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Proof of the padang not in the eating

February 10, 2009

This is the eighth in a series of posts on my working paper “Local leadership and personal media: a practice-theoretical approach”. See also previous post and first post.

Lee Hwa Beng (b. 1954) was raised on an estate near Malacca where his father worked as a rubber tapper. Money was scarce and in Form 3 he had to cycle over 15 miles to school because his family could not afford the 40 sen bus fare. He nonetheless persevered with his studies and went on to earn professional qualifications as an accountant, eventually setting up his own accounting firm in Kelana Jaya, a district that borders Subang Jaya [1].

Lee rose to local prominence in the 1990s for leading a vigorous campaign to clear Subang Jaya of rats –  a campaign that gained him the friendly soubriquet of ‘Ratman’. In 1995 he was elected state assemblyman for Subang Jaya as the candidate for MCA, the ethnic Chinese component of Barisan Nasional (BN), Malaysia’s ruling coalition since independence in 1957.  A popular politician with a reputation for hard work and dedication to his constituents, he was re-elected in 1999 and 2004.

Personal media have been a mainstay of Lee’s political activity. In  October 1995, at a time when the World Wide Web was still a novelty around the globe, he launched his own personal website so as to ‘further enhance my service to the community’, noting that this was ‘a revolutionary step for a newly elected state assemblyman’. Throughout his tenure Lee has used his website both to publicise his achievements and to interact with his constituents by publicly responding to queries and complaints, even allowing for critical voices. Thus, in January 2002 he posted an email from a resident who chided him for not delivering on his electoral promise of a Chinese school. Thanking this constituent for his ‘kind words’, Lee explained that far from having been ‘lying idle as most people think’ he had in fact held a long series of meetings with high-ranking officials and politicians:

Therefore, everything is under control. It is better for me to show action than talk. Residents like you will judge me by my actions and deeds and not by my words.

This closing passage captures the fundamental field law of turun padang, i.e. the political  imperative to constantly ‘go down to the ground’ (in Malay, turun padang) in order to identify and solve local problems. Many of these problems may seem mundane to the urban intelligentsia (e.g. clogged drains, fallen trees, unbuilt schools) [2] but they are often of great concern to suburban residents. For example, at a fundraising dinner organised by the USJ Residents’ Association that I attended in December 2003, Lee pointed out that such convivial dinners were laudable but were in themselves not enough. He then entreated his co-diners to support his efforts to set up a volunteer police force to tackle crime in the severely underpoliced township. In effect, he was saying that the proof of the padang is not in the eating, but in the doing.

In late 2003 Lee added to his personal media repertoire a Treo smartphone that combined the functionalities of a mobile phone with those of a handheld computer with a powerful database containing the names, contact details and identity card numbers of over 50,000 of his constituents. ‘Anyone can buy it from the EC [Electoral Commission]’, he reassured me.

Another key personal medium in Lee’s indefatigable groundwork was the digital camera. Lee regularly used digital photography to document and publicise his successful troubleshooting on the ground. This mediated practice took on a number of different forms and involved not only Lee but also aides, journalists, residents and even this anthropologist. One resident told me that Lee had presented him with an expensive digital camera that came ‘with strings attached’. In return for past favours, this resident was to photograph the state assemblyman as he went about his padang business[3].

In October 2003 I witnessed another instance of Lee-tracking when he inaugurated a guardhouse in a small residential area of USJ. He spoke glowingly in Malay and English about his partnership with local residents over the past three to four years. The results, both physical (a brand new guardhouse) and non-physical (a strong community spirit [4]) were plain for all to see, Lee added. He then proceeded to ceremonially cut the ribbon and to pose for the cameras in front of the guardhouse, including that of the pro-MCA daily press. After this, he was interviewed by a young journalist locally regarded as ‘a mouthpiece who always follows him around’.

One further addition to Lee’s ‘digital personalia’ (cf. Gell 1986) during my period of fieldwork was a mini photo printer with which he handed out prints of joint photo opportunities. One such occurrence is shown below: I am standing next to Lee holding a photograph he has just printed of the two of us during a youth basketball tournament launched by Lee to foster better interethnic relations across the suburb (see also Murdock and Pink 2005: 158).

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In all of these cases, Lee was exploiting the specific affordances of photography to serve the turun padang imperative,  notably its indexicality, that is, the direct physical bond that links a photographic image with its object (Knappett 2002).  With these photographs, and across a range of platforms and media (Lee’s own website, residents’ sites, the local press, hard copies, etc.) Lee was providing documentary evidence not only of his constant ‘being there’ [Geertz 1988] but also of working towards solving local problems such as racial animosity – in the present case, through a peacemaking tournament following a recent incident in which groups of local Malay and Chinese youths had clashed.

In March 2004 Lee received the Friend of USJ Residents Award ‘for his great works in developing social development in education, security and promoting community interaction for social harmony’ [5]. Yet despite his deft uses of personal media for the public good and undeniable popularity, Lee could not withstand the winds of change blowing through Malaysia’s political landscape, and like many other BN candidates he was voted out of office in the general election of 2008 when the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority and control of five of Malaysia’s state assemblies.

Continues here

Bibliographic references will be given at the end of the series

 [1] http://hwabeng.org.my/node/1176
[2] For example, in the run-up to the 2008 elections,  a blogger critical of Lee dismissed his Subang Jaya politics as mere ‘jaga longkang’ (looking after drains), see http://harismibrahim.wordpress.com/2008/03/03/kelana-jaya-unclogging-drains-unwashing-brains/
[3] I encountered this kind of patron-client arrangement a number of times in the course of fieldwork (see Gomez and Jomo 1999) 
[4] Lee used the Malay term for village, kampung.
[5] From a USJRA press release I received via email on 2 March 2004.

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