Negotiating the Great Depression: The Rise of Popular Culture and Consumerism in Early-1930s Malaya

Article excerpt

   THIS IS SLUMP TIME.
   Have you done everything for your business?
   WE BELIEVE ONE MORE THING
   YOU HAVE NOT DONE
   That is, you have not asked
   the Malays to become your customers.
   DO IT NOW
   by advertising your goods in the
   TANAH MALAYU (1)

The crash of the New York Stock Exchange, which began in October 1929, propelled great turmoil and dramatic changes in many parts of the world during the 1930s. Malaya was no exception to this general rule and the ensuing Great Depression negatively affected its export-based economy for many years. The relatively large groups of Chinese and Indian migrants who had come to the Peninsula during the previous decades were hit particularly hard by retrenchment and subsequent repatriation (which was voluntary at government expense). Malays may have suffered less from the economic crisis because the British had given them special status in order to protect the community from the onslaught of much more aggressive immigrant groups and to train them for the country's administration. The macroeconomic crisis, and the pressure felt from immigrant groups, stirred up strong sentiments in Malay communities and served as a catalyst for the development of ideas of political emancipation for a group that was envisioned to assume political power from the British.

Although the crisis affected many branches of the economy, some economic sectors thrived during the 1930s. (2) One example was the publishing and popular entertainment industries. A host of new periodicals were published during the decade, while entertainment in the form of music performances, social dances, movies, radio, gramophone music, theatre plays, boxing and other sports events, all became readily available through amusement parks set up in urban centres throughout the Peninsula. This article will explore the seemingly paradoxical relationship between a diminishing economy and the upsurge in the entertainment and publishing industries by focusing on Malay-language periodicals from the early 1930s, especially the first years of the newspaper Majlis. (3) The article will also seek to establish the impact that a burgeoning popular culture had on these socio-political developments in view of the fact that many periodicals were owned by Muslim reformists. The argumentation will be supported with materials from the sources which also show an increase in advertisements introducing products to a Malay-speaking audience that ostensibly needed them to lead a modern lifestyle. It will be argued that despite the economic downturn and in addition to the social, religious and political issues discussed in mass media, members of the Malay community, the main target of the periodicals, were introduced to the 'art of consumerism', which taught them to put some money aside to pay for the next instalment of their insurance policy, take the family out to an ice cream parlour or buy a packet of cigarettes that could win a fancy motorcycle or a flashy car.

The goal of much of this ideology was the creation of a Malay entrepreneurial class. Thus, preferably, it would be Malays who traded or even produced these products, so that they could counter the alien Chinese and Indian dominance of the domestic economy and would develop a strong entrepreneurial spirit themselves. Cultural products were also important in this process of political emancipation, in which culturally specific practices were considered for incorporation (or not) into the complex of Malay culture which was being redefined in the public space of periodicals, clubs and social gatherings. Before turning to a discussion of these issues in Malaya, however, this paper will look briefly into the role of popular culture and its interactions with consumerism in the United States.

Popular culture and Malaya

'Popular culture' as used in this article may be understood in the sense of a number of newly developed cultural practices that are produced with commercial objectives and are 'suspended' in a field of cultural tension between 'resistance to' and 'incorporation in' the culture of the dominant groups of a society. …