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Subang Jaya’s field of residential affairs

January 7, 2009


“Copperbelt dancers, 1950s. During weekends, African miners on the Copperbelt, dressed in their Sunday best, would perform dances reminiscent of their home areas.  In this way they articulated aspects of ethnicity and of urban-rural relations which were to become the topic of Clyde Mitchell’s famous essay The Kalela Dance (1955)” (van Binsbergen n.d.). This is the seventh 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.

In his 1958 monograph Politics in an Urban African Community, the Manchester School anthropologist A.L. Epstein, a student of Max Gluckman, discusses the emergence of a political and administrative system in a mining town located in the Northern Rhodesian Copperbelt region (in what today is Zambia).  This work still has much to offer the student of local governance and social change.

Turning away from the then predominant structuralist-functionalist model and towards historical-processual explanations, Epstein set his study against the canvass of the huge processes of migration and urbanisation that were under way in 1950s Africa. Northern Rhodesia was at the time a profoundly divided society, the main cleavage running between Europeans and Africans. In turn, both populations were internally divided along lines of class, ethnicity, occupation, gender, etc. Yet at the same time there was a high degree of interdependence acrosss the divides, numerous  ‘bonds of co-operation’ linking together Africans and Europeans within ‘a single field of social relations’ (1958: xii).

In Copperbelt towns, a relatively stable sociopolitical framework was provided by the mine, the municipal council and the district office (1958: xiv). District commissioners had no say in the running of the mine township, which was a power unto itself (1958: 21). Africans saw commissioners as ‘remote Olympian beings who resided in the Government Offices some distance away from the all-important mine compound’ (1958: 22). In the insterstices of this framework, though, Epstein found ‘a continuous flux in which new groups and associations are constantly springing up’ (1958: xiv). Many of these social formations were ephemeral, but they nonetheless left traces on the field of social relations.

The emerging urban system consisted of  ‘many different sets of social relations or spheres of social interaction’ and was riddled with ‘ambiguity and inconsistency’, not least around contested ideas about ‘tribalism’ (1958: xvii). Epstein stresses the unevenness of social change across what I am calling the field of residential affairs:

The factors making for social change and development operate over the whole of this field, and are present in every sphere; but they do not impinge upon these spheres with the same weight, or at the same time (1958: xvii) 

Transplanting these ethnographic observations from a post-War African mining town to an early C21 Southeast Asian suburb is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Although the historical and cultural circumstances are of course vastly different, there are some striking parallels between Epstein’s and my own study. Like Epstein, during fieldwork I found myself in the midst of emergent processes of ‘production of locality’ (Appadurai 1996), finding both the makings of a politico-administrative framework (in my case, provided by the municipal council and the political parties) as well as a more fluid realm in which various residential associations and groupings were being constantly formed and transformed, many of them as ephemeral as those described by Epstein for the Copperbelt.

Moreover, I too found that processes of change were unevenly spread across the field of residential affairs, with some regions of the field enjoying better insulation from external pressures and influences than others. For example, the fight against crime is a local issue that has often brought together people and agencies across the governmental divide in Subang Jaya. Therefore, residents’ initiatives around this issue have received more governmental support and have undergone greater development than initiatives regarded as being more controversial, such as a short-lived campaign to reinstate local elections in Malaysia (Chandran 2003). However, this kind of support has sometimes come at a cost to those residents who were seen to be directly benefitting from the government’s largesse as doubts were raised about their commitment to ‘the community’.

The field of residential affairs in Subang Jaya-USJ was divided into three main sectors at the time of research in 2003-2004. The reader will find this trinity very familiar, for it has been frequently invoked around the globe since the 1980s in connection to notions such as ‘good governance’ (Wade 2003) and ‘trisectoral partnerships’ (Ng 2002). First, there was the politico-administrative sector (or subfield) centred around the municipal council (MPSJ) and the political parties, especially those that make up Malaysia’s ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional). The ‘fundamental law’ of this subfield (Bourdieu 1993) was the law of turung padang – a Malay expression widely used in Malaysia to refer to a political leader’s or government official’s regular ‘going down to the ground’ in order to understand and solve local issues. Those in positions of authority who were not regularly seen to come down to the ground and resolve local problems were unlikely to gain the trust and backing of local residents. Second, there was an activist subfield led and staffed by local residents whose fundamental law was the law of selfless volunteerism. In order to be well regarded within this subfield, residents were expected to contribute their time and labour in exchange for symbolic rather than financial rewards. Finally, there was the business and commercial subfield whose fundamental law is the law of  ‘business is business’ (Bourdieu 1993). Although many private concerns such as supermarkets, shopping centres, developers, etc, were only too happy to sponsor ‘community’ events in exchange for publicity, the unassailable logic of their local activities was, and remains, profit-making. 

It is only in the context of the contrasting logics and complex interactions within and across these three subfields that we can begin to understand the personal media practices of Subang Jaya’s grassroots leaders, to which I now turn.

Next entry


Appadurai, A. (1996) ‘The Production of Locality’, in A. Appadurai Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Chandran, P. (2003) Background Paper to the Forum on Good Local Governance: Is it time to bring back local elections? 3K Complex, Subang Jaya, 14 September 2003.

Epstein, A.L. (1958 ) Politics in an Urban African Community. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ng, A. (2002) SJ2005 Review. Powerpoint presentation, MIMOS main office, Malaysia, 16 September 2002.

Wade, P. (2003) Governance: a review of the concept for the Netcultures and PUG projects. Unpublished manuscript, Manchester University.

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