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. They were exceptional and instilled a passion for learning in me. They were very exacting and expected very high standards. So, from the beginning, that was what I thought school was about. This was in Convent Light Street. Sister De Salles, the headmistress, was extremely kind and understanding. She provided a very nice balance.

I left Penang after Lower Sixth at St Xavier’s Institution. Even though I have gone out and gott en my BA in New York City and my PhD at Columbia University I think these early teachers really shaped my intellectual sensibility and helped sow the seeds of intellectual curiosity and scholarly discipline, which helped me enormously later.

Why the United States, and Anthropology?

My eldest sister was the top student for the A-levels exam in Penang then and she caught the eye of USIS (United States Information Service) officers in Penang and was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, New York. She inspired all of us to apply to universities in the US. It became a family tradition. All except one of my six siblings was educated at some point in the US.

When I arrived at Barnard College, I wanted to major in Art and English. Then, one day I took a class on Anthropology 101 and somehow (seeing) the image of the graduate student on stage chipping stones, making stone weapons with a picture of arts-in-the-cave projected on the background; somehow, those two things clicked for me.

The very performance of Anthropology suited my interest. Writing, literature and art came together in Anthropology. The larger reason had to do with the fact that I was a foreign student in New York and I was mistaken for all kinds of thing, for being Japanese or Chinese from China and I had to constantly explain myself to everyone I met. The funny thing is that I shared a bedroom with a Jewish girl, and I knew quite a lot about the holocaust – her father was actually in a prison camp during the Second World War. After a few months she didn’t know who I was and I said, ‘Who do you think I am?’ She said I was Asian; even though I had told her my story, she couldn’t place me.

Like I said, Malaysia was, and continues to be, invisible to most Americans. There have been people confusing Malaysia with Malawi (laughs). But I was very lucky then because the same year I arrived, Professor Clive Kessler from Australia began his tenure at Barnard College as an assistant professor. So Clive took me under his wing and helped shaped my interest; he was like a third but important reason in my becoming an anthropologist.

For me being in New York was also a time to rediscover Malaysia, (viewed) in a way that is different from my (years) as an ethnic Chinese in George Town, and (providing) a larger sense of Malaysia that I didn’t have before. Clive, as an anthropologist in Malay society, really expanded my horizon and my interest in the larger Malaysian society from which I came. I became interested in the larger Malaysian society from which I came. He, and another anthropologist, Joan Vincent, who is British and did research in East Africa, were very important. They were both expatriates from the Commonwealth who took an interest in me. The American professors were not connected to South- East Asia in terms of research.

Tell us about your doctoral research on Malay society.

In the late 70s the Vietnam War was very, very important. Two weeks after I arrived, the whole campus at Columbia University was in uproar over bombings in Cambodia. That was how I was initiated into college and graduate school. I joined student demonstrations. It was a very important experience. The Indo-China War was really the kind of major event through which Americans learned about South-East Asia. That was why I wanted to be an anthropologist of South-East Asia. After I graduated from Barnard I went on to Columbia University to do graduate training in anthropology. That was also a period when American factories began to de-industrialise, and began sending their factories to Mexico and South-East Asia. By the late 70s the idea of the runaway factory began to be really critical in understanding the relationship between America and South- East Asia. Malaysia was one of the earliest sites for the re-location of factories from the Silicon Valley.

I wanted to study essentially the industrialisation of Malaysia, and the formation of the new industrial class which was predominantly female. I actually did some (initial) research in Bayan Lepas (but) I had very limited access (to the factories). Then I found out about a rural industrial zone in Ulu Selangor, made up entirely of Japanese factories.

At that time Jim Scott (author of the classic Weapons of the Weak) was doing his research in Kedah and I had other anthropologist friends in Sumatra. In every case the White anthropologist could rent a house and have a village girl do the cooking; that was the practice. So when I first went to the village, I wanted to rent the house and I wanted someone to help me with the housekeeping. The penghulu said no, tak boleh, because you are a single woman. If you do that, people will think that you are setting up a one-woman brothel. Luckily, one of the more influential families decided to adopt me, as their daughter. I was lucky. It was a big family and so I had immediate access to a lot of people and I stayed with them for a year. It was very difficult and inconvenient for them, now that I look back on it, because I’m not Muslim. They gave me a little bilik.

What was happening in the Malay villages then?

If the girls fail Form Three, they were profoundly conflicted because the pattern for them was to find a guy, get married and be a village woman and be involved in harvesting kopi. The village economy was a mixture of coffee and coconut growing. The people in my village were mainly Javanese immigrants and in the surrounding villages were people from Mandailing.

This was also during the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. It was the beginning of the talk about being Muslims, that we have to have solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Afghanistan being attacked by communists. This message was brought in by fiery ulama, the first generation of educated ulama who had been abroad in Pakistan, for example. So they would come to tell the villagers what was happening to our brothers in Afghanistan and then politicians also came to talk about bumiputraism. So the politicians and the religious lecturers played a big role in shaping a larger sense of Malays being united, despite their different origins.

I wanted to focus on industrialisation and sensed that the Malay kampung was really in rapid transition. Like my (adoptive) mother would say, they have a lot of beliefs in toyol and hantu, but would get embarrassed when the ulama told them that this was anti-Islam and we shouldn’t believe in this. In the old days, the village was covered with shrubbery and grass and then you would have hantu and toyol hiding in there. But Islam comes in to clean it all up. Government and Islam become conflated and clear a path, and now you cut back on the undergrowth and things are clean and there is no more toyol.

The whole dakwah movement had already begun by the time I came to the village. When my (adoptive) grandmother’s granddaughter came back from school, all dressed up in a tudung, in very clean and covered clothing, she said, “Oh, my granddaughter is an educated woman, and this is how you’re supposed to dress if you are an educated woman.”

Professor Ong chatting with Maznah.

Was the New Malay being formed?

The whole transformation was a cultural one, it wasn’t just labour. Young men were upset that the women had the jobs in the factories and not them. They realised that women were competitors. They were upset by this new public presence of young women who could take control of their lives. They could shop, they could go to the movies, they paid for their own brothers and sisters to go to schools. They had new respect at home. They would only give money to their mothers. The Malay father does not want to take money from his daughter. So the mother-daughter relationship got strengthened vis-à-vis dad. There was an attenuation of father’s control and authority vis-à-vis the girl. These were some of the effects of the sarong-to-jeans movement.

An educated Malay class was beginning to emerge and who also, in my view, had identity issues, had conflict about who we are: Are we Malays or Muslims? There was a sense that kampung culture could not continue to define who they were. So Islam became critical (in forming) an elite Muslim identity which is not village-based.

There was a lot of conflict about a woman’s virtue, and this had to do with a kind of Muslim womanhood. What is the modern Muslim woman? She is urban, and she is educated now. So how do you deal with the issue of her virtue in this context of modernisation and having a public presence? The tudung helps to mark the Muslim from the non- Muslim and allows them to move easily in a multicultural and heterogeneous environment outside of the kampung.

How was Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline received?

It surprised me. I didn’t expect anything, as writing a book was just part of the job requirement. But there was tremendous interest in America around the nexus between industrial exploitation as they saw it, and spirit possession. The Marxist discourse at that time was whether people developed class consciousness under industrial exploitation. There was also the influence of the feminist who said it was not just labour exploitation, it was also gender exploitation. My own data seems to show that there was no class consciousness as one would understand it in the West. What you had was racial and gendered attitudes.

It was also one of the first books from the American perspective, on the runaway factories. So the Americans were very interested in what this was doing overseas.

You’ve never been invited to speak in Malaysia?

No, I have never received an invitation from a Malaysian campus or academic department.

Do you have any inkling about whether Malaysians will accept what you say in the book?

I have no way to judge that. I had visited USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia), UM (Universiti Malaya) especially in the 90s but have never been invited to speak, so I don’t have a view of their potential reception. I am not a Malaysian scholar in the classic sense of the word. I have moved on and I’m doing other projects, so I can’t answer that question. I don’t know.

What are your impressions of Social Science scholarship in Malaysia?

Anthropology and Sociology in Malaysia? Seems like there was a golden era with people like Syed Husin Ali and Clive Kessler; then another generation with Cheah Boon Kheng, Lim Teck Ghee and then later, Geoffrey Benjamin, Raymond Lee, Wazir Karim, Lim Mah Hui, Jomo Sundaram, Francis Loh, Tan Chee Beng, Azizah Kassim, Noraini Othman, Shamsul Amri; not just strictly anthropology but social sciences and history. In any case I think there were three cohorts. Forgive me if I don’t mention everyone. There were three cohorts of people who did real research in the social sciences. Three generations of vital social science research done in Malaysia which were important in documenting modern Malaysian experiences from many different angles. My sense is that after that, we had fewer scholars from this region. I think this is a profound loss because we now have a gap. Obviously, the prevailing scholarship was partial and not comprehensive and it could never be, but now we have a gap of Malaysians of the 80s and 90s, a 30-year gap.

People at the NUS (National University of Singapore) are playing a very critical role in having and keeping alive a vibrant interest in anthropology in this region. There is you, Maznah; you’re still doing research. This is a bit ironical; when I was young, the critical and more expansive (centre) was in Malaysia, in UM and USM. But now it is actually at NUS, where social science was more narrowly based before. Ironically it has changed.

Will the Malaysian diaspora ever return?

I think there are different classes of Malaysians overseas. I imagine as I get older that it might be nice to retire in Malaysia. That is one source of revenue the government can tap into and Malaysia now has good medical services and nice infrastructure. But to get people in really cutting-edge fields – if I were asked to come back as a Professor in Anthropology … well, my brother is in Physics at Princeton…people in these fields would find it … (at a loss for words) … the universities might have slipped; the universities have to really move up, sustain themselves and keep up with knowledge in many different fields to attract back the academic and professional Malaysians abroad. Malaysia may be in danger of losing opportunities in the universities.

What do think of Penang today?

I visited Penang in March this year for Cheng Meng, to pray for my mother; it was the second anniversary of her death. I was sad to see the airport so shabby and I wasn’t sure I could trust the taxis. I feel really upset at the highrises near the airport and the red gashes in the hills of Penang. I think Penang seems a little bit overdeveloped and it should try to be itself. Penang should never try to be like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Maybe the designation of it being a heritage site will protect it. But at the same time one has the feeling that Penang has been neglected by the federal government and it is a real shame. The world recognises the uniqueness and value of Penang as a cultural and historical site. In the meantime you have these developers thrashing the beautiful hills and countryside. Some of the charm has disappeared in Penang.

At this point, we decided to end the conversation and went out for lunch instead.

Maznah Mohamad is a Singapore-based Malaysian academic who researches and writes on gender, Islam and Malaysian politics.

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