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Thursday, October 20, 2005

43] Malaysian Malls and Cultural Imperialism

Malaysian malls and cultural imperialism
Azly Rahman
Oct 17, 05 3:36pm


Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and Deepavali are coming up. Our malls are gearing up for twin mega sales. Let us talk about what ‘shopping’ means these days.

Let me share my views on the act of shopping and the proliferation of malls in Malaysia – these two ideas as they relate to the notion of cultural imperialism. Imperialism, according to Vladimir Lenin in his famous essay, is the highest stage of capitalism. In the context of this essay, it is a step higher than that and a level deeper than just “consuming goods made for mass consumption”.

‘Cultural imperialism’ is a state of beingness in which the culture of the dominant has advanced to a stage of colonisation of the less powerful cultures, with the aid of technological power that fueled the style of colonisation. ‘Imperialism’ means the stage of advanced capitalist expansion that enabled the form of domination.

Cultural imperialism, by nature is a more powerful consequence of colonisation than say, for example forced occupation or colonisation because it utilises a clever and systematic form of subjugation. Cultural imperialism works more effectively, subtly, and silently when it creates a sense of euphoria, elation, and excitement in the mind, body, and consciousness of those imprisoned by the desire to shop till they drop. The mall provides the haven for this form of sophisticated imperialism.

"How it works"

Let us look at how cultural imperialism works with an illustration of the ‘malling’ of Malaysia. Imagine the mall as a place of fantasy and utopia that actually stockpile and market the artifacts of cultural imperialism. In writing this essay I draw inspiration from observing how people of varying classes and modern caste system ‘shop’.

What else is a ‘mall’? It is an enclosure of a shopping experience nicely built to attract people to consume the products they often do not actually need. The malls, especially in Kuala Lumpur, are a direct adaptation of the Western mall, architectured with post-modern stylistics, and sells products produced and/or marketed by multinational corporations from both the Western and the Eastern world. Frederic Jameson, an American cultural theorist writes about Le Corbusier’s ‘internationalist’ design; architecture of urbanism that influence the design of malls as a world of escapism.

In Kuala Lumpur, as in New York City, there is now a place called (Berjaya) Times Square; a place surrounded by some of the biggest malls in Southeast Asia. Their names do not reflect the reality of the local traditions: Subang Parade, MegaMall, The Mall, Lot 10, Bukit Bintang Plaza, AmCorp Mall, Cheras Leisure Mall, Great Eastern Mall, 101 Mall, The Street Mall, and Mid- Valley Mega-Mall.

Who owns these malls and who benefits from the creation and sustenance of culture industry that transforms virtually all industries of the body, borrowing Walter Benjamin, into artistic production in an age of globalised mechanical reproduction? The Malaysian malls provide an exciting enclosure for the Malaysian shopping experience since the tropical heat of Malaysia (almost a daily average of 90 degrees Celsius) drives in consumers.

Malls have transformed the landscape of Malaysia since perhaps the beginning of the 1980s when the American and Japanese businesses began to dominate the economy. Traditional Malay stores that sell goods produced by family-run cottage industries had to give way to the malls that brought a new meaning to the concept of buying and consuming.

The traditional Malay ‘bazaar’ or pasar, where customers could bargain and the products were cheap, gave way to modern malls that sell not only products but also transmit values and transform the meaning of consumption. Shopping at these malls often require the consumers to possess credit cards. Classes of people have different classes of cards and credit limits. The idea of cultural imperialism is clear: Malaysians are cleverly socialised into becoming good modern consumers that buy products made to identify them with varying classes and social status. Hence the upper class Malaysian will buy Gucci, Lou Votton, and Ferragamo, and those of the lower class will buy Padang Besar/Golok-made imitations of these products.

Sometimes one can’t tell the difference, exemplifying the expertise of the Thais. If I wear an imitation Tommy Hilfigher tie and imitation Santoni shoes, people will not question the authenticity of what I am wearing, as compared to say, the electronic factory worker who wears authentic branded clothing bought with a year’s savings. This is the power of brand-name perception that has and continues to shape our consciousness.

The mall is then like an education institution that cleverly and ‘common-sensically’ socialises the buyer into a utopia of consumerism under the one-roof of a fantasy-like environment/paradise of shopping quite different from the Malaysian reality outside - especially in the slumps of Kuala Lumpur or Johor Bahru. Herein lies the imperialising power of the Western (American and European) and Eastern (Japanese and Korean) business interests that structure and define the culture of mass consumption, so that to be a modern Malaysian means one must consume and be consumed by the products of the culture industry. Ideology of mass consumption

The malls are like cultural installations that attempt to install the ideology of mass consumption. In Malaysia, the transformation is now clear; along Bintang Walk, for example, one can feel like walking down New York City with the signs and symbols of Western and Eastern capitalist interests dominating and inscribing the landscape. One can see McDonalds, Starbucks, Hard Rock Café, Marriot Hotel, Tower Records, Holiday Inn, and hundreds other signs, symbols, and representations of global capitalism sprawled in-between major malls such as KLCC Suria, and Mid-Valley Mega-Mall.

These cultural-industrial complexes and the hundreds of billboards that sell products of the cultural industry are evidence of the way foreign cultures imperialise. The malls of Malaysia provide an outlet for Malaysians who are “depressed” or lived a stressful life to be happier and tranquilised by the pleasant shopping experience and environment (only to be even more depressed and saddened later for overspending and having to face their spouses’ wrath).

For urban Malaysians living in the capital city, going to the mall has become a concept as natural as going to a McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Japanese karaoke bar, or for teh tarik. Schoolchildren also play truant to chill out at the malls.


In the United States, the children of the multi-cultural poor shop for brand name clothing; a practice that perhaps help elevates the self-esteem of the children who predominantly grow up without a father figure. Single parents who work two or sometimes three jobs feel that they need to raise their children that way to motivate the latter to behave in school.

"Class, status and culture"

We are what we consume based on the mode of production we engage in, and based on the ever-changing notions of class status, and culture we have designed. The closer one is to the power-keg of the means of production or the richer one is, the more expensive the brand name that one and family members wear. Branding oneself becomes a necessity in this corporatist nation state that is now thriving on brand names such as Islam Hadhari and Bio-tech Malaysia. Everything now is about branding and world-classism.

Society is now reproducing itself into classes and caste systems that require malls to provide those very brands and signs and symbols in order for the classes of people – from the rulers to the modern indentured slaves – to identify themselves in order to feel a deep sense of belonging. Malaysian malls - those warehouse of brand name goods produced cheaply by impoverished children of the Third and Fourth World - help define the symbols and signification of those status symbols.

They provide the post-modern cultural artifacts that define what the poor and the rich would wear. We have enculturalised the modern concept of the mall successfully so that it will become a necessary wardrobe for the varying classes of people we have produced historical-materialistically. Culture, in the case of the ‘malling’ of Malaysia, is also imperialism. Our modern and post-modern shopping malls house the culture of imperialism.

Happy shopping for the twin holidays.

4 comments:

max said...

If as you say cultural imperialism domination is so complete and pervasive, then how is any revolt from 'below' possible.

To say that cutural imperialism is a 'clever form of systematic subjugation' assume that there is some of 'revolutionary consciousness' waiting to be colonised and manipulated.

Is there really latent revolutionary consciousness that has to be manipulated and neutralised because of the threat it poses to the political status quo?

The notion of 'revolutionary consciousness' was postulated by Marx to give his philosophy of praxis a scientific basis.
Marx was so caught with wanting to change the world that he did not spend time studying the class consciousness of the proletariat.

When the proletariat revolution failed to break out in Western Europe, Lukacs and Gramsci-the founders of Western Marxism-argued that the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat had been fragmentised.
Terms such as 'reification' and 'hegemony' were introduced to explain the effects of twentieth-century capitalism on the class consciousness of the proletariat.
To bring about a proletariat revolution, so they argued, a Leninist type of revolutionary party must be formed to guide the proletarian back to true revolutionary class consciousness.
But is there such latent revolutionary consciousness in the first place.
Even if such revoutionary consciouness did exists, as
Eduard Bernstein argued, the improved conditions of capitalism of the early twentieth century had made revolutionary struggle an outmoded form of social change.

It is such elitist conception of the Marxist party that accounted for Stalinism in Russia, the cultural revoluion in China, and the mass murders during Pol Pot reign in Cambodia.

It is such an elitist party that the other Western Marxists such as Jean Paul Sarte, Merleau Ponty, Horkheimer, and Adorno warns us against.

Such an elitist conception of the party goes against the very basic grain of Marx's philosophy of praxis.

Until the arrival of Marx, the 18th century philosophers explain social change as stemming from the efforts of enlightened individuals, who somehow could escape from being determined by nature.

The 18th century philosophers adopted such an explanation because they adhere to the view that human beings and society are products of conditions.
If human beings and society are products circumstances then how is social change possible.
Social changes, under such circumstances, can be possible only if there are changes in the environment.
But then how can the environment changes by itself automatically?
To explain social change, the 18th century philosophers argue that there is a certain category of individuals who can somehow escape determinism.
This would mean that only enlightened individuals know what is best and can provide the guidance for social changes.

It was against such an elitist conception of social change that Marx wrote the 3rd Theses on Feuerbach.

'The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice'.

In the German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto, Marx talked about the inherent contradictions in the capitalist society, the conflict between the productive forces and relations of production, which engender the revolutionary cosciousness of the proletariat.
The inherent conflict in the capitalist mode of production coincides and the rise of proletariat consciousness are the coincided changed circumstances that would bring about social transformation.

In the German Ideology, Marx wrote: 'Communism is not merely a state to be brought about or an ideal to which reality should conform; what we call communism is an actual movement which is sweeping away the present state of things'.

Historical materialism and class consciousness are key tenets introduced by Marx to precisely ensure that his socialism has that scientific basis that would distinguish it from other Utopian socialist beliefs.

Subsequently Marx wrote very little on the relationship between the party and the proletariat and the strategies of revoltuion.

This topic was to be developed later by twentieth century such as Plakhanov, Lenin, Kautsky, Luxembourg, Lukacs, amd Gramsci.

To talk about manipulative strategies from the 'above' such as cultural imperialism provides the justification of an elitist party that can pave the way for revolt.

This model of revolution I would argue is no longer suitable or even desirable in this 21st century information technology (IT) age.

With the arrival of IT, there are new centres of resistance and power to hegemony or strategies of rule from the above-be it in the form of cultural imperialism or other modes of domination.

This is where the methodological tools of social history pioneered by EP Thompson and understanding of power relationships popularised by Foucault become useful.

Hegemony must not be understood from the standpoint of the 'above'.
Hegemony must also be seen from the perspective of the 'raw materials' or grass roots that it attempts to manipulate.

Hegemony is always in the process of becoming, as it is always being influenced and moulded by the needs and interests of the grass roots.

The grass roots are not passive beings. They are 'live' people with particular needs and interests.
Thus inorder for hegemony policies to be successful, they have to accommodate those needs and interests of the grass roots.

Thus your discussion on shopping malls and cultural imperialism would be more interesting if you were to understand it from the side of the consumers.

Are the puppet masters manipulating the show or are they being manipulated to manipulate the show in a certain way.

I think it would do you good if you were to come back to Malaysia and spend say three months to six months in a kampung such as Permatang Berangan or Bumbung Lima in North Seberang Prai.

I think after spending that time there you may want to revise your theories on cultural imperialism and hegemony.

If hegemony and the strategies of rule is influenced by the grass roots, doesn't it implies that the grass roots is essentially right wing in nature.
That would be the implication, as pointed out by my former professor, a specialist in German history.

Since the '80s, I have been trying to figure out how could someone like Pol Pot implemented mass genocide successfully in Cambodia.
It could be done only with the complicity of the majority of the Cambodian people.

Similarly Umno's policies in this country can only be understood from the perspective of its members who constitutes the majority in the country.

And how the Umno members interact with the others greatly influence the process of creating a viable and suitable form of hegemony.

max said...

In your shopping mall and cultural imperialism topic, you used alot of times terms such as post modern artefacts and post-modern architecture stylistics.

I don't think there are many Malaysians understand what post-modern modernism is, much less post-modern artfeacts and post-modern architecture.
I did asked once a New York-based architect what is post-modern architecture, and his response was sad to say vague and disappointing.
So if this architect from New York
konows little about post-modern architecture and has problems explaining it, what about Malaysian?

'Post' means after. So post-modernism means after modernism. In this case, I think you better start with defining modernism and modernist attitudes first.

I had a peek at your dissertation abstract and dissapointed that the entire thesis was not available.

I thought you were from the school of sociology, but found out that your dissertation was from the school of education.

I would have thought that a dissertation with such a topic would be from either the sociology, history, or the political science department.

The approach that you take already assumes that there Cyberjaya is a hegemonic construct, according to your abstract.

But isn't that already pre-judging what Cyberjaya is already?

In my view, I think there is manipulation from the 'above', but I don't think this is a one-way process.

Any hegemonic construct will have to take into consideration the 'raw materials' it tries to manipulate. And in the Malaysian context, you have to take the local culture of the dominant ethnic group and its relationship with the other ethnic groups into consideration. The works of Pierre Bourdieu on habitus and field would come into relevancy for such a study.

The problem with theories of reification and hegemony is that they always end up providing justification for an elitism.
For it is only the elites who can some how miraculously escape from determinism and who can effect social changes.
You can call them organic intellectuals, but they will always be elites who think that they know better.
This why Lukacs and Gramsci fails to move away from a Leninist conception of a revolutionary party, which was suitable only for Russia in that period of time.
Organic intellectuals, as Gramsci takes it to be, means class-based intellectuals.
The revolutionary vanguards in Pol Pot's and Mao's regime are in this sense organic intellectuals.

If you 'bracket out'(to use a Husserlian termilogy)
the hegemonic scheming from above, you will see the stark naked interests, needs, and aspirations of the grass roots.
You will see things a bit differently: that the grass roots play an active role in determining what these hegemonic constructs should be.

If the grass roots in this country is essentially right wing, conservative, and retrogressive
in nature, then what hope is ther for progressive change?

The answer is none, unless the grass roots wants to have progressive change.
But then what is 'progressive' to them may not be to you and me.

You must remember you are educated at Columbia University, schooled in critical theories of the new left and post-modernism.
I can tell you now the majority of the dominant ethnic political group in this country don't care and are not interested in modernism, post-modernism, Marx, Gruber, Benjamin, Adorno, Foucault....

My views are very pessimistic. They are very pessimistic because I dare to stare at what the reality of the Malaysian society minus all those theoretical constructs imported from the West.

This is why I look up to those philosophers (such as Max Weber, Georg Simmel) who despair about the modern world more than those who provide solutions.

Just out of curiousity. You got your education from Columbia University on government funds and you wrote a dissertation presenting negative views of Mahathir and Cyberjaya.

Mahathir is considered as the founder of modern Malaysia. He was responsible for building the schools that you were educated in and provided the funds for you to go abroad.
Cyberjaya and Putrajaya are the pride and soul of the country.

You are cool man. Does Universiti Utara Malaysia knows that your dissertation whacked the government or not? But with your credentials and the number of master degrees you have, I don't think they bother anyway, and are proud to have you represent them in world conferences.
I don't think they will understand your dissertation anyhow.
You are one of the 'Towering Malays' the present prime minister wants the country to produce. So don't worry. They will give you a Datuk-ship for sure when you come back at UUM or at some other local universities.

At the turn of the century in imperial China, there appeared a medical student named Zhou Shuren, who studied medicine in Japan.
One day he saw in the newspaper picture of Chinese prisoners about to be beheaded by the Japanese. Surrounding the scene were other Chinese, laughing and mocking at the prisoners.

It was at this moment that Zhou Shuern decide to become a different type of doctor, one who diagnose the ills of society.

Zhou Shuren adopted the pen name Lu Xun and started to write stories that criticise the thousand year old Confucianist tradition in China.
The most famous story he wrote was The Real Story of Ah Q, a penetrating criticism of that type of mentality that brought imperial China to its knees.
"Malaysia Boleh" spirit is a classic example of the Ah Q mindset.
Features of such mindset: never admit mistakes, never admit defeat, never encourage criticism, promote cover ups, as face saving is more important, and always tell grandeur stories about yourself.
And when you tell lies too often, you will son believe in the lies also.
Mao Dun, Lao She, and Bing Xin soon joined Lu Xun, who together exerted enormous influence on the May 4th movement and the origins of the Marxist party in China.
Later, Mao called Lu Xun the heart and soul of Chinese literature.

Malaysia needs someone like Lu Xun, a literary critic who dares to speak against and make a break with tradition.
But I doubt such an individual would ever come by. Not for another century and not ever.
If China that has a thousand year tradition can do it, why can't Malaysia?
In the first place, the two are countries with different traditions, culture, and experiences.
The Chinese had in the past undergone various trials and tribulations.
In Malaysia, the rights and privileges enjoyed today are given straight from the top.
The people in this country were never involved any kind of violent struggle to obtain these rights.
China, although a conservative society, are used to changes in the form of new dynasties and government.
In Malaysia, tradition is highly revered.
Thus for real progressive changes to come by in Malaysia will be very tough and difficult.
If there is anywhere we are going, we are moving backwards.

But remember what is backwards to us, to the liberals and secular intellectuals, maybe progressive to others.

It all depends what is your agenda.

adieus.

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