An eminent Malaysian academic abroad


Professor Aihwa Ong is an internationally respected anthropologist with at least 10 books to her name. Born in Penang where she had her entire pre-tertiary education, she is now a Professor of Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, the United States. Ong’s best known book is Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia (1987). Her writings have been translated into German, Italian, Portuguese, French and Chinese. She was recently based at Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, where Maznah Mohamad interviewed her.

Anyone would be intimidated by Professor Aihwa Ong. Although petite and slender, her presence is overwhelming. She speaks emphatically and powerfully, insisting that her points and arguments be well understood. When I first approached her for an interview, she remarked that “Penang is just a facsimile in my life now”. One wonders how that translates emotionally; nevertheless, it is a statement worth pondering as we try to understand the Malaysian diaspora living other lives on other shores.

Tell us about your early schooling days in Penang.

My teachers were very important in shaping my intellectual formation. Mavis Mather, our English teacher, and Lim Beng Hooi, the Art and English teacher, were really stellar.

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