This compelling book, by Andrew C. Wilford, associate professor of anthropology at Cornell University, explores the dilemma faced by Malaysian Tamils as they confront the moment when the plantation system where they have lived and worked for generations ﬁnally collapses. The old, long-term community-based model of rubber plantation production introduced by British and French companies in colonial Malaya has been replaced by a model based upon migrant labour, mechanisation, and a gradual contraction of the plantation economy. Tamils ﬁnd themselves increasingly resentful of the fact that lands that were developed and populated by their ancestors are now claimed by Malays as their own.
The aim of this book is to present, to the best of the author’s ability, the Malaysian Tamil’s understanding of their predicament. This does not mean that these understandings are uniform or fully explicable within a cultural logic or a presumed rationality. Rather, some “understandings” subsist at the edge of reason, where desire, hope, anxiety, and fear reign. By that measure, what is said about the intentions of others, particularly Malays, is not to be misunderstood as factual or objective. Rather, the author is trying to capture a dynamic in which the implications over a perceived injustice have possible, and perhaps necessary, ramiﬁcations for the nation-state of Malaysia.
Wilford’s methodology involved travelling to numerous plantations throughout Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Putrajaya, and Kuala Lumpur with a collaborator, Dr. S. Nagarajan, and ended up focusing on Selangor, but even then there were numerous estates facing different stages of displacement and eviction. In addition to estates, the team ended up spending a considerable amount of time in urban villages (kampungs), otherwise known as squatter areas, particularly in the Petaling Jaya Selatan, or the now infamous “Kampung Medan” area and other areas.
The book triangulates between plantation communities facing retrenchment and resettlement, those who have ended up in “squatter” areas as a result of this process, and those who are ﬁnding themselves in low-cost resettlement projects. In this triangulation and trajectory, a recurrent motif of the state’s, and by extension the law’s, betrayal is underscored, particularly as it gives fuel to a victim’s narrative among Tamils. This in turn opens up political possibilities, but it also arouses anxieties and hauntings about what form justice may take in the future.
The narrative thread running through the six chapters can be summarised, albeit very briefly as the bureaucratisation of ethnic entitlement affecting the politics of development, which in turn had economic and symbolic consequences for Tamil communities. Displacement, plantation retrenchment and evictions resulted, exacerbated by a growing sense of victmisation among Tamils in the plantations in the face of an unjust state and its laws. In identifying with their victimhood, communities seek to reconstitute through struggles for compensation, particularly as concerning focal symbols of community identity such as temples and Tamil schools. The numerous demolitions of the former by developers have, ironically, acted as catalysts for social mobilisation strategies – that the problem of desecration is not only a challenge of faith, but a call to action.