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Ethnographic setting: Subang Jaya

January 5, 2009

18_27_special_visitors

This is the sixth in a series of posts on my working paper “Local leadership and personal media: a practice-theoretical approach”. See previous post here and first post here. From right: the author, the local activist Jeff Ooi, a student researcher and the youth football league organiser Norman A. Rahman in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Subang Jaya-USJ.

Subang Jaya and its twin township, USJ, make up a predominantly middle-income, ethnic Chinese suburb of Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. Many property owners arrived in the first half of the 1990s in search of a green and safe environment in which to raise a family but soon a congeries of events at the regional, national and local level complicated their plans.

In 1997 the collapse of Southeast Asia’s financial markets set in motion a set of  processes that are still unfolding today. In Malaysia, the economic crisis had far-reaching political repercussions as the then Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was imprisoned without trial under dubious charges. This led to an explosion of pro-Anwar and reformist websites that the Malaysian government was unable to control, having guaranteed foreign investors that the internet would remain free from government censorship in their bid to emulate the Silicon Valley through a ‘mega-project’ known as the Multimedia Super Corridor.

Meanwhile, Subang Jaya’s municipal council (MPSJ) was established in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, the new council faced the first of a long series of challenges from residents’ groups when it raised the housing assessment rates by 240%. Jeff Ooi, a leading activist and founder of the thriving local portal USJ.com.my, describes the conflict:

We were furious. But before we could take up the matter with the council, we needed to gather and compile supporting evidence. Using the Internet, we set up a residential database to compile data according to the type of houses, the assessment rates residents were paying, their contact numbers and so forth. Within two weeks, 50% of the community responded. The collective effort yielded a 20% reduction across the board. That was one of the milestones that proved how effective the Internet was (Jeff Ooi, quoted in The Star)

This episode set a precedent for the kind of ‘banal activism’* that has predominated in the suburb ever since – an activism led by residents with both technological and political savvy and fed by issues such as tax percentages, traffic congestion, waste disposal and pedestrian crossings. These are issues that may seem mundane to the urban intelligentsia but are of crucial importance to suburban parents embarked on family-building projects.

Continued here

(*) Note: Alexander T. Smith (personal communication, 22 May 2006) of the University of Birmingham and I independently coined the term ‘banal activism’, in his case following anthropological fieldwork among Conservative Party activists in Scotland.

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