of the family is prevalent in Western philosophy
and Christianity (Crouse 2005; Spigel 1992). Some Islamic groups believe that the
woman has more responsibility as a guardian than only moral guardianship. She is the
guardian of her husband’s house and their children (Joseph & Najmabadi 2005). I argue
that this view has not gained prominence in Malay-Islamic society. The Malay mother
is expected to uphold the moral standards of her family members. According to Malay
popular belief, the mother, rather than the father, is bestowed with moral power. A
hadith 70 states that “paradise lies under the mother’s feet.” In Malay culture, a mother’s
Hadith: ‘A report of the sayings or actions of [Prophet] Muhammad or his companions, together with
the tradition of its chain of transmission’ (TheFreeDictionary n.d).
moral power derives from her daulat (or spiritual potency). Furthermore, mothers are
believed to have the spiritual power to punish children who disregard a mutual, caring
PREVENTING THE SPREAD OF SOCIAL PROBLEMS: ISLAMIC MORALITY AND
The social problems which have beset Malaysian youth are a by-product of the
nation’s rapid development (Ariffin 1995). Ariffin’s argument concerning the
relationship between national development and social ills is evident in Kampung
Tabuan. This section highlights Tabuan mothers’ concerned over the social problems
which are present in their community. Smoking, for instance, is considered by many
Tabuan women to be a gateway to other more serious substance addictions.
One morning I had breakfast with Rita and her daughter Aleza. Rita told Aleza
that she had found a packet of cigarettes in her son Zed’s school bag. What struck me
most was the sense of helplessness etched on Rita’s face and the fear in her voice as she
told Aleza about her brother’s behaviour. Previously, Rita had told me about how
worried she had been when Zed, 15 year old began to come home late from school. She
had even asked her husband to search for Zed around the village. Rita’s immediate fear
was that Zed had also tried glue sniffing with his friends.
In Kampung Tabuan there are no official forums, such as counselling services,
for Tabuan families to get help should a family member become involved in substance
abuse. Rather, Islamic morality is applied by Tabuan women to convince their husbands
and sons of the importance of resisting alcohol, drugs, glue and cigarettes. This is a
strategy used by Anita (see Chapter 1) in deciding if the proceeds from drug-selling are
haram (prohibited) or halal (permissible). Islamic morality gave Anita’s the confidence
to battle her husband’s drug addiction and trafficking. Similarly, Islamic belief and
morality is used as cultural resources by Korina to guide her in dealing with social
problems. Korina (see also Chapter 5) has a 6 year old son, Johari (whom she calls Joe)
and is currently pregnant with her second child. Korina is particularly concerned with
the problems in the community, especially these that might influence her children.
These include smoking, drug addiction and gambling. Korina stated that,
I have never touched anything like cigarettes at home. At school [preschool],
Teacher Nor talked about it. I was surprise that Joe knew about the dangers of
smoking. Joe learns the dangers of smoking through advertisements. Teacher
Nor taught the children that smoking is forbidden. Teacher Nor said that when
someone smokes, there is a tendency for the person to then take illegal drugs. I
agree that these people are easily influenced. When they take illegal drugs, they
tend to gamble or do things like that. They will be caught, put in jail, caned,
things like that. I continue the points raised by Teacher Nor by saying to Joe,
‘besides that, these people will go to hell’. Joe said, ‘Oh, that way!’ And I pray
that Joe will not be influenced by doing those things.
Korina remains aware that Joe is educated in the dangers of smoking from
advertisements. However, we are not told by Korina whether these advertisements
appear on television, or in another media. This message is further reinforced by Joe’s
school teacher, Teacher Nor. Korina confirms Teacher Nor’s view that those who
smoke are more likely to progress to harder drugs. The connection between smoking
and substance addiction is widely recognised in Malaysia. For instance, the finding of a
study conducted by the Malaysian Ministry of Health on AIDS among Malaysian youth
is that there is a high proportion of illicit drug addicts and smokers among the nation’s
AIDS cases. The finding states that,
[s]moking and drug use were especially taken into account in this study because
a large part of AIDS infections in this country was caused by the sharing of
syringes by drug addicts. Smoking, on the other hand, had a connection to AIDS
in that youth who took drugs usually started with smoking cigarettes’ (Ministry
of Health, Malaysia 1996).
As detailed in Chapter 1, the question of drugs and morality is conditioned by
the state’s civil laws relating to the use and sale of illicit substances. Moreover, the
fatwa proclaiming illicit drugs to be haram reinforces, from the perspective of Islam,
the immorality of substance abuse.
However, smoking is not an illegal activity – so who is it that is forbidding
smoking? Although the government has not criminalised smoking, the government
message, and other anti-smoking images, is taken seriously by Tabuan mothers. Korina
told me that Teacher Nor expounds the view that young people are sik boleh, sik boleh
isap rokok (not allowed, not allowed to smoke) because it will inevitably lead to other
illegal and prohibited activities, such as drug-taking, gambling and theft. Korina takes a
strong stand against smoking that finds reinforcement in government anti-drug and antismoking campaigns shown on television. Part of the reason for this is that the addictions
shown in the advertisements are at her doorstep; and she is particularly sensitive to the
destructive path along which she believes smoking can lead. She envisions that severe
punishment, such as jail and caning, await anyone who embarks upon this path of
destruction. Of course in accordance with Islam such people will not only receive
punishment in this world, they will also be punished in the hereafter. Korina (and not
the government message on smoking) advocates that smoking puts one on a path to hell.
This derives from Islamic belief in the ultimate punishment.
Neraka or hell is a powerful word which is rarely used in daily conversation,
unless someone wants to show something as being completely destructive. The evoking
of hell (as a punishment for sin) is an expression of the highest form of disapproval. It is
a term which instils fear; and for Korina is an ‘imaginable place’ where various forms
of punishment are meted out to deserving criminals. In contrast, Korina sees an inherent
injustice in the social reality of life of Kampung Tabuan, where criminals in the
community enjoy the same freedom as good people and do not receive any punishment
from the authorities.
Whilst Teacher Nor is a resident of Kampung Tabuan Tengah, she is a teacher in
Tabuan Lot preschool and her husband is teacher in the primary school of Kampung
Tabuan. Teacher Nor is widely recognised as a sincere and dedicated teacher. This is
one of the reasons that many mothers from places outside Tabuan Lot have chosen to
send their children to the preschool.
Stigmatisation is one of the strategies Tabuan mothers use to separate their
children from the problematic elements in Kampung Tabuan. Neuberg, Smith & Asher
(2000) offer an explanation as to how stigmatisation can be used as a strategy for
successful group functioning. They do, however, propose the strategy with some
caution. 71 They argue that people stigmatise others for several reasons. These include
the development of self-esteem, control augmentation and anxiety buffering (Neuberg,
Smith & Asher 2000). The perspective suggested by Neuberg, Smith & Asher helps us
to understand how Tabuan mothers use stigma ‘to identify individuals who threaten or
hinder successful group functioning, to label them as such, to motivate group members
to withhold group benefits from them, and to separate such individuals from the group if
necessary’ (p. 36).
Link & Phelan (2001) suggest that stigma is enacted at the point at which four
interrelated components converge (pp. 367-371). Of these four components the first is
labelling. Labelling is used for the purpose of identifying and highlighting difference.
The second component is labelling for the purpose of stereotyping. The third
component is, through labelling and stereotyping, the act of separating us from them.
The fourth component relates directly to those who are being stigmatised; for it is they
According to Neuberg, Smith & Asher (2000) ‘[w]e seek to avoid any misconceptions about our use of
biology and evolutionary concepts. That the roots of stigma may lie in our evolutionary past in no way
implies biological determinism; we firmly reject deterministic view, as do most modern evolutionary
theorists, for reasons explained by Kenrick (1994) and Buss (1999). Moreover, just because certain
stigmas were adapted for the social and psychological environments of our evolutionary past, this does
not imply that they are adaptive today; they would only be adaptive to the extent that current
environmental constraints are similar to past environmental constraints. Finally, just because some
stigmas were (or even are) adaptive or “natural,” this does not make them “good,” “right,” “morally
justifiable,” or anything of the sort; the morality of any particular stigma is independent of its existence
(see Buss & Kenrick, 1998, on the “naturalistic fallacy”)’ (p. 34-35).
who suffer a loss of status and discrimination. Tabuan mothers use the strategies of
labelling, stereotyping and separation.
The idea of sending their children away from their residence is not only
practiced by mothers to preschool children but also to their teenage children. As
mentioned in Chapter 5, some Tabuan mothers send their children to school outside
Kampung Tabuan so that they do not mix with their peers from the community. For
instance, Korina stated that,
The only thing here is that I do not want him to mix with his peers. I had advice
from Tokoh Maal Hijrah 2005 Sarawak, [the state exemplary man in
conjunction with the Islamic Year celebration in 2005. His name is Seruji]. He
said to me, if you have children, do not send your children to preschool or
school near your house because they tend to spend time together outside the
school and easily get influenced by corrupt friends.
Korina follows Seruji’s advice and sends Joe to Kampung Tabuan Lot
preschool, rather than the preschool at Kampung Tabuan Dani. Korina believes that the
community’s social problems have permeated the village institutions, including the
preschool. Sofiah Salleh, for instance, sends her 17 year old son to a Chinese school
across the Tabuan River. Sofea Jane is happy with her son’s progress at school and the
fact that he is removed from the village. Juliana lives in Tabuan Dani and has an 11 year
old son named Ihsan. She has never allowed Ihsan to play with the neighbourhood
children, even those who attend his primary school. The only friend Juliana approves of
is the grandson of the Kampung Tabuan headman who lives in Tabuan Lot. Juliana
remains confident that Ihsan will not be influenced to smoke or sniff glue as she and her
sister live next door and take turns to care for each other’s children. Korina had told me
When Joe is at home, he is ‘quarantined,’ he cannot just go out anytime he likes.
Joe cannot do that. Someone must accompany him and only then he can play
outside. When I am not at home, I ask my mum to keep on eye on Joe as she
lives just next door. I could not bear to look at unattended and muddy kids at my
neighbourhood. I observe in Kampung Tabuan that some primary school
children have started smoking.
Both Korina and her mother take turns to ‘guard’ Joe. When I asked how her husband
felt about this, she said he follows the rules she has laid down for Joe.
Korina uses the word ‘quarantine’ when describing how she restricts Joe’s
movements when he is at home. The term denotes an act of keeping a person separated
or contained from others, such that he might not be ‘infected’ by others. In other words,
Korina seeks to separate her son from the other children so that Joe is not influenced by
the mbiak terbiar or ‘unattended kids’ and mbiak comot-comot ‘muddy kids’ in the
neighbourhood. These descriptions illustrate the strength of Korina’s disapproval of the
way some of the village children have been raised. Korina labels the neighbourhood
children as part of a process of stereotyping. This allows her to uphold the dichotomy of
good and bad. Korina believes that ‘muddy’ and ‘unattended’ children will ultimately
fall victim to the social problems prevalent within the community.This has led Korina to
stereotype most of the neighbourhood children with negative images; which in turn
provides her with the justification for quarantining Joe from them. By doing this Korina
feels she has the power to prevent the village’s social problems from infecting her
Sibley (1995) in his study of socio-spatial exclusion argues that certain groups in
the society are sometimes represented as ‘polluting agent’ that threatens established,
normative values within societies. These are defiled people who are often associated by
others with negative images of filth, i.e. ‘muddy children,’ immorality and disorders.
They should be kept at the distance through various processes of separation because
they represent a danger or threat.
The way Juliana resists the social problems in Kampung Tabuan is to deter Ihsan
from following his desire to become a police officer upon leaving high school. Those
who reside in Kampung Tabuan do not have a high regard for police officers. For
instance, Juliana had said,
I don’t like police officers. I don’t want Ihsan to be a policeman. I want him to
be a religious teacher. I like religious teachers. I will make sure he will not
become a police officer.
Initially, I was surprised with Juliana’s preferred career choice for her son. Firstly, being
a religious teacher is generally an unpopular career choice. The aspirations for the
career paths of their children more often include doctor, public servant or teacher.
I interpret Juliana’s choice of religious teacher and her opposition to Ihsan’s
longing to be a police officer as a strategy to show her desired detachment from the
community of Kampung Tabuan. By not allowing Ihasn to become a police officer she
can prevent him from becoming embroiled in Kampung Tabuan’s social problems.
Also, Juliana claims that the police ‘are useless, scared to prosecute offenders and take
bribes.’ Juliana’s stereotyping of police officers allows her to create an enemy upon
which she can direct her anger. This emotion further justifies her decision to prohibit
her son from becoming a police officer.
The following section discusses two strategies that illustrate the outward outlook
Tabuan mothers have absorbed as a result of their engagement with television.
Television messages provide the moral resources which can be enacted to assist them in
achieving cosmopolitan good motherhood.
THE FIRST STRATEGY OF TABUAN GOOD MOTHERHOOD: FILIAL PIETY AND
One of the reasons Tabuan mothers resist social problems is the anxiety they feel
when they think their sons will neglect the practice of filial piety. Filial piety refers to
the expectation Malay mothers hold that their children should demonstrate respect,
obedience and loyalty in several ways. For example when a parent provides advice a
child should listen attentively and attempt to follow the suggestions given. Children
should try to avoid any form of direct confrontation with, or questioning of their
parents. When the children become adults they should be financially independent. They
should care for and express affection toward their parents by visiting them regularly,
giving gifts (especially money) and caring for them if they fall ill. In other words, when
the children are young the parents take full responsibility for them, and when the
parents are old the adult children should care for them. However, when their children
are affected by the kinds of social problems present in Kampung Tabuan, this reciprocal
relationship is threatened. When a child does not succeed in education it both
diminishes their chances of being economically independent in the future and limits
their capacity to care for their parents in old age.
Tabuan women often weep when watching drama serials on television,
particularly those that portray problematic child-parent relationships. Tabuan mothers
openly use displays of emotion to express worry, and persuade their children to be
good. Weeping is used by Tabuan mothers to re-affirm the concept of filial piety
between a mother and her children.
The significance of the concept of maternal filial piety among Malays was
recognised when the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, took
office in 2003. Mainstream newspapers reported that Abdullah had visited his mother to
ask for her blessing after his appointment (Ismail 2003). It was reported that Abdullah’s
mother had told him to ‘work hard and be humble’ (Jalil & Mustapha 2003). This was a
tradition maintained by Abdullah’s successor, Najib Abdul Razak (Utusan Online 2009)
(see Plate 23) and illustrates the status and moral power bestowed upon mothers, even
for those in the political arena, in Malay-Islamic culture. 72
Both prime ministers were reported to seek a blessing from their mothers. These news and photos send
a powerful instant message to readers of the prominent figure of their mothers and forget about the
absence of their fathers (both of their fathers had passed away).
Plate 23 Prime Minister Najib Razak kisses his mother’s hand for a blessing after his
appointment. On the left is Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor (Photo: Aziz 2009).
For Malays, maternal filial piety is underpinned by the belief that mothers
possess a degree of daulat (spiritual potency). If children do not fulfil their obligations
of filial piety, their mother’s daulat is viewed as being able to punish them. Malays
believe that the lives of children who do not observe the tradition of filial piety can
never be peaceful. Children who either disobey, show disloyalty or disrespect toward
their mothers are labelled as anak derhaka (treacherous children).
Korina depends on drama serials and movies to explain the concept of filial
piety to her child. Korina simply points out to Joe the various scenes which touch on
filial piety with little commentary. Joe is forced to come to his own conclusions about
what he sees in these dramas. When Joe weeps, Korina is reassured that this is an
effective way to ensure filial piety. By weeping with Joe, Korina believes that the bond
they share gains strength. Korina claims that,
When we watched ‘Seputih Qaseh Ramadhan,’ Joe cried. The story really
touched our hearts. It was also a good story for women to watch. If I watch a
story that was showing a portrayal of disloyal children to their mother, I will
straight away say to Joe, ‘That’s the punishment to those treacherous children
who are disloyal to their mothers.’ When I said that, Joe feels bad about it, and
he becomes upset. He is a sensitive child. When Joe sees me weeping while
watching TV, he starts to weep too.
Tabuan women weep whilst watching the drama serial Seputih Qaseh
Ramadhan (SQR) because they feel intense sympathy for Qaseh; the protagonist who is
oppressed by her husband and mother-in-law. What is more, in the final episode Qaseh
dies of cancer. Because Qaseh kept her illness a secret, her death came as a shock for
her two on-screen children. Throughout the series both children were becoming
increasingly disloyal to their mother, to the point where they had joined their father and
grandmother in siding against Qaseh. Their punishment was that they not only lost their
mother, but they were left feeling remorse for their disloyalty toward her.
Filial piety is a common theme in Malay and Indonesian drama serials and
movies. The issue of loyalty to parents and reciprocal relationships of care appeals to
audiences and any reinforcement of this value is welcomed by the Malay-Islamic
community. During my field work in 2006, TV2 increased its broadcast of Indonesian
drama serials which reinforced the importance of filial piety. 73 This comes as no
surprise given that both countries, Malaysia and Indonesia, have significant cultural
similarities. Through depictions of filial piety in drama serials, Tabuan mothers are
exposed to the trope of the ‘treacherous child.’ Stories of such children appear in the
renowned Malay folktale of Si Tanggang. In fact many Malay and Indonesian dramas
and movies have incorporated elements from Si Tanggang folklore. Modern television
narratives also deal with the theme of filial piety, but they differ from the old Malay
movies that are adapted from the folklore. Hence, television drama serials allow viewers
to engage with narratives of treacherous children against the backdrop of middle-class
cosmopolitan lifestyles in Malaysia and Indonesia.
3The Indonesian drama serials Malin 1 and Malin 2 are dedicated to instilling filial piety in children.
Another Indonesian popular drama serial, Bawang Putih, Bawang Merah also has a minor theme of
loyalty toward parents. Alia, the protagonist, was constantly being hated and tormented by her greedy
stepmother. Alia has the mission to save her parents who were in her stepmother’s captivity.
In the Indonesian drama serial entitled Malin Kundang, Malin is a ‘good son’
who turns treacherous when he marries a wealthy woman. He becomes greedy and no
longer pays any attention to his mother. The difference between this and other filialduty dramas is that Malin’s character embodies two contradictory features; his striking
good looks and refined manners, and his wicked intent. On the basis of the former he
gains from the trust of his wealthy mother-in-law; whilst at the same time plotting to
murder her daughter (who is his fourth wife). At the end of the series, as consequences
of refusing filial piety and being evil throughout his life, Malin dies tragically due to his
mother’s daulat. In the sequel entitled Malin Kundang 2, Malin’s daughter becomes the
central character. She is portrayed as a wicked teenager who plots to kill her
grandmother, despises her own mother, and is generally intent on destroying the lives of
those around her. These narratives show that greed for wealth corrupts feelings of filial
The drama series Pangako Sayo from the Philippines was broadcast in 2005 and
proved to be popular among Tabuan mothers. Aleza, a young mother who has a 4 year
old son (see Chapter 7) ‘was hooked’ on the serial. After watching Pangako Sayo three
times she said that,
I feel sad and weep when I see my newborn nephew who is not in proper care.
My nephew was born premature and the doctor said she has Down ’s syndrome.
It reminds me of Yna, the illegitimate child in Pangako Sayo. She is left by her
mother in a rubbish tip. Yna was rescued and adopted by a couple. I want to
adopt my nephew but my sister-in law has refused. I don’t understand why she
doesn’t let me; she can’t even afford to buy milk for the baby.
Aleza’s brother Arasy, the father of Aleza’s nephew, worked in the state of
Selangor but was recently arrested for being an accomplice in the theft of a motorcycle.
His wife was left in Kuching with no money, no home and expecting the birth of their
fourth child at any time. Rosli, Rita, and Aleza had planned to go to Kuala Lumpur to
post bail for Arasy so that he could be released from police custody. I witnessed the
daily progress of ‘the drama of life’ in Rita’s family’ and I even sent Aleza to the airport
to buy plane ticket. My observation showed Awang Osman, Rita’s husband, to be quiet
and not taking any part in helping to solve the problem. I asked Rita about this, and she
said, ‘It is his character.’
In the midst of the chaos in Rita’s family, I observed that Aleza began to
develop a lot of sympathy for her newborn nephew. At the same time, she was watching
Pangako Sayo on VCD for the third time. On a few occasions she asked me if I would
drive her to the maternity hospital to visit her nephew, ‘I wonder if the baby is OK. We
should go and visit him, shouldn’t we?’ Aleza attempted to understand and act on a
complex family issue by referring to a television drama series. Although Aleza’s case
does not specifically reflect the practice of filial piety, it demonstrates a mother’s
affection and concern for children. Aleza’s affection for the child is intensified by the
drama she watches. She is able to relate to a story from a different cultural and religious
context and use that to reflect on her own experience.
Meilan’s family provides an example of the way that social problems can affect a family.
Meilan, aged 58, is an Iban who converted to Islam when she married Ibrahim. Meilan is
a casual worker and Ibrahim works as a security guard. Meilan and Ibrahim live with 15
fifteen family members, including her children, their partners and grandchildren. These
include unmarried adults, as well as two married couples and their children. Because they
are the mainstays of support for the extended family, Meilan and her husband are
struggling to earn enough money to buy food. She once told me that she is ‘still buying
rice, cooking oil or fish for everybody in the house.’ She is not happy with the fact that
her adult children are still financially dependant on her. Meilan also worries about her 16
year old son who had recently dropped out of school. Meilan’s case is an example of
some parents in Kampung Tabuan who are reluctantly providing financial support to their
married sons’ or daughters’ family. Parents are obliged to support their children who are
unable to secure stable employments.
As mentioned previously, Meilan often cries whilst watching SQR. In fact, she is
well known among her close neighbours because she weeps easily when watching sad
scenes in television dramas and films. For example, she weeps when watching children
arguing or being disrespectful to their parents. She always cries whenever she watches
Malin’s mother (in the Malin Kundang drama serial) being tricked into mishap by her
treacherous son. When watching another Indonesian drama serial, Bawang Merah
Bawang Putih, Meilan told me:
When I was angry at Rika and Siska (the antagonists) I gritted my teeth,
clenched my fist and moved closer and closer to the TV set without I realising it.
Both of them were very bad.
Rather than just crying, Meilan also physically expressed emotions of anger and hatred.
Diana, Meilan’s married daughter, told me of her mother’s display of emotions. Diana
cynically teases her mum, saying that,
Whenever my mum cried and became upset when watching TV, I said to her,
‘you shed lots of tears, I am afraid that it will cause flood in the house. May I
take a bucket for your tears’?
Diana and Meilan’s sons have found it difficult to find stable jobs. This causes
Meilan a lot of anxiety as they contribute little to the household expenses. Diana’s
unsympathetic response to her mother’s emotions demonstrates refusal toward the
reciprocal relationship of care. Meilan envisions that she and her husband have to stay
at Rumah Orang Tua (nursing home) because their children are unable to fulfil their
obligations under the code of filial piety.
These drama serials from Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia and the Philippines have
exposed Tabuan women to morality which guides them to becoming good women and
mothers. The characters in these dramas demonstrate the integrity and perseverance
required to fight against ‘evil.’ By engaging with a variety of narratives related to filial
piety against the backdrop of different cosmopolitan cities, Tabuan mothers reflect on
their real life experiences and therefore develop respect and understanding towards
THE SECOND STRATEGY OF TABUAN GOOD MOTHERHOOD: THE ADOPTION
OF DIFFERENT CULTURAL RESOURCES FROM TELEVISION
Tabuan mothers’ strategies to achieve good motherhood are appropriated from
government messages, Islam, and cosmopolitanism from television. Government
messages reflect the state’s intervention in creating the ‘modern family.’ According to
Ong (1990) this project focuses on women’s role in managing the family. For instance
she claims that mothers
could inculcate “progressive” values in their children. This privileging of the
mother-child relationship reflected the Western family model while ignoring the
central role of the Muslim father’ (p. 266).
In regards to Islam, Stivens (2000) argues that the type of Islamic teaching and
images adopted by the Malaysian government is ‘‘moderate, reinvented and neotraditionalist’ (p.30). In other words, Stivens is contending that the Malaysian
government is promoting a progressive image of Islam. A cosmopolitan outlook derives
from the government’s allowing of FTA television to include in its broadcast a
substantial amount of foreign popular culture (see Chapter 2). On the one hand,
Malaysian television embraces commercialisation. On the other, Malaysian television is
a medium for the government to educate viewers (Nain 2003).
In the development of a cosmopolitan image of motherhood, Tabuan housewives
adopted two strategies which connected them to the (globalised) world outside their
village. Firstly, television is an institution through which they listen to public figures at
a national level. They also entrust their children to cartoon and other entertainment
programs on television as a substitute for neighbourhood peer interaction. Tabuan
mothers believe, for instance, that television cartoons are legitimate forms of
entertainment and education. Secondly, television programs are a source of moral
values; including respect and loyalty to parents, success, perseverance and patience.
Most importantly, Tabuan mothers want to see the enforcement of justice in dramas;
good should always prevail over evil.
Korina is a Tabuan mother who depends on television as a resource to nurture
her son. She is articulate in reflecting on how she and her son Joe engage with
television. Other Tabuan mothers also exhibit a similar dependence on television for
Korina trusts television to provide a healthy environment for her son Joe. Korina
sees television as giving Joe companionship, education, entertainment and moral
guidance. Joe spends a significant amount of time at home watching television during
the day, in the evening and on the weekends. He routinely watches two foreign drama
serials during the 2:30 p.m – 4:30 p.m time slot; when TV2 and TV3 air didactic drama
serials from foreign countries. In fact, during this time slot, both TV2 and TV3 choose
to air foreign drama serials which incorporate moral values, in particular those which
are associated with the family. Malin Kundang from Indonesia is an example of one
such drama series. In the evening, and after dinner, both Joe and Korina watch
television together, generally from 7:00 p.m until 10:00 p.m. In all, Joe watches
approximately 5-6 hours of television per day. In the evening television stations air
cartoons, news bulletins, as well as Malay and foreign drama serials. Korina and Joe
also regularly watch DVDs; including locally made Malay movies, Hollywood films
and movies from Thailand and South Korea. Korina and Joe also go to the cinema to
watch Malay movies. On the weekends, Joe watches cartoon programs until midday.
Korina had said that,
On Saturday and Sunday there are many cartoon programs and sometimes we
watch them together. There is Tarzan, Mickey and Lilo and Stich. Joe watches
all those cartoons and his favourite is Mr. Bean, haha...When Mr Bean is on air,
Joe even refuses to go out with me.
Despite the significant amounts of time Joe spends in front of the television,
Korina has no reservations at all about Joe’s television watching routine. She believes
that cartoons and Mr. Bean pose no threat to Joe. Korina’s approval of Hollywood
cartoon programs reflect Tabuan mother’s general acceptance to these programs. In
addition, cartoon programs rarely spark any controversy or discussion at the national
level. Walt Disney Productions have in fact been aired on Malaysian television since the
1960s. One of the benefits Tabuan mothers envisage in Western television programs
provide for their children a way to learn the English language outside of school hours.
Dania, for instance has an Astro satellite television and subscribes the Disney
cartoon and Discovery channels. She encourages her children to watch cartoon
programs as a way to improve their English. She has a 12 year old daughter whom she
said has excelled in English language since they installed Astro. The government’s
bilingual policy encourages Malaysian citizens to be proficient in both the Malay and
English languages. The government emphasises the importance of English in
facilitating the globalisation of the national economy. It is a philosophy which has
influenced many sections of society, including mothers who are concerned about their
children’s education. Dania believes that English is vital in determining the success of
her child’s education and later career. Concerns relating to the acquisition of English,
previously a privileged reserved for the middle-class, has now becomes a concern for
the ordinary people.
Anjali has always watched Hollywood movies with her teenage son and
daughter. Her husband has two jobs; he is a security guard and a goods handler at
Kuching Port. Anjali sells door-to-door food. Both parents hope their 5 children will all
be successful at school. She recalls the story of a Hollywood movie where a father
encourages his son to show a fighting spirit to become an ice hockey champion. Anjali
associates the father’s role in his son’s success at ice hockey to both her untiring effort
to financially provide for her children’s education.
Korina is even more engaged with television culture than other Tabuan mothers.
She not only depends on popular culture programs such as cartoons, drama, drama
serials and films to guide her as a parent, she has also experienced asking questions by
telephone to a renowned guest motivational speaker who once appeared live on the TV
3 daily talk show Malaysia Hari Ini (Malaysia Today 74) During the show viewers are
given the opportunity to telephone and pose a question to the guest:
Korina: There are lots of thing to be learnt (pengajaran) from Malaysia Hari Ini.
Zana: Learning in what way?
Korina: Sometimes it is about caring for children. Once I managed... The other
day Fadilah Kamsah was invited. The topic was about ‘early and later stages in
children’s upbringing.’ He explained how children can be influenced in social
problems (terjerumus ke lembah hina). I called him and said, ‘I have a son aged
six, but I treat him as if he is older than his age.’ Dr. Fadilah said, ‘it is normal’.
He credited me by saying that although I am a young mother, I take seriously
my son’s development. I was flattered by his praise. It’s a proper way to avoid
children from being influenced by social problems.
Dr. Fadilah Kamsah is a renowned motivational speaker in interpersonal relationships,
including child raising. His approach to the subject combines both Western, and MalayIslamic perspectives. He encourages, for example, parents providing mature and
objective explanations to their children on important issues. This method contrasts with
more traditional Malay interactions with children, whereby a parent provides partial
explanations in fear that the child will ask too many questions and diminish parental
Malaysia Hari ini is a morning show, quite similar with programs like ‘Sunrise’ on the
Australian television Channel 7 Network.
However Fadilah also espouses Islamic values in his counselling. He
encourages parents to pray alongside their children to ensure they nurture a strong
spiritual connection. Fadilah appears frequently on television talk shows and at one time
had a regular 10 minute motivational talk time-slot at 6.30 a.m on TV3. Perhaps
because it served to reaffirm her approach to raising Joe, Korina valued the experience
of talking to Fadilah. Fadilah’s advice and compliments have added to her confidence in
achieving good motherhood.
As suggested by Fadilah, Korina tries to be mature and objective in raising Joe.
Korina says that she explains many issues to Joe whilst watching television together.
This is what she meant by ‘I treat him as if he is older than his age.’ In explaining issues
in this manner, Korina anticipates that Joe would be able to think for himself and resist
the negative peer pressure deriving from the environment of Kampung Tabuan. As was
mentioned previously, in contrast to the Western method of raising children adopted by
Korina, traditional Malay beliefs suggest that children are not yet calibrated to receive
objective and rational explanations on certain issues.
The only element of foreign dramas that is particularly treated with caution by
Tabuan mothers is the depiction of sexuality. It is accepted that locally produced,
Malaysian television programs promote modest dress and conservatism when it comes
to relationships between men and women; even more so than other Asian countries such
as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. With regard to this difference, Korina said,
I watched a movie from Thailand on TV and it was a good movie, so I bought
the DVD and wanted to watch it again with Joe. When I watched it on TV there
was no obscene scenes, but when I watched the DVD with Joe, ‘Oh my god, the
woman took off her dress.’ I was in shock. I quickly fast forwarded the DVD.
Joe asked, ‘Why did you fast forward the story?’ I said to Joe, ‘there is a sex
scene and you can’t watch it because you are still young’. I talked directly to Joe
so that he understood. ‘Mum, I can’t watch that part, can I?’ Joe easily
understands because I tell him. Because of this Joe understands many things,
even though he is very young. I am not like other parents who pamper their
children and let them watch those kinds of things.
On the surface, Korina’s method of teaching Joef about issues relating to sex and
modesty demonstrates her ‘inward outlook.’ The theme of sexuality is common in
foreign movies, Korina does not show an openness to, or acceptance of, explorations of
sexuality. Rather, the scene becomes a medium to re-affirm its taboo and the
enforcement of modesty and conservatism. In this way, Korina teaches Joe in
accordance with the Malay-Islamic societal expectation. Yet Korina does not out
rightly condemn sex scenes and it may be argued that this demonstrates an act of
respecting other cultures. Korina’s attitude, for instance, differs from the Senegalese
Muslim women viewers’ from Werner’s (2006) study who passed harsh judgements
against portrayals of morality in Latin telenovelas (see Chapter 3).
Another Tabuan mother, Nene, who has five children ranging from 17 years old
to 1 year old, has also adopted Korina’s approach when confronted by sexual references
in foreign movies. Nene will turn off the DVD player whenever there is an overt sexual
reference or scene. She says that sex scenes are not appropriate for children and
teenagers. But Nene does not totally reject the portrayal. In fact, she watches
uncensored movies from DVD player late at night.
Malay mothers typically have more say than fathers in nurturing their children.
Her role is validated by Malay-Islamic culture which bestows upon mothers a spiritual
potency which can be used to safeguard the traditional forms of mutual relationship
between parents and their children. In Kampung Tabuan, this relationship (filial piety)
is being contested with the spread of social problems in the village. Hence, the renewal
of moral attribution is desired by Tabuan mothers as means to enhance the effectiveness
of their role in nurturing their children against the globalising project of the nation. In
line with this local and foreign television programs have become moral resources.
Mothers’ moral attribution demonstrates both an inward and outward outlook. The
inward outlook is firstly practiced when mothers use Islam to interpret social problems.
The second way that an inward outlook is practiced occurs when Tabuan mothers
stigmatise problematic Tabuan villagers and the police in order to distance their family
from the influence of social problems.
Tabuan mothers have adopted the moral values deriving from Islam, other parts
of Asia and the West. For instance through the experiences of Anjali, Aleza and Korina
we learn that they are open to a universal morality emerging from both locally produced
and foreign television programs, drama series and movies. Moreover, some Tabuan
mothers actually encourage their children to spend significant (some might say
excessive) amounts of time watching television to develop their English language
proficiency. Some mothers demonstrate deep emotional reactions when watching drama
serials. They harness the powerful expression of weeping to inculcate filial piety in their
children. In addition, their emotion reflects the recognition of other mothers’ and
women’s experiences in dealing with the challenges presented in family life. This
outward outlook demonstrates mothers’ openness to differences in raising their children.
CONCLUSION: MORALISTIC HOUSEWIVES
This study demonstrates that, in the twenty-first century, conventional
Malaysian free-to-air television provides both global and local connections for
Malaysian viewers despite the advance of other sophisticated forms of mass media,
including the Internet, the global television, and media convergence of mobile phones.
Viewers are exposed to various types of television programs, and specifically, women
are connected with drama serials, telenovelas, and movies from Asia, Southeast Asia,
and Latin America as well as local programs including ‘hybrid’ and ‘adapted’ types
(discussed in Chapter 4) produced in Kuala Lumpur. Throughout the thesis, I have
argued that Kampung Tabuan housewives use television resources to construct the idea
of ‘ideal housewife.’ The ideal housewife is modern and cosmopolitan. The bases for
the argument emerged from two thesis aims. The first aim was to investigate the
everyday challenges faced by Kampung Tabuan Malay women in their roles of wives,
mothers, petty traders, and consumers in their households. The second aim was to
investigate the ways in which Tabuan housewives use resources from television to
negotiate their roles as a result of changes in society.
THE DRAMAS OF LIFE: THE CHALLENGES OF CONTEMPORARY
Kampung Tabuan Melayu is a low status and marginalised community of coastal
Sarawak Malays in Pending, the thriving industrial area of Kuching. The male
population is a source of unskilled labour for Pending’s and Kuching’s development.
The involvement of some Tabuan men in criminal activity, and drug abuse and
trafficking has caused the village to be stigmatised by some of the local authorities and
the Kuching middle-class Malays. Men are stigmatised as violent criminals and the
general population are stigmatised as squatters.
This study has identified the challenges arising from rapid urbanisation and
globalisation faced by the marginalised community of workers in Kampung Tabuan. On
the one hand, the negative effects of urbanisation manifest in the involvement of some
Tabuan men in social problems. This, in turn, threatens the traditional role of wives and
mothers within the family. Chapter 5 demonstrates the reasons for the tension that
occurs in women’s roles. The tension occurs because some Tabuan men are unable to
earn sufficient income for the family and unable to be effective and capable leaders in
their community, as well as the tarnished image of the villagers due to the stigmatisation
On the other hand, a consequence of globalisation is that it encourages the state
to promote a consumer culture. Tabuan women are drawn into the consumption of
lifestyle goods as a response to government policy. Although consumption is commonly
associated with the middle classes (Pinches 1999; Stivens 1998), housewives in the
Tabuan community also demonstrate a strong desire to routinely consume lifestyle
commodities. I have demonstrated in Chapter 6 that in order to be a consumer, Tabuan
housewives embrace the role of traders. I have also argued that consumption is a
conduit for Tabuan housewives to connect with Kuala Lumpur, a place that is perceived
as a cosmopolitan city, in order to acquire modernity. The existence of poor,
marginalised women who still manage to participate in the consumption of lifestyle
commodities is referred to as the lower middle class in India (Ganguly-Scrase 2003)
and Indonesia (Gerke 2003).
How do marginalised and relatively poor women who have little education and
live in a volatile environment realise that they have the choice to advance their families
and themselves further than local norms and values dictate? As I have demonstrated in
Chapter 5, Tabuan housewives perceive television as serving informational and
educational purposes. This perspective is informed by their view that both local and
foreign television programs are a primary source of moral values. The interesting fact
with regard to television’s role is that Tabuan housewives are aware that, relative to
foreign programs, locally produced television programs are heavily censored by the
government. Tabuan housewives also know they have the choice to buy pirated DVDs,
which are easily available if they want to watch popular culture entertainment that is
frowned upon and uncensored.
THE COSMOPOLITAN OUTLOOK OF TELEVISION AUDIENCES
The first finding of the study is that the image of the ideal housewife desired by
Tabuan women is modelled on the moralistic images that emerge from hybrid programs
that locally produced, and foreign drama serials. This is due to their conviction that a
woman’s role as mother, supplementary income earner, and wife are, at their core,
moral duties. This is also due to the Islamic teachings and the government’s promotion
of the idea that women’s roles in domestic space contribute to the wellbeing of the
family. The petty trading they are typically involved in is patterned on the image of the
ostentatious Malay, middle-class business women depicted in Malay melodramas. The
role of Tabuan housewives in generating an income and managing the household
finances has allowed them to aspire toward a middle class lifestyle and model the
moralistic feminine images they see on television.
In relation to women’s cosmopolitan outlook in the literature (see Chapter 3),
Sichone (2008) argues that the outlook among less-privileged women is due to the
women’s natural openness to the Other. Rather than adopting Sichone’s (2008) view,
this chapter has demonstrated that a banal cosmopolitan outlook emerges as a result of
women’s desire to be modern. The consumption of symbols, images, ideas, and fashions
from television, as well as spending on lifestyle commodities, are integral components
of the process of acquiring a sense of ‘modern womanhood and cosmopolitan outlook’
for Tabuan housewives. Studies have demonstrated that cosmopolitan outlook emerges
as a result of consuming lifestyle commodities among women in London, for example
the activity of buying goods from other countries (Nava 2007) and Muslim women
consuming Islamic fashion (Tarlo 2007).
My argument is that the cosmopolitan, middle-class lifestyles shown on
Malaysia’s FTA television stations provide a moral resource for Tabuan housewives to
be good wives and mothers. These moral resources are grounded in a moderate and
tolerant Islamic morality. Islamic morality refers particularly to guidelines on proper
clothing and sexual conduct, and the importance of distinguishing between halal and
haram in everyday practice, for instance, Anita’s view on illicit drugs. Middle class
lifestyles are embedded in television images of Malay businessmen and women who
have the capacity to consume and travel; who enjoy urban, Islamic, and modern
lifestyles; and who are physically attractive. These characteristics reflect the orientation
of the individual toward cosmopolitanism.
Other than televised Malay and hybrid melodramas, I propose that imported
televised melodrama is both a source of moral cosmopolitanism and cultural diversity.
Moral cosmopolitanism refers to universal morality and the universal human
community (Delanty 2006). Unlike televised Malay and hybrid melodramas, which are
created against the backdrop of Muslim society, foreign televised melodramas (except
drama serials from Indonesia) depict non-Muslim lifestyles. All televised melodramas
highlight universal morality, for instance, evil is always defeated by good. However, the
issues concerned, the people and the backdrop of the society are different in each drama
serials and movies depending on the country that produced them. The combination of
the portrayal of good and evil in foreign and hybrid melodramas, and universal Islamic
morality provide guidance for the everyday practices of Tabuan housewives.
My study also suggests that televised melodramas from different countries have
increased the awareness of cultural differences among Tabuan women. Openness
towards others and the recognition of differences in values is a significant characteristic
of a cosmopolitan outlook (Skrbis & Woodward 2007; Delanty 2006; Hannerz 1990).
For instance, Tabuan housewives do not discriminate between the characters they weep
for or model themselves, be they from Indonesian, Indian, Hong Kong or Philippine
television dramas. What is more, Tabuan housewives perceive that physical
attractiveness and kindness go hand-in-hand and are behaviours modelled in both
foreign and locally produced melodramas. As a consequence, beauty is important
because it is linked to good morals (see Chapter 7). For instance, Tabuan housewives
such as Fasha and Balkish adopt Indian images from Bollywood to portray their
physical and inner beauties.
The second finding of the study is that Tabuan housewives acquire cosmopolitan
outlooks from the ostentatious Malay, middle class images on television, depending on
individual interpretations and circumstances. Sofea Jane and Zulaikha, for example,
were saving for the haj (pilgrimage) as a way of ‘travelling.’ Women such as Rita,
Yatimah, and Korina also recognise the importance of travel and conceptualise their
trips to Kuala Lumpur as a form of pilgrimage. The city represents an urban lifestyle
and is a place to shop (consume). Kareena is compelled to donate to reality television
programs that highlight the underprivileged. Meanwhile, Maya Karin and Fasha spend
money on personal care to project the image of a good housewife. Finally, Anita, Aleza,
Amor, and Doris demonstrate a cosmopolitan image through hybrid fashion.
Cosmopolitanism is also measured by an individual’s levels of commitment to
engage with the Other (Hannerz 1990; Beck 2000). This willingness can be divided into
two categories: dilettante and connoisseur (Hannerz 1990). These categories are based
on the capability to demonstrate cosmopolitanism characteristics. My study suggests
that dilettante cosmopolitan exists among Tabuan housewives. They acquire this
through consumption of lifestyle commodities. For instance, Tabuan housewives
embrace hybrid dress that fuses local and foreign styles. The connoisseur category of
cosmopolitanism, however, is difficult to find in Kampung Tabuan, but it exists. Korina
is the best example. Korina’s family background, which consists of Malay and Iban
descendants, provides the foundation for understanding different values of a broader
space: national, regional, and the West. The governments multicultural policy and
encouragement of mix marriages (such as in Korina’s family) set the foundation for a
cosmopolitan outlook in the society. I suggest that national policy on multiculturalism is
a significant factor that supports the existence of cosmopolitan outlook in marginal
community of Kampung Tabuan (see Parry 2008).
Korina learns the Western and Islamic approaches to raising her son (see
Chapter 8). For example, she takes the attitude of explaining things to her son. When
watching foreign movies which contain sexual references rather than condemn them,
she respects the difference in cultural outlooks. Her moral awareness has motivated her
to fight against corruption occurred in the surau’s (prayer room) management. She was
involved in the donation appeal for Aceh’s tsunami victims and sympathises with the
plight of sex workers in the Malaysian and Kalimantan (Indonesia) cities she visits.
CONTRIBUTION TO TELEVISION STUDIES AND GENDER ROLES
This study’s contribution to knowledge can be found in the application of the
concept of cosmopolitan to an analysis of Malaysia’s FTA television. Cosmopolitanism
is associated with global television (Urry 2000; Baker 1997) rather than national
television. National television in many countries is associated with parochialism (i.e.,
nation building and the project of shaping a homogenous cultural identity). My
contention is that while Malaysian television stations provide parochialism resources,
they also provide resources which promote cultural diversity (see Chapter 4). Due to its
multiethnic population, the Malaysian government recognises and embraces cultural
diversity. This cultural diversity is evidenced by the significant number of imported
programs from North and Latin America, Britain, and South and Southeast Asian
countries, as well as hybrid, locally produced programs. National television has
embraced a global outlook. A further study might well investigate the tension(s) that are
created by the existence of both outlooks. The tension might lie in the willingness of the
government to ‘accept’ foreign popular culture. The tension also might lie in the
society’s acceptance of diverse cultural values as opposed to Islamic and nationalistic
In reference to cosmopolitanism, the television stations studied broadcast three
types of programs: The first are imported programs (Nain 1996; Wang 2010); the
second are locally produced adaptations of licensed foreign shows (Wang 2010); and
the third are Malay dramas that draw on foreign and local values to portray Malay,
middle-class families who are simultaneously modern, Western, multicultural, and
Islamic (see Chapter 4, on Seputeh Qaseh Ramadan). Furthermore, these Malay,
middle-class characters are depicted as having ostentatious consumption habits and are
highly mobile (i.e. they travel).
In the second and third categories above, I argue for the concept of
hybridisation. The term hybridity is applied as these programs are created not only for
commercial purposes but also to reflect the government’s preferred interpretation of
both modernity and Islam. In using hybridity (Kahn 2006; Held 2002; Tomlinson 1999)
as one of the primary indicators of the existence of cosmopolitan in television, I
highlight the role of the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia in deciding what is
‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ in terms of values for Malaysian television audiences.
In addition, the portrayal of hybrid lifestyles in Malaysian melodramas demonstrates the
emergence of what Bhabha (1994) calls ‘a third space’. Within this third space, the state
benefits from the emergence of an ostentatious, middle class culture that emphasises
consumption, as well as particular images of women, that supports the government’s
project of modernity.
Unlike foreign television news, televised melodramas have yet to be theorised in
relation to cosmopolitanism (Robertson 2010; Chouliaraki 2008; Hoijer 2004).
‘Compassion’ in television news is identified as the emotion that connects the ‘victims’
in various locations with local audiences. In the course of my research, I noticed that the
Tabuan viewers tried to identify their life circumstances with the actors in melodramas.
Although there were a number of televised melodramas from the Philippines, Indonesia,
and Bollywood which made Tabuan women weep, their emotions become strongest
when they reflected on their own experiences. Therefore, I suggest that foreign televised
melodramas foster a cosmopolitan outlook by providing morality from various cultures
that can be learned by Tabuan housewives. A similar observation has been made by
Kim (2005). She argues for a cosmopolitan outlook in young Korean women who, from
watching American movies and dramas on global television, imagine what freedom
might be like in their lives. Kim’s claim is consistent with my study that
cosmopolitanism emphasises an attitude of openness. I distinguish openness from
compassion. ‘Compassion’ refers to a sentiment of sympathy towards others which may
not necessarily consider aspect like cultural differences, whereas ‘openness’
incorporates a sensitivity to people from different cultural backgrounds.
Gender role theory has provided me with a framework for approaching the study
of the role of housewives in a Sarawak Malay community. This framework has allowed
me to examine the complex interplay of television engagement and the effects of social
problems and consumer culture on the roles of housewives and the way they cope with
the changes. My study contributes to an understanding of the evolution of the roles of
urban, marginalised housewives roles in an era of rapid globalisation and urbanisation.
Globalisation, strengthened by the liberalisation policy promoted by the Malaysian
government, is prevalent in the emergence of a consumer culture. Globalisation is
experienced by this lower socio-economic group through an engagement with television
and through the consumption of lifestyle commodities.
I have extended the notion the relatively high status of Malay women (Swift
1965; Errington 1990; Karim 1992). Besides the possession of property (Stivens 1996;
Karim 1992) that defines the high status of Malay women, my study highlights that
Tabuan women acquire domestic autonomy through their roles as housewives and
mothers. In the case of the Tabuan population, being poor, low economic status ruralurban migrants, Tabuan housewives rarely inherit land or property from their first
generation migrant parents. Therefore, they depend on the income these women earn
and their spending on lifestyle commodities in contributing their domestic autonomy. In
this study, I highlight the roles of housewives as mothers accorded with spiritual
potency. Rarely do gender role studies of Malay society highlight the daulat, or spiritual
potency, of mothers. Matrilineal filial piety, in terms of remittances and affection,
accrues to the mother. However, this domestic autonomy acquired from the housewives
and mothers’ roles does not come naturally but is located in women’s agency. They
need to restore and negotiate this autonomy with family members. Therefore, television
becomes a resource for them to learn about and create strategies for the maintenance or
restoration of autonomy.
In this study, men’s gender roles are not given any in-depth attention. The study
found that men attempt to fulfil the role of breadwinner; however, they have been
marginalised by urbanisation. This has allowed for the emergence of women’s power in
the domestic space. The government provides financial support for housewives to
improve their ability to earn an income but not for men. In my opinion, men in both
public and private space within marginal communities such as Kampung Tabuan have
no more power than women do. Research on men’s gender roles in such communities
would be timely and would show perhaps that not all men are accorded power in their
relationships with women. There are also other under-researched areas, such as whether
or not the mass media could provide a means for the empowerment of men. Another
under-researched area is intergenerational relationships and the role of grandparents in
the extended family. The aging of the Malaysian population and the unpopularity of
homecare services for the elderly are indicators of the importance of intergenerational
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