Strangers, Counterfeiters, and Gangsters
Strangers, Counterfeiters, and Gangsters
Figures of Belonging and the Problem of Belief
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter introduces several figures within Brickfields that showed how the residents tried to form a sense of self and community. These figures are the stranger, the counterfeiter, and the gangster, which were all taken from overlapping sites (i.e. the popular media, the Malaysian state, and the conversations of self and community that spread at the local neighbourhood level). It shows that these figures served as a way for the residents of Brickfields to understand the different events that made up their daily lives and as objects of belief created beyond the discourses on religion or state. The figures of counterfeiters and strangers are said to give “faces” to supposed threats within the community that deemed difficult to identify. On the other hand, the figure of the gangster was commonly associated by outsiders with Brickfields. This chapter thus aims to form a place of belief that is central to the creation of ethical forms of urban life.
Our conversation the other day really disturbed me. It really bothered me. Somehow having to talk so much about Brickfields changed the place for me. Now I get up and walk out in the morning and I see a different place. The way we broke it down … I don't know. It suddenly seems very different. I think I'm going to have to move …
—Chandra, Brickfields Resident, August 2002
How can talking about a place change it? Though Chandra was the only person who directly articulated the unease he felt after he had described Brickfields to me, I suspect that he was not alone in this discomfort. This ethnographic project was from its inception designed to derive some understanding of the experience of community and change in Brickfields. Yet for those who offered to speak about their experience of the community and the city, it turned out that the interviews were never neutral spaces of explanation or conversation. For Chandra, as I suspect for many others, the interviews produced narratives of Brickfields that upset the sometimes fragile imaginary orders that individuals had formulated in order to anchor their lives firmly in the life of the neighborhood. Much was at stake in these narratives, as it was precisely in this realm that neighborhood residents worked to imagine the space of Brickfields as a place where belonging, relatedness, community, and ethical life were possible. (p.131) As the previous chapter illustrates, the work of placemaking in the unstable context that existed in Brickfields was no easy task. The narratives articulated during my interviews were collaboratively produced, but the process of telling made the fragility of the neighborhood and the threats to the future come alive in concrete forms. In the context of the interview Chandra suffered a double violence; the violence of the recent transformation of the neighborhood on his understanding of life came to the surface, and the process of trying to piece together a credible image of Brickfields for the purpose of the interview only exacerbated this violence. Chandra and I had developed a close relationship that allowed him to tell me what others were probably feeling. By “making sense” in the direct, empirical manner that I sought during the interviews, Brickfields suddenly didn't feel right at all for my interlocutors.
This feeling should be taken very seriously. It is not enough for everyday life to simply be present and understood through authoritative institutional discourses; life must be thinkable and livable for individual subjects. In other words, one must be able to produce an image of the world that allows for a certain agency based on knowable relations between oneself and others within sensible horizons of possible meaning. Such images of livable configurations must engage authoritative institutional discourses, but are not necessarily the logical outcome of such discourses. If the authoritative judgments of the state, the law, or religious institutions do not produce vectors within everyday life that allow for action or agency on the part of individual subjects, such judgments can actually work to liquidate the sensible reality of the world for those caught in it (Deleuze 1994, 1997). For someone like Chandra, faced suddenly with the fact that everything he perceived to be real about his everyday world was excluded or denied by the authoritative “facts” generated by the very institutions that claimed to be the guarantors of social order and just living, it became impossible for him to believe in his world. My interview with Chandra inadvertently ruptured the essential link between perception and action that existed for him in his image of Brickfields; this in turn generated a crisis of belief for him.
When Brickfields residents spoke of their neighborhood, their narratives were shot through with ambivalence. On the one hand were themes of their belonging to a place where they could fashion their lives as Malaysians without necessarily needing to be ethnically or culturally (p.132) Malay. On the other hand they felt that the proximity to the majority Malay Muslim community was a political threat that hung over their lives, generating fear of discrimination, exclusion, and disappearance. As I have discussed in Chapter 2and will take up again in more detail in Chapter 5, efforts on the part of the Malaysian state to make Islam a major source of its authority intensified this mood of threat and unease. The mental image of Brickfields as a vibrant but threatened margin was a key factor in defining residents' sense of place. It is not that my informants possessed a transcendent, utopian notion of community or of their religious of ethnic communities. Tamil Hindus in particular felt that the community in Brickfields was “backwards” and required the development projects of the state to become a fully modern participant in Malaysian public life. Thus, the characterization of Brickfields as a vibrant, necessary margin in the heart of Kuala Lumpur was a critical one in establishing the “legitimate” modality for belonging and agency in the neighborhood for local residents.
Henri Lefebvre argues in The Production of Space that social space is defined as “a locus, a medium, and a tool” for the perpetuation of social differentiation and inequality. Through the spatial reproduction of representations that normalize relations between subjects in particular places, a “consensus” regarding the identity and ownership of particular spaces is generated as an ideal. In Lefebvre's formulation this ideal discursively marks the relations of inclusion and exclusion that support the claims of certain groups while materially or symbolically evicting “others” who are not felt to belong (Lefebvre 1991, 32). In the context of aggressive spatial and demographic changes driven by the modernizing efforts of the state, members of the community seek to establish what Lefebvre has characterized as their “right to the city” through discursive and practical strategies of dwelling in the space and using it on their own terms. Such imaginations of the neighborhood serve to oppose the experience of being denied one's right to “place” through state practices that frame modes of habiting space that enable certain groups and alienate others (Lefebvre 1996, 2003). In my view Lefebvre's notion of “right” in this sense must be distinguished from the formal axioms of “human rights” or “rights of citizenship” that are largely invested in the authoritative discourses of the state or the doxa of religion. Unlike such notions of rights “granted” based on axiomatic criteria of identity, Lefebvre is specifically referring to (p.133) an ethics of establishing spaces that are not only ordered and safe but also allow for action and a concrete sense of being able to create an ethical life. This capability to act is certainly dependent upon an ordered present but also requires the creation of spaces where individuals possess the means to imagine future life and action. In Brickfields, the problem for local residents was not just that their legal rights or physical persons were being literally violated in the present (although they sometimes were), but rather that the transformation of the space had shattered the link between present experience and the possibility of future action. Not able to believe in Brickfields as their place in the world, residents lacked resistance to the present (Deleuze and Guattari 1994) and, in Lefebvre's framework, were thus denied their right to the city.
In Brickfields ethnicity was most often the explicit mode of identification cited by residents as the basis for the social distinctions that shaped and sustained the social space of the neighborhood. Specifically, Brickfields was commonly understood to be an ethnic enclave for Malaysian Indians living in Kuala Lumpur, a characterization often circulated as a form of “common sense” knowledge regarding the nature of the neighborhood both within and outside of the area. This local understanding of ethnicity as the defining characteristic of the space resonates with anthropological literature regarding “ethnic cities” as spaces of political strategizing (Portes and Stepick 1993; Zhou 1992), manifestations of ethnic and occupational hierarchies (Brenner 1998; Margolis 1994), centers for immigrants (Markowitz 1993), and loci of marginalization and racial discrimination (Chen 1992; Fong 1994; Kwong 1987). While the notion of Kuala Lumpur as an “ethnic city” is strong in popular accounts,1the supposition that ethnicity operates as the basis for the organization of social space in the city has been criticized in the academic literature for unproblematically assuming, rather than empirically verifying, an ethnic basis for local social networks (Low 1999; Pessar 1995). Furthermore, the unproblematic use of ethnicity as the primary explanation for local social organization in Brickfields runs counter to the fact that each major ethnic group is well represented in the neighborhood; it assumes a social unity linked to ethnic identification that cannot be empirically established.2
Despite the demonstrated diversity of the neighborhood, Brickfields existed as a distinct place within the larger urban geography of Kuala Lumpur. Grasping the complex interplay of ethnic, socioeconomic, and (p.134) religious factors that formed the basis of this distinctiveness requires a theory of urban space capable of grasping the complex interplay of differences without privileging one factor of difference over others (Hannerz 1980). Low (1999)identifies this approach within urban anthropology as the theorization of the “divided city” and argues that this approach attempts to place the urban itself at the center of its analysis, balancing tensions between notions of difference that produce complex urban forms of public life. While racism and ethnicity often remain key aspects in studies of the divided city (Keith and Cross 1993; Massey and Denton 1993; McDonogh 1993; Williams 1992), this approach also allows for a consideration of how religion (Abu-Lughod 1987; Levy 1990; Wacquant and Wilson 1989), crime (Caldeira 1996; Merry 1981, 1990), real estate and the alienation of land (Greenbaum 1993; Gregory 1992, 1998; Williams 1992), and work and economic relations (Guano 2004; Kondo 1990; Sacks 1997), also come into play in the making of “places” within urban environments. Although diverse in focus, researchers who engage the divided city all attempt to understand concepts of difference as related to a host of issues that produce complex modes of imagining place within the city. This complex understanding of urban placemaking is reflected in a handful of studies pertaining specifically to Malaysia (Nagata 1979; Goh 2001; Guinness 1992). Foremost among these shared concerns are the ways in which these practices of placemaking produce notions of “inside” and “outside” that are not always clearly marked, yet persist in the local imaginations of distinctive urban neighborhoods (Bestor 1989; Gupta and Ferguson 1997).
Drawing upon these understandings of place and the practices entailed in inhabiting local spaces, this chapter explores the inventive strategies through which Brickfields residents, faced with the possibility of displacement,3worked to constitute a sense of agency and create believable possibilities for establishing ethical lives by engaging a set of abstractly articulated figures of personhood. These figures, mental images that made it possible to experience Brickfields life as real for my interlocutors, were generated from a number of intersecting sites, including the Malaysian state, the popular media, and the discourses of self and community that circulated at the local neighborhood level. Two of the most commonly articulated figures at the neighborhood level were the stranger and the counterfeiter. Both strangers and counterfeiters gave a “face” to perceived (p.135) aspects of everyday life that were felt to be real but otherwise difficult to identify. The elaboration of such figures often took the form of identifying “threats” to the neighborhood, but the ability to voice such identifications also had the effect of making the present livable for my interlocutors. In other words, while the mode of expression in relation to these figures was often negative, it reestablished the ground for belief in relation to the reality of everyday life in the community that the state and the law had shattered in its efforts to transform Brickfields. Such strategies generated ambiguously oppositional practices that, while rooted in modes of differentiation and exclusion through the generation of a normative cartography of belonging in Brickfields, only provisionally established who belonged where and why they belonged there.4
In contrast to these two local figures, the stereotyped figure of the gangster was the one most often associated with the neighborhood by outsiders. Although also a figure through which Brickfields residents sought to establish and understand relatedness, the gangster required local residents to engage how others characterized “them” and how these images of their “place” in turn structured that place and those who lived there. By considering the figures of strangers, counterfeiters, and gangsters in an ethnographic context this chapter seeks to, in the words of Gupta and Ferguson, “rethink difference through connection,” and provide an understanding of Brickfields as a specific place within the topography of power that existed in Kuala Lumpur (Gupta and Ferguson 1997, 35).
The Stranger, the Counterfeiter, and the Gangster: Figures of Personhood in Brickfields
The use of the concept “figure” in this chapter has a specific meaning. Amelie Rorty has argued that modern notions of personhood are linked to cultural notions of “characters,” “figures,” “persons,” “selves,” “individuals,” and “presences” (Rorty 1976). Regarding figures, Rorty explains:
Figures are defined by their place in an unfolding drama: they are not assigned roles because of their traits, but rather have the traits of their prototypes in myth or sacred script. Figures are characters writ large, becom[ing] figureheads … their roles and their traits emerge from their place in an ancient narrative. The narration, (p.136) the plot, comes first: it requires a hero, a betrayer, a lover, a messenger, a confidant. (Rorty 1976, 302)
While such figures begin as abstract images in thought, they nonetheless take on a materiality that in turn works to define the individual subject in relation to others.5In this way, figures provide links between virtual notions of how everyday life “is” or “should be” and the experience of the actual. As I demonstrated in Chapter 3, links between these domains within legal, political, or state discourses had largely been severed in Brickfields, making it extremely difficult to locate oneself in the interstices between ideal and real in such a way that one could believe in one's capacity for action or the formation of a life. In wider public discourses, Brickfields has historically been the home of “Tamil outsiders” and “criminals,” stereotypes whose characteristics were linked to broader narratives of race and culture. It is these figures that were, in turn, reworked by Brickfields residents themselves to index their place in relation to the state and to the city more forcefully.6
The figures detailed in this chapter, generated from images of thought, produced a way for Brickfields residents to grasp situations and events that concerned them in their everyday life. The fact that they were objects of belief and not factual in the empirical sense is beside the point when we consider the function of such figures. The “truth” of Brickfields was often divorced from prior dispositions and authoritative discourses regarding the area, emerging for residents only as a result of being violently impelled to reimagine the space. The necessity of “thinking Brickfields” in the face of this violence, rather than being safely anomalous or distant from “normal” experience, resembles the general violence that impels all creative human thought (Deleuze 2000). Individuals in Brickfields, trying to make sense of their lives concretely in a context where life was often experienced as sequences of serial accidents, were largely cast adrift and left to float in relation to the operations of the law and the state. Imagining themselves in relation to figures such as the stranger, the counterfeiter, or the gangster established a contingent link between perception and action that allowed for vectors of possible meaning that were largely absent or liquidated in institutional domains. From the empirical point of view of the city planner, the police officer, the political activist, or the social scientist, such figures were generally seen as the products of (p.137) “illusions,” “superstitions,” or “errors.” Yet in understanding how individuals could live within the fluidity of Brickfields, standards of fact and fiction in relation to these figures became a secondary concern in considering the meaning and horizons of possible action that such mental images concretely produced for neighborhood residents.
In a situation where one's sense of the real was so divorced from the authoritative discourses that sought to frame, order, and explain that reality, these figures functioned as graspable images of life and the world for Brickfields residents. They stood as objects of faith in a situation where the imagination of an ethical life that linked the individual subject to the possibility of acting in the world required the substitution of a model of belief for the authoritative model of knowledge produced by the state. Situations of this type have been observed in other locales, although most often substitutions of this kind have been understood as a form of cynicism in relation to life and the world (Navaro-Yashin 2002; Sloterdijk 1988). Certainly there is evidence for this conclusion, particularly in the discernable lack of faith in political action, the rule of law, and the idea (most often expressed in forms of nationalism) that one belongs to a larger community or a people that has been observed in places as diverse as Germany (Sloterdijk) and Turkey (Navaro-Yashin). In Brickfields, however, disbelief in relation to the state or the law did not automatically produce a cynical stance toward the world at large; rather, the image of specific figures who were not generated through authoritative discourses were nonetheless believed to be real and the possibility of knowable, believable, ethical life was often invested in one's relationship to such figures.
My argument regarding the figures of the outsider and the criminal that are the focus of this chapter are as follows. First, the notion of the “stranger” in Brickfields was loosely associated with the threat posed by the majority Malay community, particularly the Malaysian state, which was perceived to be a predominantly Malay institution. Imagining oneself in relation to the stranger was an attempt by Brickfields residents to subvert the popular understanding of Malaysian Indians as a shadowy minority population, and constituted a direct engagement with a law that recognizes a separate legal subjectivity for Malays.7Second, the local figure of the “counterfeiter” represented an engagement with the state that recognized the sovereignty of the state's law while enacting community understandings of justice and the Good that diverged from the law and (p.138) made ethical life possible and real. Third, the popular stereotype of the “gangster” was inverted; Brickfields residents often regarded local criminal organizations as providers of an alternative form of security for the neighborhood that simultaneously engaged and circumvented the police. This understanding contrasted sharply with the more common belief that these organizations were by definition chaotic and dangerous.
Attempts to rework figures such as the stranger, the counterfeiter, and the criminal were concrete examples of how practices of marginalization faced by Brickfields residents were not always understood as forces to be overcome or resisted, but could also provide a tangible means by which understandings of self and community were often constituted at these margins. It is important to mark the “ambiguous” character of these practices as modes of differentiation related to conceptual types. Although these abstract figures were linked to broader discourses of race, religion, or the legal character of citizens, they neither fully conformed to, nor consistently opposed, these discursive categories. I understand this ambiguity as a space of creative engagement with the state, an engagement that allowed Brickfields residents to form an image of their world that they could, at least to some degree, believe in. This creative engagement is particularly evident in the narratives that follow in this chapter, as my interlocutors were often as concerned with anticipating and inhabiting the wider imagination of themselves as outsider figures in popular narratives as with simply rejecting or reversing these understandings locally.8Understanding these figures as an engagement from the margin underscores the fact that although notions of identity often derive their force from the imaginary of the state, individual subjects themselves engage the state through their own zones of experience (Das 2007; Das and Poole 2004). Although at variance with formal legal norms, the manner in which neighborhood residents engaged the figures of the outsider and the criminal were not simply attempts to take on the state in thinly disguised oppositional terms (Scott 1985, 1990). Instead, I suggest that the creative everyday practice of forming selves by fashioning imaginary others that is the subject of this chapter represents an inventive reworking of the possible relationships between self and outsider figures through attempts to locate an ordered regularity in everyday life.
These modes of imagining local relationships proved to be contingent and fragile configurations for my interlocutors. As detailed in the previous chapter, everyday life in Brickfields was often disrupted by a (p.139) trajectory of change that was frequently felt to occur counter to local principles of justice and due process. Brickfields residents who found themselves in the space between the law and local principles of justice and ethics sensed the danger of “being made a stranger” within what was imagined to be “one's own space.” Mitigating this danger meant carefully cultivating everyday practices that retained a sense of a future for community residents allowing for some agency to structure local social life. Thus, modes of local practice structuring relatedness and belonging were attempts to engage or rework the state's “promised” order, an order that seemed to local residents to liquidate the very basis for belief in the world that ethical life requires.
The Stranger: Personhood and Place in Brickfields
Despite the numbers provided by state demographers in the 2000 census, the belief that Brickfields was overwhelmingly “Indian” persisted. The area's overwhelming association with the Indian ethnic character was often cited as the source of its marginality and the primary obstacle to a desired form of order in the neighborhood. Devaraj, a professional who lives in Brickfields, negatively assessed the ethnic order of Brickfields as constituting both a target of racism from the outside and a source of “racial” inferiority deriving from the “character” of the community itself. While discussing the state's timing in initiating a development project, Devaraj stated that such changes were late in coming because “Indians live here.” Muthu, a long-time Brickfields resident and operative for the political party Gerakan, stated the issue more clearly:
We are a black area! Just like blacks. [Pause] I don't mean to offend anyone here. I mean, I'm Indian too, you know, but it is true. They haven't cared about this area because we are Indians here. We are the blacks here.
Nagaraju, a local business owner, wanted to make the point in terms “that an American would understand” by calmly asserting, “All the niggers live in Brickfields. Does this offend you? [RB: No] We are niggers here, it is simple.”
The expression of racism from the outside was seldom articulated without the “backwardness” of Indians also being cited as a rational explanation for the outside discrimination and for the marginality and (p.140) instability of Brickfields. Expanding on his thoughts regarding the situation in Brickfields, Devaraj asserted that Indians themselves are also to blame for the situation because “they are not as entrepreneurial as the Chinese.” According to Devaraj it was only after the state initiated largescale development projects such as KL Sentral and the KL Monorail that Indian businessmen moved to develop the neighborhood. Even then, the manner in which these developments came into being was felt to be “strange.” Devaraj cited the Villa Scott Condominium complex as an example, noting that the well-known Mr. Indran had owned the land for many years, but didn't develop it until recently. Then, once the building was completed, the owner reportedly refused to sell units in the condominium. “Only after the property market collapsed did he start selling off the individual units,” Devaraj concluded. “I know that Mr. Indran was an educated, intelligent man, but I don't know why he did it that way.” Devaraj did not express any respect at all for Mr. Indran's sons, who at the time of the interview were running the family business due to their father's death, saying that they are “really stupid—they don't have a head for this kind of thing and they are never around.” Not having a “head” for business was an Indian trait for Devaraj and thus a central problem in Brickfields. In a later interview Devaraj revised his Indian-specific critique to include nearly all Malaysians, stating that Malaysians did not possess a “developed attitude” and remained mired in an outmoded past, unable to “really understand how to be modern.” As was commonly articulated in such narratives, Malaysian Chinese were singled out as “different” in these terms, and Devaraj's sentiments regarding Malaysian Chinese, shared by many whom I interviewed, was that they “are very clever and entrepreneurial. Different than Malays and Chinese, who are not ready for globalization at all.”
The complexity of how the qualities of being “an Indian” related to the imagination of self is evident, and a full exploration of these implications is beyond the scope of the argument here.9What is important is the centrality of an articulated Malaysian Indian ethnic identification in the course of understanding Brickfields as a unique space and as a distinct community. Despite the often articulated notion that the Brickfields Indian community was simultaneously a victim of outside racism and its own “racial” characteristics, only one interlocutor suggested that the solution was simply to erase the unique ethnic character of the area. (p.141) For the overwhelming majority, the notion of Brickfields as a specifically Indian space served to locate the individual's sense of place and community and oriented their narratives of what Brickfields actually “was” and “should be.” My lengthy interview with long-time Brickfields resident Chandra illustrated this complex understanding of the Indian character of the area. While Chandra's vividly positive characterization of the “Indian” aspects of this sense of place and belonging was somewhat unusual, his overall emphasis on Brickfields as a uniquely Indian space was not.10
The fact that Chandra was so positive in his assessment of Brickfields as “Indian” is significant. Although Chandra was a creative artist who had received national acclaim for his work, he had specifically chosen to live in Brickfields in 1986, bucking the trend of emigration by moving to the neighborhood from nearby Petaling Jaya:
Well, I made the change for three reasons: security, convenience, and the Indian environment. I grew up in a very Tamil household. For me, coming to college was a real adjustment—just like the Malay kampung boys having to get used to different kinds of people, I also had to get used to much more diverse crowds. But I really love being in a place that is steeped in things Tamil. Growing up my mother used to cook all kinds of traditional Tamil dishes, especially for breakfast—vadai, idiappam, and so on. Then, when I went off to school and for many years after that I was stuck with toast, bread, and jam for breakfast. A prisoner's diet, you know! Still, it became my standard way to begin each day. Coming to Brickfields, it was like … well, I could get all of the Tamil dishes again and it wasn't like I had to look for a specialty shop. It is everywhere and I love that. I love hearing Tamil spoken freely and I love being able to just speak with others in Tamil without having to wonder “hey, do you speak Tamil?” Coming to Brickfields was like coming home, even though I had never actually lived here before. It is second nature to me. I feel really comfortable. Really, I love living in Brickfields.
It was clear to Chandra why Petaling Jaya wasn't right for him:
Living in Section 17 [of Petaling Jaya] wasn't that good. It wasn't good for a single person, especially because sometimes I am away for months at a time. So I just got tired of being robbed. You fix the window, they come in through the roof—you fix the roof, they come in through the back door—you fix the back door, they just break down the front. I really became sick of it and there was nothing the police could do. So, I moved to Brickfields (p.142) for security. Sure, being in an apartment is not always the best thing—I had a house and a yard in PJ—but I don't have to worry about security issues that much.
So you moved to Brickfields for greater security, despite the area's reputation for crime and being insecure?
Yes … ironically, it is true. But it has been safer for me and I don't think that the reputation is entirely accurate. Yes, there is crime and there are gangsters, but I haven't had problems with this. Also, Section 17 is probably the least Indian area in PJ—have you been there?
I really didn't like that. So I still find Brickfields to be a better place for me personally. I'm more comfortable here—I can hear the latest Tamil or Hindi pop songs blasting out of the local shops—I can go down to the temple on a festival day. [Laughs] You can take your pick around here in that way, right? When I moved here in 1986 there were thirty-three places of worship in this neighborhood—that includes churches, temples, and so on. I don't know what the number is now, but it is probably still around there.
The most obvious point of connection for Chandra is the Indian character of the neighborhood. Although not a native of Kuala Lumpur, he related living in Brickfields to the experience of his childhood growing up in a Tamil family in Ipoh. Everyday signifiers such as food, music, odors, and snatches of overheard conversations constitute the familiar for him. Chandra's description strongly referenced proximity as a key factor in why Brickfields is a better space for him to live compared to Petaling Jaya. It wasn't good for a single person, a reference to the notion that it is not good to be alone, to be anonymous, to be invisible. It was possible to know one's neighbors in Brickfields. Petaling Jaya, according to Chandra, did not easily afford such opportunities.
It was not supposed to be that way in Petaling Jaya. As originally envisioned in the 1950s, this “satellite city” was the way to a better future. Writing about Petaling Jaya not long after the suburb had been established, McGee and McTaggart wrote: “[Petaling Jaya] was first conceived of as a new town based on principles similar to those of the British new towns then in the course of construction;11by combining location of work, residence and recreation, it was hoped to develop a more modern and more agreeable form of urban living” (McGee and McTaggart, 1967). (p.143) As was the rule in British new towns, the spatial organization of the town sought to address each of the categories cited (work, residence, recreation) through strict, rational zoning codes and separation of land use. Therefore, while one could theoretically live, work, and relax without having to leave the town, one would not find coffee shops abutting homes or rows of food stalls lining football fields or streets. Reasserting urban planning goals that had been intended to govern growth in Kuala Lumpur since the beginning, Petaling Jaya promised happiness through order.
City residents responded to this promise and, given that land was quite cheaply available in the early days of the project, the population of the new town quickly swelled. Coupled with the fact that many resettlement projects that targeted unregistered residents sought to place them in low-cost housing within Petaling Jaya, it was not a problem to secure inhabitants for the new suburb. Many of these new residents were coming from Brickfields, as numerous interlocutors recounted housewives saving their “coffee money” toward down payments on land in Petaling Jaya. Strictly speaking, Chandra was incorrect in asserting that Petaling Jaya lacks an “Indian flavor,” as Malaysian Indians, especially those from the Ceylonese12community, flocked to the new suburb. Although Malaysian Chinese are by far the most numerous group in Petaling Jaya today, the Indian community is statistically overrepresented there as well, relative to their overall numbers in Kuala Lumpur. Chandra was correct in his observation, however, that one would have little means of knowing about this Indian community based solely on the everyday life of the neighborhood.
The predominance of detached single-family suburban homes in Petaling Jaya contributes greatly to this invisibility. “I had a house and a yard in PJ,” Chandra noted. Yet this was more dangerous, not less, as his increased privacy simultaneously meant that he was more invisible to his neighbors. This specific problem may be mitigated somewhat, as Chandra surmised, if there is a family present rather than a single person, but this invisibility to neighbors remained. Contrary to the authoritative discourses regarding proper, healthy urban living that generated the satellite city, Chandra felt he was a stranger in Petaling Jaya. The fact that one finds a wealth of small ethnic shops in the designated commercial areas in the suburb made little difference to Chandra because they were out of sight, accessible only by car, and required a clear intention in mind to go there. One (p.144) does not simply “happen upon” things in Petaling Jaya. The mitigation of the random was one of the central principles of the overall plan.
Chandra was not alone in his negative assessment of Petaling Jaya in comparison to Brickfields. I interviewed numerous Petaling Jaya residents who used to live in Brickfields and most expressed similar sentiments, although less directly than Chandra. The fact that I conducted most of these interviews in the coffee shops and food stalls in Brickfields and not in the restaurants and homes in their own neighborhood is significant.
The Petaling Jaya–Brickfields comparison offered here is a critical factor in understanding how Brickfields itself, as a distinctive area in the city, was conceptualized. This importance lies in the fact that the comparison was made all the time—by residents, but also in a very different way by city planners and agents of the state. Petaling Jaya–style development remained the contemporary ideal in many of these accounts, providing a model of development planning and successful urban space, even in cases where the interlocutor ultimately rejected the suburb as a good neighborhood to live in. While a place such as Brickfields could never be as thoroughly suburbanized as Petaling Jaya, this fact did not kill the state's dreams of imposing an analogous order over such older, “messy” spaces.
Chandra understood the continuing saliency of these desires for urban order very well. I asked him about the transformation of Brickfields:
Well, my geographer point of view is that it is quite positive. Certainly, as I mentioned before, it is logical. Brickfields will connect KL to the rest of the country and the world and it makes sense to put something like KL Sentral here. Also, it will result in a lot of other development that will change the neighborhood and make it cleaner and more diverse. A lot of tourists will come in, others from around KL may visit, so I can see this happening.
Well, speak as a resident for a moment. In the context of the reasons you gave for moving here, how do you feel about these changes? For example, you said that you came here because it was a Tamil neighborhood. Do you think it will remain so? What do you think?
Yes … from a personal standpoint I am quite sad about some of this. No, I do not think that Brickfields will remain an Indian neighborhood. There is no way that these families can afford to stay—the businesses as well. Most of them are really small businesses and I don't know how they could stay. So the projects are not for the local people. Sure, this makes me (p.145) sad. I do think that the temples and some of the restaurants will remain—good for tourists, you know. But it won't have the same kind of atmosphere that it does now.
Do you think that making Brickfields less Indian is intentional?
Well [Long pause]—this gets into some politics. It's not just about Brickfields. I think that there has been an effort going on for a long time to break up non-Malay ethnic strongholds. Look at Sentul—same thing.13Maybe even more noticeable there. So Brickfields is affected by this too—and yet, Malays are also creating “Malay-only” spaces. Perhaps this isn't always so overt, but I look at Putrajaya … I look at Shah Alam … by default these are primarily Malay spaces and the attitude about this is very different.
Chandra later qualified his statement that Malays were intentionally trying to destroy neighborhoods like Brickfields:
I think that no matter what Brickfields will become less Indian because the community itself is changing. Fewer people speak and understand Tamil very well, and this is critical. Most of the ceremonies and stories in the temples are in Tamil and, without being able to understand the language, the meaning is lost. It is also a bit boring to go without knowing what is going on, so people stay away, especially young people. More and more young Tamils, especially those who have made a little money, cannot speak the language well and they tend to become more mainstream—less Indian. This has an impact in Brickfields because the … well, the Indian-ness of the neighborhood becomes less important to them and they move out. This has been going on for years. In many cases it was their parents that moved out to places like PJ, but perhaps the parents still maintained some ties to the area. The children don't really have a reason to do this—it isn't relevant to their lives. It won't completely disappear. You know, a lot of expatriates from India are now moving in here.
Yes, I know.
They are generally professionals, but they come here because they can get things from home. Sure, most of them aren't Tamils—they are North Indians, I think—but it is still more familiar than most places in KL. So they will continue to move in and some middle-class Tamils will also stay. I think that some of the businesses will survive as well, although they will have to cater to tourists. Still, the Indian character of Brickfields is not just going to totally disappear.
(p.146) Although somewhat idealized, Brickfields represented a space for Chandra that was simultaneously “home” and outside the norm, a margin to be retained rather than effaced. His account alternated between rationally explaining the “logical good” of the development projects and the quiet sadness of knowing that this will transform the characteristics of the area that he originally found attractive. The overt framework of Chandra's narrative was the loss of ethnic identity, but the loss of sociality associated with the predominant discourses of proper urban development remained a theme in his understanding of the transformation of the area as well.
Chandra's account of Brickfields at times seemed inconsistent. Yet, in broad terms, his account strongly resembled the understandings of Brickfields as a distinctive “place” that I heard over and over again during my conversations with residents. Central to this ambiguous discourse was a belief that the neighborhood was getting better and worse at the same time. The recognition that the broadly conceived city planning initiatives would make Brickfields cleaner, safer, and more attractive was often articulated precisely alongside the notion that the neighborhood was also getting dirtier, more crowded, and more chaotic. Some hope was often expressed that Brickfields would gain an identity as a tourist destination, although in doing so it was losing its identity as an Indian enclave, a critical factor that made Brickfields interesting, comfortable, and unique.14
The notion of Brickfields as a home for Malaysian Indians and an insecurity as to its continued existence as a familiar space emerged continually in the narratives of local residents. The anticipation of removal, upheaval, and disappearance was a dominant theme articulated as a characteristic of living or working in the neighborhood. These narrations of place and community were not, however, always overtly antagonistic toward the state or dismissive of the development projects that were under way. To the contrary, most residents welcomed the perceived “cleaning up” and “modernization” of the area. If anything, these changes were felt to be long overdue. What was threatening was not the fact of change, but that the character of these changes would forever disrupt or abolish the unique character of the neighborhood that made it possible for residents to not feel as though they were “strangers” in Brickfields. This felt sense of belonging contrasted with an experience of marginality within Malaysian society at large.
(p.147) It is clear from Chandra's remarks that the fear many Brickfields residents felt regarding the figure of the stranger was primarily the fear of being made a stranger oneself. Although outsider others who enter the neighborhood and transform it through their presence (tourists, North Indian professionals) were also part of Chandra's narrative, he was clearly more concerned about how changing Brickfields “for the better” would also alter his own identity relative to the community. This was directly related to the gap between the Good as it is found in the law and in notions of local justice. The Good related to the state and development initiatives was dependent on the law and circulated in local discourses as something self-evident.15Local understandings of the Good and of justice, however, were articulated as concepts dependent upon higher principles of religious belief, established cultural practices, and community expectations regarding conduct between neighbors. Chandra addressed himself to both domains, but in trying to assimilate his mental image of Brickfields to a framework of causal facts and discursive knowledge, he clearly risked finding himself estranged from both and becoming a stranger. The figure of the stranger as a object of belief made it possible for Chandra to avoid the liquidation of “his” world and to continue to imagine himself as an ethical agent in Brickfields.
The overriding concern of “being made an stranger” was also evident in Mr. Rama's narration of his place in the neighborhood. Rather than articulating anger or fear, however, Mr. Rama contradicted the assumption that this imagination of the future is the only one possible for Brickfields residents who find themselves increasingly on the margin of inclusion or exclusion. The operator of a well-known vegetarian food stall, Mr. Rama had occupied his corner on the fringe of what remained of Kampung Khatijah for over thirty years, spending most of his adult life preparing late-night meals for neighbors and those who came from all over the city to experience his unique version of Indian cooking. In his telling he “has seen it all,” surviving the gang-dominated period of the 1960s, earlier waves of spatial reorganization, and the changing fortunes of Brickfields residents through the 1970s and 1980s. Mr. Rama had to adapt to survive, and there had always been room for him to maneuver.
It was quite difficult to interview Mr. Rama, and my encounters with him consisted of me visiting his stall for a meal and attempting to talk with him while he served his customers.16Within minutes of sitting down (p.148) Mr. Rama would always ask, “Well, where are the questions today? Are you going to ask me questions?” The fragmentary conversations we did manage were telling, as this exchange illustrates:
What do you think of all of the changes that are going on in Brickfields? They are working just down from you here … Mr. R: I think it is great. Great! They are cleaning up the area, making it better, better for tourists, better for everyone. You know, this is where all the visitors to KL will come to the city. They come from the airport to the station. We are first, we have to look good.
So you feel that making Brickfields better for tourists is a good thing? Is it good for the people who live here also?
Yes, yes, it is good. It will be cleaner, more shops. Maybe more expensive, I don't know. It will be better. I can be proud to say I'm from Brickfields. [Noting RB's raised eyebrow reaction] Yes, proud! Twenty years from now Brickfields will be an internationally recognized place. People will know about us and I can say I'm from here. What the government is doing is good, I say.
But what about you? Where do you see yourself during these twenty years? Are you going to be able to keep running your restaurant here?
[Smiling, but looking away] Well, maybe I cannot stay. Maybe they won't allow me to stay, I don't know. I can't go anywhere else.
If I go anywhere else I'm a stranger … I do not want to be a stranger anywhere.
Is this fair? You just told me you have been here forty years … Mr. R: Maybe not … [Shrugs]
At this point Mr. Rama excused himself to return to cooking, and the conversation was temporarily halted. His mixed anticipation of the future was clear in this brief exchange, however, as he articulated the transformation of Brickfields as both the possible improvement of his “home” and his likely exclusion from this very experience of the place. The invocation of the “Tamil” or “Indian” character of Brickfields is only implied here, but given that Mr. Rama's stall personified the unique ethnic character of the neighborhood to many not only in Brickfields but throughout the city as a whole, his notion that he would be a “stranger” anywhere else indexes the character of his perceived belonging as related to this ethnic figure.
(p.149) Simply remaining in Brickfields, however, did not abolish the specter of the stranger for Mr. Rama. As he indicated during our conversations, the danger was ultimately the fact that it was Mr. Rama himself and not the world around him that was becoming estranged. For Mr. Rama and many other Brickfields residents the expectation that one's long-term presence in a particular place would make a person familiar no longer applied. Location and personal histories were no longer stable, believable clues to identity. Certainly, it is questionable whether such factors were ever stable clues, but the fact that this indiscernability had become apparent generated a new fear of both “the Other” and “the I” equally at risk of becoming strangers in the unstable environment of Brickfields (Siegel 1997).
Local Institutions and the Stranger in Brickfields
The complex association between belonging to a place and ethnic identity was not always articulated as a problem of becoming a stranger due to removal. For some in Brickfields, the anticipated estrangement of the Brickfields Indian community was not about physical displacement but rather was tied to demographic shifts that would make it more difficult to see and know one's neighbors in the area itself. The presumed ability to “know” one's neighbors in this context was very often articulated through the cultural markers of ethnic identity summarized by Chandra earlier, especially those of language and religion.17
This set of markers linked otherwise seemingly separate communities within the figure of the Brickfields Indian. The articulation of belonging and the threat that the transformation of the neighborhood held for local Christian communities is one illustration of these links. Although a minority within Brickfields itself, predominantly Indian Christian churches were a visible, active sector of the community, with four large Christian churches (two Catholic, one Lutheran, one Methodist) located in the area. Linguistic and subethnic difference was a strong factor in determining the differences between these churches locally, although the open recognition of such differences did not in turn lead to any one of these distinct Christian communities being regarded as outsiders relative to Brickfields as a whole. Although on a national level Christianity is most strongly associated with Malaysian Chinese communities, in Brickfields (p.150) being a Christian was as much a sign of one's belonging to the Indian community as being a Hindu. As with Hindu temples, Christian churches were materially linked to local practices through the use of Tamil or Malayalam in their services and outreach and the general retention of styles of dress, eating habits, and other markers of identity broadly associated with Malaysian Indians. In short, being a Christian was not automatically a mark associated with being a stranger.
As with other residents, this sense of relatedness was increasingly felt to be one of having to face outsiders within Brickfields. Reverend Abraham, the pastor of one local Christian church, articulated this understanding when describing the place of his church within the community in the context of the transformation of Brickfields. The sense of being “faced with strangers” was, in Reverend Abraham's case, strongly influenced by the fact that he personally grew up in Brickfields and, after many years of training and church work in India and throughout Malaysia, he returned to his “home” to pursue his ministerial activities.
The church must be a resource for all neighborhood residents, not just church members. I strongly believe this, so all of these changes have made us change how we do our outreach. Recently we have started some new social programs aimed at addressing local problems.
What sort of programs?
Well, a kindergarten, a tutoring program, a program for elderly Tamils around here, and an AIDS education program. They are all meant for the poor around here, so the actual work tends to overlap in all of them.
Are you doing specific Christian outreach in these programs?
Of course! Not to Muslims because that is illegal, but some of our motivation for establishing these programs is to promote Christianity and [the church's] message. I have to be clear, though. The main goal here is not just to convert people but community service.
Reverend Abraham's own motivation for trying to improve the entire community, rather than simply working for the expansion and benefit of the local Christian community, was strongly linked to the fact that he was born and raised in Brickfields. After leaving Brickfields to study at a seminary in India, he remained closely tied to the community. Although he spent five years undergoing training in India and had been (p.151) posted in several Malaysian cities in the years since, Reverend Abraham's interest in the neighborhood remained strong. Reverend Abraham's thesis for the seminary considered the establishment and growth of his denomination in Malaysia and drew heavily upon the Brickfields church he would later lead.
As an institution firmly rooted in the local community and headed by an individual who had a personal stake in belonging to that community, the church undertook its work practically, through an openness predicated on familiarity and trust between neighbors. According to Reverend Abraham, the church's “open compound” served as a metaphor for its place in Brickfields. The basis for this openness, however, had become increasingly hard to sustain:
Well, all of these changes are making it harder for us. Recently a lot of con artists have come in wanting help and then turned around and robbed us. We just lost an expensive PA system … burgled! For the first time, we have hired security guards for the compound. We may also do some other things, I don't know. The main problem here is that we are ministering to, or otherwise trying to help, people who we don't know. This is very difficult for us. Most of our activities are small and for anyone, which means that we would know them. They would live or work nearby normally. We can't turn away, but now there are risks in being open.
The notion of “risk” here was intimately tied to the increased presence of strangers in Brickfields. While Reverend Abraham later admitted that the church has been the occasional victim of burglary or deceit by members of the community seeking assistance, he insisted that the character of such acts had changed in recent years. The risk was not just that of being robbed or tricked but of falling victim to such acts perpetrated by strangers. Like Mr. Rama, who exhibited a complex fear of being cast out into a world of strangers, Reverend Abraham articulated a fear of being made a stranger without having gone anywhere at all. In this context, the authoritative framework of Christian faith that explicitly guided Reverend Abraham's understanding of ethical life was not enough to prevent his belief in the world itself from being shaken; as with others in Brickfields, the figure of the stranger came to characterize the reverend's mental image of life in the neighborhood and his place in it.
(p.152) Understanding social imaginaries of “home” and “belonging” haunted by the specter of threatening outsiders is a common epistemological problem in anthropological work. This theme has become particularly relevant in ethnographic work regarding cities, as urban spaces often constitute the defamiliarized nonlocal, simultaneously expanding and eroding the spatial contours of inside and outside (Holston and Appadurai 1996). Attempts by Brickfields residents to concretely map an increasingly shifting terrain of space and community through the citation of figures such as the stranger link their experience of change and the urban to a more general experience of transformation and modernity marked throughout the world (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997; Ferguson 1999; Ghannam 2002; Guano 2004). In this specific context, this imaginary provides a shared understanding of Brickfields that provides an orderly narrative of the present rooted in the habitus of the community and continues to make common local practice possible in the face of increasingly dislocating changes due to the state's efforts to reorganize the neighborhood (Bourdieu 1980; Gaonkar 2002; Lefebvre 1991, 2003).
The figure of the stranger emerged in the narratives of many Brickfields residents as a mode of establishing knowable boundaries that would, in turn, more solidly link subjective notions of place and self to the space of the neighborhood itself. Although this aspect of local social imaginaries was discursive and ideological, this did not make the stranger any less a material presence in the daily life of the neighborhood (Handler 1986; Hannerz 1992; Holston and Appadurai 1996). Significantly, imaginations of home and outsider served to index Brickfields as a knowable margin, despite its geographic centrality within the Kuala Lumpur metropolitan area, with this margin serving as both a point of orientation and a place of belonging for those who felt excluded or out of place within the mainstream “center” of Malaysian society (Das and Poole 2004). Chandra's preference for the “marginality” of Brickfields over the mainstream order of Petaling Jaya was a case in point. Furthermore, while this marginality emerged in ambiguous ways, such as Mr. Rama's overt enthusiasm regarding the long-overdue recognition of Brickfields despite the fact that he anticipated his own estrangement in the process, it was concretely imagined. In the context of the fluid physical and demographic situation in Brickfields, even a solid marginality was preferable to the exceptional.
Although organized criminal gangs retained a central role in the everyday life of Brickfields, this mode of activity was directly undertaken by only a small number of residents. The most common practical experience of Brickfields as a “criminal” space took the form of a wide range of activities that are loosely understood as types of “petty corruption.” Nearly every such form of activity had an essential purpose for those engaged in the practice. This purpose was primarily the falsification of the evidentiary narrative of a particular business transaction between individual parties or between individuals and agents of the state. Following James Siegel's work regarding similar practices in Indonesia, I will refer to this category of practice as a form of counterfeiting (Siegel 1998).
This mode of counterfeiting was that of producing various forms of documentary evidence that represented certain transactions as being in accord with the law, even though additional amounts of money or favors had been exchanged for advantageous treatment regarding eligibility, time of procedure, or actual exemption from other formal rule- based factors. Although I could not verify this empirically, it was clear from strong and consistent anecdotal evidence (including my own direct experience as a temporary Brickfields resident) that it was impossible for anyone living in Brickfields to avoid engaging in these practices at certain times. Obtaining a driver's license, a commercial business license, a passport, title to one's home or car; making arrangements for work or repair to one's home; securing residency permits; holding a social or political meeting; gaining admittance to a school or college; all these and a wide range of other activities where the desires or needs of individuals took the form of a contract or matter formally regulated by the law were directly cited by my interlocutors as transactions that required them to engage in a multileveled mode of negotiation and falsification in order to accomplish the task at hand or acquire the goods or permissions sought within the transaction.18
Most often such dealings were direct, spontaneous, and took the form of a quick cash payment to a secretary, bureaucrat, or guard in order to gain entry or favor in the course of dealing with an institution of some sort. These “tea-money” transactions were not the primary form in which counterfeiting was practiced in Brickfields, although they are related to the (p.154) notion being articulated here. Rather, the practice of collectively negotiating alternative narratives regarding specific business and governmental transactions in order to anchor them more firmly in the required time of the law was the form of counterfeiting activity that served to structure relationships of order and belonging in the increasingly fluid physical and social space of Brickfields. Such practices were not merely resistances to the law, but took the form of reactions against the ambiguous, exceptional aspects of the execution of the law and the corresponding lack of belief in a world dominated by the “rule of law” that faced area residents on a daily basis. In this sense, these practices served to reterritorialize Brickfields and its residents within the law (Gupta 1997). This reterritorialization was no simple matter, however, as ethical judgment in everyday life was displaced from moral imperatives conflating the Good with the law. Relative to this general situation, counterfeiting practices in Brickfields constituted an odd form of hope that the law was as solid and unexceptional as it represented itself to be without wholly investing the possibility of ethical life in legal systems of judgment. “Fake” evidentiary narratives were produced locally as a meaningful way of engaging the law and ordering events and transactions more to the advantage of the individuals involved, clearly marking local social relationships in the process. The fact that such narratives recognized the empirical reality of the institutions of the law without granting such institutions an ethical centrality meant that the state and the specific organs of the law loomed over local counterfeiting of this type, requiring an investment in making “better,” believable counterfeits that would pass simultaneously as real in legal domains and ethical in local spheres.19
Most academic literature devoted to transactions of this type focuses entirely on the impact that these practices have on development in macroeconomic terms. In the wake of the Asian economic crisis of 1998 a number of scholars have revisited the concept of “rent seeking,”20with a particular emphasis on the impact that patron-client exchanges and corruption have on economic efficiency and growth (Gomez and Jomo 1999; Khan and Jomo 2000). While this literature challenges the assumptions of earlier theorists who presumed that developmental success is predicated on the absence of rent-seeking activities (Myrdal 1968), most of these works limit the scope of their inquiry to the market and the economy, without attending to the complex relationship such activities have to the law itself. (p.155) In particular, the assumption that “corrupt” or “patron-client” exchanges must be understood as supplemental to the legal contracts between economic actors effaces the socially constitutive role of counterfeiting practices at the local level.21
Counterfeiting at the local level is generally understood as an act of bad faith or, at best, as an error in moral judgment and an example of a specific misrecognition of the Good. The evidence presented in the following section troubles this dogmatic notion of the law's relation to local ethics. As Deleuze reminds us, everyday ethics often evades such systems of judgment, even as it must empirically engage the institutions of the law and the state (Deleuze 1991b, 1997). Although economic gain was always a central factor in these relationships, they were simultaneously complex forms of contract that creatively engaged both concrete legal rules and local principles of relatedness and justice. The ability to form these relationships and achieve forms of association through counterfeiting practices was therefore often understood as a sign of positive engagement, a “success story.” Such efforts seldom opened its practitioner to charges of “actually” being fake, a liar, or a hypocrite. Rather, the ability to create some order, connection, and authority for oneself through modes of falsification was a mark of skill. In the secondhand narratives of counterfeiting of this sort told to me, the stories were offered as a means of recognition and, at times, admiration. Interestingly, the notion that such actions were undertaken in bad faith was almost exclusively reserved for specific representatives of the law (such as police or government ministers) who engaged in them. In local terms, counterfeiting served not as an oppositional judgment of the law as a whole or as conscious resistance to the law but rather as an empirical demonstration of the law's separateness from ethical life and the Good.
Unlike the generally negative figure of the stranger, the figure of the counterfeiter was associated with admiration and a relative lack of rancor,22centered on a recognition that this figure often implied a mastery of the self in a fluid social context and a mastery of the tools necessary to produce “valid” copies. In these cases the “tools” were the means of fabricating invoices, receipts, contracts, and other documents that would circulate as valid forms of evidence under the law while the counterfeiter was also able to address local notions of the Good and the hope that ethical life was, in spite of everything, possible.23
Gaining firsthand ethnographic experience of the processes of counterfeiting was difficult.24One direct interaction with a local printing business in Brickfields, however, illustrated these points more concretely. Mrs. Ramachandran25owned a printing business with her husband in Brickfields, not far from the new site provided for two small Hindu temples that were relocated in March 2002 (see Chapter 5).26Although they were able to fulfill a wide range of print orders, the shop's specialty was wedding invitations aimed at a predominantly Indian clientele.
Mrs. Ramachandran told me that most of her orders were for Indian weddings and they preferred to focus their efforts on printing for the Tamil community:
We have everything needed to quickly print up brochures and pamphlets in Tamil. Yet we don't get much of this business anymore. So we try to generate business in different ways. You know, the temples that just moved in across the street, when they need something done we'll do it for free and just make sure that we have our logo and telephone number on the paper somewhere. It helps, brings in a little more work, but not very much. I just don't see much printing in Tamil going on anymore.
Mrs. Ramachandran related this to me in a weary, sad tone of voice. It appeared that she had more at stake in the decline of printing in Tamil than simply a loss of revenue. The receding importance of the “personal touch” and the diminishing returns in running a business that serves the Tamil-speaking community seemed to gnaw at Mrs. Ramachandran as she answered my questions. She emphatically told me that “personal contacts are everything in this business,” but she gave the impression that a commitment to the local community was no longer sufficient to ensure success.
It was clear that some of Mrs. Ramachandran's personal contacts were still proving to be somewhat lucrative, albeit they were not with individual customers. The nature of these business dealings complicated Mrs. Ramachandran's articulated detachment and her seemingly straightforward “business is business” demeanor. When I arrived at the shop one evening at 7:00 p.m. to conduct our interview I found that Mrs. Ramachandran was still dealing with some customers. Having already postponed the interview several times, Mrs. Ramachandran apologized and asked if I would like to (p.157) wait. Offered a chair a few feet away from Mrs. Ramachandran's desk, I took my seat and waited. For the next hour I was present during the negotiation of an order to produce preprinted test booklets for a local college. In the course of the negotiation the techniques of closing a deal and maintaining a personal tie with a customer were apparent.
The main “protagonists” in this transaction were Mrs. Ramachandran and her husband, with her secretary and one of the shop assistants occasionally called in for advice or to perform a task. The representatives for the school were a Malay couple and a young man who could have been the older man's brother or assistant. The locus of the action was around the small desk at the front of the shop. The couple representing the college and Mrs. Ramachandran's husband were walking around, appearing and disappearing throughout the transaction. The female representative from the college spent most of her time standing behind the secretary's desk in front of me distractedly flipping through a women's magazine, occasionally looking over the shoulder of Mrs. Ramachandran's secretary as she typed up the latest invoice for the order. As the terms of the deal changed several times throughout the negotiations, numerous invoices were produced, occasionally causing confusion as to which one was the “current” record. The younger man from the college sat smiling and not saying anything save for a few offhand remarks and jokes that worked to lighten the mood when things became a little tense. The male negotiator from the college would alternately sit in the chair in front of Mrs. Ramachandran's desk and fidget, stand up and pace around, or walk out of the shop entirely, only to return a few seconds later. While I detected no overt disagreements between the two parties during the entire episode, the tone of the negotiations was occasionally aggressive.
The negotiations transpired in Malay, although when Mrs. Ramachandran wanted to discuss a point with her husband they spoke in Tamil. They did not remove themselves while doing this, but instead turned to each other and spoke in front of the customers. At first the discussion between the two parties concerned the type of paper to be used, with the college negotiator insisting that Ramachandran Printers use the paper that he had brought with him. During this time Mrs. Ramachandran produced first one check and, a few minutes later, another check, apparently buying the paper from the customers. Photocopies of these checks were also made and handed to the male negotiator, who then (p.158) would hand them to his female counterpart. After she scrutinized them for several seconds, he would take the checks back, shuffling them into the other papers he was holding. Occasionally he would rifle through his file for the checks and again display them to his female partner. She in turn would walk over to the desk where the negotiations were taking place, casually glance again at the checks, and then quickly return to the secretary's desk and her magazine. This back-and-forth continued during the entire negotiation.
Once the issue of paper had been settled, the discussion turned to the print job itself. A long, somewhat heated discussion ensued regarding the terms of the contract, with the price per unit articulated as a clear point of contention. After a half hour of proposals and counterproposals, the price per unit was settled (12 sen per piece) and Mrs. Ramachandran's secretary started producing invoices, letters, and other documents reflecting what had just been agreed upon. During this time, Mrs. Ramachandran produced several RM 50 notes from her cashbox beneath the desk and handed them to the male negotiator from the college. Later, as the papers were still being drawn up, Mrs. Ramachandran produced several more notes and again handed them across the desk to the college representative. In both cases the man pocketed this money and then jumped up to pace, briefly exiting and then returning to the shop. It appeared that she handed him about RM 500 in total, although this is an estimate based on my attempts at discreet observation during the transaction. Once the papers and invoices were ready, everyone signed where required and official stamps were affixed to the relevant documents. The female college representative abruptly closed her magazine and took a more active interest in this part of the process, overseeing every action carefully. After photocopies were made, a great deal of confusion arose regarding which contract was the correct one. It did not help that several older invoices and drafts had gotten mixed in with the current documents.27Finally, after all was sorted out, the three members of the university delegation got up and exited the shop for good. No goodbyes or pleasantries were exchanged, although nobody seemed particularly angry either. The younger man from the college made a few more smiling jokes on the way out, with Mrs. Ramachandran playfully engaging him in Malay. Then, it became quiet and Mrs. Ramachandran and I began the formal interview.
(p.159) A summary of what transpired is this: This transaction was a complex arrangement whereby the customers provided (and were paid for) the paper for the printing job. However, based on the amount of unrecorded cash that was being paid out above the purchase of the paper by Mrs. Ramachandran, it is clear that there were additional kickbacks also paid out to the customers. Then, as the records must all match, it took a great deal of time to record what was “officially” negotiated while simultaneously keeping track of what “really” transpired. I noticed that Mrs. Ramachandran did not make any ledger or “cash out” notes when she distributed the cash payments. Given that the contract was drawn up on behalf of the college, great pains were taken to ensure that the documents provided a consistent narrative of the transaction. This appeared to be the female representative's responsibility during the proceedings. The negotiation itself had a performative character. At various times both parties would adjourn to discuss matters, but they would not actually remove themselves from the room. Rather, they would suddenly just start discussing things among themselves as if the others were not actually there. For Mrs. Ramachandran and her husband this was understandable because they spoke in Tamil, but the Malay customers would also confer in the same manner. When the male leader of the college delegation would suddenly exit the shop, he would go alone and no side talk would occur in his absence.
Everyone on both sides spoke in general terms to each other, but neither side offered direct answers to queries. Instead, proposals or questions were met with further questions and counterproposals. Eventually the matter was settled, but much in the conversation seemed “understood” and therefore went without being verbalized in the exchange. Essentially, it seemed to be a deal where the negotiators skimmed approximately 20 percent off the top of the settled amount (hence the exchange of cash) and closed the deal. Furthermore, the negotiators sold the paper, most likely originating from the college directly, to Ramachandran Printers at a higher price than its original cost. The university representative took the difference in cash. As Ramachandran Printers was clearly going to make several thousand ringgit in the deal, Mrs. Ramachandran did not balk at paying out the necessary cash or keeping portions of the transaction out of the written record.
Although it may appear that only Mrs. Ramachandran and the senior member of the college delegation were the primary agents in forging (p.160) the contract, in fact every person in the room had a well-defined role to play in the transaction. Mr. Ramachandran, the secretary, and the female college representative all worked to keep track of what was taking place on multiple registers throughout the entire negotiation. As the formal legal rules regarding contracts and the local principles of doing business often diverged, it was essential for witnesses to oversee the final outcomes. The inadvertent mixing of these registers could mean the production of a flawed formal narrative (making its counterfeit status apparent) or the exchange of too much or too little cash on the informal “across the desk” register. The young “joker” from the university also had a critical role to play, as the very real danger of having to account for notions of “the Good” that often opposed each other weighed heavily on the interaction. During moments that were particularly tense, the young man's injection of a joke or nonsense comment highlighted the darkly ironic situation of having to simultaneously “follow” the law and break it in order to reasonably satisfy multiple understandings of the Good that framed the proceedings. The laughter he generated on all sides allowed a potentially dangerous and somewhat absurd process to continue.28
It was astonishing to me that Mrs. Ramachandran would allow me to witness this transaction. She had rescheduled our interview several times before and she could have certainly asked me to come back. Having some idea of what had just taken place, starting the interview as if nothing had happened was awkward. “That seems like a pretty important job,” I began, hoping to find a way to follow it up. Mrs. Ramachandran rubbed her temples and waved me off. “Its nothing … now, what did you want to ask me?”29Further inquiries regarding this specific transaction were summarily rebuffed. Clearly Mrs. Ramachandran did not wish to talk about the transaction that I had just witnessed, despite the fact that she certainly knew that I would understand most of it.
In very general terms,30I confirmed the mechanics of the deal with Tan Piow, the owner of a small local bookshop who had himself edited and published literary journals (although he had never worked directly with Mrs. Ramachandran). I explained what I thought the details of the transaction were and he nodded emphatically:
Ya, ya … that's exactly how they do it! I know, because I've had to do it myself. It's amazing what these fuckers will do sometimes! At least these (p.161) were books for [the college], so they'll actually get printed. Sometimes these deals are struck and the books or catalogues or whatever are never even printed! Or, maybe they'll order a print run of 1000 and only really print 100. When you ask for the book, they say “don' have—habis” [finished].
What about the paper? If they order up a thousand, then they bought the paper too, right?
That's probably where this guy got the paper he brought. Might have been for some other project where it was left over. So he takes it, already paid for, and sells it to the printer again. No, wait … they made out an invoice for the paper, right?
Right, I think so. I didn't look over their shoulder or anything, but that's what they were talking about.
Maybe not, then … but sometimes it works out that way too.
Is this the normal way to do this?
Ya, I think so. Once they have established something, then they can cook up all kinds of things together.
“Once they have established something.” In other words, once they know each other. While deals of this kind are quite common in Malaysia, it is still certainly regarded as corruption and can backfire. The deal that I witnessed strongly implied a longstanding relationship between the two parties, although Mrs. Ramachandran refused to confirm or deny this. The entire transaction seemed choreographed, with the pacing and occasional walkouts of the main negotiator contrasting with the calm, detached air of Mrs. Ramachandran and her husband. Everyone seemed to know what to expect.
This calm security regarding the face-to-face deal contrasted sharply with Mrs. Ramachandran's assessment of the future of her business in Brickfields. Although the transformation of the neighborhood had ramifications for Ramachandran Printers, Mrs. Ramachandran felt that the primary change regarded the built environment itself rather than her customer base. She did not know if the building they occupied would remain intact much longer and, if not, what would replace it:
Do you know if there are plans to tear down this row and build something else?
[Laughing] No! We never know what is going to happen. Have there ever been any public discussions or newspaper articles or anything that gives you some information about this?
Are you kidding? We are always the last to know anything! Look at those temples over there [pointing across the street]. We came in to work one day and they were building the temples. I figured that something was going on when I saw them clearing away the rubbish, but we were never informed.
Does that bother you?
No, not really. When you do business in Malaysia you just have to be ready to change. Something will always come up, so just be ready to react.
Do you think the government or the developers should be more involved in letting people know …
No, its just another thing to deal with, you know? You have to pay tax, you have to get a license … that's it! I don't want to deal with them any more than I have to.
If they want to tear down this building, what will you do? Mrs. R: [Flatly] Then we'll move.
According to Mrs. Ramachandran, the state was merely one more variable in the insecure world of business in Malaysia. As with many other business owners and residents in Brickfields, she regarded her future in the area with wary anticipation. The possibility of the sudden liquidation of her place in Brickfields was evident in her understanding of the future. Her downplaying of the importance of the law and the state in structuring a narrative of futurity through the material social relationships of doing business was somewhat misleading. As her transaction with the local college illustrates, the solidity of the law was important to both Mrs. Ramachandran's sense of stability in Brickfields and the material practices by which she secured this stability, if for no other reason than to succeed in skirting the known procedures and limits of the law through producing counterfeit narratives of legality. In this sense, these documents both required and exceeded their literal relationship to the law and to the possible “meaning” offered by the documents themselves (Derrida 1988).
Working against the promised regularity of the law, Mrs. Ramachandran was able to simultaneously form and solidify material social relationships and develop her printing business by strategically tacking back and forth between registers of legal reproduction (her literal business) and (p.163) techniques of producing believable counterfeits. The fact that Mrs. Ramachandran was professionally a printer only serves to clearly demonstrate the doubleness of forms of counterfeiting that most Brickfields residents engage in at certain times. In this scenario, it was not the possibility of her documentary replicas being recognized as false that was the most dangerous threat to her place in Brickfields; such recognition would point to a strategic error rather than a moral one. The danger in such situations was the prospect that the law would intrude in ethical life in such a way that the very possibilities of sociality that arise out of such modes of fabricating evidence would be liquidated. The error of the counterfeiter is that one's copies may not be believable and may fail; the error of the law is that in its sui generis assumption that ethical life follows legal aptitude, it produces a world that everyday subjects cannot believe in.
The Gangster: The Materiality of a Dangerous Romantic Figure in Brickfields
The figures of the stranger and the counterfeiter represented attempts on the part of Brickfields residents to make sense of themselves and the neighborhood space that they inhabited. Although these imagined figures represented engagements with the city, the public at large, and the state, they were not “types” imposed from the outside or characters that dominated wider perceptions of Brickfields residents to those outside of the area. Standing between the experience of everyday life by Brickfields residents and the ideal legal subjectivities promoted by the Malaysian state, these figures were literally, in Rorty's terms, prototypes. This is not the case with the gangster, the third figure that I will discuss. The Brickfields gangster was a well- articulated figure in popular accounts, often serving as a shorthand “character type” in accounts of the neighborhood generated by journalists, state officials, and city residents who lived outside the neighborhood. The image of the gangster was a potent, literal stereotype, often locating Brickfields and its Tamil and Chinese residents at the center of a discourse of backwardness and danger that demanded remedy. The fact that the vast majority of Brickfields residents were not in any way connected to the criminal gangs that operated there did not diminish the importance of the figure for the community. Unlike locally generated (p.164) strangers and counterfeiters, however, engagements with the figure of the gangster were characterized by attempts to imagine Brickfields as a place through an anticipation of how Malaysians generally characterized the area and its residents. The power of the gangster for outsiders is clear, in that the common circulation of this figure generated a folklore regarding local criminality that in turn shaped policy, the manner in which the law was executed, and the overall “place” of Brickfields in the city. For Brickfields residents, the power of the gangster was just as strong, however; imagining the neighborhood as “home” required residents to think about how others thought about them, which in turn shaped the possibilities available for Brickfields residents to imagine themselves. Unlike the stranger and the counterfeiter, Brickfields residents took this entirely unbelievable stereotyped figure and reworked it in a manner that reflected the empirical realities of the neighborhood itself in an attempt to locate a believable local world.
“They are ruthless and menacing,” began an article (Malay Mail, July 28, 2002) regarding the problem of Indian gangsterism and attempts to apprehend “hardcore” Indian criminals. Under the headline “Hardcore gangsters to be banished,” the Malay Mail reporter provided a single- sentence outline of the “common sense reality” of Indian criminality in Kuala Lumpur. This notion was so firmly rooted in widespread beliefs regarding the nature of organized crime in the city that the police formulated specific operational plans to deal with it. At the time this particular article was written the program was “Ops Copperhead,” initiated “to tackle the problem of Indian gangsterism in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.” Ops Copperhead netted forty “hardcore” gangsters, all Indians. Specific offenses by those arrested were not detailed in the article, nor was the place to where twelve of the worst were to be banished. Ops Copperhead was rooted more in common sense understandings of crime rather than in addressing specific instances of criminal behavior; a clue to this was given by the reporter when he clarified that the forty men were arrested due to the threat of future criminal activity. “Using preventative legislation which allows for banishment and detention without trial, authorities believe these undesirable elements should be isolated, as they have proven to be a threat to society,” he explained. Evidence of this threat in the form of specific crimes was not, however, offered by the reporter. Rather, it was simply taken for granted that the accused were violent criminals and that they must be removed.
(p.165) Ops Copperhead is not cited here to argue for the guilt or innocence of the specific men detained due to its execution. Rather, this operation and the publicity regarding the arrests clearly illustrated strong associative links commonly made between organized crime, the nature of the criminal, and the space that produces such figures. The areas of the city felt to be “appropriate” as targets for the operation were all regarded as predominantly Indian neighborhoods. Ops Copperhead, with its legitimacy rooted in the provisions of the Internal Security Act rather than in the enforcement of the criminal codes, was specifically designed to prevent crime through apprehending dangerous individuals who inhabit dangerous spaces, and in this way was clearly driven by the concerns of the state.
The associative link between Indian bodies, Indian spaces, and criminal activity was not one that was regularly applied to Malay or Chinese communities, even though the criminal underworld of Kuala Lumpur is wildly diverse. The spectacularly violent robberies of the predominantly Malay “Gang of Thirteen Thieves,” led by the infamous Mat Komando (Ahmad Mohd Arshad), did not lead to preventative arrests or public calls to eradicate “Malay gangsterism.” Although Mat Komando and his colleagues were feared and aggressively hunted by the police at the same time that they were executing Ops Copperhead, the exceptional specificity of the Gang of Thirteen's actions was emphasized in official and popular accounts.
The figure of the Indian gangster was apparent in popular accounts of the activities of the Oxy Gang as well. “OXY GANG GOES ‘JOINT VENTURE,’” screamed the headline on page 3 of the Malay Mail for August 5, 2002. Compared to the headline-grabbing shootouts instigated by Mat Komando at roughly the same time, the relatively sedate specialty of the Oxy Gang (break-ins using oxyacetylene torches) hardly seemed worthy of such lurid attention. Although ostensibly the arrest of the gang was the event being reported, the “terrifying” significance of their operation was the fact that the predominantly Chinese gang had, in the six months prior to its arrest, formed partnerships with established Indian gangs in order to carry out its criminal work. Police discovery of these links was deemed “surprising” by the Malay Mail31and established the robberies of the Oxy Gang as something more sinister than previously believed. Without the “Indian connection” the arrest of this relatively small, nonviolent gang of robbers would not have been particularly newsworthy. However, (p.166) its partnerships with Indian gangsters made the Oxy Gang more dangerous and significant, in that Chinese gangsters were represented as having tapped into a powerful criminal world that was exceeding its own limits. Chinese “triads,” while vivid figures in historical accounts of Kuala Lumpur (Comber 1959; Gullick 2000; Middlebrook and Gullick 1989), were generally believed to be a thing of the past. The tone of popular accounts suggests that the contemporary partnerships were more dangerous than the robberies themselves.
The trope of Indian gangsterism was so strong in popular accounts of crime that nearly any illegal or violent act was attributed to its pernicious influence. Popular columnist Akbar Ali, writing in the Sun on November 11, 2001, in support of preventative operations such as Ops Copperhead (albeit before the execution of that specific initiative), illustrated the possible discursive connections between being Indian and being “criminal” when he cited the unrelated murders of three Malaysian Indians—a garbage collector on Jalan Ipoh, a young girl living on Old Klang Road (both locations within greater Kuala Lumpur), and a child drowned in the state of Johor—as evidence of a predisposition toward violence and the mark of probable illegal behavior by Malaysian Indians. Ostensibly chastising the police regarding their “after the fact” ineffectiveness (i.e., the police generally wait until after a killing before arresting someone for murder), Ali stated that these factually unrelated cases “bring to light the different cultural and racial characteristics of violence which must be addressed accordingly by the police so that they can be more effective in saving lives or preventing violence.” Later on, he emphasized this point, writing that “each race has to be handled in a way appropriate to them. The police should therefore be more knowledgeable about the peculiarities of violence among Indians.” Ali does not, however, cite any peculiarities common to all Malays or Chinese that police should be aware of. The logic Ali articulated in his column was not merely evidence of an individual predilection toward racial discrimination or a private quirk on his part. Rather, he restated an authoritative “common sense” understanding of the link between criminality and being Indian, suggesting that any violent or illegal act was evidence of gangster ties. Under this logic, vandalism in a hostel by students at the predominantly Indian polytechnic Tafe College32was immediately “linked” to the influence of gangsters (see “Gangster link in Tafe College rampage?” Malay Mail, July 12, 2002).
(p.167) The fact that any violent or criminal act involving Malaysian Indians was so easily coded as evidence of broader community dysfunction is significant when understood alongside the fact that specific urban spaces were similarly associated with this particular ethnic group. Brickfields was almost universally regarded outside of the neighborhood as a criminal, dangerous space through this chain of associations. The fact that very few residents and business owners in Brickfields held any direct connection with the criminal gangs that were based there did not mitigate the material impact any association with criminality had on the neighborhood. Rather, the increasingly regular mode of organization that actually characterized the operations of the gangs came to represent, in contrast to the popular perception, a mode of alternative order that marked the everyday life of Brickfields. Although this order was less directly concerned with control of neighborhood space than in years past, the presence of the gangs remained a factor in how residents dealt with the fluidity of the situation in the area. The continued presence of the gangs shaped individual relations with the state, the law, and the city, with the gangs themselves at times delivering the local modes of order one would generally associate with more “legitimate” forms of sovereign power.
Local Order and Social Life: Brickfields Gangs and the Community
In contrast to the wider “shock” regarding the links between previously small, discrete criminal groups, the transformation of Brickfields gangs from primarily local collections of young men interested in controlling the space of neighborhood kampungs33to networked organizations involved in a variety of criminal pursuits was common knowledge to local residents. In relation to the recent “gangsterism” issue that had been making headlines, Raymond, a local activist who was personally familiar with the structure and operations of organized criminal groups in Brickfields, felt that the character of gangs had changed quite a bit in recent times. “It never used to be about drugs and guns. It was always much more local and small-time. Today, though, organized gangs offer a kind of ‘career option’ for many youths. They don't really have a lot of choices, and the gangs are good money for someone with little education and no other sources of (p.168) income.” Although excessive consumption of alcohol had long been a problem in Brickfields, Raymond noted that illegal drugs had become a serious issue in recent times. “In those days you wouldn't see gang members on drugs. There was some idea that it would be shameful to do that, and the gang leaders would be the first to whack you for it. Now, all the gangs are interested in is drugs. Raymond detailed specific sites in Brickfields where it was possible to buy drugs from street dealers.34He also suspected that the police had some role in regulating these spaces, although he offered no specific proof regarding the details of any specific arrangement.
While it was clear that the formerly local gangs of Brickfields have formed closer links to regional criminal organizations and become potentially more violent and dangerous as a result, links with hierarchical organizations whose interests extended beyond the confines of the neighborhood have transformed, rather than obliterated, the modes of spatial order that the gangs have traditionally been concerned with. In Brickfields itself, the primary activity of controlling space through various types of “protection rackets” had given way to a need for merely keeping the space relatively orderly as a cover for larger operations and in order to escape the attention of the police. This mode of order retained certain links to the gangs of years past, in that individuals who were active in the gangs of the 1950s and 1960s remained in the neighborhood and served as both a loose surveillance network and a link between average citizens and the current gangs. The experience of Tan Piow, a local businessperson who was being victimized for protection money by an individual known to be involved with these organizations, illustrated how this network often worked in Brickfields. Tan Piow, through his long association with the neighborhood both as a resident and as the owner of a business, understood the basic outlines of the network. Thus, rather than going to the police to put an end to the extortion, he contacted the current gangs through a “retired” member of a now-defunct gang who retained some contact with the groups that had replaced his own.
In relating his story to me, Tan Piow remarked that an older Chinese man who at the time of the interview sold fruits on the corner near Tan Piow's shop was once one of the leaders of the local gang network.35This was during the 1970s and 1980s when the gangs were being transformed from primarily local gangs concerned with controlling the neighborhood space to the larger networked gangs that Raymond described earlier. The (p.169) old gangs were mostly run by Indians (specifically Tamils) but now only the street workers and enforcers were Indians; leadership was primarily Chinese. This man was the boss around Brickfields for many years, but several years ago he publicly renounced his gang activities and became involved in the activities of a local Buddhist temple. This declaration was sufficient to keep active gang members at a distance and prevented rivals from “legitimately” settling old scores with the man. Tan Piow believed that he renounced gang life because he was getting into much more serious criminal activity and that he would probably have ended up dead or in prison for life had he continued.
Despite the old man's renunciation, he still maintained informal ties with currently active gang members and would sometimes act as an intermediary for local residents or business owners to settle disputes or other problems that would concern the gang leadership. Tan Piow called upon him for help because a couple of years previously a young Chinese man began extorting RM 50 monthly payments from him.
The gangs are not interested in petty extortion in Brickfields any more, so I wanted to see if this joker was actually working for the gang. I went to the old man and found out that this idiot had been kicked out because he was using all the drugs, not selling them. They didn't want any money from me! He just needed quick cash for his habit, you know. So he went around threatening people and since they used to do this, who would argue? When they found out, the gang went around to find him and when they found him, they beat the shit out of him. He was using their name to get drugs and that almost got him killed! Now I have a guarantee from them that I will never have to pay protection. None of this is direct … the old man told me that too.
Tan Piow noted that extortion of small businesses and stalls was still common in other parts of the city, with Chinatown being his prime example.
Twenty years ago I know that the gang that controls Petaling Street demanded daily payments of fifty ringgit from all of the stalls and businesses around there. Can you imagine? Do you know how many individual payments that is? I don't know the rate nowadays, but I know that they still do it. Probably around 100 ringgit every night.
The instability of the Brickfields community and the fact that the area was squarely under the gaze of the state due to the development plans for the neighborhood made such carefully maintained protection schemes (p.170) impractical. Rather, with the general shift toward wider-reaching coordinated activities with other illegal organizations, the local focus on order no longer had an extractive aim, but rather one of maintaining some cover for the operations of the gangs themselves.
As a local business owner with ties to Brickfields spanning over fifty years, Tan Piow knew the local structure of criminal gangs very well;36when it was more direct or efficacious to do so, he would turn to them to mediate issues with neighbors or solve local problems of disorder rather than to the police. In expanding on how he handled the incident with the freelancing drug addict, Tan Piow carefully detailed the relationships between (1) the houses of prostitution that operated in Brickfields, (2) the organizations primarily operating in tandem with larger “national” organizations, (3) ostensibly legal establishments that operated as “fronts” for each of these groups, and (4) everyday residents who had no formal ties to any of these other groups. Most of these interconnected ties were maintained through careful surveillance of the space, indirect forms of mediation, and when such interventions failed, the very real threat of violence. Woven into Tan Piow's narrative were other examples of how everyday residents who were not part of this network (the vast majority) had to negotiate with or call upon the criminal organizations at certain times to settle disputes or solve problems. These contacts were never undertaken out of a feeling that the gangs were benevolent or fair, but rather out of necessity and oftentimes fear.37While the ideal situation was to avoid direct contact with both the gangs and the police, there were times when this would be impossible, and residents would have to plan carefully and choose wisely to best address the issue at hand.
Knowledge of this network often represented both a mode of belonging that was denied to relative newcomers and an avenue to actually address certain specific problems (such as the drug addict demanding money) in a manner that was both less expensive and more efficacious than going to the police. Taking such problems to the police was commonly regarded as an unwanted engagement, entailing similar “side” negotiations that could ultimately involve more money changing hands without any real sense that the issue would be rectified. While everyday residents and local business owners always approached even the most indirect contacts with local gangs cautiously, and often consciously understood the state of affairs through the racialized discourse of the “Indian gangster” as articulated (p.171) by the state and the local media, this gangster was often a representative of an alternative source of order rather than simply a material manifestation of the disorder of Brickfields. More often than not, by the reckoning of local residents the gangster “kept” the promise of the law's unexceptional regularity “better” than the police or the state itself and inhabited a more solidly believable local world than the abstractly moral universe of the state, the law, or the police.
Brickfields residents drew on a variety of ways of thinking about their lives and about the neighborhood as a distinct place. The figures of the stranger, the counterfeiter, and the gangster were important conceptual personae in the context of an individual's daily involvements with others. These figures should not be regarded as total or all-encompassing makers of meaning in Brickfields, however, since their invocation and circulation always occurred in a untidy world of multiple contexts and registers of being and acting. In the flow of everyday life, subjects constantly moved between these figures, registers, and relationships, displaying multiple and sometimes seemingly contradictory orientations to the law and to others in the neighborhood. The limit of the analytic framework regarding important figures of identity is that it temporarily extracts these figures from the flows in which they materially circulated. For the purpose of forming an understanding of these figures and how they materially circulated and shaped relations between Brickfields residents and between residents and the state, this conceptual mode of abstraction was unavoidable and necessary in order to demonstrate the relationship between belief, the necessary images of the world, and the everyday life that emerges out of such relationships.
Tanya Luhrmann has written that “there is no unitary, simple, coherent, entity which is selfhood; there are persons purposefully acting according to various notions of their selves” (Luhrmann 1996, 209). Her statement succinctly underscores the anthropologists' attempts to engage theories of the self and agency concepts through the lens of ethnography.38The contribution that this ethnographically derived understanding of Brickfields offers turns on two issues: (1) the often unstated or subliminal role of abstract figures of subjectivity in forming an understanding of (p.172) one's self and place in relation to others, and (2) a concern with how the imagination of the law itself comes to shape both the figures that circulate in discourses of self and place and the material relations that emerge out of such engagements. When faced with difference in their daily lives, Brickfields residents thought about themselves in relation to several abstract figures in order to index themselves and their place in the neighborhood. Contrary to accounts of Malaysian urban spaces that singularly privilege ethnic figures (Jesudason 1989; Provencher 1971) or class figures (Goh 1979; McGee 1967; Ong 1987), I argue that the fluidity of everyday life in the neighborhood precluded consistent, singular affinity with any one category of identity.39As Rorty points out, different figures of personhood often work beneath the surface and reflect the complex social terrain that individuals must negotiate (Rorty 1976). While these engagements did constitute a form of agency for Brickfields residents, this agency was an ambiguous one; my interlocutors were often as concerned with imagining how outsiders imagined them as with engaging in more unambiguous strategies of self-definition and characterization.
The ability to imagine the possibility of a life within Brickfields was an essential task for residents faced with change that came upon them suddenly. My interlocutors often struggled with linking their perceptions of the neighborhood with coherent meaning and the possibility of action within this domain. The figures detailed in this chapter existed as mental images that provided this link and consequently allowed residents to believe in their worlds. This belief was often marked by fear and negative perceptions of others; however, despite the often pessimistic register within which figures such as the stranger, the counterfeiter, or the gangster were expressed within, they nonetheless stood as vehicles for Brickfields residents to arrange their spaces of possibility and possible action.
I have argued that this possibility is linked to Henri Lefebvre's notion of the “right to the city” (Lefebvre 1996, 2003). Not being dependent on concepts of human rights that are wholly invested in the formal discourses of the state or of religion for its force, Lefebvre's framework highlights the ethics of establishing spaces at the everyday level that allow for action and a concrete sense of being able to create an ethical life. Unlike most understandings of ethical living that conflate the law with the Good and agency with politics or resistance, Lefebvre's notion of the right to the city does not unselfconsciously link to the authoritative discourse of the (p.173) state or the law; it allows us to understand the varied responses to the perception that state interventions in the everyday life of Brickfields was unethical without resorting to easy terms such as “apathy” or “failure” when this local judgment does not in turn result in radicalization or resistance to the state. Subject to forces and events that often shattered the link between present experience and the possibility of future action within the law, we must move cautiously in judging how Brickfields residents concretely responded to such phenomena.
The practice of creatively thinking Brickfields through figures that originated as abstract images in thought was a concrete, material response to the transformation of the neighborhood. Following Deleuze's understanding of the relationship between thought, image, and the real, I argue that these figures provided links between virtual notions of how everyday life “is” or “should be” and the experience of everyday life and served as vehicles that allowed residents to locate themselves in the interstices between ideal and real and believe in one's capacity for action and the active creation of a life(Deleuze 2001). That fact that these figures were objects of belief and not fact in the empirical sense cannot lead us to the conclusion that these understandings were entirely rooted in the imaginary or in “fictional” modes of apprehending the world. Rather, Brickfields as a concrete, believable place emerged only through such mental images.
The fear of either encountering or becoming a stranger in Brickfields altered local notions of belonging that were predicated on the legal and social site of the bumiputera, the Malay “son of the soil.” While being Malaysian Chinese or Indian was more widely understood to be the status of a “outsider within,” in Brickfields the meanings ascribed to the material practices of these communities (especially that of the Tamil community) was that of belonging, with the Malay majority itself held to be the threatening stranger. Chandra's articulation of belonging through the affect (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) associated with the cultural space of Brickfields ran counter to abstractly understood notions of “who” was familiar in Malaysia. His rejection of Petaling Jaya, precisely because it successfully materialized the mode of orderly urban living promoted by the state, spoke to the terms of attraction and familiarity that an explicit margin can offer. The fragility of Chandra's belonging is apparent, however, in that even a careful discussion of the empirical situation in the neighborhood could unexpectedly estrange him from it. The specter of disappearance haunted his (p.174) regret in having consented to be interviewed by me, as it did Mr. Rama's imagination of his place in the future of Brickfields. Although Mr. Rama did not overtly reject the state's understanding of proper urban order (in fact, he voiced clear support for it), without the material relations of this community in place as a margin he could not concretely envision himself as anything but a stranger in this new order.
In the “get tough on crime” atmosphere in Kuala Lumpur during the years 2000–2002, the violent gangster and the corrupt counterfeiter were two of the most reviled social figures on the urban landscape. With them as symbols of disorder, it was not much of a leap to regard Brickfields, popularly regarded as one of the most corrupt and criminal areas in the entire country, as hopelessly disordered and in need of radical, severe action for the purpose of rectifying the situation. Columnist Akbar Ali's sentiments regarding “Indian criminality” were widely held and often linked directly to Brickfields. Practical understandings of the gangs as possible sources of order simultaneously confirmed this believed connection between crime and place and destabilized the idea that the law was actually any different. The widespread recognition of modes of counterfeiting such as the one I witnessed in Mrs. Ramachandran's print shop clearly illustrated that corruption of this kind was not automatically an indication of open resistance to the state. As Foucault has argued, the force of the law relies precisely on the instances of exception from it that emerge in everyday social practice (Foucault 1991, 2003). At times, the state and the counterfeiter become rivals for the control of this exceptional force (Siegel 1998).
This “rivalry” was not absolute in Malaysia. As I will illustrate in the next chapter, the Malaysian state also addressed itself to the fact that normative understandings of the Good, rooted in western legal traditions, suppress references to higher principles of morality that exist outside of the law. The Malaysian state had attempted to reintroduce principles of the Good above the law through its recent engagements with Islam, and had explicitly pursued strategies to formulate modes of governance that are both properly modern and properly Islamic. Siegel marks a related process in Indonesia, where the presence of ghosts and the materiality of supernatural worlds provides a framework that shapes and limits the meaning of the law for the state and its citizens (Siegel 1998; see also Coronil 1997; Taussig 1997). In Malaysia, the material power of Islam and the (p.175) divine has also been invoked in recent times to frame the relations between the state, the law, and individual subjects and mark out a notion of the Good that is valid by virtue of more than simply its own form. These notions were not wholly invested in techno-rational forms of reason, but rather explicitly depended upon belief as an open aspect of proper and ethical Malaysian life. As the next chapter shall demonstrate, this overt introduction of belief (largely coded as Islamic belief) as an aspect of formal governmentality in Malaysia produced unexpected consequences that exceeded the control of the state and other formal institutions in Malaysian society.
(1.) Ethnicity is often cited in academic works as the primary factor shaping the character of urban space in Malaysia generally as well (Brookfield, Hadi, and Mahmud 1991; Jesudason 1989; Provencher 1971).
(2.) According to the 2000 census Indians (38%), Chinese (25%), and Malays (23%) were all numerically significant ethnic communities in Brickfields. For a more detailed analysis of census data for Brickfields since 1980 see the chart provided in the Introduction.
(5.) Rorty's concept of the figure also resonates with Lévi-Strauss' assertion that figures associated with myths provide a means to express one's identity through the creation of borders between nature and culture (Lévi-Strauss 1969). The process of “othering” in this sense is confronting persons or institutions who simultaneously appear to be natural and unnatural and finding a means of indexing oneself in relation to such problematic figures. While Hannerz (1980)warns us that we should not read Lévi-Strauss too literally into contemporary urban settings, his understanding of mythic figures and their role in the creation of boundaries resembles Rorty's theorization of personhood and cultural practices.
(6.) This reworking of the outsider figure by Brickfields residents resembles Desjarlais' description of the ways in which residents in Boston's Station Street Shelter reformulated the figures of the mentally ill homeless person and the “normal” (Desjarlais 1997).
(7.) Federal Constitution of Malaysia, Article 153(1). Martinez (2001)and Nagata (1997)have argued that in recent times Islam has become the most salient characteristic in legally defining who is a Malay. The other two characteristics cited by the constitution are language and custom.
(8.) I understand the tendency of my interlocutors attempts to “imagine how outsiders imagine us” as a form of intimacy in much the same way that Hannerz (invoking Simmel) describes how intersecting fields of social practice produce feelings of belonging for individual subjects that cut across racial, linguistic, religious, or occupational identities. Although Hannerz implies that such intimacy displaces the importance of face-to-face contacts, Herzfeld notes that this intimate space may actually intensify the felt solidity of “insider/outsider” borders in urban settings (Hannerz 1980, 1992; Herzfeld 2001; Simmel 1964).
(9.) Scholarly works that engage the perception that Malaysian Indians are “outsiders” within mainstream Malaysian society include studies of religious practice (Ackerman and Lee 1988; Collins 1997; Willford 2006a), urban life (Mearns 1995), economic life (Jain 1970; Jomo 1988; Ramachandran 1994; Ramasamy 1994), and general studies of Indians and ethnic identity in Malaysian society (Arasaratnam 1970; Mearns 1986; Sandhu 1969; Stenson 1980; Wiebe and Mariappan 1978). Sababathy Venugopal (1996)also points out that this perception often serves as a backdrop in many Tamil-language novels written by Malaysian Tamil writers since 1957 and claims that the figure of the outsider is a strong theme in K.S. Maniam's English-language novels (The Return, 1981; In a Far Country, 1993) and short stories (collected in Haunting the Tiger, 1996).
(10.) In this section I focus primarily on my interview with Chandra, although those who I interviewed for this project commonly held many of the same ideas and sentiments that he expressed.
(11.) Ground was broken on Petaling Jaya in February 1952.
(12.) “Ceylonese” is a term in common use in Malaysia for families or individuals whose ancestors originally emigrated from colonial Ceylon. Despite the fact that Ceylon is presently known as Sri Lanka, the original term is still used. This group is also sometimes referred to as “Jaffna Tamils.”
(13.) Sentul is an area located north of downtown Kuala Lumpur that was undergoing a similar process of urban development. Like Brickfields, Sentul was historically populated by Malaysian Railway workers and is generally believed to be a predominantly Indian neighborhood.
(14.) The tension between welcoming urban development projects as modes of improving everyday life in cities and resisting the same development strategies due to their potentially disruptive and homogenizing impact is not limited to the experience (p.242) perience of urban development in Kuala Lumpur. Judith Nagata's work regarding city planning and heritage preservation efforts in Penang clearly illustrates a similar tension (Nagata 2001; see also Goh 2001; Khoo 1993).
(15.) Deleuze traces the shifting terrain of the Good in relation to the law when he marks the transition from the law being a secondary power related to a notion of a higher good in classical conceptions to the modern understanding of law as the foundational source of the Good. He writes that “this means that the law no longer has its foundation in some higher principle from which it would derive its authority, but that is it self-grounded and valid solely by virtue of its own form. For the first time we can now speak of the law, regarded as an absolute, without further specification or reference to an object.” Deleuze notes that one concrete result of this shift is that, without reference to a superior principle of the Good, subjects of the law cannot know what the Good is. Thus, simply obeying the law becomes the highest Good (Deleuze 1989b, 81–90; capitalization in original). For Chandra and many other Brickfields residents, articulating a fidelity to the Good as articulated by the state and the Good as understood through local principles of justice generated the potential of being estranged from both and from a sense of the Good generally.
(16.) Because Mr. Rama often worked seven days a week in his food stall, home interviews were impossible to arrange with him. When he did take a day off, Mr. Rama understandably guarded his time off and never agreed to allow me to interview him at home. Like many of the interviews cited in this book, my encounters with Mr. Rama were structured by the fact that our conversations had to be folded into the rhythm of my interlocutor's schedule.
(17.) The fundamental importance of seeing and knowing one's neighbors resonates with Cavell's claim that “being human is aspiring to be seen as human” (Cavell 1999, 399). Regarding Southeast Asia, the slematan(ritual feast) has been discussed as an important practice in Malay social life by which individuals can “see and be seen” in public contexts (Geertz 1960; Robinson 1995). More recently, Klima engages Thai funerary rites and modes of commemoration as the “simultaneous demand for and impossibility of recognition” (Klima 2002, 15), linking the desire to be recognized to complex ethical and political negotiations in Thai national politics.
(18.) Poole's work regarding the “endless and unpredictable circulation of juridical paperwork” (2004) within the Peruvian judicial system and the ambiguity of individual subjects in relation to the processes of the state is a similar example of this phenomenon in Latin America.
(19.) Malaysian scholar Syed Hussein Alatas has written at length about the nature and function of “corruption” in society (1990). Arguing for a universal definition of corruption (1–4, 109), Alatas offers a systematic typology of what he understands as the forms of corruption found in all societies. Although his work offers a passionate argument against corruption at the state level, Alatas's types are inadequately tuned to understanding how the institution of the law and local understandings (p.243) of justice and association constitute everyday practice for individual subjects. In particular, the fact that Alatas clearly relies on a notion of “the moral” (11) without defining either “the Good” or “the law” severely limits the usefulness of his framework in discussing local practices.
(20.) Khan and Jomo define rent seeking as “activities which seek to create, maintain or change the rights and institutions on which particular rents are based” (Khan and Jomo 2000, 5). “Rent” refers to incomes which are “above normal” in some sense. The concept of “normal” functions as the benchmark for what an individual or firm should receive in a competitive market. As the authors admit, “rent” is an unstable concept, because the determination of what a normal income “should” be is rooted in social factors that cannot be analyzed solely in terms of economic science. Thus, rent seeking can refer to both legal and illegal practices and produce different effects across countries and regions.
(21.) Tsai's account of how business owners in China mobilize complex financial and social resources in relation to formal state institutions regarding economic development and financial regulation stands out as an exception to my claim regarding the literature on rent seeking and corruption (Tsai 2002).
(22.) Bitterness regarding the “unfair” advantage such practices could yield was generally expressed when my interlocutors described someone perceived to be a competitor. In such contexts “illegality” was cited from a strategic point of view rather than as a categorical moral differentiation.
(23.) Schwartz (1996)observes that “forgery is but the extreme of copying: the extreme of fair copying, when what is forged is indiscernible from the original; the extreme of foul copying, when what is forged is a fabrication passed off in the name or style of another person or era” (219). Schwartz's insight highlights the ambiguously performative aspect of the practices of counterfeiting that I am focusing on in this section. In particular, these forms of counterfeiting are simultaneously a reenactment of the law (fair copy, 224) and an appropriation of it (foul copy, 225), making it difficult at the level of everyday life to separate forms of copying and documentation required by the law from those acts of copying or forgery that formally violate the law.
(24.) The essays found in Ethnography at the Edge: Crime, Deviance, and Field Research(Ferrell and Hamm eds. 1998), explore the difficulties in conducting fieldwork related to homelessness (Fleisher, Arrigo), the military and state terror (Kraska, Hamm), sex work (Kane, Mattley), drug use (Jacobs, Weisheit), and dangerous criminal activities generally (Tunnell, Lyng).
(25.) All proper names and the name of the business have been changed.
(26.) Most of the specific contextual and biographical information regarding this business and its owner is intentionally withheld here because I am describing a transaction that took place in their shop that could make them vulnerable to legal action or harassment by the authorities if they were identified.
(27.) The irony that the professional tools for the legal duplication of documents on hand in the print shop were used to produce an alternate version of the negotiated contract should be noted here. The fact that “real” copies attesting to a “fake” version of an agreement to produce “fair” reproductions of college test booklets reinforces the “copy/forgery” connection that Schwartz makes regarding the “culture” of the copy generally (Schwartz 1996). The technological capacity to duplicate these documents at every stage of the process understandably complicated matters further for both parties in that they had to forge a unitary documentary record of a negotiation that was explicitly being conducted on multiple levels.
(28.) “In modern thought irony and humor take on a new form: they are now directed at a subversion of the law…. Irony is [the] process or movement which bypasses the law as a merely secondary power and aims at transcending it toward a higher principle. But what if the higher principle no longer exists, and if the Good can no longer provide a basis for the law or a justification of its power?” (Deleuze 1989b, 86). Deleuze wrote these lines specifically in reference to the relation of the law and the Good to the works of Sade and Sacher-Masoch. In my view, his general insight applies here as well.
(29.) Mrs. Ramachandran switched to English when speaking directly with me.
(30.) I omitted proper names and identifying information when discussing this case with Tan Piow.
(31.) Popular shock over the connections between Chinese and Indian gangs was, for many Brickfields residents, itself surprising, as many explained in interviews that such connections had existed for at least the previous decade among criminal groups active in Brickfields.
(32.) Tafe College, an unaccredited vocational school loosely associated with the Malaysian Indian Congress and located in the nearby city of Seremban, had been plagued with accusations of improper management by students in the six months prior to the destruction of the hostel. Several less serious acts of vandalism, linked to protests over management issues and the fact that the school remained unrecognized by the Education Ministry, had taken place during the time leading up to the incident at the hostel in July 2002. Despite the obvious link between student dissatisfaction with the school and the increasingly serious vandalism that took place (mentions of both the mismanagement and student dissatisfaction did appear in media reports), the “hook” for the popular media and the line of investigation for the police was the fact that young Indian men engaging in violent acts “must” be gangsters.
(33.) Similar situations of informal or illegal social groups providing an alternative local order have been observed in relation to drug gangs (Bourgois 1995), and informal networks among the urban homeless (Desjarlais 1997) and migrant workers (Ferguson 1999).
(34.) I do not name these sites here because doing so and identifying their connection to the local drug trade could endanger those who frequent them. Given (p.245) the presence of legal homes and businesses and the fact that it is nearly impossible to live in Brickfields and not at some point circulate through these sites, such detail would only serve to incriminate everyone, whether involved in illegal activity or not. Raymond's specific information matched the accounts of others I interviewed who have some knowledge of these organizations and practices, and also matched my own observations.
(35.) Tan Piow told me his version of the fruit seller's biography on condition that I not approach the man for an interview directly. He convincingly argued that it could be dangerous for both of us if the subject of our conversations were more widely known and would, at the very least, cause considerable embarrassment for the old man. Due to the fact that it was widely known that I spoke at length with Tan Piow about Brickfields, I agreed to this request and did not interview the fruit seller, making independent confirmation of Tan Piow's story from the seller himself impossible.
(36.) Tan Piow was one of the few persons I interviewed who would talk in great detail about the contemporary relationship between the gangs and everyday life in Brickfields. Although nearly every person I interviewed would vaguely acknowledge such relationships, they were understandably reluctant to provide specific information or to speak more personally about their own experiences with these groups. It was much more common for my interlocutors to direct the conversation away from the details of the present toward the recounting of “legendary” stories from the 1950s and 1960s. The personal risk of talking to the researcher about these issues was evident in these interactions, and Tan Piow would only speak with some degree of detail after I had known him for over a year.
(37.) Sally Engle Merry (1981)has detailed how perceptions of criminality, authority, and danger are markedly different between residents of “dangerous” neighborhoods and outsiders who know of the area's reputation. Merry found that resident insiders in the American neighborhood she examined often explicitly attempted to “manage” contacts with potentially dangerous people and groups and reports that many of the residents she surveyed felt that these strategies of engagement made the area feel safer overall. In a later study, Philippe Bourgois (1995)maps the organizational hierarchy of an East Harlem group engaged in selling crack cocaine and details how the internal discipline of the group was known to, and engaged by, local residents. While these engagements were often ambiguous and unpredictable, Bourgois marks the complex perceptions held by neighborhood insiders of local groups that sold drugs, compared to the relatively general and consistently negative perceptions of outsiders.
(38.) A diverse range of anthropologists have asserted that the individual self should not be understood as a unitary entity, including Desjarlais (1992, 1997, 2003), Ewing (1990), Geertz (1973), Herzfeld (1997), Klima (2002), and Mauss (1973).
(39.) My understanding of how abstract figures of identity shape local understandings of self and place in Brickfields is similar to that of Nagata (1979), Goh (2001), and Guinness (1992), who emphasize the interrelationships between capitalism, ethnic identity, and political life in their characterizations of Malaysian urban transformations.