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The crimewatcher

March 11, 2009

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

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Raymond Tan was born the fourth of ten siblings in 1960. He is the only one to be schooled in English rather than Mandarin, a language that he hopes to learn after he retires so as to study his own faith, Taoism. With an engineering background, he worked in the oil and gas industry for 15 years. ‘Sick and tired of office politics in the corporate world’, he left the industry in 2002. In recent years he has become increasingly involved in multilevel marketing (see below) because he sees this business as ‘a perfect platform to gain control of my own time if I am to be able to continuously participate effectively in community issues’. He is married with two sons and lives in the leafy precinct of USJ 18.

Soon after arriving in USJ in 1997, Raymond had three pairs of shoes stolen in a single month. When his new neighbours pointed out that petty theft was common in the area, Raymond suggested that they set up a rukun tetangga, the Malaysian equivalent of a neighbourhood watch scheme. His ‘independent-minded’ neighbours were reluctant, though, to join a government-sponsored scheme that is ‘often abused for political interests’. Moreover, the scheme had lain dormant for many years and was widely seen as ineffectual. So Raymond turned to the Web for inspiration and found neighbourhood watch schemes in Britain, America and Australia to emulate: ‘Everything was the same as rukun tetangga but without the government. We just repackaged it’.

In 1999 Raymond formed a 19-strong neighbourhood watch committee for USJ 18. Each committee member was entrusted with the task of organising night patrols for a single street in the precinct. In its early 2000s heyday, the scheme boasted 330 volunteer patrollers guarding the precinct’s 536 houses. Patrollers walked the streets in pairs carrying batons and mobile phones and were instructed to report any suspicious activity to the police (Postill 2008). This regular surveillance practice was strengthened by a programme of local events led by Raymond and aimed at fostering good neighbourly relations.

In May 2001 Raymond’s scheme received federal funding under the umbrella of DAGS, a programme designed to build new e-communities across Malaysia. The main aim of the generous seed grant of RM 1.124 million (circa US $ 300,000) was to enable Raymond and other volunteers to develop the internet aspects of the scheme, including a professionally built Web portal and ICT training for local residents. This was all part of an ambitious pilot project named SJ2005 which sought to create a hi-tech partnership between the local authorities, the private sector and the local residents that would transform Subang Jaya into a ‘smart community’ by the year 2005. If successful, this pilot would then be ‘rolled out’ to Malaysia’s remaining 143 local authorities (Ng 2002).

The sudden influx of substantial federal funds into a small corner of Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs sent shockwaves across the field. Two parties felt particularly aggrieved: the then municipal president, Ahmad Fuad, who protested that public monies were being lavished on a small neighbourhood project rather than on the local council, and Jeff Ooi who had hoped that his local issues portal, USJ.com.my, would be an integral part of SJ2005 but now felt it had been sidelined. In addition, many activists thought that Raymond’s acceptance of government monies had compromised his independence and made him, to quote an outside observer, ‘a caged monkey’.

At any rate, Raymond became the founder and manager of Nwatch.net.my, a web portal devoted to issues of local crime and security. In February 2004 Raymond took me through his online surveillance routines, which at the time he carried out religiously from midnight till around 1 a.m. from his home computer. He started by running the anti-spam application Mailwasher, downloading email from his mailserver and updating his bird flu watch data. He then searched through Malaysia’s online news media for crime news and advice, emailing himself a link from the New Straits Times for future reference. One of his regular tasks is to warn fellow residents of any urban legends, hoaxes and scams that may be circulating through local lists or web forums. Some extortionists ‘groom you first [online] and then fly you over to Nigeria’. In addition to this surveillance practice, Raymond uses local mailing lists to send collective seasonal greetings to other local leaders and residents during major celebrations such as Christmas or Chinese New Year.

All these activities show how Raymond puts his personal media (his PC, software, email, mobile devices, etc.) to collective uses by aligning his internet practices with a central concern of local residents: the fear of crime. He achieves this alignment through skilled, embodied, ‘seemingly effortless’ (Moores 2005: 23) practices related to neighbourhood surveillance and sociality, both onscreen and face-to-face. As Raymond is only too aware, crime is a ‘galvanising issue’ (Melucci 1996) that transcends divides of race, religion and ideology and can bring together otherwise very different people around a common cause. Alas these leadership activities require time and dedication, and by 2003 other volunteers were privately expressing their concern that Raymond’s growing business activities were keeping him from his grassroots work.

Perhaps to put paid to rumours about his wavering grassroots commitment, in 2004 Raymond led a successful campaign against the building of a food court on land earmarked for the construction of a police station. Mobilising his vast set of ties across the field of residential affairs and using a range of internet and mobile technologies (email, listservs, Web forums, mobile phones, etc.) he and his associates swiftly rallied local residents at the construction site in full view of Malaysia’s mass media. Following this mobilisation the residents were given official guarantees that a police station would be built on the site. The campaign was spearheaded not by that ghostly fiction known as ‘the community’ but rather by a small action committee drawn from Raymond’s set of local contacts. This ad-hoc committee can be described as an ‘action-set’, that is, a set of people who are mobilised to achieve a specified goal only to disperse as soon as this goal is attained or abandoned (Mayer 1963, Turner 1974). The work of the action-set was aided by Jeff Ooi’s citizen journalism which contributed to the campaign’s mass media visibility. Raymond emerged from the campaign not as the ‘caged monkey’ of popular lore but rather as a formidable field broker with the ability to mobilise local residents at very short notice.

Despite these episodic efforts, by 2005 other crime-prevention leaders had emerged in Subang Jaya alongside Raymond. Thus in February 2005 it was other activists who pioneered the suburb’s new  ‘community SMS alert service’. In November 2006 Raymond organised, under the patronage of Lee Hwa Beng, a film premiere aimed at raising funds towards the purchase of two cars and four motorbikes for the local police force. Meanwhile three other residents continued to lead the development of the SMS alert system.

It was during this period that Raymond became increasingly involved in multilevel marketing, described by Sparks and Schenk (2001: 849) as ‘networks of member distributors whose earnings come both from selling products and recruiting new members’. At present he is a distributor with USANA Health Sciences, a US-based company that sells personal care and nutritional products. In a 13 December 4 September 2008 personal blog entry, Raymond writes about a recent trip he made to the Philippines, a new market for USANA, and encourages prospective business partners in that country to contact him via email. In addition to his personal blog and email, he also makes frequent use of websites, instant messaging, internet telephony (Skype) and mobile telephony for both business and leisure pursuits – a panoply of interpersonal technologies that he lists in his email signature to offer actual and potential contacts a range of options through which to reach him.

All along, Raymond has had to be careful to keep his multilevel marketing and residential activism strictly apart. Thus when he started recruiting distributors in Subang Jaya and USJ he was concerned that he may be seen as taking unfair advantage of his high profile as a grassroots leader for personal financial gain: ‘I don’t want to be seen to abuse my platform’, he told me. For this reason he always takes care not to mix the two strands of practice when interacting with fellow residents either online or offline. We witness here again at work, as we saw in Jeff Ooi’s Harvard incident, the unbreakable fundamental law of selfless volunteerism: whilst pursuing one’s self-interest through a range of social ties and personal media is perfectly acceptable within the field of multilevel marketing (indeed it is the field’s very engine and raison d’etre), the opposite is true in the ‘inverted economy’ (Bourdieu 1996) of the field of residential affairs where one’s social and technological capital must serve the common good.

Note – I am very grateful to Raymond Tan for his comments on an earlier version of this text.

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