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Trip to Passau

January 30, 2009

Yesterday I got back from a brief trip to the University of Passau, in Bavaria, where I had been kindly invited by Prof Rüdiger Korff to talk about my Malaysian research to the Department of Southeast Asian Studies. I talked about local leadership and personal media in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur called Subang Jaya-USJ. The novelty was that on this occasion I argued that the field of residential affairs in the suburb (i.e. the social field in which residents, politicians, councillors and other agents compete and cooperate over matters of interest to local residents) is L-shaped, with the vertical axis (or governmental subfield) representing Malaysia’s three tiers of government and the horizontal axis (or non-governmental subfield) representing a range of residents-led initiatives that use different mixes of digital technologies. Each axis/subfield has its own logic and fundamental laws, and conflicts often arise when the two logics become entangled, or when grassroots agents fails to abide by these laws, e.g. when a leading resident is seen to be violating the law of selfless volunteerism by earning symbolic, social and/or financial capital from his grassroots work. 

I am very grateful to the participants for the excellent questions that followed. To paraphrase what was said during the Q&A:

Q – You’ve talked about how local leaders in the suburb have their own websites, blogs, etc., but what about the general population of the suburb? Are normal residents setting up their own websites or is this a manner of local top-down process?

A  – As far as the field of residential affairs is concerned, the scene is dominated by a small number of sites, especially by the hugely active residents’ Web portal USJ.com.my which has been going strong for 10 years and boasts thousands upon thousands of threads. These threads can be started and extended by any subscriber, and there over 30,000 forum subscribers, so it’s very much a ground-up milieu.

Q – Could you tell us more about the interdependence of the local, state and national levels of governance? After all, you said [the state assemblyman] Lee Hwa Beng was voted out of office in 2008 despite having done a lot for the township and being very popular with the grassroots.

A – Yes, all three levels are intertwined and for the first time since independence Malaysia’s ruling coalition lost its absolute majority in the 2008 general elections. The answer is: I don’t know why he was voted out. I have had some email reports on this but I would really like to be able to follow it up on the ground. The new state assemblywoman is a very young woman from the opposition party DAP.

Q – You’ve done fieldwork among the Iban of Sarawak. How do you think the new digital technologies may be affecting Iban leadership in the longhouses?

A – A very good question. I wish I knew! My guess is that the basic governance template and implications of the new digital technologies are very similar in both settings, i.e. the field of residential affairs in which a longhouse is embedded also has a horizontal axis marked by its egalitarianism and communitarianism as well as a vertical axis/subfield that goes up from the headman to the native chief to the district officer and all the way up to the federal government in Peninsular Malaysia.  Agents occupying positions close to where the two axes meet (e.g. the headman, or a suburban resident working closely with a politician) can find themselves in an awkward situation when their commitment to ‘the community’ (i.e. the base of the L) is questioned – and this can well happen via digital technologies nowadays.

Q – What difference do the internet and other digital technologies actually make to local power relations? Would the demonstration you talked about [against the local authorities] have happened without these technologies?

A – We will never know for sure as the technologies are inseparable from the rest of what goes on in any given locality, but that demonstration was a good example of how local activists mobilised a range of digital technologies (email, listserves, Web forums, blogs, texting, etc.) to mount a campaign very quickly and get the authorities to change their mind on an issue. For instance, elected politicians were texted and asked to state publicly where they stood on the unresolved dispute and their responses relayed back to the population via the Web.

Q – What are the prospects for a bottom-up global movement connecting these kinds of local initiatives?

A – This kind of middle-aged suburban ‘banal activism’ – around issues such as traffic congestion, waste disposal, crime, etc. – is not the activism of, say, the Barcelona-based young urban transnational activists studied by Juris [2008] in his book Networked Futures, nor is it the activism of the urban intelligentsia in Kuala Lumpur. So I don’t see how it can be transformed into something else, I think it’s highly unlikely that the field of residential affairs will somehow become the field of translocal affairs.

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